Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A New Perspective

I recently watched a masterclass with John Corigliano in which he talked about his process for writing a very large clarinet concerto for the New York Philharmonic.  For him, he described his process as mostly taking place before he wrote any music.  Corigliano stated that a sculptor does not conceive of the rest of the sculpture after seeing what the first finger looks likes.  The sculptor has conceived of a complete idea, sketches it, and only proceeds to cut stone as the final process.

I realized today that this metaphor did not become truly real for me until I equated it with painting, which is kind of funny, since I don't paint.  Many composers and musicians have likened notes (pitches) to different "colors."  I have realized that my current method of composition is similar to what Corigliano described, only, my method up until now has been more stream-of-consciousness - typically working from left to right.  The more I think about this, the less that I think this is correct.  It is true that it is not incorrect, but I feel as though I would be missing out on an otherwise elevated understanding about the craft of composition.

Too many people (myself included) get caught up in the notes - which notes are chosen and what those notes might sound like.  This is exactly like a painter who is completely caught up in how the colors work together.  The apex of this trend was in the 1950's - 70's with the almost ubiquitous popularity of serialism - the orderliness of the colors predetermined.  At the time, it was considered (and probably still is) considered one of the highest intellectual arts.  Composers such as Milton Babbitt supported much of their career by doing this type of work.

That said, if stripped to the barest essentials, it is really not much more than composers using algorithms to create strings of musical data.  Profound meaning can still be derived in this way, much in the same way that your computer can hold all of your family pictures.

I am beginning to realize that work with the notes is exactly like choosing what colors / pallettes to use.  Why would you start painting unless you know what you were going to paint?  I have told people before (whether they wanted to know or not) that the hardest part for me is knowing what I want to do.  Once I know, the work with the notes goes pretty quickly.  Up until now, I have not really had a process of developing this part of the compositional process.  I have mostly just stumbled my way around until I found something that I liked.  For this reason, my writing has been quite inconsistent and unpredictable.  It lacks focus - partly because I am not interested in conventional forms, and partly because it is the majority of my experience in composing.

What I have up until now considered the "pre-compositional process" I now realize is in actuality the majority of the process, with the actual musical notes being the last part.  As of this post, I am currently working on a research paper that further develops these notions of compositional process, and my aim is to codify the experience of the process for me so that I can be more efficient and more consistent.

This all means that it is important to have a thorough understanding of theory and compositional pedagogy, so that the gestures sketched by the composer can be articulated much more accurately by the pitches and sounds and techniques chosen by the composer.

I now realize that I spend the majority of my time focused on the last 20% of composition and neglect the roughly other 80%, sometimes stumbling my way through it by accident.  Why should I waste all of my time fussing when I am more interested in the gestures that make up a piece as a whole?  Why should I spend my time focusing on a cacophony of minute voice-leading rules when the gestures themselves are more important?

As Corigliano put it, "an architect doesn't design the rest of the building based on what the cornerstone looks like - they conceive of the entire thing before they begin building."  I feel as though composition should and can follow this same process.  I feel that to do so would not only make my writing more consistent, but it would also help me conceive of my ideas, it would waste less time, and my pieces would have more architectural support.

I have often wondered about my sporadic moments of clarity.  For example, a few weeks ago I sat down and wrote three minutes of orchestral music in a couple days.  I did not write anything related to that piece for the next three weeks.  Up until now, I considered those little "Mozart moments" happened randomly and that I should appreciate them when I have them.  I now realize that those moments of clarity are really just that: they are clear conceptions of the architecture of a piece.  the work goes quickly because the architecture is intuitively understood; the ear and the brain lead the composer through the necessary notes the way the eyes of a painter guide the brush and survey the progress of the work.

I think that this possibly contributed to Mozart's success.  He lived in a time when much music was written to fulfill an accepted template.  Undeniably, Mozart was genius - even with the established conventions of form.  However, I believe that part of his genius was the spontaneous development of musical architecture in his mind.

What was once considered to be some odd, inhumanly magical ability to conjure up notes from a sputtering well of creativity is now something that I think can be practiced and mastered.  I believe that it is possible to compose the majority of a piece without writing a note of music.  I also believe that musical ideas and inspiration stem from the limits and confines of architectural composition.  I believe that if a composer struggles with notes then they do not have a wholly articulated concept needing to be expressed.  I believe that practicing the pedagogy in this way eliminates the need for inspiration (though it is always welcome!)  I believe that it generates consistency of production and also leads to a more coherent (especially in my case,) piece of work.

I have also realized that unlike other disciplines, I do not know of or practice any compositional warmups before I write.  Musicians warmup their mouths, instruments, and bodies before they practice or perform.  Why is it that I do not also do the same with composition?

In order to improve my skill and elevate my work to a higher level of integrity, I must begin this new practice of understanding.  I must develop a daily routine of exercises to perform before I write so that my writing sessions are that much more productive and fruitful.

It will be interesting to see how my compositions and my process change as a result of this change in perspective.

Until next time, stay warm.

    - February 26th, 2013