Tag: composing process

Engraving Ephemera

Today’s column will be, I admit, a bit light—with orchestral, wind band, and choral readings, as well as chamber reading deadlines imminent, life has gotten a tad bit hectic here in the verdant confines of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. That being said, the topics of engraving and notation software that I’ve touched on over the past few weeks did not seem to want to go to bed this week, so I thought I’d give an update on each one:

• On the Sibelius front, while Martin Kloiber, the vice-president of product and solutions at AVID Technologies, sent out an open letter to the Sibelius community, an online petition and call-to-arms was created earlier this week.

• Last week’s column on engraving touched off a lively debate both in the comments thread of the column itself as well as on Facebook. I’ve included some of the more extensive portions of the discussion that occurred on my own Facebook profile below, but feel free to peruse the entire conversation—and, of course, add your two cents if you feel so inclined.


Armando Bayolo: As both a composer AND performer of new music, I have to say, I HATE, HATE, HATE hand written scores. Not because of their inherent ugliness or uselessness or anything like that, but, mostly, because it is much easier to distribute performance materials to musicians when you have the parts available electronically (which does not, obviously, preclude them being “engraved”).

That said, I think it depends on the legibility level. If we get scores and parts that look beautiful but are handwritten, we tend to be impressed at Great Noise Ensemble. But, for the most part, we’ve gotten used to getting computer-generated materials and thus have come to expect them.

As a composer, there’s no way I’m going back to writing out scores by hand THEN copying them on the computer if I can help it.


Tom Albert: I’ve often heard instrumental teachers tell students, “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.” I feel the same way about notation: if you can’t write it correctly by hand, you can’t do so with a computer.

I have taught a course in music notation at Shenandoah Conservatory for over 30 years; it started as a pen-and-ink class, incorporated use of computer engraving software (Finale), and is now an all-engraving class. While I regret, to an extent, giving up the handwritten part, I think the modern world for composers requires a sophisticated understanding of computer-generated music engraving.

As a grad student in the early ’70s, I made a lot of money hand copying music for colleagues and faculty. I was pretty good—but I hated every minute of it. Being a lefty (who writes “hook” style), I had to lay out each page so I could ink from lower right to upper left, lest I drag my hand through wet ink. Then, of course, there was the soul-numbing reality that, once a big score was finished, one had to go back and start all over again with the parts. No, I do not miss those days.

Having a computer-generated score certainly does not guarantee a well-written one, just a legible one. A computer, after all, is just a willing idiot: it will do exactly what you tell it to do, and only what you tell it to do. It’s also a fallacy to think that you save time by using a computer—well, you do save time when it comes to creating the parts, but the editing and layout adjustments ultimate[ly] make the job take nearly as long as when I did everything by hand. Sometimes it takes longer, if it’s non-standard notation that has to be tweaked a lot.


Sean Doyle: It doesn’t come as a surprise that there are MORE than a few folks who, like me, hold handwritten manuscript in high regard. The consensus seems to be that the prevalence of computer engraving is motivated by a business mindset, rather than a creative one (in other words, the facility of making score/parts vs. the actual look of the score/parts themselves). It has come to be expected because of its availability and ease of use, not because of the aesthetic of the end result (thank goodness!).

The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that writing music by hand is an essential skill for all musicians and has proven to be an indispensable practice for learning to read, hear, and think musically. The act of writing music out by hand actually does improve the ear and cultivates the musical imagination of the scribe. Notation software does so much of the thinking for many of the basic conventions of music notation: key signatures, stem direction, filling in measures with missing rhythmic values, these are but a few examples. Handy timesavers, no doubt, but they take away the responsibility of thinking musically—a responsibility that is instilled perhaps a bit deeper when it’s just you, the pencil, and the paper. This is especially true in the case of younger musicians who are new to notation programs and willing to “go with the flow” of the defaults and factory preferences. Yeah, they saved a few hours on parts for their brass quintet—but at what cost?

In my experience, this is not hyperbole—in the *very few* years I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching music theory and ear training at the college level, I have seen a noticeable increase in the number of students who come to university with an admirable proficiency on their instrument and WITHOUT the ability to notate a B major key signature, to say nothing of stems, flags and rests. These students become quickly frustrated because they can hear, but cannot write WHAT they hear. I can’t help but see this and become somewhat suspicious of the facility in notation programs—it may be of great aid/use to an old pro who knows the ins-and-outs of hand-engraving but now has the joy of using the ‘mass copy’ function, but what of somebody who is at the outset of their musical journey? And (probably a question for another day) how does this inform/effect their creativity?


David Fetherolf: This is my profession. Our library has 150 years worth of music in it and about 120 years worth is all done by hand, and that’s what we send out for rental. In the mid-80s we started using computer but usually only to generate parts, so many of our sets from that era have the composer’s hand-written full score and computer-generated parts. Some of the hand-written parts belong in museums and some aren’t so great but are readable. Also, we now have the technology to scan parts, clean them up, and correct page turns and such (Shostakovich symphonies, anyone?). Anybody who’s worked in an orchestral library is used to working by hand and used to seeing horribly created materials both hand done and computer generated (especially for Pops concerts).

While getting my masters I put in a syllabus for a course to teach notation and the Dean asked me what program I would use. I told him “pencil and paper.” He thought it was pointless; I disagree entirely.

Composers have never known as much about notation as they like to believe and the new crop are learning very bad habits from having no instruction at all except how to learn some computer program or other. Our very few composers who do *not* write manuscript by hand give us computer generated manuscripts which we treat exactly the same as hand written—as manuscripts. We edit them and send them out to be engraved from scratch. Composing music is an entirely different discipline than engraving/editing music and the two should not be conflated. Frankly, the computer-generated manuscripts we receive generally have several times *more* errors than the hand written ones. There is such a thing as the “hand-brain” connection (is this also why so many young people can’t write a decent sentence in standard English?).

If kids are sending PDF’s of their intellectual property to all and sundry they’re in for a very rude awakening; one may as well forgo copyright entirely as send PDF’s (and/or MIDI files).


Judah Adashi: I’d venture that virtually no one under 50 (myself very much included) knows how to actually engrave material by hand, if only because of the lost art of measure/beat spacing, etc. I’m not sure how important it is to know everything about that at this point, though I agree 100% that one needs to know the basic grammar, and not to learn from the often dubious software defaults on stem direction, etc. I believe Oberlin requires the submission of a handwritten score or two, though certainly many students compose them on the computer and then hand-copy (an amusing inversion of the process!).

Composing with the computer as a primary tool (a separate topic) also changes the process considerably. It shouldn’t be dismissed outright as “cheating,” and has value when it comes to pacing, for example, though it can absolutely compromise the development of one’s inner ear with respect to timbre, harmony, and much more. And as John Harbison once pointed out to me, for better and worse, orchestrational choices have become much more provisional, now that one doesn’t have to lay out the manuscript in advance (this passage is now locked in for English horn and viola, end of story; no mass copy-and-paste to double one of them).

I do think that for most performers and composers, computer engraving is a good idea for the final product, facilitating electronic mailing, editing, etc. And indeed, it is a necessary skill in the field today. Unless one is a 21st-century Crumb or Schwantner and/or has particular needs that software can’t meet (quite rare these days), it seems excessive to hold out altogether, like being unwilling to use word processing. For my part, I do most of my thinking and writing with pencil and paper, then switch over to the computer. I’d say I split the time 50/50 or 60/40 at this point, though the balance has shifted now and again. I’ve written out entire pieces by hand and then copied/edited them on the computer, and also written primarily on the computer (that was almost exclusively when I was just starting out; I don’t see myself ever returning to that, but one never knows).


Lukas Ligeti: What is often ignored in these discussions is the influence of notation on composition. Obviously new notations have been developed in history to accommodate new musical styles, gestures, and needs, but this is actually a feedback loop as these new notations then come around to help generate new musical ideas. Some musicologists, including Ruth Katz in Israel, have done interesting research on this. Certain things are very hard to do with Sibelius and even Finale (which I guess is the more flexible one for unusual notation? I don’t know, have never used [F]inale myself), and I wonder if this is now pushing composers to write in a more conventional way than had they only been writing by hand. Personally, I’ve written a ton by hand, never used any particular instruments and pens and rulers or whatever, just a 0.5mm 2B pencil/lead, and have never had any complaints from musicians.

These days, I try to use Sibelius especially if there are transposing parts or I anticipate editing the piece later, to save time with those things. But I miss a sense of intimacy that I feel with handwritten scores. That’s why [I] usually handwrite and then copy to computer, to cover all bases so to say. But to me personally, engraving is the least interesting use of technology in composition; all others to me are more important…it is ridiculous to me that composers shouldn’t use sequencers, etc.—what painter would pride him/herself in painting blindfolded?

Two Composers


Throughout my life as a musician, I’ve always felt like two different composers: the person penning my current music and the creator of the idealized visions that exist only in the most crepuscular regions of my mind.

When I was beginning to learn this craft, I focused on developing my acoustic compositional chops and purposely avoided exploring many of the modes of inspiration that had led me to music in the first place. My hope was that this focus would allow me to gain the skill necessary to achieve a higher level of expression. When I eventually reached the point where I felt capable of knitting these various strands into a single artistic vision, I wanted the resulting music to be worth the effort. During this time, I set aside my years of working in theater to create music that could be presented within typical chamber concert settings. I avoided the electronic elements that had first led me to thinking of music as a creative endeavor in order to better understand the acoustics of traditional instruments.

Eventually, I developed enough aptitude that I began to feel comfortable weaving these basic inspirations into my public works. But the vagaries of daily life continued to stymie my attempts at vivifying my true inspiration until I eventually came to accept the fact that for me composing is like describing the shadows on the wall and that I will probably never see the true forms projecting these umbrae (and penumbrae) in my mind’s cave.

The current issue that has been fracturing my compositional inspiration is the difference between penning new pieces for others and developing improvisations that I will perform myself. For me, part of the process of notating ideas involves considering as many alternative universes for the composition as I can. At every moment, I attempt to envision the infinite possibilities for continuation so that when I lock into one particular time stream I can have some confidence that I’ve selected a wise option, that some factor necessitates the chosen form for the work. The final composition then exists as a singular entity. Even my works in variable forms are more properly considered labyrinths than mazes, because I try to create musical scenarios in which all the possible paths that might be followed in a performance lead to the same overall structure.

In my individual performances, I can create parallel realities by ensuring that each realization is completely unique. I tend to give myself several signposts that I know I will reach in an improvised composition, but force myself to continue working to find unique paths to traverse between these goals. The greatest advantage of this method is that it allows me to create a great deal of music very quickly. (Since I’m currently adding nearly 20 minutes of music to a solo set for a Wednesday performance, it’s impossible to understate the amount of comfort I’m currently deriving from this fact.) In addition, I often surprise myself by uncovering possibilities that had remained hidden, and the adrenaline of the performance can push me to overcome the limitations that had previously bound my imagination.

I think of these separate streams almost as if they’re the work of two composers. One person meticulously strives to create compositions that invite multiple listenings. The other ensures that no piece will be the same twice. Even though I’m a Gemini, I’m hoping that the god Janus more accurately reflects this situation since he presides over transitions and at the moment I think that the transitions in my compositions could use a little divine intervention.

Bricks and Mortar

Bricks by Marc Falardeau on Flickr

There was a small bit of my recent conversation with composer David Froom that didn’t make it to the final interview, but that I found really interesting and have been thinking about a lot. It was an anecdote Froom told of a conversation with composer Alexander Goehr, with whom Froom was studying at the time:

Goehr: “How do you decide about the quality of your material?”

Froom: “That’s not a question anyone can answer.”

Goehr: “It’s the only interesting question.”

This does seem like a stumper at first, but it’s one of those probing questions that begs some possibly heavy navel-gazing introspection. Froom said that at that moment he argued that it’s the development of musical material that makes or breaks a composition, but Goehr stood firm in his conviction that the initial material itself has to be of a high quality. It makes sense—you can’t build a sturdy brick wall if your bricks are not well constructed.

So how do you answer this question for yourself? Personally, I go through several rounds of sifting before finding the heavy-duty building blocks for a new piece. This is true whether it is an instrumental work, electronic, or both, and it involves a game of leapfrog between the left and right sides of my brain. After an initial “brain dump” of possible material, I comb through everything (which usually exists as a mix of written components—both words and musical dots—and original recordings), picking out chunks that strike me as potentially useable. At this point I’m not being incredibly picky, just grabbing for the bits and pieces that seem interesting. After that, I start to assemble the hunks of stuff into various configurations, like a jigsaw puzzle, to discover how the raw elements might fit together. At first it’s a fairly intuitive process, but as I find connections in the content, it starts to color the way other bits are mixed and matched, until I can see themes and threads starting to reveal themselves. That is when I get brutal in choosing what stays and what gets jettisoned; anything that doesn’t seem to fit into the emerging musical context gets dumped (which often means stashed away for possible future reference in another composition). It’s not an entirely cerebral nuts-and-bolts fest, and I know that if I have a strong visceral response to a musical idea—quite literally a gut reaction—chances are it’s going to work, and work well. By the time I’m finished with this stage of the composing process, I have a set of materials that I can spin along in a largely intuitive way and feel confident that what comes out next will make sense—or that I can make it make sense.

I’ve noticed that the more pieces I write, the more I also throw out during this creative phase, which can be challenging since my natural state is as a “composer of relatively few notes.” That is just one of many reasons to make sure that the elements being used are rock solid.

Calling It a Day

The determination that a given piece of music is “finished” resides in the eye of the beholder, and it’s interesting to consider the varying levels of “doneness” deemed acceptable by composers of the past and present. While many composers (Bach and Mozart, for example) created works that seem to have the “just right” length and pacing for their material, there have always been those that either race to the finish line or else can’t seem to throw in the towel.

Much has been written about the so-called “heavenly length” of Schubert’s slow movements, which to my ear always overstay their sublimity just a bit; in fact, I often get the impression that Schubert’s later symphonies were composed in order to prolong the process of composing, with each successive movement getting longer than the one before it, as if the composer were loath to call it a day.

Curiously, I’ve enjoyed evening-length works by Glass and Feldman that seemed perfectly proportioned and timed despite their considerable length, so the question of doneness is largely one of context. In addition, composers may have a predilection toward a particular level of doneness in their music that coincides with other attitudes and trends currently in the air—with many opulent and overdone works flowing out of 19th-century romanticism, and a great many works today (both minimalist and complexist) just ending or chugging to a halt without a traditional sense of arrival and resolution. In my own works, I have been drawn to accept varying levels of finishing finesse at different times. A little extra oomph during the coda of a piece (like the “second development” section in Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata) can be helpful in the right context, while there are other times where an understated ending in can reveal the sparseness and beauty of an underlying structure, and lend it an unforced quality that can be greatly endearing.

What composers or works stand out to you as being more “well done” (if you’ll forgive me the steak analogy), and which ones strike you as more “rare”? For composers, has your own approach remained relatively consistent? Or has it changed over time, heading in a new direction? I’ve found that my own conception of what constitutes a “finished” work has evolved greatly over time.

Effortless Music

Over the past seven days I have been to five concerts—a lot more than usual for me—and my head is chock full of sounds. I have heard cellos, bass clarinets, recorders of every conceivable size and shape (oh, how I love the contrabass recorder!!), ensembles great and small, not to mention loops employed for the Forces of Good.

Normally when I am up to my ears in composing a new work, I curb my concert-going activities substantially, simply to protect the music in my head from being drowned out by external forces. However, the piece I’m currently working on has been a long time in the making, and lately it has felt rather refreshing to disconnect from my internal sound world for a little while to experience some outsider sounds.

Hearing this much music in a relatively short span of time reminds me that the music I find to be the most satisfying possesses an effortless quality that I’ve never been able to completely pin down. It’s as if the music spontaneously erupted into being without any difficulty whatsoever, like a friend you go on a mountain hike with, whose white t-shirt is as perfectly clean and uncrumpled at the end of the day as it was when you began (how do they do that??).

It’s not about genre or instrumentation—because I hear this quality in many types of music—or harmonic or rhythmic content, and not even directly about technique. Obviously it is about the artist making the work, but it has nothing to do with external personality traits. In addition, I don’t believe that effortless music can be purposefully created, to continue down the path of Dan’s idea that you can’t “try” to be spontaneous.

I have the feeling that this illusory sensation about a musical experience is actually the best possible thing one can hope for—that I am hearing the composer’s real voice. When someone is creating music that is free of obvious external influences, expectations, and (perhaps especially) the composer’s own ego, the result is a staggeringly amazing window into that individual’s core being. Pure and uncomplicated, even if the music itself wears complicated clothing. Needless to say, that ain’t easy! But I am so heartened when I find it, and I think that if someone (anyone!) has that experience with your music, then you can rest assured that you are doing something right.

Invite a Bird Inside

Like David Smooke, I have to say I got a chuckle or three from the Portlandia sketch in which smiling hipsters emblazon everything in arms’ reach with the silhouette of a bird. And like David, the problem of stock compositional “moves” weighs on my mind: What are the consequences of returning to a much-drawn-from personal well of musical ideas (at any level, from concrete material or sounds to formal or experiential shapes)? The joke of the Portlandia bit, of course, is that (spoiler alert) when a real bird enters the store, it causes a panic among the affronted employees and results in much physical comedy. Not only do the chipper shopkeepers lean heavily on a played-out design, treating it as a colorful panacea for consumer fatigue; they also venerate the anthropogenically friendlied likeness of an animal whose sudden appearance in the flesh terrifies them. Thus, the image of the bird is instrumentalized, but the bird itself disrupts the comfortable routines of production.

This is the dialectic of putting a bird on it. Similarly, the drive to return to familiar tropes and contours can be viewed as a tendency with two poles, each with a positive and a negative valence: On the one hand, relying compulsively and uncritically on favorite compositional gestures (or, more accurately, the memory of these gestures) plasters the image of the bird across the surface of a piece in a way that is unfair to the spirit of the original gesture and to whatever imagined immanence we grant the piece at hand…but it lends to a charmless object, an inert or uncharacteristic chunk of music, a profile that constructs the identity of its author. On the other, contending with the real live bird by analyzing and problematizing the gesture (through deconstruction, oversaturation, etc., etc.) can put the brakes on the process of composition and rupture the fabric of the piece…or it can spark a very fruitful and thought-provoking confrontation with one’s aesthetic that could pay long-term creative dividends.

The challenge, it seems to me, is navigating the distinction between the safe, predictable practice of putting a bird on one’s music and the chaotic, possibly destructive practice of introducing a bird into one’s music. I strive for the latter but too often find myself, like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, content with the former.

Put a Bird on It!

putabirdonitThe first season of the show Portlandia introduced us to two artisans who help spice up the wares of knickknack stores. No matter the product, they are able to improve it, “spruce it up, make it pretty” by following their five-word mantra: “Put a bird on it!” As the bird images proliferate, I feel uplifted. I like birds and am invariably more attracted to decorative objects when they contain avian imagery. However, when overused, even I eventually find that bird silhouettes can lose their charm and fade into the background of over-adorned sameness.

Sometimes as I compose, I find myself turning back to the same creative solutions that worked in the past. No matter how different various projects may be, I can be tempted to impose the artistic tics that have embedded themselves deeply within my subconscious. Whether I’m working on the musical equivalent of a tote bag, a greeting card, or even a bird sculpture, I find myself putting a bird on it. Just like last year at this time, I’ve been working this spring towards seemingly impossible deadlines. (Note to self: don’t accept any projects with due dates next March or April.) As I’ve needed to speed up my work in order to meet the final, double-secret, last-chance due dates, I keep reminding myself not to fall into my usual solutions, to keep working creatively. Since I often utilize birdsong in my compositions, my fear of becoming the Put a Bird on It® composer is both literal and visceral.

Part of the reason why this issue is of special concern to me at this moment, beyond the usual deadline pressure, is related to the nature of the piece that I’m finishing: a concerto for amplified toy piano and chamber orchestra. As part of my work on this piece, I wrote a toy piano solo that began as a study towards the concerto but gradually grew into a major work in its own right. Now that I’m incorporating motives from this study into the main piece, the musical materials feel far too familiar to me. Some of these motivic fragments that began as part of the concerto now feel more attached to the solo and don’t want to become embedded in the new piece. Others slip so easily into the new piece that I’ve become concerned that they have wormed their way into my subconscious and will continue to appear unbidden in composition after composition.

Where should the line be drawn between my personal style and my overused crutches? At what point does a proclivity towards certain sounds pass the tipping point into cliché? I try to reassess my artistic goals periodically in order to ensure that I consider new ways of approaching musical problems. For me, it’s very important to take retreats, because without them I would continue to fall into the same creative traps over and over again. If the only item in my bag of tricks is a pretty bird, then I need to shop for new ones. As nice as bird calls can be, every piece doesn’t need a bird on it.

Spring Forward

Daylight savings timeIdeated by Benjamin Franklin and first implemented during World War I, daylight savings time keeps stretching further and further into our year. Originally intended to conserve energy by extending the amount of natural light available for daily activities, studies have found that the redistribution of the hours so that sunrise and sunset each arrive later might lead to greater energy consumption while helping stimulate the economy—with more daylight hours remaining after work, people are more inclined to leave their homes to shop or eat at restaurants. Because of the uptick in retail sales associated with the time changes, we keep extending the portion of the year spent in the non-standard time. Originally, we moved our clocks forward into daylight savings time in April and back to standard time in October. Currently, most of the U.S. spends one week shy of eight months in daylight savings time (Arizona and Hawaii remain on standard time throughout the year).

In Baltimore, this year’s time change has been accompanied by extraordinarily beautiful weather, with mild sunny days giving way to refreshing overnight rain. Abundant daffodils dot the gardens and the blossoms on cherry and tulip trees are beginning to unfurl.

Each spring, I teach a graduate music theory seminar in song analysis. We consider the relationship between poetry and music, and how they work together to create specific denotative meaning. The class begins by discussing “Come Lovely and Soothing Death” from George Crumb’s Apparition, with its conflation of spring imagery and renewed mourning, and currently we’re in the midst of an in-depth examination of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, in which the flowers and birds of spring evoke memories of lost love. Part of the visceral enjoyment that we derive from these songs arises from this unexpected juxtaposition of hermit thrush or nightingale songs and lilacs or lilies with opposing emotional reactions.

For me, this year’s time change and move towards spring have elicited a refreshing renewal of creative energy. I’m working towards the completion of projects whose deadlines quite recently had appeared menacingly improbable. As the burnout I experienced this winter slowly fades, I see new paths emerging that had been hidden from my view. Artistic conundrums that had seemed overwhelming suddenly appear manageable.

Most years, I abhor the start of daylight savings time. I like morning sunshine, and the first few weeks that I’m forced to awaken in darkness again can feel onerous. The loss of an hour always seems to arrive in the midst of a crunch of deadlines. I find it difficult to understand why we keep switching back and forth between two different time streams, and wonder why we can’t simply remain in daylight or in standard time. However, this year the arrival of the new time seems to have functioned as the true harbinger of a new season. The spring forward appears to have awakened my creative drive. I hope that all the readers of NewMusicBox are experiencing a similar renewal of energy.

Composing As Self-Discovery

Beethoven Sketch

This past week, I’ve been listening to some old favorites by Mozart and Beethoven and also looking at the composers’ own sketches whenever possible. Sketches in a composer’s hand are always revealing, and it’s difficult to give either composer’s sketches a cursory glance without being struck by how deeply each composer’s sketching habits express their own musical personalities. Beethoven’s sketches are full of inserts, cross-outs, and rewrites, and usually scribed with a thick, almost gouging pen stroke that reeks of creative effort; Mozart’s manuscripts (which are so complete they can rarely be called “sketches”) were penned quickly, almost breezily, with comparatively few changes other than filling in more supporting voices.

When I compare these two approaches, it’s difficult not to arrive at the impression that Mozart was recording something already (or mostly) formed in his inner ear, while for Beethoven composing was an often laborious process of figuring something out.

The Mozartean process of recording or transmitting idea (and of being open to the dictates of the subconscious) certainly has its advantages—especially if the composer is working within a received stylistic tradition (as Mozart, for all his wonderful wit and inventiveness, largely was). For those who seek to express themselves by pushing the boundaries of tradition, or who aim to discover uncharted territory far removed from tradition, it is often necessary to sketch and rework, as a more vigorously active participant. Most composers, I suspect, combine these different attitudes in all kinds of t ways, although just as Mozart and Beethoven we all have our predilections.

In today’s composing world, I hear an echo of the Mozartean attitude– though often without Mozart’s characteristic humor and child-like naturalness—in the ways that we tend to teach music composition. Despite the healthy stylistic openness that I’ve been happy to discover in today’s institutions of higher learning, the way that one is “supposed to” compose usually revolves around some variation of: “Figure out what you want to do first, then do it”, which indicates a profound separation between the conception of a work and its realization—composing as recording the results of already-worked-out parameters. This way of composing is often explicitly extolled (along the lines of “you have to know what you’re doing first before you can do it!”), and implicitly privileged in countless preconcert talks, college symposia, and lessons, in which the composer of the moment explains his or her intentions, following which the composition in question is judged on how well it “succeeded” at realizing these intentions.

This can be a useful approach, and I have no problem with it per se. But by over-emphasizing a way of composing that privileges faithful representation of mental constructs, I wonder if we’re failing to point out that composing can also be a process of discovery, experimentation, and play unrelated to prior planning (and resistant to critiques that rely on intention). While composing can be a way to transmit something that we already hold as essential, it can also be a process by which we come to understand our own thoughts and feelings.

Pushing and Pulling the Envelope


I mentioned last week that we were preparing to have a couple of special guests visit campus—composer Paola Prestini and violinist/composer Cornelius Dufallo. Besides having a successful concert and residency, one idea that percolated up during our many conversations had to do with the creative process. Neil and I spoke about our own composing after hearing Paola describe the process behind her imaginative, expansive works, and we realized that the underlying concepts upon which she created her compositions were coming from a relatively different direction than ours. After some back and forth, we came up with the idea that the difference was on which side of the creative “envelope” each of us tended to start when we made our art.

What fascinated me about Paola’s musical ideas was their scope—she admitted that she rarely dealt in smaller chamber genres—and how she seemed to be very successful incorporating her love of collaboration into these larger-than-life musical creations. A stalwart proponent of the use of multimedia, she seems to thrive by dreaming up elaborate constructions, which she can see in her mind’s eye, but that neither she nor any of her collaborators may understand how to achieve at the outset. Over time, however, they figure out ways to advance the technology, build the physical environment within which the musicians will perform, and allow the performers to take part in the creative process. As far as the creative envelope is concerned, I think of Paola as coming at her work from the “outside” and working in—“pulling” the envelope, so to speak, so that it conforms to her dream.

Compare that to the more traditional concept of “pushing the envelope” from the “inside” where both Neil and I agreed that our methodology seemed to reside. What I mean by this is to look at the limitations inherent to whatever situation a composer happens to have in front of them (professional string quartet, high school band, solo violin with electronics, etc.) and then imagine how far one can “push” these limitations in order to create their work. By starting at the point of “what’s possible” and then imagining where to go from there, the risk of creating a work that is unplayable or overtaxing is greatly reduced. However, and Paola’s works made me realize this, by starting from “inside” the possible, it’s much harder for a creative artist to invent something truly new and groundbreaking—by starting from the dream and making it happen through sheer force of will (which of course can be very risky), the composer can make something that no one has ever seen or heard before.

The beauty of this is that neither one is less valuable than the other. There are many creative artists who begin their journeys on either side of that “envelope,” and the successful ones figure out how to make it work no matter from what direction they are pushing or pulling. But by understanding whether or not one habitually works from the “outside” or the “inside,” a composer could expand their own horizons by endeavoring to work from both sides at once.