Tag: composition process

Structure and Freedom in Collaboration (A.k.a. The Incomplete Non-Idiot’s Guide to Workshopping with Musicians)

A shadow image of two performers, one cellist and one pianist

Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.

I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.

There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.

For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.


Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.

Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.

The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.

Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:

Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.

Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.

I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.

This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.

Ultimately, it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth.

In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.

Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.

A Chance to %@#$! Around

One of the most common myths about composing—and any creative medium, to be honest—is the assumption that the creator conceives of a new work in toto before they put real or digital pen to paper and that the creative process is simply a transcription method ensuring the most accurate manifestation of that initially conceived work. Does this happen on occasion? Of course it does—I haven’t met a composer yet who hasn’t had a piece introduce itself fully formed at least once, and there are many composers who enjoy planning a piece out to the nth degree before they begin putting notes to paper. The fallacy is that this is the way it always works for everyone, and it serves to create a mystification that (sadly) separates us from the general public; that most cannot imagine how our art is created (as opposed to a film or a poem or a painting) intensifies that sense of separation which, in turn, makes it that much harder for the general listener to connect with our work.

piano player

Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy on Flickr

All of this was on my mind recently during a conversation my students and I were having with Kevin Ernst, who we had invited down from Cornell for an evening of lectures and discussion. At one point the conversation veered off into the idea of allowing oneself to forget the training that can shackle us to what can or should be done and instead to tap into the sense of “play” that comes so naturally to us when we’re young and have no concept of boundaries or rules or expectations. One of the biggest challenges along these lines is that many of us don’t recognize when we’ve stopped “playing,” especially after so many years of accruing the necessary tools to perform/create at a high level. Yet there seems to be a marked difference in one’s creative output if you’re just working with your tools and not a youthful, explosive, illogical imagination.
This idea of playing with your creative “food,” so to speak, doesn’t have to happen just at the outset of the process either. During one of my interview trips to New York City, David T. Little told me about the three steps in his creative process. Basically it came down to 1) collect ideas for a piece, 2) build the “nice” version of the piece, and 3) mess it up. That third step—messing around with something you’ve just created—is just as important, if not more important, than the first two because it’s in that step that creative artists can truly instill their identity into the piece.

I’ve spoken to many classroom teachers who are interested in composing but who can’t get past the mental roadblock that is the fear of doing it “wrong.” At some point in our transition into adulthood, we all find ourselves adjusting to that fear, no matter what the context. It is only when we allow ourselves to make mistakes, to experiment—to %@#$! around, in the best comic book “grawlix” tradition—that we can tap into that creative pool from which the “good stuff” invariably comes.

Revise THIS!

revisionsWhile revising a composition for large ensemble, I’ve been contemplating this question: Why is revising often so much more difficult than just creating a brand new work that resolves the same problems? This revision is killing me, causing me to expend much more time and effort than if I had simply composed something wholly original for the same ensemble.
I decided to pose this question to composers on Facebook and received some interesting responses, each of which sheds light on a different aspect of what makes revising such a slog. Stacy Garrop comments, “Once you pull one string, it all starts to unravel…”—and it is quite true that each new revision creates its own set of problems. Perhaps this is just an extreme form of the old adage that beginnings are easy, but that they create consequences down the line that make crafting a satisfying middle and ending quite the challenge. When revising, we’re often working around an even more restrictive set of decisions (all the things we want to keep) and making any change might have vast ramifications on the experience of the entire entity.

Keith Fitch points out that it would be great if composers had the luxury that playwrights do, “where every premiere is considered a dress rehearsal.” It’s a great observation that there’s something quite artificial about the idea that music should be turned in somehow just right on the first attempt, which might be one of the more insidious assumptions inherent in well-meaning “professionalism.” Workshop programs like those hosted by the American Composers Orchestra, choral groups like Volti, and chamber ensembles like ICE do much to encourage a more sensible approach in which experimentation and feedback are central to the creative process, rather than leading the composer to sometimes hedge his or her bets and settle for what is “safe”—the American Composers Orchestra even calls their laboratory program “Playing it UNsafe” in order to emphasize this very point.
Daron Hagen draws attention to the craft involved in pulling off any revision with panache: “The hardest and most thankless achievement, achieved almost exclusively through extensive revision, is the appearance of effortless inevitability. This is perceived by all but the most perceptive colleague, listener, or critic, as facility.” Extensive revision is a big part of the musical theatre culture that is Hagen’s wheelhouse, and I watched him revise three orchestral interludes that are part of his recent opera Amelia when (during a dress rehearsal) it was determined that there needed to be louder music during some set changes in order to blot out the racket! All composers should be as musically fit and prepared for these situations, but Hagen is right that revising works is much more a part of certain musical genres than others; composers working in concert music (where revising is more optional rather than the norm) could do well to emulate the steel nerves of composers who write for the theatre and lyric stage.

Finally, Kevin Puts provided perhaps the most telling analysis of just why revising can often feel so laborious and boring to a composer’s psyche: “I think it’s because you are not traveling into uncharted territory (which is exciting) as you were when you wrote it; it’s like going back to look for the watch you dropped somewhere. You don’t really want to be there.” Agreed, composers are always looking ahead to new projects and rare is the composer who truly relishes revision, which normally happens more on a need-to-do basis rather than in the spirit of waking up one morning, putting on a pot of coffee, rubbing one’s hands together, and gleefully exclaiming “Hot dog! Time to painstakingly retread through some hard-won accomplishments while taking care not to shit the bed and make the piece even worse!” Even for those who have the experience and temperament to derive some satisfaction from a well-executed revision, the process of revising definitely sets off different and perhaps less expansive emotions than brainstorming a new, heretofore unimagined composition.

What has your experience been with revising music? And how would you compare it to that of composing original material?

Elliot Cole: Hunger for the Opposite

While digging through Elliot Cole’s catalog of music, it’s easy to get caught up in the role text and stories frequently play in his compositions. Babinagar, for example, is a bewitching song-cycle based on an Afghan folktale, and De Rerum (a “hip hop lecture on the physics of history”) is wedded to wordplay.

But after chatting with him, that image shifts. The words can be vital to his work, definitely, but the core of his inspiration turns out to trace more of a pendulum swing. Cole is most comfortable and feels most productive when he can vary his approach: insider vs. outsider, text-rooted vs. pure sound, composer vs. performer, a musician dipping his toes into a wealth of styles and methods along the way. Rather than a troubadour, it might make more sense to think of Cole as a trapeze artist graced with contagious enthusiasm and seemingly inexhaustible curiosity.

“I use music to explore other things that I’m interested in, as a channel to be curious through,” Cole explains. “One way to divide up what I do is by genre—dramatic work and chamber music and hip hop. But another way to divide it is that I’m trying to deal with music on two different levels. I love composing because it lets me think about music from a really high level of generalization and abstraction, but I can only keep working on music from such a conceptual distance if I’m also as close to it as I can be in some other activity.”

That closeness is something Cole finds in performance, whether playing in bands or presenting his own music. He grew up in the rich musical environment of Austin, Texas, and it rubbed off. Now, he says, “I’m not a stellar performer, but I stay as involved as I can in actually making music. In music school, the role that we adopt a little bit too naturally is putting some performers on the stage to have kind of a bad time playing your music for an audience that is kind of stressed out by the whole experience. And you sit in the back thinking that you’re a genius. It’s just a very different experience when you’re up there doing it.”

After completing his undergraduate work in music and cognitive linguistics at Rice University where he produced “very serious and intellectually grounded” work, he stayed in Houston and wrote other pieces that “felt more real and natural and heartfelt and exciting to me,” works such as Ladies and Gentlemen which was built around a lecture by Borges, the hip hop opera The Rake’s Progress which he wrote with Brad Balliett, and Babinagar, a delicate chamber work scored for harp, contrabass, harmonium, and singers which he toured through living rooms across Texas.

Cole is now a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, a school he jokes was the only one that would have him. “When I went to look at schools, I got a real clear sense visiting Princeton that they were open to the whole package,” he recalls. “So, I’m there because the work that I was doing, that other places might not find as serious but that I take very seriously, that was a plus for them rather than a minus.”
A big piece of this catalog that Cole feels doesn’t fit so comfortably can once again be traced back to his desire to work at the edges of genre and institutions. “I feel like there’s a real focus and value in contemporary music on being an insider,” he explains. “Being in a territory where everyone is focused on being an insider, I really find it fun and liberating to have something that I’m doing where I’m a total outsider—where I don’t have credibility. For me, that’s hip hop.”

It’s work that he’s exploring together with performer/composers Brad and Doug Balliett under the project name Oracle Hysterical, an organization that Cole characterizes as kind of a band and kind of composer’s collective, but really more of a book club. The group uses text, such as Melville’s Billy Budd (a recent example), and reads and writes their way to a piece of music, motivating and inspiring one another. Writing the metric poetry used in the lyrics is work that Cole finds provides a neat parallel to composition. “It’s really simulating imaginatively because every pair of lines is a puzzle that you have to work out. I really like writing music that is the solving of puzzles because then you’re in a relationship with it where it’s as much a process of discovery as creation.”

Still, sometimes Cole sets the words aside to, again, escape into something else. To scratch that itch last year, he wrote more than an hour of chamber music, including Postludes, a set of eight pieces for four performers on one vibraphone that was written for So Percussion. Cole is also an active computer programmer and has been working to develop an algorithmic composition and deep-listening environment using SuperCollider. He found that being able to think about music from the point of view of computer programming provided some new clarity, which he explains in more detail in the video below.

Admittedly, more tightly integrating all these varied areas of interest might be more productive and efficient, and Cole wonders how his diversification may be preventing him from establishing a clearly identifiable voice. Still, his flexibility is an essential underpinning linking his work—when one project or area becomes frustrating, he has another to move to. This also extends to his compositional methods. He says that he “may begin at the piano and at a point of impasse or frustration, write on paper and see what grows out of that. Or type it into the computer or try to learn it on guitar or sing it. By these processes of translation, I can kind of keep a flow through the writing. It’s an intrinsic part of how I get notes on the page and how I get to the end of the idea.”
Ultimately, his curiosity keeps him from shelving any possibilities. “I’m stupid enough to think that I can still do everything,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh. “If there’s a chance for two majors, I’ll take it; if I have a chance to write a piece for a group, I’ll write two pieces. I’m always having to fork and do both.”

Diggin’ in the Boneyard


It’s funny how often discussions with non-composers will circle around towards the mysterious aspects of the creative process; most folk, including performers, tend to assume that composers are continually walking around with a cacophony of ideas playing in their heads and simply copy down the fully formed piece as if it was being broadcast from an internal radio station. Even if one comes across a composer who does have their internal Pandora station set to “continuous play” (and I have met a few), it would be a mistake to assume that their creative process is nothing more than self-transcription. How one discovers what material will work in a particular piece and the decision-making process by which the end result is created are two important aspects of the creative process that define and differentiate each composer from his or her colleagues.

I’m currently working on a short “closer” piece for wind band and recently found myself at one of those junctures where that decision-making process was frozen. I had a fairly good idea of the formal structure of the piece (so I thought I knew where I was going), and the piece had been chugging along nicely in many ways…until I hit one of “those” spots in the piece where nothing seemed right. Everything up until that point flowed easily from one section to another—I remarked to my friends on Facebook that I had performed the “happy dance” when a particular section worked really well—and then, nothing. Ideas were thrown against the wall to see what stuck to no avail.

Each composer has his or her own method by which they extricate themselves from such situations; depending on their timeframe they might put the piece away for a while and come back to it, for instance, but with my schedule I rarely have that luxury. So I decided to go, in my own words, “digging in the boneyard” to see if I could find any bits of material that could fit effectively (or at least jump-start the stalled creative process). Every composer’s “boneyard” is different, of course, but at least from my perspective it consists of works of mine that either didn’t work or, more likely, had served their purpose years ago but lacked the necessary ingredients to remain in my current catalog.

When I began my graduate studies in the late ’90s, I didn’t even realize that I had a “boneyard” to work with, but in the years before my move to academia I had written quite a few film scores. Those scores served as useful departure points for several early works of mine. For example, the inception of my band work Dreamcircus can be traced to a scoring assignment completed during my studies at USC. This allowed me to take familiar material and explore what it could offer to a much greater extent than in its original medium. As my list of concert works has increased, there are occasionally pieces that don’t seem to have a shelf life past their premiere, but often they will contain material within them that can be used to generate a new work—or, in my current project, an effective contrasting section.

While this concept is not by any means new—composers have been reusing and reworking material for centuries—I still find it fascinating when it works. As exciting as creating something new from whole cloth, so to speak, is, the process by which existing material can be repurposed in an artistic and meaningful way will always be an important part of my own creative methods.

Pushing Through

I hesitate to do this because it’s such a fraught topic, but I wanted to write about the art of composing while depressed. I don’t intend to speak for everyone’s experiences (I know some have had it much worse), but somehow I don’t think I’m the only artist in the era of late-stage capitalism to experience infrequent bouts of mild-to-moderate depression. So here we go.

The most obvious effect of depression on creativity is that your motivation generally goes way down. This isn’t always true–sometimes creative endeavors can be a refuge from depression–but it can just as easily be a minefield. Added to that, your tolerance for rejection is almost non-existent, and composers inevitably face a lot of rejection (as Rob Deemer’s post about Jennifer Jolley recently reminded me). A lot of this can often be mitigated by tricking yourself into just sitting down and starting, becoming immersed in the work before you have a chance to question yourself. But here another, more complicated problem shows up. You find that your critical faculties, so essential to the creation of work, are completely misaligned. When you are working in an area where you’re used to relying on intuition and instinct, this can be absolutely crippling. Irrational thoughts creep in, rejecting almost every idea before it has a chance to blossom. A rational mind recognizes when an idea just needs a little more development or reworking; a depressed mind has trouble with this concept. Or even worse, the anhedonia prevents anything from being good or bad. Instead, everything sounds equally lackluster, a gray ocean of mediocrity.

I still don’t have a reliable way around this, and I’m not sure there is a surefire solution. What I have found is that sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to get my ear back by “pushing through,” for lack of a better term. That is, I act as though my critical abilities are intact, purely by memory of what they used to be, even if I don’t feel them. If I am persistent enough, then at some point they might kick in again, and at that point I’m no longer pretending. And even if they don’t kick in, I’ve still put the work in and have something to come back to the next day.

I guess the appropriate cliché would be “fake it ‘til you make it,” but I dislike how that phrase sets up ordinary instincts as the fake part. The enthusiasm and excitement I normally feel when composing–that’s the real stuff!

The Piece I Didn’t Write

The first piece that I ever penned for other people to perform was at the behest of my high school’s music teacher, for our orchestra. Since I went to a small school, this was a very unusual ensemble that featured a single bassist and cellist, and limited winds including one person who functioned as the only bassoon and French horn player. At the performance I also made my conducting debut on this funereal march, trying desperately to let the percussionist set the tempo while he was equally avid in his will to follow me. Obviously, this was an important learning experience for me. This concert featured another student premiere, a virtuosic blues-based blast of a piece. Afterwards, I kept thinking about this other work and how I enjoyed hearing it more than my own.

Although I was unaware of this at the time, this very first concert of mine established a pattern that continues to hold true to today. Once I finish any new piece, I find myself envying any other work that I hear for that ensemble. In my mind, all the other compositions sound better, fresher, and more interesting. When I compose quiet and meditative music, the other pieces on the same program that move quickly at great volume invariably excite me the most. When my music focuses on rhythmic drive, I’m drawn to the creations that explore sonic spaces, and at the concerts where I’ve contributed experimental soundscapes I tend to enjoy the simple melodies the most. The composition that hits the spot for me is always the piece I didn’t write.

Throughout my student years, I tried to solve this conundrum by pouring every possibility into each container. I would throw every interesting texture that I could ideate into any single piece, utilizing overwhelming force as the tool that would prove my compositional acumen. The resulting works often felt disjointed as they moved between textures, never remaining anywhere long enough in order to fully explore their territory. And at the concerts, I wished that I had composed those works that confidently remained in a single sound world.

I continue to love music that is both purposeful and uncompromising, and recently I’ve been creating new pieces that attempt to convey this aesthetic. I’ll write a series of works that focus on a singular emotional space, and as I complete each piece I’ll realize that my gravitational center is being pulled more and more in a new direction. When this pull becomes strong enough, I’ll move into a new period that focuses on those musical affects that I missed during the prior compositions. In this manner, I followed my series of pieces that were all about rhythmic propulsion with a number of new pieces in a new notational system that allowed for no metrical regularity whatsoever. Now, I realize that I’m nearing the end of this latter phase and I am gearing up for a series of pieces that follow in yet another different direction.

Two weeks ago, I finished a new work for solo piano. Since I had recently completed a series of compositions exploring microtonality and a variety of unusual extended techniques, I decided to challenge myself by limiting this piece to the sounds created by depressing the keys themselves. My planning eventually led to a deceptively simple and melodic piece with gently and slowly pulsing chords, and no dynamic marking louder than pianissimo. While I was composing, I was happily focused on this sonic space and I never missed the other possible paths that I could have followed. However, I found that the moment that I had completed work I began to long for brief loud pianistic outbursts. And I can already predict that at the premiere concert I’ll hear a work of great rhythmic virtuosity and drive, and that I’ll sigh inwardly, jealous of the piece I didn’t write.

The Riddle

This week I read a fantastic story called “Riddles” by the Czech author Michal Ajvaz. (It’s short, so it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if you read it right now and then came back to this post.) In Ajvaz’s tale, the narrator is beset by a feline beast who sporadically materializes to pose strange riddles, and to claw and bite the narrator when he inevitably fails to supply the correct answer. Like a lot of modern fables, it’s hard to pin down, exactly, what it’s really all about, but it immediately struck me as an apt analogy for the self-inflicted angst of the creative process.

The riddles the narrator describes are always rather long-winded and “silly,” like this one:

In the morning it has four legs, at noon two, and in the evening seventeen; it sits on a cold stove in a dark, damp-smelling waiting room at the railway station in Tynec nad Labem, singing in a deep voice a musical setting of Jan Mukarovsky’s article “Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts.”

So too are the constant riddles I encounter in the process of composing. The problems that stand in my way when writing music are impossibly trivial, without exception. They are usually so convoluted, the result of an absurdly circuitous train of thought, that they are completely uninteresting to anyone other than myself. In fact, they’re often uninteresting to me as well, and it’s only the goal behind the riddle that keeps me fixated on such technicalities. And paradoxically, this search for truth and beauty seems to take me further and further away from the true and the beautiful. Like the riddle-solver, in my narrow obsession I’ve missed “the opening up beside me of a voyage to Asia, to golden temples in the jungle…the goblin treasure glittering amidst the moss of night…the Siren’s song, which brought such magnificent shipwreck to others.”

Obsession is also what Ajvaz’s narrator reports: “I can’t help thinking about [the riddles] all the time, even though I know I shall be scratched and bitten.” And yet this meaningless meditation lends him a noble cast: “Everyone I know thinks I’m a great philosopher, as I’m always deep in thought.” This kind of thing occurs to me whenever I’m asked to elucidate my creative process; the vast majority of what I’ve learned is nothing remotely deep or profound, and in many cases it doesn’t even seem applicable to anyone else.

This is the thing that is most terrifying to admit, especially in the current political climate, when the value of music and art seems constantly under threat. Writing music doesn’t really make you smarter, or a better person, or more skilled at anything else. Or as Ajvaz puts it: “If you think these years of unsuccessful riddle solving were at least a kind of training and experience which furnish hope for the future, I am afraid you are quite mistaken.”

To add insult to injury, whenever I attempt to solve a compositional riddle, the solution I eventually arrive at always feels like a compromise, a concession, a rendering of something fine and ethereal and transcendent and ineffable into something base and material and mundane. This is the kicking and the biting of the beast. Why accept this constant punishment? Why continue, why bother at all? I think it is the tantalizing hope that someday I will get it right, as ridiculous as that sounds. It is the irrationally attractive belief that all musical problems are connected in some way, and even connected to urgent societal and existential problems. And like Ajvaz’s protagonist, I have moments when I feel close to solving the riddles, “which is to solve them all at once, and this will likewise be the key to unlock all the future riddles.”

Infecting Materials

I have a bit of a tendency to tip towards obsessiveness. (At this point, I probably should pause for a moment to ask those people who know me well to stop guffawing at my understatement. Okay? May I continue?) When a restaurant joins two tables, I’m the sort of person who finds it difficult to sit down until I’ve assured myself that the corners match perfectly. I can find myself distracted while attempting to converse with certain people unless I’m aligned correctly with them. I react viscerally against documents with two spaces after each period, and spend a great deal of time and fruitless energy encouraging my students to employ one-inch margins in their papers. In short, I enjoy exploring the minutiae of arcana and believe that exactitude is a virtue.

At times, I believe that this character trait helps my composing. I enjoy spending the time necessary to align all the elements in my scores, and I treat the process of eradicating engraving errors as a moral imperative. I attempt to take the care necessary to consider the physical nature of the instruments for which I’m writing in order to ensure that every gesture can be produced. When I am able, I question the basic assumptions of our musical tradition, including our tuning, notation systems, and performance practice.

More often, I find that my obsessiveness detracts from my attempts at artistry. While following any specific musical path, I can focus on what’s directly in front of me without seeing the opportunities beckoning on the periphery. As I direct my ideas to flow easily from one point to the next, I lose the ability to surprise and delight. Inevitability begins to function like a juggernaut, crushing all obstacles as it proceeds inexorably towards its goal. When I was younger and was attempting to compose fast groove-based music, I kept finding myself creating rhythmic drive by placing attacks consistently on a single rhythmic level so that once I established (for example) a sixteenth-note pulse, an event would occur at every sixteenth-note interval until I reached the ends of phrases. Although I knew that the pulse would remain firmly established in the absence of such specificity, I continued to build these unrelenting lattices throughout those compositions.

As I grew more aware of my innate tendencies, I began to build the opportunity for serendipity into my compositional process. If I make a copying or transcribing error, I question whether the pattern alteration should be construed as a mistake or as an improvement. Duchamp considered his great glass “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” unfinished until movers dropped and shattered it, and he painstakingly glued the shards back into the frame. With visible cracks now veining the entire piece, he felt that the design was finally completed. I attempt to channel the spirit of Duchamp in order to accept even those accidents that seem disastrous at first blush as possible windows opening towards new opportunities.

Moving beyond fortuitous mistakes, recently I’ve begun teaching myself to infect my materials. After indulging my initial tendency to build a progression by obsessively revoicing a single interval, I now might take the resulting fragments and mutate it. At first, I can subtly add one or two sonorities that appear to play by my harmonic rules, but with a second interval now creating a genetically modified chord. This new creation can then reproduce either naturally into other similar harmonies, or can undergo further transgenic manipulation, creating ever-newer chords. Simple manipulations that alter a single characteristic of a gesture suddenly open up entirely new worlds populated with musical organisms that might sound alien to the initial idea, allowing me to move along paths that my obsessiveness might have otherwise eschewed as unrelated to my initial ideas. In so doing, I’m hoping to awaken the possibility for delightful surprise.

Sharpen Your Quills!

In Jesse Ann Owen’s seminal book Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600, she describes the physical equipment that composers from that period used as they sketched and made initial drafts of their music:

The main instrument for writing during this time period was the quill pen, the point of which had to be cut according to the kind of letters or shapes desired. The graphite pencil that is the ancestor of the pencil in use today was developed during the second half of the sixteenth century, following the discovery of a source of graphite in England, and it came in to common use only after 1600. Other kinds of pencils, made from lead or other metal, left quite fine and faint lines, not appropriate for musical composition. All of the extant manuscripts used for composing were written with pen and ink.

The use of ink meant that erasure was difficult. There were only four ways to correct a mistake: write over it, cross it out, smudge it before the ink dried, or scrape the ink from the surface with a small knife…The choice of method was determined by the stage of work and the requirements for neatness.

When the creation of music is discussed or analyzed, it is rare (other than in Owen’s book, albeit briefly) for the physical tools with which the artist transfers their ideas from mind to page to enter the conversation. Similarly, as commonplace as corporate mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures have become within our modern economic landscape, one would not expect such issues to have a direct and potentially negative impact on the output of creative artists such as composers.

Yet these two seemingly unrelated topics were suddenly brought sharply into focus this week with the news that AVID, the parent company of the popular Sibelius notation software, would be closing down Sibelius’s main British-based development office as part of a major streamlining move to cut costs. First widely publicized by Norman Lebrecht on his Slipped Disc blog and augmented by NewMusicBox’s own investigative team, this move and the possibility of AVID discontinuing the Sibelius product altogether has had a chilling effect throughout a portion of the new music community.

For the uninitiated, the ability to create affordable, publisher-quality engraved music notation on a personal computer came into existence with the advent of Finale in 1989 in the United States and the emergence of Sibelius in the UK in 1993. Ever since Sibelius became available on the Windows and Macintosh platforms in 1998, the healthy rivalry between Finale and Sibelius has forced each to continually hone their functionality and ultimately improved both software applications.

The practical result of these improvements has been the raised expectations on composers to produce professional-level engraved scores and parts; conductors, instrumentalists, and singers today will usually turn a piece down altogether if it is hand-written by anyone but the best calligraphers. In addition to the performer’s expectations, these software applications have given composers various tools with which they can hear their music through playback, quickly extract parts from a full score, and allow for an immense amount of control over the presentation of their music.

As notation software has become as ubiquitous within the composer community as Photoshop has become with professional photographers, it will come as no surprise that the threat of one of these major applications being discontinued is of great concern to many professional composers. To this end, I sent out a brief list of three questions to about fifty well-respected composers in the US and UK to get a sense of how this topic might affect their creative output. Considering the fact that they were only given two days to respond, the fact that I was able to get twenty responses was great and the results are very much across the board.

To all of these composers, I asked the following questions:

1. Which do you use—Finale or Sibelius?
2. In what ways do you use the software before, during, or after the creative process?
3. What would the ramifications to your own current process be if, for some reason, your notation software become discontinued?

Attitudes on this topic ranged from indifference to horror; depending on how each composer used their software in their creative process, the effect of a discontinuance seemed to be anywhere from a minor annoyance to a DEFCON 1 level upheaval. Out of the twenty composers who responded to my questions, seven use Finale, twelve use Sibelius, and one uses both. Below are some of the responses I received.

Chen Yi (Finale)

I use Finale to copy finished scores or to work directly on computer when I arrange my own works for different instrumentation…It will be terribly inconvenient if I can’t open the existing files to make corrections later. I still remember how much time I had to spend in making corrections on my older works in the past.

Clint Needham (Sibelius)

I use the program at all stages of the creative process…ideas usually arise from the piano or from the aether and are quickly plugged into the computer and manipulated.  There is also a fair amount of keyboard time, but because my piano chops are limited, the program really allows me to explore a variety of pitch and rhythmic manipulations to my ideas.  I think this is the case for a number of non-pianist composers.

The beauty of any notation program is the command the composer has on the creation of their own score and parts that are performance ready.  This works for composers at any stage—student to professional.   This also allows us to make changes quickly to the score and parts.  The main ramification for me would be the time and exhausting experience of learning a new notation program.

Jennifer Higdon (Finale)

I do a combination for composing…I do pencil on paper and computer.  Ultimately, it all ends up on the computer in Finale.  And because I run my own publishing house, it means everything is in Finale, and we just print directly from the files (daily orders means everyday use of the program).

This is too scary to think about.  I currently have PDF backups of every work (all the scores and parts…it amounts to thousands of pages), but this would mean that I couldn’t make any changes in the pieces themselves, even when I find mistakes (just last week a performer alerted me to a missing accidental in a string quartet that’s almost ten years old).  The ramifications would be huge.

Steven Stucky (Sibelius)

Only for engraving, usually not as part of the compositional process. For all but the smallest chamber or choral pieces, I write a pencil score that goes to a copyist for input. He uses Finale.

Little or no effect on my composing, since I don’t use the software as part of my compositional process. The occasional exceptions are brief passages of dense textures built up by canonic imitation, in which cut-and-paste in Sibelius can be a more effective way to model the result than simply working it out on paper.

Jason Eckardt (Finale)

The software gives me a degree of control in the production of the final score and parts that I cannot achieve in any other satisfactory way. Since music notation is an inexact translation of abstract imaginary events into a set of instructions, I want to be able to articulate those instructions in the most precise and personal way possible.

While composing, I sketch out a very rough first draft of ideas on paper and then refine them in Finale, adding dynamics, articulations, performance instructions, refining rhythms and pitch formations, and so on. This gives me another filter for my raw ideas and allows me to further objectify my creative impulses so that I may analyze them more effectively. When I am finished with the piece, all of the input is in the file, and the final production is then a question of editing, yet another filter for self-critique.

I find software playback to be annoying at best, but it is useful for getting a sense of the large-scale design and pacing in a way that, for me, is more difficult when reading through the score. I suspect that this is because I am able to further remove myself from the viewpoint of the composer (aware of all of the processes, techniques, designs, and possible inadequacies that exist within the composition) and engage with the piece purely as a listener.

I suppose I would have to learn the new software that would replace what I am currently using. I wouldn’t look forward to that, considering I’ve more or less figured out how to manipulate Finale exactly as I desire.

Paola Prestini (Sibelius)

I use Sibelius after my first draft of writing in order to refine ideas and add elements such as backing tracks or electronics. Sibelius interfaces smoothly with my self-made and preexisting sound banks in Logic and because the electronic angle of my composition is still based on intuitive discovery, this part of my process is crucial for my electroacoustic works.

I’d be majorly slowed down if this aspect of my process was thwarted by change. I’d of course learn the next tool, but it would be an unwanted choice.

Ken Ueno (Finale)

I often work in chunks.  I compose a section, then notate it.  This way, I don’t end up doing the thing I most detest (copying) all together in the end, I get some relief from the concentration of composing by doing some mindless busy work (whilst listening to tunes), and I get to edit the recently composed section.

It would be a real pain, but maybe it will foster some grassroots projects for a platform more natively supportive of new music and its graphical challenges.

Carson Cooman (Sibelius, engraver uses SCORE)

[I use Sibelius] after [the creative process]…Sibelius 7 was such a horrific update, that I intended to keep using Sibelius 6 as long as I can still get it to run. So, in that sense I already had felt they’d lost their way, and I was going to stick with the older/better version. There is still a community of professional copyists who use SCORE (which, as a DOS program, must be run in emulation on any modern systems), so it may someday become an analogous situation for continuing to run old versions of Sibelius.

Alexandra Gardner (Finale)

I use it extensively during (writing directly to computer and for playback) and after (extracting parts, editing, revising, etc.)…

[Ramifications?] DEVASTATION. I hope no one has to deal with an issue like that. Ever.

David T. Little (Sibelius)

I compose almost entirely in the computer these days, using the traditional pencil and paper only to sketch beforehand, work out details during, or analyze afterward. For many of my acoustic works, the creative process lives largely within this particular software environment.

Well, in a way I’m already behind the times, since I haven’t upgraded to Sibelius 7. (Nor do I plan to.) Sibelius 6 feels very comfortable to me, and I plan to keep using it until I just can’t anymore.  I guess at that point, I will have to figure out something new.

Annie Gosfield (Finale)

I use notation software after the creative process. It’s just a matter of inputting data after a piece is finished, or after a piece is revised.

I’ve used Finale for so long it’s become automatic and intuitive. It would be terrible to have to start at zero with a new application. Over the years I have considered changing to Sibelius, but I’ve always found Finale to be more flexible, so the last thing I wanted was to add the chore of learning a new notation application.

Gabriel Kahane (Sibelius)

Depending on the scale of the piece, I will integrate Sibelius at various stages. For non-orchestral works, my strong preference is to input into Sibelius after having a full draft, though it seems that becomes less and less the way things actually work out. I’d be loathe to say that Sibelius is part of my “creative” process, but I certainly depend on it for ease of part-making, etc….

It would be a major bummer if Sibelius were discontinued, though I imagine I’d just use my outdated software forever…

Jason Robert Brown (Finale)

I really just use it as a transcription and copying tool—sometimes I’ll use it to proof piano parts by doing playback, but not much…If it got discontinued, I presume I’d finally learn how to use Sibelius, reluctantly.

Tarik O’Regan (Sibelius)

In one way, I use it in a similar fashion to the way I use Microsoft Word, that is silently! But—different to the way one might use a word processor—I tend not to compose “at the computer.” Rather, I use Sibelius as a transcription tool for ideas that have already been largely worked-out elsewhere. Also, as I work with a publisher, my Sibelius files are never in final form when they leave my computer.

To the creative process, strangely, not too much, I think. However, I imagine the ramification for the print production process would be quite significant. Most importantly, I might be able to start listening to Sibelius symphonies again without thinking AVID is trying to sell me something…

Kristin Kuster (Sibelius)

I use notation software at the end of my writing process. I write by hand first, then notate in Sibelius. Every now and again, if a deadline is fast approaching, I input large completed sections into Sibelius as I go; yet I prefer to get the whole piece down by hand before hitting the computer.

I used for Finale for 16 years. After finishing large pieces in Finale, I had a reverb of aching “mousearm” because getting the whole piece down took so long—too much menu drop-downing and mouse dragging. My brain and body don’t want to go back to cumbersome Finale, it’s simply not as smooth as Sibelius.

It is worth noting that a discontinuation of Sibelius would have a broad-reaching, massive impact on music education programs across the country. I estimate nearly ninety percent of our student composers at the University of Michigan use Sibelius as their primary notation software, and many faculty across the UM School of Music, Theatre, and Dance use Sibelius as a teaching tool for a wide variety of purposes.

Kurt Rohde (Sibelius)

It is a very helpful tool for teaching good notation skills, and for quick playback realizations. I have done projects with students whereby we have a single Sibelius file of a piece that everyone is working one simultaneously. We pass the file around and make changes/additions and save multiple versions, allowing us to go back and look at the process that lead us to the final composition.

As far as it being helpful for my own process, I am more a sit down and play and write on paper and listen composer. I will rarely use the playback or plugins. That said, it has been helpful for providing MIDI files for pieces that involve dance, movement, theater, so that preliminary workshops and rehearsals can help with the assembly of a piece that otherwise would require the availability of (at the very least) a piano and pianist at the whim of my collaborators. This format makes it possible to do collaborative projects that involve other peoples’ schedules and separation by large distances.

What is very funny about this announcement is that I just got a new MacBook Pro, and realized I needed to get updated Sibelius software. I contacted them asking if I could upgrade to Sibelius 6 (I have not been impressed with version 7), and got a note back the day the announcement came out that I could not do that; I could only go directly to Sibelius 7 (“but this one goes to 11…”).

Oscar Bettison (Sibelius)

I used to write on paper, then transfer everything over to Sibelius, but now it’s more complicated. In the last few years I’ve found myself with a new writing process that involves me going between paper and Sibelius, especially when working with notes. I try to produce as much material as possible, much more than I’ll ever need, and that’s faster to do in the program than on paper.

[Discontinuation?] In a word, disastrous. I write very slowly, and some of that is ameliorated by the software. I can do the bookends of the process (the sketching stage and the parts stage) so much faster with it. Plus the fact that, when working with performers, I can write something, make a .pdf and a midi file, email them both and find out in a matter of hours if what I’ve done works for them or not. If Sibelius was discontinued, it would be like stepping back into the Dark Ages for me.

Alex Shapiro (Sibelius)

I’ve used Sibelius since about 2000, when I was dubbed one of their “ambassadors,” turning others on to the ease and quality of the program. I went straight from hand-copying to Sibelius, without having previously used any other notation software. Thus, were Sibelius to head six feet under to meet its namesake, I’d no doubt have to learn Finale since publishing my works is a significant part of my business.

My creative process—as well as that of my business—is greatly expanded by the use of a notation program. The manner by which I compose a particular piece is dictated by the needs of that project.

If I’m composing an acoustic piece for which it would be helpful to give the performing ensemble a very listenable mock-up to assist their rehearsal process, then I compose in Digital Performer manipulating high-end samples, record a performance version, then quantize the heck out of a copy and save it as a Standard MIDI File, and export it into Sibelius where I then make it look like real music on the page. This is a very streamlined process that accomplishes several tasks at once between the two programs.

If I’m composing an electroacoustic work, the process is the same as above, and since I create the accompanying audio tracks in Digital Performer, the added bonus is that I export not only the MIDI file but the mixed audio file into Sibelius, which syncs them both and allows me to notate a solid road map of the non-instrumental sounds in the score.

If I’m composing a work like my flute quartet, Bioplasm, employing a lot of unusual instrumental techniques that would be nearly impossible to demo, then I input the music directly into Sibelius using only a typing keyboard, since I’m only concerned with the score and parts and how they will communicate my musical intentions.

In all cases, since I’m publishing my music and not only selling it directly, but getting it to distributors around the world, a notation program is the only way to accomplish this. It’s a piece of software that is directly responsible for a notable amount of my income long after the music has been composed.

Kevin Puts (Sibelius)

Once my basic ideas are generated by improvising on the keyboard, I use the program during the entire process of composing. I use paper to scrawl down ideas much of the time, but spend no time whatsoever making those ideas legible or coherent on paper. I use Sibelius’s playback feature often as a means of getting a general sense of pacing and “feel,” though I do not rely on this feature to “check orchestration” or any other aspect of composition.

I would be very disappointed if Sibelius became discontinued. Simply on a visual level, I think music notation extremely beautiful. I love the look of beautifully engraved scores, and without boring you with details, I will say I have very idiosyncratic preferences when it comes to the look of a score. Even before I began using Sibelius in 1999, I was writing my scores meticulously by hand, using templates, stencils, sheets of transfer letters which were rubbed onto the page to create professional-looking text, sometimes typing out blocks of texts and cutting and pasting them onto the page, rulers, pens of different thicknesses, etc. I wanted to emulate the look of hand-written scores by Joseph Schwantner and Christopher Rouse (my teachers at Eastman), George Crumb (an almost unreachable standard). I had made a feeble attempt several years before this to use the program Score, which, to my eye, produces the most elegant scores of any program, but the learning curve was simply too steep for me, and it seemed to me Score really amounted to an engraving program rather than a user-friendly composing tool.

Many colleagues of mine at Eastman and then my first students (at UT Austin) were often using Finale, but—with the very rare exception where the composer was an absolute expert/computer genius with the program and could adjust the defaults to his/her liking—to me the results were completely unsatisfying and looked exactly like that which they were: student works. So it wasn’t until Joe Schwantner brought in Sibelius at Eastman in 1998 or 1999 and gave a demo to the composers that I was sold. Everything looked immediately beautiful and “right” to me: the shape of the noteheads, the slurs (much like those in Score), the ties (ditto), the spacing, the articulations, even the default text settings. I loved the way you could, with the mouse, manipulate the page as if it were sitting on a desk in front of you. I loved that parts could be generated almost effortlessly, and today this feature is improved to the point it seems ludicrous to pay someone thousands of dollars to extract a set of orchestral parts when it can be done in two or three afternoons while watching AMC and Comedy Central.

In short, I LOVE Sibelius and I absolutely and positively rely on it. I am fortunate to work with Bill Holab, who is my publishing agent. Bill works with the Sibelius writers to refine the program each time a new version comes out, so he always knows the answer when I get stuck or something goes wrong, which is almost never.