Where music comes from

December 22, 2007


Many of us love to talk and write about music. I might divide writers about music into several off-the-cuff categories: There are critics who become expert in telling the public their opinions in words. There are music teachers at all levels who teach the art and craft of playing an instrument. There are music teachers who specialize in telling people “how music [supposedly] works” with respect to melody, counterpoint, harmony, and structure. There are music scholars who are passionate about certain aspects of music and devote their lives to researching, writing and teaching about that passion. And finally, there is a huge amount of literature written by fans who may, but usually don’t have the expertise to really describe music technically, but know what they like and let it be known in a variety of ways.

And then there are composers who talk about music–other composer’s music as well as their own. My own advice is to ALWAYS take whatever composers say about their music, with a grain of salt. You can usually trust their comments to be true if they tell you it was written over a certain period of time, commissioned or not by someone, orchestrated for some ensemble, and premiered by someone somewhere on a certain date. Beyond that, turn up the purple prose filter and just nod politely. Granted, much music can and is described with minimal purple prose. But we composers love to go on–being the artists and gasbags that we are.

As I sit and compose music, and I’m having a really good session where the music is just pouring out, I don’t really know what I’m doing, where it’s really coming from, how many notes are there, how it relates to the overall structure, and other parameters composers like to go on about. When I look at it later, I may notice these things, or make up an analysis or scholarly stories about “how the music works” or how I composed it. But I fear that “where music comes from” will always be a mystery. I’m not ready to ape Stravinsky and tell you that I am but the vessel through which it passes to be given to the world. I’m not going to tell you that I channel music. I’m not going to tell you that God composes my music. I just don’t know, and that’s fine.

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oboeinsight » Blog Archive » MQOD
December 23, 2007 at 8:19 am

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Lisa Hirsch December 22, 2007 at 11:28 am

This is truly fantastic and about what I’d expect, thank you. The same goes for writers, of course.

ComposerBastard December 22, 2007 at 6:53 pm

“…As I sit and compose music, and I’m having a really good session where the music is just pouring out, I don’t really know what I’m doing, where it’s really coming from, how many notes are there, how it relates to the overall structure, and other parameters composers like to go on about…”

Well, thats great. Wonderful. However, some of us composers have indeed spent a great deal of time developing our skills and in R + D and are very very sure and very exact about where it comes from and where it wants to go. So sure and so structured and proven are we that we have found that there is very little of ourselves in it at all. We have reduced our role to merely acting as a consultant to a musical client that has a naturale structure and real need to be produced and have breath. And we have given ourselves a responsibility to act maturely in helping it carefully come into life. And it’s quite ok for some of us to be that very skillful scribe if you will. For in the end it allows us to be nothing more than a humble audience member like everyone else, and find great inspiration and emotional surprise when it does comes into life for the very first time.

So, in response, I also had a great ComposerBastard day today. I “found” a three voice canon built on tetrachords that created relationships not only horizontally and vertically, but also diagonally from voice to voice using not only the same tetrachord but also with three other embedded trichords. Then I used some permutations of rhythmic cells for each voice that I just as willfully mathematically constructed over the past two weeks.

At first I didn’t think it was all going to fit or hold together. Then it started to work and I thought it was going to sound like shit. But the damn thing ended up working and sounding great. And I never heard a note of the whole thing until it was done. The whole thing was carefully and mathematically (for lack of a better word) worked out for total saturation of these basic elements. I can bring these inner relationship out in orchestration later. Am I a composer then? I don’t feel like one. But I absolutely adore what came out as music all the same, and I don’t make a claim of it coming from “within” at all or I to be any romantic superhero composer from the 20th century. I don’t even claim that I can hear everything in there until I bring it to the surface with outside orchestration. It’s just a lot of painful patient hard work and much ComposerBastard meta-thinking, thats all…big deal. Thai food and puppies are more interesting thoughts for ComposerBastard on Saturday Night.

PK December 23, 2007 at 11:10 am

“..ALWAYS take whatever composers say about their music, with a grain of salt.”

I agree, I find it such an intense and subjective experience, that my memory of the reasons and logic is often hazed, my act of explaining the process requires, many times, a theoretical construct that rewrites the history so that I can both understand and explain to others.

Often when reading interviews, it seems that the composer excepts the interviewer’s description and then formulates a story to match. Particularly in film music and other industrial usages, “I was just filling the two seconds and seven frames before the train goes around the bend” seems too practical, so “yes, I WAS reflecting the inner life of the train wheel through the repetition (slightly sped up) of the motif.” …. “Would I call it the train wheel motif? … absolutely (heh-heh) yeah, that is just what I called it, yeah, THE TRAIN WHEEL MOTIF”. That will then be passed down through book and lore as what the maestro was doing, everyone goes home happy.

PK December 23, 2007 at 11:11 am

Oops, that should read accepts and not excepts.

chtellez December 25, 2007 at 7:37 am

Greetings… and thanks for such an excellent blog.

In my experience as a conductor of new music, composers cannot always describe accurately how they compose. Others are indeed very invested in their methodical compositional techniques, and still, they cannot guarantee that “music” will arise. (What is music, will you ask?) Still others will hide some of the fruitful sources of their inspiration or technique, and instead will present themselves in a manner that will match the professional parlance of the time. I have long suspected Stravinsky is one such case, but it will take me some research to prove it. All in all, a fascinating process, composition is…

Carmen-Helena Tellez

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