This post is a reflection on some ideas and thoughts I’ve been having recently about the compositional and creative processes. I’m not intending it as a “how to” or “tips on” post, but rather how I think about what being a composer involves and what has been helpful for me in trying to keep the balance of the player and the composer part of my musical life.
First, I wanted to write about some of what I think are the many misconceptions that players have about composers. It seems that there is this wide-spread notion that composers are somehow more inspired or more creative than other types of musicians and that being a decent composer means that the muse speaks to you more than others or that you are mysteriously blessed with many good ideas. Of course this seems exaggerated, but it is often what is implied when one hears things like, “I’ve tried to compose, but I keep running out of ideas” or “I find it hard to be original…most of what I do just sounds like something else”. The latter example touches on another issue, which I will come to, but I’m sure you can think of more examples than just the two I’ve given. This way of thinking comes from many places, one of which being the reverence that the musical community at large seems to have for the composer as the king. Dogmatically respecting the score and even trying to get at what the composer originally intended so as to fully realize the piece’s expressive potential has become ingrained in the western music student’s psyche and it implicitly puts the composer on a higher plane than the performers.
I had a composition professor in undergrad who reminded us one day that the composition process is “90% perspiration and 10% inspiration”. This was really important for a lot of us to hear and even harder for us to adopt, but he was right, and I think that this axiom provides a helpful way of addressing the above issues I mentioned. If I expand on what my professor was saying, he was saying that composition, just like learning to play an instrument, takes a lot of time and effort to develop the skills and techniques one will need to express themselves in the way that they want to. Writing often seems like such a daunting task to new composition students or players looking to dabble in composition because they may be expecting the 90/10 ratio to be reversed and just hope they have that 90% inspiration in their tank. The compositional process must be experienced in full from a piece’s inception to its completion many times for a composition student to fully appreciate the process and to gain the experiential knowledge of what’s really involved. What many soon discover is that if you constantly look for ideas, it’s actually even more exhausting than learning to develop one or two ideas and you may end up producing something that naturally comes out sounding like a ‘bunch of ideas’ with no real development or interest. For me, it’s those moments of inspiration and the fashioning of whatever is coming out into something coherent and expressive that is the enthralling part, but like I said, if one doesn’t take the time to develop their chops, they won’t know what to do with the ideas when they start flowing.
There are many ways to go about developing these skills for composing. Composition classes are always helpful for those who are looking to expand their awareness of techniques and styles, and the constraints imposed by the teacher are usually helpful for focusing creative energy of the students. For me, the most useful thing has always been to just compose and to grow through learning what works and what doesn’t. Like the performer, I think the best way to improve is to simply do and engage in the process as often as possible. In my opinion, the engagement in the process is the most important thing. As neatly and organized the finished product often seems to the performer, the truth is that the process is often a messy one with many problems or puzzles being faced and redefined along the way. But, the more one gets used to the creative act of composing, the more sensitive one becomes to making the adjustments that are contingent upon their choices or subjective feelings/reactions. Knowing whether or not to pursue or abandon an idea would be an example of this learned sensitivity. I recently saw an interview with many prominent guitarist/composers and I wanted to share the tips they had (that I agree with) for players looking to compose more. For me, the most important piece of advice shared was to start simple and compose a melody or theme. Then, write a set of simple variations in the style of a composer or era – a pastiche. By doing this, the student must learn the inner workings and aesthetic values of the style and it also helps them to better understand what it is that speaks to them about that style. Also, writing a theme and variations puts the focus on developing one or very few ideas, which is crucial. It also helps to alleviate the anxiety of sounding like someone else, because sounding like someone else is partly the purpose of writing a pastiche. The search for an original voice is an incredibly difficult thing to talk about so I won’t delve further into that, but my feeling is that through writing many pastiche pieces, one learns what excites them most about music and over time those things will start to appear in their own music. This influence may not be such an obvious thing either as it could be more the spirit in which a music is created, or something on a deeper structural level that guides a composer to their ‘style’.
The final thought I had was with regards to criticism, and I will try to draw more parallels between the performer’s life and the composer’s life. When we are developing on our instrument, we are often told to adjust things or are advised to avoid things that are distasteful. We would not learn if we were not told by a teacher or someone with more experience that some of the things we do need to be corrected or worked on. Why should this be any different in the composition studio? Often teachers and fellow students avoid offering up constructive criticism in the composition world and I think the main reason for this is because composing is viewed as a much more personal and subjective thing. But is interpreting a piece as a performer not personal? We make decisions based on how we feel and also based on what we learned was tasteful and effective from our teachers and somehow we feel much more comfortable offering criticism about a performance than we do about how something was written. In many cases, any criticism is often forfeited to something like “well, I guess it’s just how the composer chooses to express himself” instead of saying what we really think. That being said, of course we should be sensitive to how we direct criticism so as to not cause personal or emotional harm, but I think that is easier to do than is commonly thought. If criticism is directed more at the technical shortcomings that are hindering the effectiveness of a piece, than it is hardly at all different from what we do in lessons and masterclasses on an instrument. Of course, there is the performance of the piece itself, which may be a major factor in the effectiveness of a piece, but that is a post for another time.
I should say that none of these ideas or thoughts are particularly new, but I felt like sharing them to those who may not have been aware of them and I hope this provided some food for thought or some guidance to performance and composition students. I should note that I still consider myself to be a young composer/player, but nevertheless, I feel very strongly about the ideas in this post and contained within them are lessons that have been very valuable to me. I hope they are to you as well.