The Autobiographical Impulse in Composition

No matter what an artist does, the choices are often subconscious, based on personal experience and background. This background dictates where we take our music.

Written By

Paul Elwood

As a banjo player and percussionist, I’ve long tried to combine the worlds of the contemporary music that I love with my background in bluegrass and Appalachian music. The fact is, I didn’t need to try so hard. No matter what an artist does, the choices are often subconscious, based on personal experience and background. This background dictates where we take our music.

Early on, I planned to be a composer and not a performer; stage fright was my primary affliction. But I realized that many professional composers were also good performers, at least at some point in their careers. So, I decided that, if I was to be any good as a composer, I should strive to be a good performer. I began to practice with intensity on the banjo and, since I truly love the classical canon, orchestral percussion. It became my mission to play in order to feed my composition.

One thing I work to teach student composers is that musicality is learned directly from performing, listening, and immersion in the literature. I’ve learned to work with others to craft a collective sound, to blend with them, and to listen. A performing composer learns how hard it is to perform, and a composer who performs will think of the musicians while composing.

In the act of creation, a personal story will assert itself, often in spite of ourselves. But we can feed that story through the people we meet, the concerts we organize, and the musicians we work with.

While I developed bluegrass chops on the banjo, I was also exploring the experimental aspects of playing the instrument. A banjo can be plucked, bowed, struck, rubbed, scraped, and prepared. I’ve worked in contexts of free improvisation, contemporary ensembles, and electronic music. I once improvised on a belay line on the side of a cliff in Tennessee and, as a student, played under John Cage. Style means very little when it comes to expression on an instrument. I found that the energy of performing bluegrass in a bar in Asheville, North Carolina, carried over to the next morning’s work at the drafting table, even if that work had nothing to do with the music I was playing the night before.

Yet, those Appalachian and folk tunes began to creep into my music. One example of this is a composition of mine titled Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home, for soprano, chamber ensemble, and bluegrass band. While writing this piece, I became acquainted with the legendary bluegrass banjo player/fiddler/composer John Hartford, who I’d seen numerous times at festivals and whose recordings influence me as a performer to this day. I asked him to record several Appalachian fiddle tunes that I then transcribed and worked into the composition.

An important evening in my life came in 1978 when I saw New Directions with trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette, bassist Eddie Gomez, and guitarist John Abercrombie. The ensemble interacted freely around structured tunes. I walked out of that concert wanting to do something like that with a bluegrass band and said so to my brother, who observed: “Well, it wouldn’t be bluegrass then, would it?” No, I guess not.

This concert coincided with improvisation sessions that my composition teacher at Wichita State University organized. Arthur S. Wolff placed a number of musicians in resonant spaces such as stairwells, tunnels, and atriums and recorded everything, often late at night. Many of us who were involved then still cite him as an early influence in our music. I brought this discipline to an experimental bluegrass band that I played with in the 1980s called the Sons of Rayon, and once I was accused of being self-indulgent for doing this on stage. In the ‘90s, I played a number of events with cellist Hank Roberts, known then for his work with the Bill Frisell Quartet. Our performances were structured around tunes that he composed with large sections of improvisation. I believe that I developed interactive skills and musicality through these numerous improv sessions and performances.

In a strange circling around of fate, in May of 2011 I met percussionist Famoudou Don Moye of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in France. I quickly mobilized funds, musicians, and a recording studio and composed a number of tunes. The next month we recorded Nice Folks with some excellent French musicians who rendered lovely improvisations in and between my tunes.

In 2012, I performed on banjo with composer Christian Wolff in Marseille. Wolff has long been a presence in contemporary music. When he was 17, he gave John Cage a book explaining the I-Ching, which became the basis for many of Cage’s chance pieces. He was one of the four New York School composers in the 1950s and 1960s with Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, and he was often a lecturer at Darmstadt, which is where I first encountered him. The night I performed with him, I asked Christian to compose a solo banjo piece. The result is Banjo Player. It’s a hard piece and often non-idiomatic for the instrument. Wolff asks the performer to leap from the first to the 13th fret between quickly moving 16th notes; interesting counterpoint is written in widely separated registers, and a scordatura tuning is called for (which caused me to transcribe the entire composition into tablature). The difficulty of this piece may rest in the fact that Christian has composed for many virtuosic performers such as pianist David Tudor. He stretches the instrument without resorting to much in the way of extended techniques, though the piece extended and challenged my technique. There is a section that is very easy and folk-like. This ties in with study he made of early American hymnody at one time, which lead to some interesting monophonic compositions in the 1990s. He seems to have been constructing his music then from simple materials that, perhaps, a number of amateur musicians could play and which reflect his socialist politics.

A work of art is autobiographical. Compositions can and, for me, should evolve directly out of performing experiences, which in turn may relate to travels and happenstance encounters. Our music reflects the artists we meet, the teachers we’ve had, the books we’ve read, the art we’ve looked at, and the music we’ve listened to. I look for compositional structure in abstract art, in a variety of novels and poems, in the music of other cultures, and in film. (Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home was initially based on the structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

The music of Claude Vivier expresses his life as an adopted child, studies with Stockhausen, his development in spectral music, his travels in Asia, and his own fascination with sound. A Cage composition is a reflection of the influence of artist Marcel Duchamp, Arnold Schoenberg’s structures, the Zen teachings of Daisetsu Suzuki, and the poverty that he experienced in the 1930s. The sound world of his percussion pieces grew out of not having the funds to buy a lot of equipment, therefore Cage and Lou Harrison raided junk yards for sounds. The driving rhythms, colors, and themes of composer Gabriela Ortiz’s work express her Mexican heritage and her study of contemporary music and electronics. In Caroline Shaw’s compositions I hear wonderful vocal and string experimentation echoing the North Carolina folk music and Shape Note choirs she must have heard growing up.

When I was 19, someone told me that rich experiences won’t come find us, but that we must make them happen. I took this to heart. We are born into situations that both feed and limit individual abilities and it is those limitations based on our past that determine our artistic output. In the act of creation, a personal story will assert itself, often in spite of ourselves. But we can feed that story through the people we meet, the concerts we organize, and the musicians we work with at home or abroad. And we can work very hard to become the artists that we wish to become based on the experiences we’ve been placed within and the situations—the stories—we’ve engineered.