PhD – Yay!; Poluenc – Yay!; Composing Techniques – meh!

As of last week, I am officially a PhD student at the University of Queensland, studying – you guessed it – Composition!

I’m incredibly excited to be embarking on a new chapter of my musical journey. I am, of course, somewhat terrified as well.

I can do the music part, and I know I am capable of writing semi-coherent words in more-or-less the correct order and with more-or-less the correct spelling, but what my topic is going to be, I have ideas, but nothing set in stone.

After meeting up with my supervisor and composer-extraordinaire, Robert Davidson, he stressed that the research should be practice-based, not practice-led, meaning that everything has to tie directly into the musical practice, and not use the music to answer a secondary question. I admit the latter was what my PhD application focused on, so I’ve had to throw that away more or less. I was originally going to look at the role of intuition in the composing process which is, I think, a fascinating thing, but is definitely using the composing to answer a secondary question.

While I have a significant amount of time between now Confirmation (A bit under a year), the difficulty for me is going to be working out what the heck to write about?

I was fortunate enough to recently see a fantastic 3 hour concert of Poulenc works performed by the Australian National Academy of Music, but what I found very interesting were some of the quotes from Poulenc about his music that were included in the program notes. Unfortunately, those same program notes which I deliberately held on to have vanished, but I found the following similar quote in a Poulenc biography by Carl Schmidt’s titled Entrancing Muse:

I understand nothing about surveys. I would have said to your readers:

(1) that my “rule” is instinct’

(2) that I have no principles and I’m proud of the fact;

(3) that I have no system for writing music, thank God (for, to me, “system” means “gimmick”);

(4) that inspiration is such a mysterious thing that it is better not to attempt to explain it.

Don’t count, therefore, on a long-winded speech from me…

(From p. 318)

Of course, Poulenc avoided a conservatoire education and learned privately, but his music is inventive, playful and free-spirited. I can also relate a lot to his sentiments and have long felt somewhat of a repulsion from conventional forms like “Sonata form” which seem dishonest in someway. So it was interesting to see similar inclinations from a wonderful composer about intuition/instinct as the driving musical force.

I have always struggled with relying on my instinct, which is perhaps why I was so interested in exploring it in my PhD. It’s not because I don’t have a musical instinct to trust, but because I’ve never been totally sure of its trustworthiness. Is it enough to just go with that intuition? I’ve never managed to get a clear answer.
My musical ‘education’ has always been a subtle pressure in the opposite direction. Much of what I have learned has been ideas about composing techniques. I remember that one of the first composing books I read was Schoenberg’s “The Art of Musical Composition”. What does the book teach? Composing techniques. How to build melodies from motives, how to spin material out into longer works, how to structure music in particular forms etc.

I suspect I’ve always had two ideas of composing competing in my mind and music:

1. One is the intuitive, natural outpouring of music which happens on its own without any real effort beyond working out what it is you’re hearing.

2. The other is that the technique based approach of music composition.

Many will argue that both are important. That a ‘Marriage of Craft and Intuition’ makes for good music, which is no doubt true, but I suspect only when the craft is serving the music, and not responsible for it.

Most composers must turn to no. 1 at least in the beginning so that they can uncover the material from which the piece will grow, but from there, it is easy enough to switch to no. 2 and use techniques to spin out the music.

Let me give you an idea of how this might work. I’ve also indicated when musical intuition was involved in the process by underlining the description of the thing.

An Inside Look at One Possible Composing Approach

Below is a series of isolated chords (they are not intended to flow) which I have cooked up and possess what I would consider and ‘intriguing’ and somewhat ‘mysterious’ quality.  The third chord is a bit of a rogue in that it is very sonically different that the others.


What is worth noting about all these chords is that they are ‘static’ and do not have any clear directions for resolution. The final chord, however, does suggest the following resolution to my ear:
It’s only a quick sketch and it needs some tweaking, but I do really like this resolution actually, although it is very final. What I like is the way it very gently grows ‘still’ and harmonious. To me, it almost sounds like the end of a long Mahler symphony, finally arriving at D Major after a long and troubling journey.

So I’ve just tweaked it slightly more now, to make it an even longer and more meaningful return to ‘home’.

Ahhhh… Isn’t that beautiful? Imagine it played with some strings and horns and a very gentle timpani roll on the last chord.

And as so often happens, all of it grew out of one chord that suggested a string of resolutions.

As it’s much too final to use anywhere in the beginning of a work, I’m going to put is aside for now and come back to it later, perhaps at the very end of a movement.

I can hang onto the originating chord though and use that throughout so that there is a sense of continuity when we do arrive at the end.

Okay, so back to those original chords. The very first chord in the sequence seems to suggest to me a very takemitsu-esque type effect:
I’ve heard this repeated accelerandi technique quite a number of times before, but couldn’t name a specific piece. I say it’s takemitsu-esque, but that’s because it evokes for me an image of rain dripping in a forest, which is an imagery I also strongly associate with Takemitsu.

The effect is one of stillness and motion.

Here is a slight extension of the takemistsu-esque figuration of that first chord, which I wrote yesterday but didn’t put in here:

You’ll notice that the second of the chords appears in the second last measure, so some connection between these ‘chord worlds’ is emerging.

I’m going to leave this as it is and for now, I’ll move on to seeing what the second chord suggests to me.

Here is the chord in question:


Played as a block chord, this one has a very gentle, slightly bittersweet quality, and the sus 2 of the upper chord gives it a decidedly ‘pop ballad’ quality, and that is really all it implies for me, a sort of pop ballad. I don’t really find it wants to take me anywhere in particular (Trust me, I tried but it doesn’t lead anywhere interesting for me) so I’m going to leave this as it is… at least for now.

Meanwhile, the following chord is much more intriguing:

And from it I have just sketched the following little musical oasis in this world I’m painting:

The final chord of the sequence is:

Which actually suggested two different ideas. The first, on the left, is the chord with non-chord tone trills. The second, on the right, is an ascending chord figure in the right hand. (Note, there are some missing rests in the above image.):


The trill idea is rather Ravel scarbo-esque.

Looking at all this material, there are several particularly striking musical ideas worth developing more throughout the work. In particular:
This right hand chord figuration

The melody formed by the uppermost notes:
The rising chord motive:


and last but not least, the accelerando repeated note motive:


So now, I’m going to work with each of these figures to see where they lead. The process here is a kind of probability tree or similar, where each new event creates several new possibilities which in turn creates several further new possibilities and so forth.

Taken from:

So first, starting with the following motive:


The question to ask here, as a past teacher of mine would often ask of me, is what are the possibilities? What can be done with this musical idea. These are points of departure and it’s a process that some composers find helpful in getting the ball rolling.

Some obvious ones are as follows:

Rhythmic Elongation/Augmentation

Rhythmic Diminishment




Octave displacement:



Note: I change the final chord to make it more sonically interesting.



Note: Here I’ve taken only the first half of the motif and repeated it down a tritone. It could also be moved similarly in any sequence of intervals… Diatonic or chromatic etc.

Sequencing (with seconds):


Cannoning with the second voice a fourth lower:

Shifting of the rhythm:
(Probably better described as rhythmic permutation a la Shillinger)


The same thing as above, except with a downwards shifting of the chords:  


From this point, the process becomes entirely more complicated. As with every variation you produce a further subset of possible variations etc.

While this sort of variation-by-technique approach may surprise some, it is more or less exactly what the two more widely known composing books – written by Schoenberg and Hindemith – describe, plus some other material on structure and counterpoint and so forth.

It is a process that can turn a very small amount of material into an enormous amount of material.

And it is what music theory teachers talk about as “Motivic Development”. The classic example is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. You know the one… Da-da-da-dumm. et cetera. It’s also very much a part of the much-loved works of Bach, who was the master of invention and permutation, and was using Retrograde-Inversion long before Schoenberg was born.

I openly admit to having used a similar strategy in several pieces (Never for an entire work mind you, normal just here and there). I also admit that those pieces are emphatically not my best works.

For me, if I reflect on this process, there are several real, significant problems.

1. As soon as I do it, I’m disconnected. When I sit down and start writing, there is a flow, a thread, a sense of gradually following an unravelling idea or string of ideas from start to end. However, as soon as I turn to technique, there is an abrupt sense of disconnect. The thread is broken, and for some unknown reason, it’s hard to pick it up again.

2. If you’re going to do it, I suspect you almost certainly have to impose a conceptual structure onto the material to make it coherent. You have to use an imposed form to contain and constrain the musical ideas. For me, and my undeniable distaste for conceptual structures and forms, this can’t end well…

3. Composing becomes way, way, way less enjoyable and satisfying. Composing can be a really wonderful and exciting experience of going on a musical journey with your imagination, and that is what makes me want to compose! The joy and satisfaction and excitement of find the perfect next note or chord etc is what makes it fun for me.

4. It all becomes rather arbitrary. None of the material seems ‘special’ any more. It’s just ‘organised sound’ and your job as a composer becomes arbitrary. You’re a facilitator, not a creator.

It’s important to note here that this is definitely only my experience and my opinion! I’m not suggesting that this is wrong or unethical, simply that if I’m honest, it really kills the creative experience for me.

Pantsers Vs. Plotters

It may also be interesting to note here that there is a similar divide between other creative artists. Authors, for example, often talk about being either a “Pantser” or a “Plotter”. The former, including authors like Stephen King, Patrick Rothfuss and the late Sir Terry Pratchett, wrote by setting the story in motion with characters and a general idea or situation, and letting things play out. Plotters on the other hand, which includes authors like Brandon Sanderson and Russel Kirkpatrick, will spend a lot of time before they start writing working out what the story is about, where it’s going, the climax and how it will end.

Neither is right or wrong, and both supposedly have pros and cons. People in either camp will likely argue in favour of their approach, some times with valid points, such as ‘plotting’ allows for more complex stories, where as ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ (aka Pantsers) may have more natural characters and a more natural flow of events.

Personally, I think it likely is down to the temperament of the author (and composer) as to which works. I know from having written about 100, 000 words of fiction here and there, that I am just not a plotter. Try as I might, it doesn’t seem to work. Interestingly, when I try plotting I experience the same sense of “disconnect” as when I try to compose with techniques.

It seems that for me, the process of composing is the process of finding and connect the dots as I go. It’s like a “connect the dots” except that you can’t see the next dot until the previous dots have been connected. That said, normally part way through, you start to have an idea what the big picture looks like.

A downside of composing this way is that such composers are often criticised for the structure of their works. This was often a criticism Poulenc received of his works, but I think perhaps that can be a good thing.

After all, if you read stories that consistently use the same structure, you can start to predict how it will turn out, which can ruin the experience. Although, where TVs and Movies are concerned many people actively don’t allow themselves to make that observation for that very reason. It’s why those people who can tell you ‘who dun it’ 5 minutes into that murder-mystery film are universally hated.

But for those who really enjoy a particular genre of something, beyond it being simple easy-entertainment, such narrative structures start to become impossible not to notice. I remember seeing a meme floating around facebook for a while about Cop shows where it points out that the guest actor is pretty much always either the victim or the culprit. If you have noticed that, it kinda ruins the experience a bit.

I think the same is true for music, and why less rigidly controlled and structured music, like that of Poulenc, is wonderful. You don’t know what to expect, and that can make the music a wonderful and unpredictable journey. I personally like that. That said, there is still coherence to Poulenc’s music, it’s simply not a predictable coherence.

Anyway, the take away from this very long first blog post is:

1. YAY, I’m doing a PhD in Composing!

2. Poluenc was an interesting composer.

3. I don’t think a technique-focus when composing is helpful for me.

4. There are pantsers and there are plotters. Which works is probably down to individual temperament.


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