Saturday, April 1, 2017

Question #1: Who’s ultimately going to perform it?

I find that a lot of new composers who are interested in writing for live performers get frustrated because they end up having to do a lot of what I call “back-composition” in order to get a piece to performance. In most cases, this happens because they use a digital medium – a DAW or notation software – to create a work intended for performance by live musicians, but don’t spend enough time at the beginning of the process thinking about the individuals and ensembles who will ultimately perform the piece.

In my process, I like to put the musicians who will perform what I’m writing on the stage of my imagination and hear and record what comes out of them. Most of the time, this is a generic set of performers – a “Grade 3 Concert Band,” a “chamber orchestra,” etc., and I’m working within the generally-known timbres/capabilities/limitations of that set of performers. If I’m lucky, it’s a group of specific individuals I know well, and I’m working from personal knowledge of them.

Either way, I need to have a lot of information about the people sitting on my internal stage before I begin imagining new music for them – or else I’m going to end up having to re-imagine a lot of material just when I think I’m finished! For that reason, I think that the first, most important question a composer needs to ask herself before beginning a new work is, “Who’s ultimately going to perform it?” As I see it, there are three general answers to this question.

If you’re creating new music that will be performed by no one – a digital sound file, in other words  – then you don’t have to worry about conforming your compositional imagination to the capabilities of human performers and their instruments/voices. This is one of the reasons that composers have been interested in the idea of “musical machines” for centuries – it’s the closest they can get to a pure expression of the musical ideas they have inside their own heads. You imagine the music, you perfect it in the DAW, you create the sound file – bingo.

If you’re creating new music that will be performed by you, and you alone, then you’re only concerned about your limitations as a performer, and the limitations of the thing(s) you’re going to perform your new music with, and you should know those pretty well already.  If you’re a singer/guitarist creating something for you and you alone to perform, then you can’t expect to perform a work with notes higher than you can sing, or faster than you can play on guitar, or a really prominent English horn line, etc.

If you’re creating new music that will be performed by someone else, then you do have to worry about the capabilities of those others as performers, and the capabilities of the things they’re going to perform with, and you should be thinking about and working within those capabilities from the beginning of your process, or else you’re going to be confronted with them irritatingly at what you think should be the end of your process!

If you’re going to create music for someone else to perform on instrument X, then you should have at least a basic understanding of instrument X’s limitations – how high/low can it go? How loud/ soft can it go? etc., preferably before you begin your process. If you’re going to create music for a whole bunch of people to perform on a whole bunch of instruments or voices (orchestra, band, chorus, etc.), then you need to have a basic understanding of the capabilities of ALL those instruments or voices, and a basic understanding of how they all relate to one another in that particular ensemble, preferably before you begin your process.

I still refer to orchestration books often to touch base with all this information. One of the two best pieces of compositional advice I ever got came from the band composer Robert Jager, who said “Buy an orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look in it!” The other came from my composition teacher Eugene Kurtz, who told me “Own more than one orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look in all of them!”

In closing, I’ll say that, while I’ve found this idea of “performed by no one/performed by me/ performed by others” helpful for thinking about what I need to know before my process begins, I find it really useful for thinking about how I need to communicate my compositional intentions to others when they’re the ones converting my ideas into sound waves – in other words, for digging into the entire issue of notation, notation software, etc. That’s coming!

Also, while I began this post by talking about composers who start acoustic works in digital media and end up frustrated, I should say here that I use notation software throughout my compositional process, starting at a relatively early stage of the process. HOWEVER, I don’t rely on the software to tell me what I need to know about the acoustic media I’m composing for, or how I should notate for them. I don’t let it dictate or control my process, and you shouldn’t either! That discussion is coming as well ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hard Truths About Composition

I had an interesting group meeting with my composition students yesterday. The main theme of the meeting seemed to be frustration. Some students work primarily in digital media, but are interested in creating music to be performed by live musicians on traditional acoustic instruments – they’re frustrated by the limitations of those instruments, and the notation they read. Some are primarily acoustic instrumentalists who are interested in using notation software as a compositional tool – they’re frustrated by the steep learning curve of the software, and the notational mistakes that the software still allows them to make. Before this meeting, I’d spent a lot of time thinking about the issues that my composition students have brought to my attention in recent years in broad sweeping terms – what my work with what I call “digital-first” composers has meant to my internal definitions of what constitutes musical literacy, how I might help students from the digital world compose effectively for acoustic media and vice versa, etc. However, after this meeting, I came back to some hard truths about composition that I hadn’t pondered for a long time:

1) Imagining new music is easy (well, relatively easy).
2) Bringing it into the world is hard, and takes skills.
3) Mastering those skills takes work.

Lots of us have great ideas for new music in our minds – a little snippet of something, or a big extended something. Bringing the music out into the world is a different matter, and happens for different people in different ways. Whatever your way happens to be, if you want to bring the music into the world as you imagined it, you have to have a set of deep skills to make that happen. If you’re creating stuff for digital media, you have to have deep knowledge of your digital audio workstation in order to bring your imagined music into the world exactly as you imagined it. If you’re creating stuff for you to perform, you have to have deep knowledge of your performing medium. If you’re creating stuff for other people to perform, you have to have deep knowledge of both their performing media and the language in which they want your compositional intent communicated to them. If there’s something you want to use as a tool to help you in your compositional work, you need to have deep knowledge of how that tool works, too. Developing each set of deep skills takes time, dedication, and concentration, and the skills don’t necessarily cross over – in my case, for example, my experience as an acoustic composer is no substitute for DAW knowledge when I’m creating music for digital media.

It’s actually taken me several hours of thought and false starts to get to that simple statement, and I imagine that my future posts will follow up on some of those false starts, but I think this is a good place for me to start this whole blogging adventure. Whatever else I might think or say about composing music, it’s important to acknowledge that parts of it are flat-out difficult, and require skills, knowledge, and hard work.