Monthly Archives: June 2015

The frustrating thing about being me…

I’m not sure if everyone feels like this, I suspect not, but the frustrating thing about being me is that even after having successfully done something multiple times, I still don’t feel confident that I could do it again.

For example, a couple of years ago, I did a project for the Brisbane Writer’s Festival where I scored something like 50 music cues for a set of real-world choose your own adventure journeys. I was just listening back to those cues earlier today, and they’re not Hans Zimmer*, but they worked. It was successful.

[*They were made by improvising on a midi-keyboard using the built in instruments in Logic Pro on my 2011 Macbook Pro. By contrast, Hans has a multi-million dollar studio and a whole team of people working for him. So it’s not a fair comparison.]

Listening back to old works – or the successful ones – I’m always rather surprised that I actually did that thing, and am always vaguely anxious because I don’t feel confident that I could do it again, even though that logically makes no sense at all. For example, with the StreetReads stuff, that was really my first time using Logic, and yet I worked it out, and cranked out plenty of solid music cues. So having that experience should mean I’d be able to do the same thing at least as well a second time around, if not even better, right?

Unfortunately that’s not the way my unconscious thinking interprets the event. My lovely, miraculous brain, sees it more like a fight for survival that I successful overcame, probably more by luck than skill, and that it is a situation to be avoided in the future if at all possible. Which in a strange way makes sense, because it was scary and a bit of a leap in the deep end for me at the time. Unfortunately, I think I felt more confident about doing the task before than I do now that it’s over!

I wonder if other people have this reaction? Ultimately the response is pretty meaningless and just the way certain parts of my thinking interpret my experience, and it doesn’t concern me overly, I’ll stilt show up and do my best each time, but I do wonder if it’s like this for others?

It seems like for some people, with each success they feel a sense of confidence. “I did it once, so I can do it again!” And that makes sense, and so with each new success, comes a new level of confidence and assurance in one’s own abilities. But talking about my raw experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s an interesting analogy in the book “Bounce” by Matthew Syed. Basically, he has observed that most people see themselves as either an Christmas bauble or an orange.

If you’re a Christmas bauble, your life looks beautiful everything appears great, but you know that all it’d take is one fall and everything would shatter into a million tiny pieces. (This is what my composing success feels like.)

If you’re an orange, you’re living with the idea that you can ‘take whatever beating life throws at you’ and ‘if the going gets tough, get tougher’ etc. Because what happens when you drop an orange? Not much, it looks pretty much the same. You can drop an orange a dozen times and it’ll still look like an orange. But on the inside it’s bruised, battered and a mess.

Sayed goes on to say that in reality, people should see themselves as a super ball, you know those bouncy balls that you can throw at the ground and they’ll bounce back, and the harder your throw them, the higher they’ll bounce?

Which one are you?

The composer’s voice? Can you speak up for me?

As so often happens when you are undertaking something simple and mindless like showering or walking or cleaning, a space opens up for new thought to flow through. The wonderful thing is that the new thoughts you have are often answers to questions you didn’t know you had asked; they are insights that change in ways both small and not so small, how we move forwards as living & thinking beings. I had a few small insights while walking home from grocery shopping this afternoon, nothing stupendous, but a few things that question how life and learning works. If I had to summarise these insights I’d probably say the following:

  •  Expertise is at worst a myth and at best, a barrier, and unfortunately, not transferrable.
  • Originality is a myth and trying to be original is a very limiting pursuit
  • The idea of a ‘composers voice’ may be true but is a wholely unhelpful idea

In this post, I’ll focus on the latter two points and save expertise for another post.


At some point, the idea of having an ‘original voice’ or saying something ‘unique’ musically buried itself into my mind. I think it was something mostly absorbed through environmental cues and the way composition is looked at in a university learning context, but there were also direct verbal reinforcements.

A situation that happens all to often is that you wrote something (unintentionally) that sounds like another composer, and someone pointed it out saying ‘This sounds like x’. As a composer, that happens all the time. I’ve had people tell me I sound like everything from Benjamin Britten to Holst to Debussy to Prokofiev to Stravinsky. Quite a mixed bag that one. However, the problem is that hearing that, there has always, for me, been an implication that you aren’t being original when that happens, that you are copying, stealing, imitating etc. For me, it got to a point at one stage that I felt almost every piece had to be substantially different stylistically or I was self-plagiarising, which is just another form of being ‘unoriginal’. It was liking trying to run away from your own shadow.

Through all this was this was the idea of having to have a ‘unique sound’ or voice and that if you weren’t writing truly original music you were just a hack, stealing ideas from those truly original composers. For some reason, it never occurred to me that people almost certainly told today’s pedestalled composer (from Bach to Bartok and beyond) that they sounded like other composers. We idolise these composers and talk of them as ‘great’ because, it seems to me, they are considered so unique and different and original. It implicitly seemed that unless you were writing really ‘original’ music, you were eligible to be considered at best a great orchestrator or an inventive arranger, but only a mediocre composer.

This idea of the importance of originality effected me in a lot of ways, all, I’d probably say, somewhat harmful. I even found it hard to enjoy new music that sounded too similar to some other composer, because they weren’t being original.

Like I said, I don’t really know where this idea came from, except through a sort of environmental osmosis.

This emphasis on originality really bothered me for a while. I remember talking to one of my older composer friends during this time and him telling me very sagely that you find your voice through writing, not through thinking about it or trying to find it. It was great advice, but I could never make any use of it because as so often happens with great advice, when you’re not connected to your deeper wisdom, you can’t use it, and when you are, you don’t need it. I also couldn’t see at the time that this was a finger pointing inwards, not pointing forwards. It seemed to me that it meant just keep writing and over time, you’ll stumble upon something unqiue combination of elements (who decides this I’m not sure) and then you can continue forwards from there. Really, it was saying keep connecting with your inner musical instinct, and let it lead you.

I can see why I would think this, because when we talk about composers and their writing, we talk about the unique aspects of their music and the way we talk about those make them seem like external attributes, things the composers consciously and deliberately used as foundations for their uniqueness. When we talk about Steve Reich, we talk about minimalism and phasing, looping, rhythmic cells etc as though they began life as conscious conceptual constructs and then became music.

And this is the age old question – and lie in my opinion – that arises in every music theory class at some point.

Student: “This is all great, but was Beethoven really thinking about all this when he wrote or did he just write?”

Teacher: “Of course he was thinking about it.”

The theory teacher, of course, wants to make musical theory sound important, and at the same time, to narrow the (rather large, in my opinion) gap between the world of music theory and composition. This is a lie as far as I’m concerned, or at least, a misrepresentation. Did Beethoven know all of the ‘theory’ used in his music? Of course, I’m not suggesting that he wouldn’t be able to tell you what a secondary dominant is or where they lead etc. The lie, in my opinion, is which comes first in the mind, the music or the theory? I would bet my sadly small bank balance that for the majority of composers that are not employing a system in their writing, that the music comes first, and the theory links it to notation.

So while the music theory student is probably trying to express their frustration at the boredom of the class, they’re also quite innocently correct too. The theory is not the music. The theory is an expedited way of understanding the music arising in the mind and distilling it into a transmittable form. In honesty, I would say composing is much more closely linked to Aural skills than to theory skills.

Anyway, I was recently listening to some of Carl Vine’s music. I had heard parts of the First Piano Concerto several years ago and at the time, somewhat dismissed it (and probably the rest of Vine’s music too) as unoriginal and therefore not ‘worthy’. However, when I listened again to it recently, I came to quite a different conclusion. While I can still very clearly hear a connection to Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff and Bartok and a whole host of other composers, my take away from the work was quite different. Then, I dismissed the work as lack originality, but this time I found myself thinking “If those composers were alive, Carl would be giving them a run for their money.” And on the heals of this thought, I realised something that only this afternoon really crystallised in my mind:

In seeking originality we set limits on ourselves. Enormous limits. We can no longer write things we’d love to write because perhaps it’ll have similarities to something else and people will think we’re just a hack stealing from the greats.

Honestly, putting any weight on the idea that having a unique ‘voice’ is important is a bit stupid. It leaves only two possibilities:

1. The voice is an inherent part of who we are, which means it is natural and will change as we do, over time. It also means it’s not worth thinking about, just as there isn’t any point thinking about the colour of your eyes. You can wear coloured lenses if you want, but underneath your eyes are still the colour they are.

2. The voice is a developed attribute and something you have to ‘find’ or create. But if it’s outside of you, if it’s manufactured, is it your voice or just something you’ve picked up or strapped together with duct-tape?

In fact, the problem with even talking about a compositional voice is that, fundamentally, the implication is that what you are isn’t enough. There’s a great quote I heard that seems relevant but can’t remember properly so I’ll try and paraphrase it: When you first start making art, it always seems bad, because your ability isn’t the equal to your taste. The problem isn’t with your inherent artistic ability, but with the transient state of not yet being able to realise your art.

And I think the idea is totally relevant and applicable to composing. If we discourage or allow students to be discouraged from sounding too similar to music they love, we stop that love from being part of the music they make. I think a lot of this stems from a teacher’s earnest desire to help speed a student’s progress (or the student’s similar desire to reach musical maturity) but perhaps the time spent in ‘immaturity’ or in ‘unoriginality’ is just as important as the final destination.

Better yet, perhaps we all think it’s way more important than it actually is. Are we perhaps better off inspiring a fun, free and joyful relationship to music and forgetting about the destination?

The criteria we invent to determine what makes a successful composer are bogus.  If you’re writing music you love, then you’re a supremely successful composer, so cut yourself a break  break and share your love with the world!

“There is nothing you need to do, be, have, get, change, practice or learn in order to be happy, loving, and whole.” ~ Michael Neill

The Mental Game of Composing

Composing is a lot more than putting dots on a piece of paper… Or lots of dots on lots of pieces of paper… Or even choosing which of those dots to put on which of those pieces of paper. As with anything, there is a whole world of inner goings-on that occur along with composing. For me, the mental game is often more challenging than the actual composing. All of those thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and composing can be a major obstacle to simply making beautiful music. (If you reject the notion of beauty or aspire to write music that you would talk about in different terms, this likely is still relevant.)

So today, I’m planning on taking a candid look at what goes on in the mind of a composer, or at least, this composer. The intention here is not to write an open invitation to the pity-party of the year (unless you have a spare case of red wine you want to share…), nor is it meant to be self-deprecating. It is simply a look at another part of what it means to be a human being, and specifically an aspiring composer.


I think, therefore, I am.

We’ve all heard the old  quote, but the real question is what are you thinking, and what are you am-ing, or more correctly, what are you being?

Psychologists have known for some time now that when, for example, a professional athlete competes, they do so not just against their opponent but against their own mind. The tennis player must not just beat his opponent but his own thinking as well. There are several books written about this and its relevance to musicians, including Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery and Barry Green’s The Inner Game Of Music.

The intent of this post is to look at this same idea of there being two games, the inner and the outer, and how that relates to composing, or at least, how it relates to composing for this composer. Let’s look at what some of the thinking that goes on in a composer’s mind might look like:

  • This piece is sh*t
  • I wish I was as good as composer X
  • What would composer X do? (Composer X could be a teacher or your Idol or your arch-nemsis)
  • I hope this piece is good enough
  • I hope the audience/performers/etc like my piece
  • You might have specific technical thoughts about what writing good music means For example, perhaps you feel vaguely paranoid that you aren’t using correct voice leading or have parallels etc.
  • You might worry about being criticised for being too romantic or too simple or too avant-garde or too whatever.
  • Why is person X having so much success? It’s not fair.
  • I wish they would commission me. 
  • I wish more people liked my work.
  • Etc.I’ve had thoughts like the above at various times. To be totally honest, pursuing a career as a composer has been a challenging journey filled with roadblocks and rejection and plenty of depressing moments. I’ve often found myself wishing for a life-raft to keep from drowning in what feels like a sea of indifference. That’s the less fun side of being a composer.

    There are a whole heap of different ways a person might try and deal with this thinking. We’ll look at some examples because there are a lot of not so great ways to deal with these:

  • You believe the thoughts are true.
  • You desperately try and fix your situation. You try and find commissions or win a competition feeling that if you could just manage that, everything would be okay.
  • You desperately try to fix your composing, thinking that if you could just learn how the successful composers do it, you would be successful too. Unfortunately, fixing your composing normally means learning to be less true to yourself.
  • You procrastinate, because you don’t need to confront those thoughts as much when you’re in the middle of baking a chocolate cake or watching your new favourite series on Netflix etc
  • You find a way to blunt those thoughts through alcohol, cigarettes or some other addiction. (Cheese and chocolate are good ones too…)
  • You assume a victim mentality. It’s the world’s fault or it’s Tony Abbot’s fault. Etc. Regardless of how many seemingly valid reasons you can point to, at the end of the day, it’s not going to help you compose.
  • You do the opposite of the victim mentality. Arrogance. You strive to convince yourself and everyone around you of how amazing you are, and if you fail, it’s not your fault, because you are, after all, amazing, right? (Arrogance is really just an extraverted/projected form of insecurity.)
  • You pray to God. (This is one of the better options, so long as you’re not also playing the victim card, and don’t end up just hating god for not fixing everything for you)
  • You give up.The question is, which ones of these are actually helpful and healthy long term? In my mind, the pray to God option is probably the only remotely healthy option on the list, however, whether it is helpful I wont comment on and leave up to the individual to decide.

Ultimately what we all want as humans is to be loved and valued, and composers are no exception, being as they are, generally speaking, fairly human. If you do find yourself challenged by your thinking, I highly recommend the following short but beautiful book by Michael Neill:

Despite being pretty cluey about spirituality and various psychological and spiritual practices, I think this book by far has had the biggest impact on my life so far, and has gradually changed how I relate to my composing and to my thinking. Michael Neill also has a great Ted Talk worth watching:

I’ll share here a few of the sentiments that really helped me and will hopefully help other people too.

1. There is nothing for you to learn, remember, practice, or do. You simply need to see that our thinking is not real, and that the nature of thought is to flow and change. Consider this. Have you ever had a moment where your entire experience of how your day was going suddenly went from good to bad? Perhaps you had a nice morning at work, and then at lunch time, suddenly a thought occurred to you: Did I turn the gas off?!

Immediately you feel tense and anxious. But what has actually changed since you left home in the morning? The gas is either still turned on or still turned off, either way it hasn’t changed. The only thing that has changed was that you had the thought ‘Did I turn the gas off?!’ And that thought changed your entire experience of reality in the blink of the eye. While you might think that leaving the gas on is good reason for concern and mild panic, that’s not the point. Reality didn’t change, but your thoughts changed and so your experience completely changed. This is how our thinking works. As our thinking changes, so too does our experience. All the time. Even when we aren’t aware of our thinking.

While we often realise that some thoughts aren’t important or worth paying attention to, there are others that trip us up. The more importance we attach to something, the more thoughts about that thing can mess with us.

For example, if you’re 6’6″ tall and someone calls you “Shorty” there is no way you’re going to be upset by it. You’ll either think it’s a joke and laugh, or if the person is serious, think that they’ve forgotten to take their meds. You’re not short, so that statement doesn’t make sense. But if you are ‘short’, you may be offended by the comment. The question is, why?

Let’s use a slightly different example. We have two 5’8 men. One comes from a family of tall men, and feels 5’8 is short for a man. The other comes from a family where everyone else in his family is much shorter than he is. Do you think both of our men of identical height will be equally offended by being called ‘shorty’? Why not?

Because when you get right down to it, we don’t view reality with a video camera, like many think, but with a paint brush. The reality we experience is drawn upon our consciousness with a our own individual interpretive style. Some paint things with sharper edges and muted colours, others paintmore  impressionistically, and still other paint their reality with a Surrealist’s flare.

2. Negative feelings are indicators of bad thinking.

If you feel bad about something, it’s because you’ve been caught up in your thinking, not because there is something actually going wrong with the world. Your emotions are to your think what pain is to your body. Pain, both physical and emotional is a warning signal to proceed with caution.

There are, however, situations in which we all think feeling bad is appropriate. Next time you notice yourself feeling dispondent or upset or annoyed try asking yourself what has changed to make you feel that way. I don’t mean if you feel annoyed at your husband, to think about how he forgot to buy you flowers for your anniversary, but rather to think about how your experience changed so quickly before finding out you weren’t getting flowers, and afterwards. In both cases, you don’t have flowers, but in one situation you think it’s okay to not have flowers, and in the other case, it’s not okay. The difference is nought but a thought.

And for example if you’re composing and notice you start feeling frustrated, ask what has changed between being frustrated and not frustrated. Perhaps it’s because you’ve been sitting there for an hour and haven’t written anything yet. But an hour ago, it was fine that there wasn’t anything written, and now an hour later you feel frustrated because there is still nothing written. The only difference is that in one situation you think it’s okay, and in the other you don’t. You are essentially making yourself feel miserable because you think there is a reason you should.

3. You don’t really need to do anything about your thinking. Despite a lot of what psychology says, you really don’t need to try to change or control your thinking. (If you have a mental illness, speak to your therapist. This isn’t intended as medical advice).

If you simply understand that:
A) Your thinking shapes your experience
B) The nature of thought is to change and flow
C) A whole new experience is just a thought away

Then there isn’t really anything you need too do, except wait for a new thought to come along.

The good thing about this perspective also is that it’s okay to have times when you’re grumpy, or a bit depressed etc. Just like you might have days where you feel more tired than usual, or you have a bad cold etc. Our mind, just like our body, can sometimes get run down and our thinking become ‘infected’. Just like with a cold, you know it will go away on it’s own, and in the meantime, take a few sensible precautions and wait it out. It will pass 🙂

4. The Kindness of the Design.

If you cut your finger, it heals itself. You don’t actively go about healing it. You don’t clot the blood, nor do you grow the new skin. Even in the worst cases, medicine is used not so much to heal the body, but to create the conditions in which the body is able to heal itself.

The same is true of the mind.

While that may seem like a huge statement to make, there is actually some new research emerging that seems to support the assertion. (There are links available here:

I’m not talking about the physical structure of the brain, but the psychological structure of the mind and our thinking.

If you brush up against some unpleasant thinking, think of it like injuring yourself physically. Don’t poke or scratch at it too much, and try and let it heal.

5. If you have doubts about the value of your voice, this parable may help:

Imagine that a man comes to you for coaching. He’s about to turn 30 and he’s decided that it’s time to ‘grow up’ and take of the family carpentry business. He wants you to share innovative marketing techniques, work with him on how to make better personnel decisions, and coach him to incorporate technology to bring the business into ‘at least the new millennium.’

But even as you’re speaking together, something’s bothering you about the conversation. He’s saying all the right things, and yet something still feels out of alignment. Following your intuition, you go back and review the client intake form he filled out when he first came to you, and to your suprise you see that his name is Jesus and he’s from a small town in the Galilean region of Israel called Nazareth.

Here’s the Question:
Do you really want to work with him on becoming more successful in his carpentry business?

What if every man, woman and child you meet has the seeds within them to become who they truly are? What if that includes you?
[Quoted from The Inside-Out Revolution by Michael Neill]

6. Changing the world is one of the worst ways to fix your mind.
So often we resort to trying to change the world in order to change the way we think or feel. But all doing this does is reinforce the importance of your thinking. Look back up at the list of possible things one might do to deal with their thinking as it applies to composing. Most are attempts at changing the world in order to change how you feel. Unfortunately, you can change the world, but you’ll still have the same painter holding the same paint brush.

7. The answer is inside you.

The answers you need will come from inside you. It’s the only place they can really come from. Not from your thinking, but from something that exists below your thinking. A deeper intelligence. A deeper wisdom. This one is harder to talk about, but sometimes the best way to get the answer you need is not to look for an expert, because you are the expert on you. So, next time you need an answer, instead of going on a fact finding mission, perhaps try just waiting patiently. Ponder it casually, in a relaxed sort of way. The answer will come in time if you’re patient.
What you’re really looking for here is an Insight, and an Insight is really just a new thought. So your answer is literally one thought away.

Favourite Works from the 20th Century

Hi Again,

Here is the beginnings of my attempt to list the best works (IMO, of course) from the 20th Century. I’ll keep posting as I think of more and organise them more coherently once I think I’ve got a good solid list. Let me know in the comments if there are any glaring omissions!

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

Ravel – La Valse

Ravel – Alborado del grasioso

Ravel – Daphnis et Chloe (The first few minutes are my favourite actually)

Ravel – Piano Trio

Piano Concerto In G

Debussy – La Mer

Debussy – String Quartet

Syzmanowski – Myths

Prokofiev – Romeo & Juliet

Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5, Mvt II

Prokofiev – Piano Concertos II & III

Shostakovich – Piano Trio No. 2

Berio – Sinfonia Mvt III (One of my favourite works actually!)

Gerard Brophy – None of my favourite works are on youtube, however, this is a good example of his recent composition style:

Ligeti – Atmospheres

Ligeti – Lontano

Rachmaninoff – Symphony no. 2

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto 2

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto 3

Rachmaninoff – Etude Tableaux

Bartok – Piano Concerto no 3

Bartok – Violin Sonata

Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra

Tomasi – Trumpet Concerto

Honneger – Symphony no. 2

Bozza – Rustiques

Enescu – Symphony No. 3

Enescu – Legend

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F

Gershwin – American In Paris

Lutoslkawski – Concerto for Orchestra

Lutoslawski – Symphony No. 3

Schoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire

Boulez – Notations pour Orchestra

Stravinsky – Petrushka

Stravinsky – Rite of Spring

Charles Ives – Unanswered Question

Charles Ives – Symphony No. 2

Janacek – Sinfonietta

Janacek – Cunning Little Vixen

Janacek – In the Mists

Webern – 5 Pieces for Orchestra

Berg -Lulu

Andriessen – Worker’s Union

Lili Boulanger – Buddhist Preyer

Lili Boulanger – Faust et Helen
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Villa Lobos – Sinfonia No 10

Martinu – Symphonic Fantasy Martinu – Symphony No. 5

Hindemith – Mathis der Maler

Hindemith – Kammermusik 1-7

Carl Orff – Carmina Burana

Sibelius – Violin Concerto

Symphony No. 5

Poulenc – Oboe Sonata

Poulenc – Concerto pour Piano

Poulenc – Sinfonietta

Takemitsu – Rainspell

Takemitsu – Orion and Pleiades

Takemitsu – From me flows what you call Time

Michael Gandolfi – Garden of Cosmic Speculation

Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time

Messiaen – Turangalila Symphony

Messiaen – Fete des belles eaux

Thomas Ades


Charles Koechlin
Robert Davidson
Carl Vine – Piano Concerto no. 2
Henry Cowell
Kurt Weill
Carter –

Samuel Barber –

John Cage –

Benjamin Britten –

Lutoslawski –



Lou Harrison

Emanuel Leplin
Robert Ward

Bernstein –

Arutunian – Trumpet Concerto

Malcolm Arnold –

German Galynin

Iain Hamilton

Ilja Hurnik

Xenakis –

Ned Rorem –

Ikuma Dan –

Kotonski –

Makledonski –


Paul Whear

David Farquhar


Henri Pousser –

SculthorpeNigel Butterly –


Gorecki –

Penderecki –

Birtwistle –

Peter Maxwell Davies –

Schnittke –

Lachenmann –

Arvo Part –

Terry Riley –

Steve Reich –

Robert Suderburg –

Philip Glass –

Yehuda Yannay –

John Corigliano –

Alvin Curran –

Tomas Svoboda –

Moya Henderson – LindyVolker Kirchner –

Shigeaki Saegusa –

Ferneyhough –