Since people seemed to like the subject of keeping the performer in mind while composing, it’s been on my mind, in response to a couple of comments, to hopefully blow apart a notion I regard as superficial and misleading: that the composer “writes what he hears.” Creative activity is virtually infinite in its
forms, and I would never claim that no composer does this, but I think it must be fairly rare. Of course, in a sense I certainly do write the music I want to hear (my ability to relisten to my own CDs verges on narcissism), and I do “hear” my music before I compose it; but it often comes out sounding different than I expect, and I almost always end up rewriting it into something I never quite expected to hear. I’d be disappointed if my music didn’t regularly surprise me.
Take this blog entry, for instance. I’ve started it because I’ve got a bug up my ass, as happens, about some mistaken notion I see myself in a position to correct. It’s been running through my mind for a few days, and the mental form it always takes is that the initial, central idea always comes first, and other related ideas, or apropos phrases, group themselves around it in no particular order, like spokes around the hub of a wheel. Now I’ve sat down to write, and all those disconnected ideas must arrange themselves in series, into coherent paragraphs. Some of them don’t link logically. Transitional ideas must be grabbed out of the air. I struggle with introspection, because at this exact point in writing
my initial idea has been stated, but the other eloquent phrases I’m eager to use don’t fit in yet. Very, very often I find, as I think any serious essayist must, that what I end up meaning as the essay takes shape is not exactly what I expected to say. I might possibly find myself contradicting the gist of this
blog entry and not finishing it. What’s given, though, is that the linear format of these paragraphs is not isomorphic to my obsessive musings of the past few days, and that I cannot possibly simply throw the latter down on paper (or screen) as they exist in my head. The impetus is transformed by the process. In a sense I had something to say and I will have said it, but more accurately, I will have found out by the end of this essay what I think. Which is the value, for me personally, of writing a blog – and would continue to be even were no one reading it.
Music is not language (though recent studies are suggesting that it uses the same part of the brain [h/t McLaren]),
and parallels between them are always tenuous. You might imagine, however, and correctly, that
writing music and writing words have become particularly conflated in the lifestyle that has chosen me. In a sense I’ve been better professionally trained to write words than music – only because being edited for a newspaper is a strict and arduous process – and my composing has increasingly borrowed reflexes from my writing. (There’s< a point I didn't expect to think of.) Everything I've said about my experience writing this blog entry applies to my composing, more or less depending on the piece. I always have an idea I want to get across, or an effect I want to create; but most of the time (not all), I find that the idea doesn't get across, or the effect doesn't happen, the first way I write it down. These little bits of nonlinear music that float through my brain don't map onto the linear page without some organization. Ultimately, the piece goes where it wants to go, and I'm smart enough to try and get out of the way.
It is common to believe, I gather, that people think the material of music is simply sound, and that, being so incorporeal, music is the freest of the arts, that the composer can simply make something appear and it happens. For me this has never been the case. The materials of music exert as much resistance back to the artist as clay does to the potter, paint and color to the painter, granite
and steel to the sculptor, words and syntax to the poet - and even more so, I tentatively think, because the materials involved, at least in composing via notation for human performers, are heterogeneous in origin. It depends, I suppose, on how you define your materials, and this is how I define mine:
1. 12 pitches and their octave equivalents (unless I’m composing microtonally, in which case I gather pitches like a kid with a credit card in a toy store until I’m a little freaked out by how many I have to carry home; and in this case they tend to group themselves into clumps of associated pitches);
2. Musical notation, which includes rhythm within all its humanly possible limitations;
3. The instruments and the sounds they can make that I find attractive or acceptable (for instance, I’m just not into multiphonics or sul ponticello);
4. Insofar as I can anticipate it, the trained psychology of my performers, which may vary
in specificity depending on how well I know them.
Other composers will conceptualize their materials differently, depending on medium or performing abilities, but I expect that for virtually everyone it’s kind of an odd assortment – or becomes so with experience. (As several commenters have suggested, realizing pieces electronically changes the game entirely – but even there, with my limited skills, the medium resists with a vengeance.) I push all of these materials to do what I want, and I am accustomed to finding that they push back. I want to create effects that turn out to be inelegant or unwieldy or a pain for the performers, and in composing (or, more strictly, revising) I find how those effects can realize themselves within the materials I’ve got.
Everyone knows that Stockhausen asked Feldman what his “system” was, and Feldman replied: “I don’t push the notes around.” Stockhausen: “Not even a little bit?” It becomes painfully obvious to me, in composing, when I’m “pushing the notes around,” and I back off.
For instance, in the string quartet I’m writing, there’s a lovely pandiatonic passage on the D-major scale. The section preceding it ends on an A7 chord, which I considered a nice link. But that preceding section was too complicated, difficult to play in rhythm, and with an unmemorable melody; so I rewrote it, and its voice-leading led to a B7 chord. I tried transposing the D-major, and it just ruined the resonance of the cello. I was despondent for about ten minutes, but playing through it realized that the A7 to D sounded trite, and the B7 to D was not only charming, but expressed my overall, non-causal
expressive intentions better. The notes seem to be smarter than me. Thank goodness the purpose of the piece is not to demonstrate to the world how smart its composer is (which strikes me as being the case with some pieces I hear).
Another compromise I made: In the first movement of Desert Sonata, I have an isorhythmic passage (in 41/16 meter) in which the bass line runs through a repeating rhythmic cycle and a pitch cycle that go out of phase. Given my usual numerological inclinations, I would have had something like 17 notes in the rhythm and 19 in the pitch, so that they’d never come back in sync within the time framework of the piece. But the cognitive demands on the pianist would have been outrageous. Finally I settled for the non-mutually-prime numbers 15 against 18, so that the whole pattern would repeat every five measures, and it sounds great – not only easier to play, but easier for the listener to grasp what’s going on.
Parenthetically, though it furthers the point, I find that some composers write more effectively
for solo strings than I do because they can keep in mind what all the open strings are, to take advantage of them for double- and triple-stops. I just don’t like letting those “special pitches” interfere with my freely composed harmonies, and so to this extent I arrogantly fail by my own criterion. I’m an emotion/intuition type, and not earthy at all. For the same reason I find classical guitar nearly impossible to write for. The physical material is too eccentric.)
The point about keeping the performers is mind is that I have found that I ignore category no. 4, performer psychology, at my peril. The first version of the “Moon” movement from my The Planets turned out to be impossible to play without a conductor, and since the rest of the piece doesn’t require one, this was unacceptable. (I actually strolled onstage to conduct “Moon” at its first performance, which I felt reflected something of a failure in my composing.) One of the most difficult things about my music, which is hardly ever virtuosic, is that I try to create rhythmically free situations in which various performers have virtual downbeats in different places, often unrelated to the meter and especially to each other. The idea must get across, or else I won’t feel like the piece is mine. But in this instance I rewrote the work with more frequent articulated downbeats, especially in the percussion, so that the players could keep track of where they were. It may seem like a compromise to some, but I was certainly happier with the performance as it turned out.
I doubt what I’m saying is particularly controversial (though I have given up trying to anticipate reactions). My colleague Joan Tower, who’s from a completely different side of the aesthetic tracks, likes to say, “When you’re composing you think you’re in control, but you’re not,” and other well-established composers have said similar things to me in conversation. They say the young Mozart conceived works all of a piece, and I suppose it sometimes happens. David Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses suggests that planning a work out in advance is more typical of young artists, and experimenting to “find” the piece more typical of older ones, which accords with my experience; I used to plan too much, and the
results didn’t always flow. I know a retired composer who says that he always hears music in his head, and when he starts composing he just writes it down; but he hasn’t had much of a career.
What makes the point worth stressing, I think, is that we are still emerging from a kind of collective macho mindset which overrated the untrammeled will of the composer. I have been strongly influenced by Pauline Oliveros’s famous 1984 article “The Contribution of Women Composers,” in which she drew a contrast between two types of creativity:
(1) active, purposive creativity, resulting from cognitive thought, deliberate acting upon or willful
shaping of materials, and (2) receptive creativity, during which the artist is like a channel through which material flows and seems to shape itself.
Quoting both Mozart and Beethoven in support of the idea that we need both kinds, she
goes on to say,
“Artists who are locked into the analytical mode with little or no access to the intuitive mode are apt
to produce one-sided works of art. Certainly many of the totally determined, serial works of the post-war years seem to fit that category.”
The emphasis I bring to my composition students is that the piece is king, they are servants; the needs of the piece they’re writing are more important than their own needs. “This piece wants something from you,” I’m always telling them; “what is it?” And the disappointing response I usually get is, “Well, that’s just the way I want it,” which I consider a miserable failure as a rationale. Or else they’re giving the performers something that’s going to take tremendous trouble to play for very little or confusing effect.
A live-performed musical experience is something that it takes several intelligences to create, and the composer is only one of them. For me to ignore the way my performers will react to the notation, in order to effect some pre-ordained system of my own, would be as stupid, I think, as for a painter to ignore how differently water-colors act than oil paints. Those musicians are the clay I have to work with. The composer has something to learn from his or her own music just as everyone else does. And while we talk loosely about the composer “writing down the music he hears,” I think we do more justice to the complexity and reciprocal value of artistic experience by admitting that the composer is just as subject to his or her materials as anyone else. All praise to the composition – but the composer should be humble.