Paul Chihara on composing music

February 6, 2006

After a century of this-ism and that-ism, too many composers look for techniques and mathematical or pre-canned procedures to write music. The rise to prominence of composers in the academy has almost made contemporary music a science rather than an art or a discipline in the humanities. My colleague, composer, and friend Paul Chihara recently wrote me his own thoughts on this situation:

Composition for me has always been a form of play, an activity with few rules and no restrictions (unless imposed by commercial or commission realities). It is never an academic exercise or a search for truth. Often, it feels like a guilty pleasure, and as such, usually becomes an obsession. Working on a piece is an extension of the pleasure principle, and never (for me) a dilectic. A piece of music seduces, but should not argue. Only bad music (or non-music) tries to do the latter. Composing should not be thought of, nor taught as, a form of problem solving. That approach begs too many pernicious questions, and suggests that being creativity is some sort of metaphysical exercise. Be honest, have fun, and work hard (and all the time). That way lies real compositional progress, which is a life-long and truly satisfying adventure — the only pursuit in my opinion worth living for.

Paul Chihara

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Rhapsody February 6, 2006 at 2:07 pm

Mr. Chihara’s thoughts remind me of a project I once worked on in graduate school some years ago. The task was to critique a computer program that was designed to analyze a piece of writing and help a writer correct grammatical and structural errors. The program would examine sentence structure, diction and verb tense.

I soon concluded that the whole idea was lunacy. Writing words is a creative process that should not be restricted by too many rules or prescriptions (similar, perhaps, to writing music or drawing….). Although there are many standards to obey in order to communicate effectively, writing is simply not a prescriptive process. One cannot “teach” someone to be a good writer, a serious writer, a career writer. It’s an art that has to be felt and practiced, much as Chihara described composing music.

With the computer prorgrams—what we discovered was that they seemed to be marginally successful for beginning writers. Most of the errors a teacher might point out to a student were picked up by the program. However, when we plugged in paragraphs from literature that were considered to be examples of excellent writing (Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, to name a few) the program rejected them nearly word-by-word. This probably isn’t earth-shattering news…but it made me think about writing as an art form. Not only is the writing an artful skill for a writer, but also the appreciation of the written word is an artful skill. Sometimes, the reader gladly abandons the rules for “good” writing in order to appreciate the creativity and communication that is there.

Perhaps there is some sort of commonality among the arts…..

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