THE PROCESS, #2a: How (The Music)?

[This blog entry is the second of a series on my work here — the process of deciding, doing, and promoting my music compositions.]

“How” implies two areas — “How do I make musical decisions” as I build a composition, and “How do I technically construct the work” in the software I use. This, “#2a: How (The Music)” in the “Process” series, addresses the first. Since I’m writing here about writing music, this contribution is a bit longer than most others will be.

I have a BA and the better part of a Masters in music theory, and have repeated much of those studies as a Donovan Scholar (plus other course options) at the University of Kentucky. That’s part history (the personal and historical context in which a composer’s work lives), part mathematics (key relationships, rhythmic patterns, thematic pieces, and overall structure). But when I write, I have no one to please but myself (yeah, well, we’ll be addressing that in a future “Process” contribution), so I don’t feel any obligation to overtly participate in these mathematical and historical traditions. That doesn’t mean such things aren’t important — after all, I’ve been listening to music within these contexts for a very long time — they just aren’t in the forefront of my mind as I write. There are a couple of exceptions, which I’ll mention below.

When starting on a new work, I have ideas (small, thematic germs), I enter them into the software, I play them back, I make myself happy with them, and then I build a composition using them as parts. The ideas themselves are often inspired by other works or types of music. (In the case of my string quartet’s 2nd movement, I actually used an existing piece — an Irish jig — but that’s rare.) If you want to see what that all looks like, my “Chapter 3” page from the orchestral work “September” is a perfect example. But some true confessions: I don’t have ALL of the “small, thematic germs” ready to go at the beginning. I do develop new content as I work, and them weave them into the composition, sometimes working backward. My website “project pages” are constructed on the fly as I work, but I go back and edit them with details that happened later in the process.

Here I am at my digital audio workstation, or DAW, the subject of a coming blog post.

You’ll notice a piano keyboard — I’m not much of a pianist, so I don’t use it a lot — mostly for testing out software sounds, trying out chords, and adorning my work area with things that look “music-ish.”

If you have listened to my work, you know that my melodic and harmonic sense are not intensely modern (Western European classical music started small, got complicated, then went completely off the deep end in the early 20th Century), nor is it throw-back Classical (you won’t find Bach or Mozart ideas). It’s just what my ear thinks is interesting.

Harmony in the traditional Western European sense has always had a mathematical feel — there’s a hierarchy of chords, certain chords naturally lead to certain others, and there are things to be avoided. Although I use math-inspired ideas, they generally ignore the structures I’ve learned in theory class. I also have melodies, but their accompaniments are full of big Western European tonality no-nos. As I build my work, I play it back repeatedly, making changes that make sense to my ear, and so build as I go. I know that my mind has absorbed a lot of the old ideas, but I’ve almost intentionally allowed my brain to synthesize what my ears hear in a “black box” way — what comes out is definitely reflective of what has gone in over the years, but you can’t draw a line from one to the other.

Form and Instrumentation is where I’m a bit more openly traditional. My first string quartet had four movements, each with standard Italian names for their tempi, and each embracing a form easily found in Western European musical traditions. As for instrument selection, my works are all aimed at ensembles with a very long historical tradition. None leverage electronic (or even electric) instruments or strange sound sources. None even demand odd instrumental performance practice, like beating on the instrument or playing it in a very nontraditional way. My ear has never been that interested in extending those kinds of boundaries.

Writing, then, is very repetitive — I make small changes, and play the results back over and over again until I’m happy with what I hear. That happens at the micro level (single passages, individual or clusters of instruments), and at the macro level (I often play the entire composition over and over again as I push the work further along). This isn’t a particularly traditional, structured way to compose, but it has produced some great results — at least I’d like to think so! Working in software means I can, at least somewhat, hear the notes I write played back to me with the instrumental sounds I’ve written them for. The playback does help my learning some — it won’t play notes below the range of a violin, for example — but one has to be mindful of the styles and abilities of actual instrumentalists. Much of those details aren’t well reproduced in software. That’s why, as I finish a project, I’m desperate to find a real ensemble to play it. There is most certainly no substitute for a real oboe, or a real set of timpani. And then there’s the human voice — that’s a long way from being reproduced electronically.

Enough for now, back to work.

One thought on “THE PROCESS, #2a: How (The Music)?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s