Tag: composing process

Mafia of Dots and Lines

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in—noteheads and stems, that is. No sooner, it seems, do I proclaim my intent to vacation away from standard staff-and-measure notation than I start a new piece making use of that very notation.

What draws us to the dots and lines, people? They tell performers what notes to play when, a task that would direly encumber a verbal instruction, of course—that’s obvious. They enable us to visualize particular conceptions of time and pitch-space. They situate us in a historical context. But for us, in the moment of composition, they have an extra feature: They let us eff around with notes.

Effing around with notes is what cut short my peregrination to the world of verbal scores. It’s a game, naturally, that years of music theory and composition training will equip you well to play. I won’t speak for all composers ever, but effing around with notes is something that I do for reasons that are only tangentially related to art. Arranging pitches and durations in the most satisfying way is an endlessly gratifying diversion that we can engage in while composing, while negotiating the time for which we’re nominally responsible, but effing around with notes is not a musical activity. It’s a fetish. It’s fantasy baseball. It masquerades as composition. Nevertheless, it seems I don’t have the willpower to divest myself of it just yet.

Growing Pains

When I was 18 (and had barely a year or so of musical study under my belt), I remember that one day our school composition seminar was visited by accomplished composer Stephen Paulus, who was kind enough to share some of his experience and expertise as a business-savvy independent composer. A lot of what Stephen described to us—self-promotion, distribution, contract negotiations—seemed laughably out of reach to our undergraduate minds, even pompous; I recall sharing in a bit of nervous tittering while a slightly more advanced student asked if he should create a professional website. That seemed like a silly question to most of us beginning students with few musical offerings, which is why several of us chortled that we would never have a website.

Just over a decade later, I not only have an unremarkable but functioning composer website, but have crossed all kinds of other Rubicons: writing a blog, teaching my first class, receiving my first humble commission payment, and seeing my work reviewed in the paper. I own an 11×17 printer and a coil binder, have a folder for commission agreements, and an envelope for tax-deductible receipts. On the flip side, I’ve never sent out an email concert announcement or Facebook event invite; I’ve never applied for a Guggenheim; and I’ve never presented my own concert or festival.

There is such a thing as reaching for the next rung of the career ladder too early, as in the case of the over-eager self-promoting student, or buying a lot of expensive printing equipment when you print out only a few scores each year. Yet there comes a time for every composer when one must either expand or else stifle development: when works are receiving some performances but there’s nowhere online for someone to listen to or purchase the composer’s music, or when it’s time to create a separate checking account just for composing travel and expenses. It seems to me that there are paths that overemphasize each extreme—pushing to expand too rapidly when it is not helpful, or failing to make the necessary changes and investments when old ways are holding us back. Composers would do well to stay attentive to their own needs right now, and not what their peers, friends, and competitors are doing.

The process of growth looks different for every composer. Some of us build momentum fast, while others do their best work when they take their time. Some of us peak early and ride out a plateau, while other composers modestly chug along until they are knocking out some of their best music in their 70s and 80s. Some of us follow linear paths, while for others development is marked by a process of lateral expansion. But all of us will grow if we keep composing, and all of us will have to deal with musical “growing pains” of some variety.

Creative Spaces

Over the past year and a half since I started my interview project, I find myself unable to just “take a trip” without bundling the excursion with at least one or two sessions with composers in the area. I just got back last night from a three-day trip to New York City and Philadelphia that was initially planned as just a quick day-trip to hear a premiere of mine at Symphony Space, but after some frantic negotiations I was able to surround the concert with no less than four interviews over three days in two cities. As fun and informative as each meeting was, this particular set of interviews—all but one in the home of the composer—allowed me to notice one small but mighty aspect to any creative artist’s life: the room in which they work.

Office Space

The first thing that most composers will tell you is that there isn’t just one place where they work, since what they do involves so much more than just inscribing notes to a staff (or creating graphic scores, manipulating sound digitally, etc.). The gestation period of composing can require anything from long walks in nature to staring out the window, from tackling household chores to intense research in the library. Whatever their process is, though, inevitably composers will have created for themselves a workspace where the bulk of their creative output is dreamt, planned, hewn, sandblasted, polished, and completed.

While each composer’s space is, of course, unique to that individual’s taste, I’ve noticed some consistent traits that run through most of the rooms I’ve seen:

• A door. More often times than not, the place in which the composing gets done is not in a public area of the house or apartment in order to allow for thinking without interruption. This being said, I’ve seen my fair share of apartments (especially in NYC) that were small enough to force the workspace into the main living area; usually these end up serving as multitasking spaces with the monitor replacing the television.

• A desk. This could be anything from a simple particleboard structure to a utilitarian work desk from Ikea to a custom-made DIY project that was form-fitted to the room’s dimensions. Some like to have a lot of space to spread out laterally, others are stackers whose organizational proclivities seem to run vertically. Whatever the setup, these desks project the results of years of trial and error on the part of the composer to discover exactly what tools they require for their work and how they choose to use these tools.

• A monitor. No, not just a monitor: a big, freaking monitor. The type and make of computer can vary quite a bit (though Apple does seem to have the edge here), but when it comes to digital screen space, most composers seem to go with the “more is more” approach. This can depend somewhat on how much work each composer does personally on the computer, but even those who use copyists will still gravitate towards lots of screen space in order to see as much of their work at one time as possible.

• A piano keyboard. While I have run into a few composers who enter their music into a notation system through the computer QWERTY keyboard, most composers will have some variance of white and black keys somewhere close by. A piano is sometimes part of the composer’s work space, but not as much as one might think—many composers I’ve met with simply use their digital keyboard as both a tool to create with and as an input device. Again, often this is due to space considerations as much as anything—many of the composers I’ve talked to are apartment dwellers in large urban areas where a piano is unfeasible.

• Clutter. Most spaces I was lucky enough to see had an effective balance between being organized and showing how busy each composer was (if you ever worry about your own work space being cluttered, fret not—you’re in good company). That being said, in every space I saw I also got the sense that it was comfortable to live, work, and think in.

All of the composers I’ve spoken with were born in or after 1960, which may help to explain the overwhelming use of computers in their creative process. Some will still have the drafting table with large reams of blank score pages and sharpened pencils at the ready, but setups like that have been rare up to this point. Oftentimes, there is an additional room or space that the composer has fitted with printers, binding equipment, tape, etc.—all the necessary tools for a self-published composer.

We all tend to focus on the “important” stuff when we think about composers—what they’re trying to say, how they’re saying it, and what effect their work is having on the world around them. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but it tends to foster the habit of thinking of a particular composer as more of a concept than a person. By getting a chance to walk through the spaces in which these talented artists work, I am reminded of who they really are—not as names, but as simple, everyday people.

(A brief postlude: I realized this morning that today marks my one-year anniversary of writing this column for NewMusicBox. Thanks to all whose remarks, comments, and questions continually remind me that my musings are actually being read, and I look forward to continuing this fun adventure-in-prose during the upcoming year.)

Developing an Act

In speaking with other composers, there are always so many questions I’d like to ask them about their music and how they went about putting it together: What were you thinking when you wrote this passage? What kind of stylistic influences informed your writing? Under what circumstances was the work conceived? However, if I were allotted only a single query for these situations, I’d make sure to ask the question that most consistently seems to reveal a composer’s fundamental character, namely: What is your attitude toward revision?

At the most basic level, there is a broad spectrum of approaches when it comes to tinkering with a “finished” notated piece, between those who endlessly tinker and those who (for various reasons) end up relatively content with their composition’s first incarnation. Sometimes the composer’s skill and the amount of time he or she had to work with have something to do with the decision to revise, but more often is has to do with the composer’s attitude and aesthetic predilections. Many composers are predisposed to tinkering, or simply have very high expectations for how closely their musical result ought to approximate their idea. Many know they likely won’t have time to revise, and approach the first draft accordingly. Some composers are not disposed to revising in general, but will consider it when something truly “goes wrong” or the prospect of more performances tempts a little finessing.

Yet the above attitudes toward revising apply to just one particular situation: that in which a composer intends for there to exist a final, “best” version of a given composition.

This is, of course, the situation in which many composers find themselves—especially composers whose goal is a document than can inspire performances with or without their own physical presence. But what about improvisers, singer-songwriters, composer/performers, DJs, and many for whom the distinction between revising and composing becomes almost meaningless?

It goes without saying that improvisers, DJs, and their ilk make tweaks all the time—it’s just that without the pressing need for a “definitive” version of the work, these tweaks become part of a continuous composing session rather than something appended to the compositional act.

While a notated composition forces us to choose our “best effort”, those who follow a favorite DJ, jam band, or even comedy act would attest that there’s also something to be said for a style of expression that is less rigidly controlled and is constantly adapting to the situation at hand. At the same time, music expressed through a notated score can potentially receive many more performances in more diverse geographic locations—something that still makes this old-fashioned mode of dissemination pretty hip.

As someone who spends a lot of time working with traditionally notated music, I’m always eager to bring ideas from folk and improvised sources into play—and to bring notated concert music up to date and in line with the level of excitement, timbral richness, and interactivity that makes the best pop music so engaging. Developing an act is about experimenting and responding to experience, and one that emphasizes the process of exploration as much as the discoveries; most of all, it’s a way of working that takes audience feedback into account as an essential part of the creative effort. So I wonder if it might be possible to develop a notated ensemble piece in a way that is likewise constantly evolving and defined?

I’ve recently completed a work that will be premiered more or less simultaneously by three piano trios. Based respectively in Boston, Toronto, and Salt Lake City, the groups will tour with the piece during the 2012/13 concert season. Knowing these details, I decided that I wanted a way to make each group’s performances unique and particular; so I wrote a piece in the form of several very short “modular” movements that can be played in any order—this is determined by each ensemble, who may settle upon a “favorite” configuration or change things up for each performance. Over time I’ll put new movements into rotation, so that the “building blocks” of the piece change to reflect my current thinking and audience input. It’s a kind of “act” developed over time with input balanced between myself and the performing ensembles, who each may continue to shape the work in profound ways long after the premiere performances.

It feels good to be revising some music for once not because of a mistake, but as the next step in an ongoing creative collaboration. When I was younger, I shied away from revising after imbibing the notion that making changes to my work indicated weakness or failure; but now I’ve realized that my work needs to grow, change, and react to stimuli from audiences and collaborators in order to truly be its best.


Some days when I wake up, I marvel at the fact that I have the opportunity to write music that some people want to perform and others want to hear. In addition, I have a fun day job that directly relates to my compositional life, allows me to continue improving my musicality, and keeps me continually engaged in dialogue with incredibly interesting colleagues and students. This vocation allows me to accept only those projects that I find most interesting and to experiment without fear that my stretching of artistic boundaries will leave my larder bare. In short, I understand that I am a fortunate son.

Even though I am the first to extol my good luck, at unpredictable intervals I enter periods in which I remain inexorably and unequivocally incapable of work. I can be remarkably gluttonous in my hunger for intriguing opportunities, and sometimes a glut of good fortune can leave me working beyond my constitutional capabilities. Then, suddenly and without warning, I realize that my sources of energy have been reduced to mere embers. I find myself in the state of burnout.

Burning the candle at both ends

This fall, I enjoyed many interesting new tasks at work as I began my first semester as chair of the theory department at the Peabody Conservatory and as I co-organized a conference on distance learning technology. Adding these duties to my relatively full teaching load presented an organizational challenge. During the time that I had allotted for putting new compositions to paper, I found myself needing to revise previously composed pieces as they neared their premieres and composing a large work for amplified toy piano and looping pedal that I performed myself. Meanwhile, as my deadlines loomed ever closer, I convinced myself that winter break would allow for an opportunity to compose like a fiend and to complete a large piece with an imminent deadline in no time flat.


Instead, I found myself spending day after day staring blankly at my sheets of paper. Some days I’d force myself to write passages, only to despair later as I faced the truth that the music I was producing was not worth keeping. I gave myself small side projects to keep myself at my desk, hoping to engender that compositional spark, but to no avail.

One day, I realized that the last time that I’d felt my creative energy similarly sapped was immediately before I contracted a serious viral illness that led to an extended convalescence. Not wanting to compose my way back into the hospital (decompose?), repeating the mistakes of my own past, I accepted the fact that was staring me in the face: I had reached the limits of my capabilities and I needed a break. Stat.

The good news is that once I accepted that I was in a state of burnout, my depression began to lift. This allowed me to begin to complete some of the small bureaucratic chores that needed my attention in order to spark future projects. Each miniscule accomplishment led towards a greater feeling of well-being that I could apply towards the next task. Currently, I finally am finding myself capable of sustaining the level of concentration necessary to complete larger projects (like this column). This new-found energy is arriving in the nick of time, since later this week I’m traveling to Pittsburgh to present a concert with the League of the Unsound Sound, and another semester will begin immediately upon my return.

And what about the composition that sparked this edition of burnout? Eventually, I contacted the director of the organization and told him that I was unable to meet his deadline. Fortunately, he is as good of a human being as he is a musician, so his immediate response was concern for my health, and we worked out a new schedule that should allow me enough time to complete the piece. I am hopeful that I have mentally refueled enough to achieve my goals for this new year.

I find that the more I try to fight the need to convalesce, the longer I’m stuck in the creative rut and the more painful I find my time there. For me, the best lesson to take from these periods of burnout is the need to wallow in indolence, to force myself to attempt to enjoy the suddenly imposed respite. Only then can I begin to walk the road to recovery.

Finding Headspace

Sometimes it takes a while to take a hint.

One of the vestiges that I have clung to from my pre-teaching days is the idea that I can compose at any time during the year, regardless of what else is going on in my life. I’ve prided myself on the fact that I could “turn it on” when I found time and could write effectively well into the night, negotiating my composing schedule around any other commitments I may have had. Over the years these ideas became habit and affected what type of projects I would take on and when I would estimate I could accomplish them.

As you might imagine, such habits are not exactly healthy and they have indeed slowly crumbled over the past five years—not surprisingly, the exact amount of time since I took a full-time teaching position. I had been teaching a fair amount before moving to western New York, so balancing my composing and teaching duties was not a new dragon to slay; both visiting and adjunct positions were challenging, but did not stand in the way of my writing projects. But recently—say, the past two to three years—it has become increasingly difficult to find that delicate balance.

The knee-jerk reaction to such a situation is to look at the amount of time that I have allotted towards composing compared to my other duties, as if time is the crux of the problem. And, of course, my calendar has become a bit more crowded—not only with the myriad responsibilities that come with academia (read: committees, curriculum paperwork, guest artists, more committees, etc.), but with the various other projects that I seem to create for myself (read: my interviews/book project, the column you are currently reading, etc.). My initial response to that knee-jerk reaction has been that I’ve dealt with such challenges before and my time-juggling skills are efficient enough that I should be able to manage.

The past few weeks have been nudging me in the ribs, telling me that my old habits may need to be revisited. The fall semester had been quite barren as far as compositional productivity was concerned, which didn’t bode well for the projects that were due by the end of the year. It wasn’t until the day after my final exams were finished that the wellspring finally decided to produce results, and over the following days I wrote more in a week than I had in four months; the works had been thought about, mulled over, planned, and re-planned, but the notes had been elusive till then. Those of us who create know how this feels, and once you’re riding that wave, you don’t question it—just close your eyes and hold on for dear life.

My interviews with other composers have consistently brought up not only the concept of time (which I discussed last year), but also the ability to clear one’s head and allow oneself to be open to whatever comes. I am convinced that it was the combination of unbroken chunks of time to work and the blessed freedom to not think about anything else other than the music in front of me that was the impetus for this latest creative watershed. Time itself is a requirement, to be sure, but the addition of “headspace” is both an obvious and easily overlooked necessity for creativity, and two of my resolutions this year are to explore how to both find more headspace and, taking a hint, to be more realistic when gauging when I can be productive.

I’m very interested to hear what you do to deal with this idea of headspace. The comment section is open for business!