Processes: An Exploration & Conversation
I began this post on a Sunday night having the pleasure of sitting on a couch in a house on Martha's Vineyard, watching Gregory Peck in some old movie, and being snarky back and forth to my fiancee - Happy Birthday weekend to me, and a huge thank you from the deepest reaches of my heart to those who made it possible! I complete it on Wednesday under the pallor of the results of the 2016 election....
My first post discussed the ideas and concepts surrounding my double viola concerto; I'm glad to announce that the piece is getting close to completion. There are now three movements (instead of four), mostly because my ideas for the second movement (Trifurcations: division into three), were in rather boring in application. After writing the third (and eventually fourth) movement, I realized that the second movement was completely unnecessary to the development of the work; so I scrapped it. Otherwise the structural integrity is about the same as it was.
The focus of this post is the nuts and bolts of composing. I'm not sure I can speak for all composers, but I have a general process when I write after discovering and idea or a concept to explore. After thinking through which parts of the concept I wish to dive deeper into, I plunk through musical sketches - motives, melodies, chord structures, etc. I write variations of these building blocks, and variations of variations. THEN, with all the abstract concepts and concrete music spinning wildly around in my head, I start at the beginning and write; furiously until the end. From there, I input the score into the computer, edit it, smooth the edges and add in the details, shaping and molding until the final polished work exists. Depending on the size of the ensemble, the length of the piece, and how busy I am outside of composing, this process can last anywhere from one to four months.
For the concerto, however, I knew it was going to be a longer piece with larger forces, and I decided I had been composing using iterations of the above method almost exclusively for many more years than I'm comfortable admitting. But, as an old friend and role model was fond of saying, "If you want something you never had, you gotta do something you never done." So I decided to live with the concerto for a longer period of time. I more thoroughly researched and digested the concept, decided on forms and expressions of those forms before I even wrote a note. I spent almost an entire month stretching motives and melodies and variations for the first movement.
THEN, I did something I have never done in full before: wrote an entire short score of every movement. For those unfamiliar with this term, it is a piano version of a larger piece used as a sort of 'skeleton' from which the piece is orchestrated (expanded into instruments). Composers have been using short scores for everything from symphonies to operas to ballets. There is an entire division of music publishing that deals in "piano reductions," which are short scores made from larger works instead of the other way around. But for this purpose, I was able to focus on the pitches and the rhythms and the flow of the work much more intensely without worrying about orchestration. From there, I used the orchestration of the short score as a step in the editing process, and continued on from there.
When it comes to writing music, I can be painfully impatient. I sometimes hear a completed passage in my head and literally cannot put notes down fast enough to capture it. This happened many times with the concerto and I spent many composing sessions very frustrated that this new process did not give me what I wanted RIGHT NOW and instead followed my self-imposed structures. What I discovered was that the beneficial consequences of my discipline far outweighed the detractions. I was forced to slow down and concentrate on each note and its justification. I was able to use orchestration as its own entity and be creative with colors where my first instincts would be otherwise conventional. A surprise was that it was much easier to compose little bits over a long period of time rather than requiring a small amount of large chunks of time to keep the momentum; this I think was also due to the deep understanding of my concepts and what I wanted to say with them. Overall, I believe this is a more cohesive, self-sustaining, and more finely crafted piece of music than I would have otherwise produced.
I know this was all a lot of pontificating and you likely are solidly unsurprised at these conclusions because I'm (extreeeeemely) late to the short-score game. But I am curious to hear from the other composers and/or creatives as to what your go-to process is, and what sort of out-of-element procedures you've tried and their results. While I liked the discomfort of this new process, I'm not sure it will become my norm. I can, however, see myself using it again. And, to be honest, isn't that what a creative process is - the best way for the art to make itself known?
My love to you all.