All posts by ChrisHealey

‘The Conflict of the Faculties’

As the artist enters the domain of the researcher, is the integrity of each role maintained, or is there perhaps an unavoidably unharmonious relationship between these dual roles for the practice-based researcher? As such an artist placed in such a position of both creating art on one hand, and explaining and justifying its value on the other, I have observed that there are inherent issues that sometimes arise from this pursuit, including pressures to see and value art in specific ways — ways that are not universally valuable or applicable to art.

The role of the arts in a research context has long been the subject of debate. Borgdorff in A Conflict of the Faculties explains that “There is something uneasy about the relationship between ‘artistic research’ and the academic world” (56) and many Practice-Based arts researcher have likely experienced a certain tension between their role as an artist and their role as a researcher. On one hand, the research aspect, which places pressures upon me to understand and explain the context and impetus of my music, has been incredibly valuable and enriching. However, the step beyond this where one looks at the music directly for its contribution to knowledge, is one that causes me varying degrees of discomfort.

To begin, what is a musical contribution to knowledge? According to Borgdorff “we can hence speak of research in the arts only when the practice of art delivers an intended, original contribution to what we know and understand” (42). The problem, here, however is that this suggests that the only art that can be considered valuable in a research context is art which is primarily about the creation of specific kinds of new knowledge. Does this, however, not limit the art allowed within a research context to that which is easily explainable and generalisable in the short term?

The contributions of an artist to the practice of art are much more complex than this, not to mention that explaining some art undermines or runs counter to the purpose of it, which is directed towards the experiential. This is the second issue I have with Borgdoff’s definition — it defines artistic research by the creation of new knowledge that can be known and understood, but there is much art for which the unique experience of it is the contribution to knowledge; it creates new experience, which in turn leads people towards their own new knowledge and understanding.

Such requirements of artistic research may in fact create a situation where on one hand, a composer’s works might be a highly influential and important contribution to the musical culture, and yet their contribution to knowledge within a research context would be very difficult to explain. Take, for example, the music of Wolfgang Rihm. Rihm is a highly prolific composer, with several hundred compositions to his name along with a variety of honours and awards. Rihm, however, has commented in a numbed of contexts sentiments such as “the process of composition is such an intimate thing. It’s very difficult to speak about it because it’s something which has to do with nerves and also the chemistry within your body” (Cited by McGregor) and such sentiments are not uncommon in the creative arts. If we accept for the purposes of this discussion that Rihm is a master of his art who has made significant artistic contributions, then we must address the ineffability of his artistic practice. If we accept Rihm’s claim that “I work very intuitively, proceeding on instinct” (Vienna Philharmonic) then we can understand the problem of placing a composer like Rihm within a research context that expects justification of the art in terms other than the art itself. On one hand, we know that Rihm is making a contribution to knowledge within his field through the creation of his music, while on the other, Rihm doesn’t set out to create a contribution to knowledge as easily explainable as, for example, a set of compositional techniques, he writes what his instinct demands of him. Thus far, his output is vast, varied and there is no easy way to encapsulate the full scope of it. There is, arguably, also no way to generalise Rihm’s contribution to knowledge, because his contribution is the result of the totality of his mind and lived experiences as a composer, which arise as instinct and are made manifest in the music itself.

Both artists and musicologists understand this implicitly. Borgdorff states this explicitly, saying “Artistic research – as embedded in artistic and academic contexts – is the articulation of the unreflective, non-conceptual content enclosed in aesthetic experiences, enacted in creative practices, and embodied in artistic products” and yet, while we accept that art is embedded with knowledge, we still fall back to the quasi-scientific methodology which demands that as research, art must provide “an intended, original contribution to what we know and understand” (Borgdorff 42) which must be explainable through a medium other than the art itself.

Of course, this is a non-issue for some artistic practices, such as those that are deliberately exploring a question important to the composer. However, we must also be aware that historically a lot of art – including works which are considered masterpieces – did not come from this kind of pursuit. The reason that such an emphasis has arisen with regards to what is acceptable in a (music) research context, is perhaps that throughout the Twentieth Century, a conceptualisation of composition as a rational, orderly and scientific process became increasingly common. Judy Lochhead explains that “the intertwining of the new music aesthetic with the analytical-theoretical imperative was shaped by a dominant cultural and intellectual determinant at mid-century — what has become known as the authority of science” (26) and as composers increasingly sought to create their own self-contained systems of composition with technical-analytical-theoretical imperatives, musical analysis became increasingly relevant to the consumption and understanding of that music. But such Modernist approaches to Art have subsided. Michael Levenson in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism suggests that “we are still learning how not to be Modernist”(2) even while others write of Postmodernism: ‘‘Let’s just say it: it’s over’’ (Hutcheon 166).

Composers by no means pursue the creation of music exclusively as an expression of a theoretical-technical construct, nor as one of conveying directly decipherable knowledge and understanding. Art is not a lecture, it is an invitation to reflection which results in knowledge through personal insight. As is the case with composers such as Rihm, we must appreciate that enormous contributions can be made that sometimes defy accurate explanation and encapsulation.

While it is possible to analyse the embedded knowledge in music through pursuits such as musical analysis, such an activity creates an inherent bias and misunderstanding of the works. For example, if a composer is acting on instinct, or is writing the music down as their best representation of the music that arises spontaneously in their mind, bringing analysis to bare on the music — regardless of what is uncovered — creates a misrepresentation of the nature of the music as a constructed object whose technical attributes are important beyond its experiential consequences.  This is, in many cases, simply not true.

While musical analysis is a standard method for understanding music, it is rooted in an intensely Western view of the role of the artist. If we look to other cultures, however, we find that such a relationship between the artist, the art and the audience is not the only one that exists.

Andrew Juniper in Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence explains that in traditional Japanese art-forms, the “role of the artists is that of a medium rather than an individual… it is the supreme achievement of an artist to reach the levels where conscious effort and thought are abandoned to the dictums of the unforeseen forces that guide out lives” (72).

Consider for example, the following images.

Enso

An Ensō, see here for more information.

Bowl

A clay bowl from Juniper’s Wabi Sabi, The Japanese Art of Impermanence, p. 105.

These two images give some examples of traditional Japanese art. The first is the Ensō, a circle conventionally drawn in a single brush stroke. The drawing of the Ensō is intended to capture  a snapshot of the artist’s mind, spirit and context at the moment of its creation. The second is a small bowl (Juniper 105) showing an uneven lip, and an overall lack of smoothness and symmetry, and this bowl is intended to point the observer towards the imperfection and impermanence of all things. Both of these examples illustrate traditional Japanese aesthetics, and both have the purpose not of conveying knowledge but of creating an experience in which their aesthetics lead to reflection and insight by the beholder.

While Western aesthetics might be thought — somewhat simplistically — to grow from the idea of man’s domination over nature, valuing the craft, imagination and cleverness of an artist, the Eastern religio-philosophical teachings of Zen and Taoism — both of which have heavily influenced Japanese aesthetics — are preoccupied with naturalness, impermanence and an acceptance of man as part of nature.

Prusinski writes of Japanese aesthetics:

… extended periods of isolation allowed a traditional, “Japanese-ness” to develop. The aesthetic ideals that emerged from this process “are expressed in situational categories … of which the most important are makoto (truth, natural sincerity), aware (enchantment), okashi (charm of playful humor), yugen (mysterious beauty), sabi (veil of antiquity), wabi (restrained beauty), shibui (aristocratic simplicity), en (charm), miyabi (tranquility), hosomi (subtlety, frailty), karumi (lightness), yubi (elegance), sobi (grandeur), and mei (purity, nobility).” (6)

The aesthetic qualities outlined by Prusinksi suggest a rich, subtle and largely different way of approaching art. While similarities between the simple descriptions Prusinski provide and Western music might seem present, it is import to remember Juniper’s comment that much of the aesthetic pursuits of traditional Japanese artists are reflections of an inwards pursuit, not of the construction of an artwork in and of itself. Further more, the idea of impermanence and imperfection play substantial roles in Japanese aesthetics through Wabi Sabi which “seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux, evolve from nothing and devolve back to nothing” (8). In Wabi Sabi art, naturalness, decay, asymmetry or irregularity, texture and unevenness, the use of ‘diffuse and murky’ colours, simplicity (lack of embellishment), space, intimacy, and impermanence (Juniper 82-91) are all important to the resulting art. In such a way, studying and analysing the exact paint stroke of the Ensō or the precise contours of the bowl and so forth is utterly without value, for even if they could be formulated in such a way as to allow for generalisation and reproducibility, such would be contrary to the nature and purpose of the art. A reproduction, no matter how much skill was required, would be a failure.

For many hundreds of years, such art has been highly valued in Japan, not for its contribution to knowledge, but for the experiential effect of such art upon the viewer, and while discussing the art and its nature are important, discussing the art directly as a combination of technical attributes would be to thoroughly misunderstand it.
This is the uncomfortable situation that the artistic practice in a research context can occupy. The art can be incredibly rich, imbued with meaning and significance, and yet a research context demands that it be explainable in terms that are contrary to its very nature. How does one explain the unevenness of a brush stroke, the rust on a metal working, or the decay of a wood work, all of which are seen as valuable in Japanese aesthetics?

In this way, the research context is itself imposing limitations and biases that effect which kinds of art are acceptable, and those kinds are primarily the ones that are able to offer simple questions and simple answers. We are therefore imposing on both artists and arts research limitations that forces us to see and value art in a specific way, for the expedient of simplicity, which is unduly given preference.

It might be simplistically put that: Art often inspires rather than informs. As such, we should be very careful about the treatment of art in a research context, for there is inherent in such a situation the potential to force artists to work in specific, explainable ways, and to produce explainable pieces of art. We do so at the risk of changing what it means to be an artist, and of only discussing and allowing within a research context specific artists and specific kinds of art. I would contend that this should be avoided at all costs, because the ineffability of some art is exactly what triggers reflection and insight, and such art is valuable also.

~~~

CITATIONS

Borgdorff. The conflict of the faculties. Leiden: Leiden U Press, 2012.

“Ensō.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.

Hutcheon, Linda. A poetics of postmodernism: history, theory, fiction. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Juniper, Andrew. Wabi sabi: the Japanese art of impermanence. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2010.

Levenson, Michael. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to Modernism:. Ed. Michael Levenson. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 15 Sept. 2011. 1–8.

Lochhead, Judy, and Joseph Auner. Postmodern music/postmodern thought. CT: Garland Publishing Inc, US, 2001.

MGregor, Richard. “Hunting and Forms: An Interview with Wolfgang Rim.” Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2010. 349-60.

Rihm, Wolfgang, and Winrich Hopps. “Wolfgang Rihm in conversation with Winrich Hopp.” Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. Berlin Philharmonic , 03 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2017. <https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/interview/23694-3&gt;.

Expertise… Is it real? Can you be taught to be an expert?

[Foreword: Whenever I say “You” in a post, I don’t ever mean you the person reading. In fact mostly, I mean it as a reference to myself. Using ‘you’ tends to make things sound more authoritative than I’d like, but writing everything as “I” this and “me” that gets really old really quickly.]

The one thing I haven’t yet talked about is expertise and why it’s a myth or at least a barrier so let me talk about that now and tie it all together for you. Most of us like the idea of expertise for different reasons. When we’re considered an expert, we like it because we’re special. When we’re not an expert, we like it because it means certain things are other people’s responsibility, or because the idea of expertise means there is somewhere we can arrive at which will make us better than we are now. But is any of that really true?

I remember the first time I realised that expertise was at least partly an illusion and a notion to be somewhat distrusted. I used to love the local library as a kid and would visit there often, borrowing as many books as I could carry. It was a magical place. At first, I stayed within the fiction section, but probably around age 12 or 13 I stated to wander into the non-fiction sections, just to see what was over there. And I realised that there were all these books that would tell you how to do things which was really cool! And so I started reading some of the ones that caught my eye.

At some point, I heard about speed reading and because I read a lot I thought that was a really cool idea. Imagine if I could read a whole book in an hour or so?! I could read the whole library! And so I borrowed a few books, including one called something like “Quantum Reading”. I remember reading the first part of Quantum Reading and being confused. The book was about a Japanese school teacher who would have her students read books in all sorts of weird ways. Having them just flick through the pages and then tell her what the book was about. Or hold the book up to their ear and listen to the book to hear what it was about etc. And apparently they could. I was confused. I knew this couldn’t be true, or Librarians would be the smartest people on the planet, but it was written in a book so it must be true, right?

Up until then, I had mistakenly believed that anything in the non-fiction section must be factually true. Non-fiction was to me books of truth about the world. But there in my hands I held a book, printed by a publisher, which I knew simply couldn’t be true. And so began a lesson on critical thinking and distrusting what is presented as truth by objects of authority like books.

That lesson stayed with me and today whenever I hear something on the news, I’m quite sceptical about it or at least about the way it’s presented. I have heard so many ‘new studies’ segments which are disgustingly misleading for me to take research at face value and certainly when presented via a secondary source. Research has shown, very often, completely different things.

The problem I have come to have with expertise, however, is that it’s predicated upon the idea that someone else has knowledge, the possession of which would improve you or what you are attempting to do. Perhaps that seems like a strange statement, and I suppose it is, but I’ll see if I can explain it. There’s also a few other implicit assumptions about expertise and why it’s important, which I’ll address as we go.

Recently, I read something in a book which I took away for contemplation and found to be bizarrely true:

The problem with advice is that until we regain our bearings*, we can’t use it; once we regain our bearings, we don’t need it. ~ Michael Neill, The Inside Out Revolution, Pg. 95.

*By ‘regain our bearings’ the author means being in touch with our inner sense of wisdom that arise naturally from a peaceful state of mind.

At first hearing of this, I thought “No way, that can’t be true” and I thought about all the hundreds of thousands of books of advice on how to do virtually anything and everything. But then I wondered – if those books really helped, there would be a lot fewer of them needed. If you walk around even a small local bookstore, your might find a few dozen books on dating and relationships, or business, or losing weight or quitting smoking. Why are there so many damn books? If you can learn it from books, surely one or two on each subject would be enough, right? But all of the authors have a different take on their issue, with different suggestions, and strategies. But if each author’s strategies worked, why do we need so many? Because, unfortunately, expertise is not transferrable.

Think about becoming an author. You can surely be taught to write a book, but nothing and no one can teach you how to write your personal masterpiece, because no one but you will ever be able to know what the work looks like until after you’ve written it. So how can anyone possible teach you to write something they can’t see? The best case scenario is they can show you how to realise your work in a grammatically ‘correct’ way (unless you’re James Joyce. Who could possible to teach him how to write Ulysses?), and worst case scenario, teach you how to write a copy of their own personal masterpiece. (I suspect a lot of the terrible books in existence are written by authors trying to write like other authors.) And the problem with the concept of attaining expertise from someone else is that you think that the right expert author, for example, would be able to bestow upon you what you lack. They can’t, and you probably don’t need them to.

If you’re an aspiring author and you want to write your literary masterpiece, where are you going to find it? Is it outside you? If it is, it’s not yours as someone else has already made it. The expertise you need is expertise only you can find. You may think that you need to know certain indisputable things such as how to write a good sentence, but if you’re dependant on someone else to tell you which sentences are good and which are bad, then there is a problem. You needed to find that knowledge on your own so that you own it, it’s yours and you can tell for yourself. All the teacher’s guidance has done is probably made you doubt your own wisdom when you need to trust it infallibly, so that you know when to deviate from the accepted and to believe in that decision.

I’m not saying you wont make mistakes, but that you wont end up in that trap of not experiencing your natural learning because you’re trying to avoid mistakes you don’t know you’ll make. You have to be prepared to make genuine, honest mistakes if you want to genuinely learn. But you also need to do it without anticipating a mistake.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you’re an adult, and for some reason you’re learning to walk for the first time. As adults, I think we’re very much raised to think in terms of not failing, so we try to construct of find ways which mitigate our chances for failing. So instead of your task being ‘learning to walk’, in your mind, it kind of becomes ‘learn to move around without falling over’. And so you might think up a way that you can move around so that it’s really, really hard for you to fall over. Perhaps you crab walk everywhere, keeping your centre of gravity low and your stance really wide. And it works. You can get from point A to point B. The problem is, you realise that you can only move in straight lines, you can’t turn, and that it’s much more tiring, and give you a sore back etc. But hey, you accomplished your goal. You can go from A to B, and you never fell over once! Take that all you children and your plastic brains!

Your friends hears about your success and one invites you to go on a walk with them. Being proud of your success and telling your friend how you’ve never fallen over, and it’s only taken you a week to be able to walk, you set a time to show off what you big, smart, adult brain accomplished. So you go for a walk with your friend, who is rather weirded out by your crab-shuffle.

“What are you doing?” she asks you.

“Isn’t it great?!” you reply. “I came up with this way of walking which makes it virtually impossible to fall over!” For some reason your friend isn’t impressed. She leads you to a nearby building. I just have to go up stairs for a minute. You should come up with me.

“Stairs?” you ask. “I haven’t done those yet!” “Oh but it’s just like walking, it should be no problem.” So you try the stairs and within three stairs you’re stuck, and then find yourself toppling down to the floor.

The problem is that as humans when we contrive things, we often lose sight of the real, long term goal. The actual long term goal was to be able to walk naturally, easily, effortlessly and without thought. But in pursuit of that goal, our learner made a mistake by reductionism. By pursuing the goal as in the analogy, the adult avoid what he saw as the obvious mistake – falling over – but at the cost of discovering a natural, uncontrived way of moving his body. And this is why I think, it is often better to be unanalytical about what we aim to learn, because in our analysis, I personally think that we almost always suffer from a human tendency to oversimplify. We aim to achieve xyz, when we also need to learn A-W as well. We miss the big-picture.

To learn, I think what we really need to do is to point ourselves in the right general direction, do what comes naturally, and learn from our mistakes as we muddle through. I also think this is why Children learn so ‘naturally’, because they are, in fact, learning naturally. They don’t yet have the conscious capacity to contrive their learning experience or to be concerned about efficiency or speed etc. They just know they need to walk, and they continue to try, until they can. And this, in my opinion, is how all genuine learning happens, because our body and mind are capable of learning without conscious instruction. You need a conscious intention, but the body and mind are just naturally designed to learn to do something without analysis.

Think about it. If Darwinism is true, then we evolved from Animals. As far as we can tell, animals do not and cannot consciously think in the way that humans can. They think, but it’s a different form of thinking. But animals can learn and can be taught. Animals relocated to a new terrain will learn to navigate that terrain. They’ll learn where food and water are. They’ll learn the best routes in and out of their trees or caves etc. You can say that much of this is instinctual, but it is completely irrelevant, because there is undeniable learning that occurs. I know a dog who has gone blind with age but has learned to navigate, albeit more slowly, by feel and memory.

And even more amazing is that animals put into unusual terrains will learn ways to adapt and will evolve right before our eyes within sometimes incredibly short spaces of time. It suggests to me that all animals have the ability to learn given there is a necessity, and they can do it with out conscious or analytical thought. Yes, there are limitations, but for example, a dog instinctively isn’t going to see learning to speak English as a necessity.

Anyway, the point is, we can learn from ‘muddling through’ and quite often, I think that learning is more remembered and more reliable. For some reason, things we learn by concious thought are dependant on memory processes which fade with time, but things we learn through doing seem to be recalled instinctively without any real thinking.

Anyway, most of the barriers to creating your work are of your own making or are probably trivial. You don’t know how to punctuate something, or the spelling of a word etc. These things anyone can overcome in a matter of minutes thanks to the internet. The biggest barrier, I suspect, is in thinking that there is something outside of you that you have to obtain in order to ready or capable to produce your own masterpiece. Because while you’re looking out there for it, you’re not looking to where the thing itself lives – inside your mind.

We’ll look at a more everyday situation and see what we can glean about this matter. Let’s say you have a business and that it wants to improve it’s employees’ happiness and productivity. You have a few options, you can:

a) Buy a bunch of the books written by experts on the subject and implement their suggestions

b) You could bring in an external team of experts and implement their suggestions

c) You use your own creativity and try and solve the problems yourself So let’s start with what is likely the best option for most situations like this; you bring in a team of external experts with a good track-record to solve the problems. They come in, spend sometime observing what happens and using their own experience (and if they’re a good team – their creativity) to create a perfect solution. I think we can all agree that it’s an effective option? What’s great about this is that the experience and creativity of this team is able to respond to the real situation of the business, objectively.

The downsides, however, are:

a) That you did not learn or attain that expertise, only a product of it.

b) Businesses change, desired results change, employees change, and as they do, solutions that once were effective become less effective or irrelevant or a hindrance.

c) The external experts don’t have a deep understanding of the company or its employees, they’re mostly relying on superficial data and observations to make their recommendations. etc. So it is a good short-term solution. If you want to think long-term, your best option is to have a permanent team who is responsible for monitoring and developing and implementing solution. While this is a great thing, it unfortunately doesn’t quite achieve or properly answer the initial prompt:

Expertise is predicated upon the idea that someone else has knowledge, the possession of which would improve you or what you are attempting to do. In this situation, you have attained expertise via delegation, and it has improved what you do, but you are no closer to possessing that expertise personally, which is vitally important in bringing this analogy back to being relevant with composing, because you can’t outsource your composing to experts and have it remain your work.

Let’s move onto option ‘a’ then, which is buying a bunch of books written by experts and implementing their suggestions. So you’ve read your giant pile of books, and you’ve gotten 100+ great suggestions, from authors who have proven track records. Which suggestions are the right ones for your business? What about the contradictory suggestions? Etc. The only way to know for sure which suggestions will truly work is through experimentation, and trial and error. Which means, at the end of the day, the author’s expertise may have provided some insight into the subject, their expertise needs to be applied to your company creatively to make it applicable. And even after reading all those books, can you make a claim to possessing expertise on the topic? Increased knowledge perhaps, but you’re not really any closer to the bulls-eye, you’re just more aware of the red and white rings around it. You don’t have expertise, and you don’t have a solution either, not really. If anything, you’re probably less able to act as you don’t know which option to choose.

Okay, so option ‘c’. Sounds like a recipe for destruction doesn’t it? Experimenting on your company with your own crazy un-expert ideas and solutions? Eeep. Well, I’m actually not going to address this option because it is entirely too spontaneous a situation to predict, but I do believe that if you are earnest, and you show up, and you approach the problem from the right space of mind – a quiet, calm & patient place – then because it’s your company – you made it, you know where it’s going etc – it’s you who will ultimately be able to produce the most perfect possible answer that can exist. It may not be the first answer you think of, or the 20th, but it will be your most perfect answer once you get there.

So the analogy raises several questions and issues:

a) Where is the expertise, exactly?

b) We too often think of expertise as a large accumulation of knowledge on a topic, but is knowledge and expertise really the same thing? Why can Martha Argerich play the piano so darn well, and yet not be able to describe in a meaningful way how she plays so well? (No one can).

c) Can you learn expertise or only discover it?

d) Why is it so important to be an expert? etc

The inherent assumptions about the importance of expertise is that if you can go and get it and make use of it, you can avoid making mistakes or if you find the master and learn from him/her then you can avoid the arduous journey to expertise the master had to undertake. What we fail to realise is that it’s the journey that made the Master, not knowledge or learning. It’s the act of pursuit over time that lead the seeker towards the truth, and ultimately and instinctively, embodied expertise. And so we frequently talk about the 10000 hour rule – it takes 10,000 hours ( as very rough guide only) of practice to achieve expertise. And while as musicians, we often think that if we just find the right ‘master’ or teacher for us, we can jump over, or at least speed up the transit time through, the less pleasant bit where you kind of suck at what you’re doing.

Sadly, it doesn’t work like that because while knowledge is transferrable, you can’t attain ‘expertise’ through knowledge no matter how hard you wish you could. It’s true that sometimes, with some tasks, the gap between knowledge and expertise is incredibly small and knowing of or how to do the thing is enough to help you do the thing (normally because it’s piggy-backing or using a skill you already have), but the more complex and nuanced the task, the less and less true this becomes.

If you’re an aspiring violinist, you can, for example, learn (knowledge) how to hold the bow properly and be able to do so fairly quickly, but being able to manipulate and control the bow like Perlman (expertise) isn’t going to happen through instruction; the instruction can point to and constantly reaffirm the outcome (“Try it more like this” “You need to be more like this” etc) but the attainment of the final goal happens through a process of continuous experimentation and self-correction over time.

The issue that arises from the idea of expertise is that while you think the answer is outside of you, you’re not allowing for or trusting yourself to find the answer. You’ve decided you’re not an expert and you’re maintaining that. You’re also assuming that what you’re doing is wrong when it may just be a part of the learning process, and you’re not in touch with the fact that you’re the only expert on you, and as such, you’re the only one who will ever know what the right answer actually is (because you’re the one who will ultimately find it and know it to be the right answer).

I’m not saying teachers don’t have a role, or that it isn’t a big one, I just don’t think it’s the role everyone assumes. They assume that the expert’s knowledge is what is empowering the student to improve, in reality, it think it’s much more that the teacher reaffirms the value and possibility of the journey, and that at some point, the answer can and will be found.

What do you think?

Using a DAW vs. Normal Method vs. Writing by Hand

I find there are several ways you can approach composing and they all feel different. In many ways, this comes back to difference between planners and pantsers, terms affectionately used by authors to describe people who begin their writing by planning the book (planners) and people who just throw themselves in a ‘write by the seat of their pants’ (pantsers).

With regards to composing, the same two seem to exist. I know several composers who plan the architecture of their work in advance, but personally I normally find this too abstract to invoke any really excitement or interest in actually writing the work.

However, one thing that I believe effects composers much more than authors is the interface they use to compose. For example, a compose can write by hand with pen and paper at a desk, or by hand with pen and paper at an instrument, or directly into a typesetting program, or using a Digital Audio Workstation (Aka Logic or Fruity Loops etc).

I have recently started exploring using a DAW as an initial way of capturing ideas through improvisation, something I’m interested in pursuing further over the next few years of my PhD, if only to be proficient at using them in case I get the chance to do any film work. What I noticed, however, is that using a daw as an interface requires you to think differently, and you run into different obstacles and limitations. This lead me to thinking further about the other two methods of composing that I have used (pen & paper at a desk, and pen & paper at the piano). I would summarise my feelings about these three modes of composing as follows:

Composing by hand at a desk: Counterpoint
Composing by hand at a piano: Homphony (Melody & Accompaniment)
Composing at a DAW: Layers

DAWS & SAMPLE LIBRARIES

Working at a DAW is quite a different way of thinking than working at a piano. The main reason for this is that your main method of input is through performance on a midi keyboard, the software capturing in real-time what you’re playing. What makes this interesting is that you’re somewhat forced to think in terms of layers. You have to lay down each track one at a time.
There’s also an inherent technical disadvantage to anyone not highly proficient at the piano (like me); Your entries will only be as complicated as your technical capabilities will allow, where as, writing at a piano, you only need to work at a pace of probably 6-10bpm, and there’s very few people who can’t achieve similar blistering speeds regardless of their age or training.

The main problem I find with writing like this is that you start with an initial idea you want to lay down, perhaps it’s an accompaniment figure. Great. But at some point, that figure will change, but you (or I, at least) wont know where that point will be until you’ve recorded a melody. Or if you start with the melody, you know that your harmony may want to wander, but you wont know how or to where until you write it. So it feels a bit chicken-and-the-egg for me.

Essentially, you end up with a string over overlapping layers. (See the image below) It’s quite an interesting musical approach, and I find it to be a really fun way to play around and create interesting sonorities. For me, it feels like a logical next step for composers who use improvisation as a way of generating musical material, giving you the ability to improvise not just with melody and harmony (say at a piano) but with timbre and texture as well.

Logic Image
Here is an excerpts of something I was having fun with in logic. This is just a few brass chords followed by tubular bells that are suspended out of the brass. I like the effect. This is the sort of timbral and textural improvising that you can do which doesn’t naturally arise from piano improvisation:

There are several further benefits. Some sample libraries can give you the access to a virtual instrument in place of a real instrument to experiment with, and as a virtual instrument is really just an instrument that has been recorded and programmed to respond to midi input, it could be a useful way of exploring an instrument’s sonic capabilities. A perfect example of this is the IRCAM Prepared Piano which you can prepare however you like and then play with using a midi keyboard.

At the moment, my composing method can be described as “Butt on seat at the piano and write what comes up”. It works well for me. I could extend this somewhat by using sound libraries to enhance the feedback I get from the piano, but I’m not sure that it’s really necessary as I can always hit play on StaffPad and get that feedback with the playback.

However, I’ve always been somewhat captivated by the promise of freedom that sound libraries offer for composers. The ordinary way of writing requires you to hear and notate something, and produce a polished score, then (unless you’re well established) find musicians to realise that score. As a young composer, finding musos to realise a work is probably one of the worst things about being a composer. Not because there aren’t wonderful musicians, but because my instrumentalist peers are normally very busy with their own musical pursuits, and because paying them what they deserve to be paid to rehearse and perform/record is virtually impossible for me. Imagine trying to pay a Symphony Orchestra to rehearse and record a work. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars.

So the freedom promised by Sample Libraries is that you can more directly go from your imagination to a finished recording that people can hear. Sadly, getting Samples to sound even vaguely convincing requires both a very good sound library and a considerable amount of tweaking, and some very solid hardware with which to run your DAW and sample libraries if you’re working on large projects.

None the less, it’s something I think I’d like to explore because it is a different way of relating to music, and as I talked about in a different post, writing music is, for me, about holding a mirror up to our consciousness to see what’s there, and exploring this may well be the opportunity to hold a new mirror up and see what happens.

COMPOSING AT THE PIANO VS. AT A DESK

The most common way I write at the moment is to sit at the piano and write. While I’ve written by hand on several occasions, I find writing at a piano to be the most engaging process, because it brings the performance and improvisation element into connection with the notation element, where just writing by hand feels quite disconnected from actually playing music. The feeling of physical movement is quite an important part of music making for me. Musical gesture is very physical, the tension and release is felt physically, and it’s easier to sense and experience that through actually making music than it is just sitting at a desk.

When working this way, there is generally a sense of flow and being ‘in the zone’ which I also find hard when writing purely by hand. To be honest, I think I just find writing music at a desk a horribly boring thing to do. The same is true of working at a desk using Finale. It feels like doing homework more than writing music. But at the piano, each new sound and direction the music goes in is exciting and intriguing.

IMPROVISING & TRANSCRIBING

One other common way of making music is through improvising and transcribing those improvisations – or parts of them – to make works. I know quite a lot of composers for whom this is the first point of departure when making music.

This is something I have tried as well, but often find vaguely overwhelming. There’s just too many ideas often!

Another thought that occurs to me as well, is that a large part of why I enjoy writing is finding out what’s going to happen next. Just like if someone tells you the end of a book, it kind of ruins the experience for you, I think part of me actively tries not to think ahead because I want to be captivated by that musical journey as it unfolds. I want to experience and enjoy its unfolding. Perhaps this is also why I resist planning music; If I know what’s going to happen it’s no longer exciting, but instead becomes more of a chore where I’m merely filling in the blanks and connecting the dots.

When improvising, ideas often unfold in an intuitive way, but once that unfolding has happened, I don’t really feel compelled to sit down and turn them into notation so much, and if I do, I feel like I’m transcribing more than composing. That’s not totally accurate, and somewhat of an overstatement of things, but to some degree that’s how it feels.

I’m hoping that exploring improvising using Sample Libraries and a DAW etc could help a bit with capturing the excitement of improvising, and make me think and explore timbrally in addition to melodically and harmonically, all the while minimising the gap between the composing and the transcribing components.

I think one of the products of my PhD could be an album of works made solely using a DAW and Sample Libraries, along with notated scores of the works. That’d be fun!!

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.

Onwards!


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:

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=UwJ7YsSnfU4C&lpg=PR3&dq=inside%20out%20revolution&pg=PR26&output=embed

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: http://www.threeprinciplesmovies.com/resources/research/)

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
https://youtu.be/T_-1qMPDf-A

Ravel – La Valse
https://youtu.be/Fg2i2NB-i3o

Ravel – Alborado del grasioso
https://youtu.be/HQ0NgNK-Hl0

Ravel – Daphnis et Chloe (The first few minutes are my favourite actually) https://youtu.be/-Y51ygBRANM

Ravel – Piano Trio
https://youtu.be/3QzLA5se4co

Piano Concerto In G
https://youtu.be/woaoUcDpJsQ

Debussy – La Mer
https://youtu.be/FOCucJw7iT8

Debussy – String Quartet
https://youtu.be/C4XjijkqrAY

Syzmanowski – Myths
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5UJmxd3ixo

Prokofiev – Romeo & Juliet
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=da8GvPijJIo

Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5, Mvt II
https://youtu.be/wvIr_xOAVhU

Prokofiev – Piano Concertos II & III
https://youtu.be/NOybfjTRCdo

Shostakovich – Piano Trio No. 2
https://youtu.be/IesxWe1pT28

Berio – Sinfonia Mvt III (One of my favourite works actually!)
https://youtu.be/NW30g2tPmDA

Gerard Brophy – None of my favourite works are on youtube, however, this is a good example of his recent composition style:
https://youtu.be/6IFqsUbcjBE

Ligeti – Atmospheres
https://youtu.be/aI0P1NnUFxc

Ligeti – Lontano
https://youtu.be/l2OQbA3r78M

Rachmaninoff – Symphony no. 2
https://youtu.be/iSJsQm6jl6o

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto 2
https://youtu.be/pBx-tr1FDvY

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto 3
https://youtu.be/MOOfoW5_2iE

Rachmaninoff – Etude Tableaux
https://youtu.be/EZPmIddGXY8

Bartok – Piano Concerto no 3
https://youtu.be/elaY_d3uG6A

Bartok – Violin Sonata
https://youtu.be/HTmYnX-boxU

Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra
https://youtu.be/C68SkzGb6Ww

Tomasi – Trumpet Concerto
https://youtu.be/C68SkzGb6Ww

Honneger – Symphony no. 2
https://youtu.be/P9qgh0S0-WM

Bozza – Rustiques
https://youtu.be/2rVbM7N8wKw

Enescu – Symphony No. 3
https://youtu.be/huGwdKCdTkc

Enescu – Legend
https://youtu.be/bzlMdBPCXJQ

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
https://youtu.be/cH2PH0auTUU

Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F
https://youtu.be/7KCpph1nrpk

Gershwin – American In Paris
https://youtu.be/Ros66y1aZ-E

Lutoslkawski – Concerto for Orchestra
https://youtu.be/f5az0xA-gbg

Lutoslawski – Symphony No. 3
https://youtu.be/NK8gvqWEFpk

Schoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire
https://youtu.be/veUJxETj7-c

Boulez – Notations pour Orchestra
https://youtu.be/mZJuqLQ9V6I

Stravinsky – Petrushka
https://youtu.be/hX7aSsic7eM

Stravinsky – Rite of Spring
https://youtu.be/lWotpIy0uTg

Charles Ives – Unanswered Question
https://youtu.be/hX7aSsic7eM

Charles Ives – Symphony No. 2
https://youtu.be/ztLr3kaN4_c

Janacek – Sinfonietta
https://youtu.be/gbncXDimwbQ

Janacek – Cunning Little Vixen
https://youtu.be/a79nSbmy69U

Janacek – In the Mists
https://youtu.be/P2d3_p9yvhc

Webern – 5 Pieces for Orchestra
https://youtu.be/e7CSKmtK-Qc

Berg -Lulu
https://youtu.be/a4-s28gnnyo

Andriessen – Worker’s Union
https://youtu.be/jrQkIxccJnE

Lili Boulanger – Buddhist Preyer
https://youtu.be/xF9SltYJAT8

Lili Boulanger – Faust et Helen
\a href=”https://youtu.be/3BQgfSfMG4E”>https://youtu.be/3BQgfSfMG4E

Villa Lobos – Sinfonia No 10
https://youtu.be/EppdZvDl-xg

Martinu – Symphonic Fantasy https://youtu.be/Hx-Bef2Z3yY Martinu – Symphony No. 5
https://youtu.be/3pNBd3tfz30

Hindemith – Mathis der Maler
https://youtu.be/8nuOWqcg8KU

Hindemith – Kammermusik 1-7
https://youtu.be/wIrvTF2AR7A?list=PL0dYx2N3BTuSoUstz4yk_Mtbhz8YY45EA

Carl Orff – Carmina Burana
https://youtu.be/GXFSK0ogeg4

Sibelius – Violin Concerto
https://youtu.be/YsbrRAgv1b4

Symphony No. 5
https://youtu.be/V8qiAMOiygs

Poulenc – Oboe Sonata
https://youtu.be/hY1j_DJDOf8

Poulenc – Concerto pour Piano
https://youtu.be/tCnctwMgceY

Poulenc – Sinfonietta
https://youtu.be/EgkTATd5UaA

Takemitsu – Rainspell
https://youtu.be/9sbhPvtW0vM

Takemitsu – Orion and Pleiades
https://youtu.be/HtA2qtBgMA4

Takemitsu – From me flows what you call Time
https://youtu.be/LpzMI7pqv7E

Michael Gandolfi – Garden of Cosmic Speculation
https://youtu.be/_9USuClPGMU

Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time
https://youtu.be/UeSVu1zbF94

Messiaen – Turangalila Symphony
https://youtu.be/8PjyCpRKDrk

Messiaen – Fete des belles eaux
https://youtu.be/nrYgm5MML58

Thomas Ades
https://play.google.com/music/m/T23kfv3fejiw4vfipdgz3d3rnju

YET TO COME:

MAHLER
Charles Koechlin
Robert Davidson
Carl Vine – Piano Concerto no. 2
Henry Cowell
Anthiel
Copland
Kurt Weill
Finzi
Elzalde
Carter –

Samuel Barber –

John Cage –

Benjamin Britten –

Lutoslawski –

Babbitt

Ginastera

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 –

Theodorakis

Paul Whear

David Farquhar

GEORGEW CRUMB

Henri Pousser –

SculthorpeNigel Butterly –

Takemitsu

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 –

Who Am I? [Part II: Musical Influences?]

I mentioned in a previous post how art can  serve the purpose of holding a mirror up to our consciousness so as to explore deeper truths. Similar to this I think, Rob wants me to explore further outside of my music as way of discovering more about what is true for my composing practices, which is to say, by understanding my tastes and inclinations more broadly I may see commonalities that reinforce what is genuinely important to me in my own music. So the purpose of these writings is to explore the “Who Am I?” question from a myriad of different place, triangulate, and see if I’ve actually been living on Mars all these years without realising it.

No discussion of this nature would be complete without at least mentioning my musical influences My musical loves are fairly eclectic. Art-music-wise this ranges from Rachmaninoff to Ravel to Berio. [I’ll be make a list of my favourite works in an up coming post.] But I also love Jazz, and regularly find myself on the hunt for new videos of James Morrison (the trumpet one, not the singer).

What is true about all my music is that it tends to be acoustic and generally involves live performance by humans which allows for human connection and communication. I tend to have a preference for music that allows for spontaneity. I don’t think I tend to appreciate much music that is reliably the same. I would rather listen to two different orchestras play the same symphony than listen to the same recording twice. All of this allows for more opportunity for self-examination, something that particular musical forms, like main-stream or popular music, tends (I feel) not to. That music, for me, seems largely to be about how amazing and famous the artist is, more than the music’s potential for seeing internal truths. Popular music seems to be quite externally focused, even though the themes are often internal phenomenons like ‘love’ etc.

However, that all tells you more about what music I like to listen to, but less about the music I write, which isn’t necessarily even similar.

When imploring me to undertake such a quest of self-analysis and exploration, my supervisor (Robert Davidson) mentioned that, for example, if you ask Steve Reich who his major influences are he can quite specifically list “Bach, Stravinsky, and jazz” as the major ones.
(http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/the-influence-engine-steve-reich-and-pop-music/)

I found that interesting because I LOVE a lot of different music, from the swoon-worthy Rachmaninoff to the cheeky and clever Prokofiev, to the complex simplicity of Ligeti, but also Stravinsky, Syzmanowski, Ravel, Debussy, etc they’re all great, so how can one easily point to three major influences? It somewhat baffled me, as if you ask me that question a month later I’m still not going to be able to give you a straight answer.

The composers whose music I can see the most commonality with in my own music are probably that of Debussy & Ravel, perhaps my music seems more Debussy-esque and lacks the extreme refinement of Ravel’s.

However, I recall my biggest compositional influence pre-conservatory were probably Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky & Michael Gandolfi, the latter whose works I discovered somewhat accidentally and really enjoyed at the time. (And still do, although it’s been a while since I listened to any of them). Since then however, I’ve been exposed to such a wide variety of musical styles and works and ideas that it’s all vaguely overwhelming. Stravinsky could possibly stay on the list, but then again, maybe not.

Part of me worries if it’s bad that my music is probably most closely aligned with composers who died around 70 years ago? I do feel an external pressure to be ‘modern’ and to ‘keep up with the times’, but as I discussed in Who Am I – Part I the composing experiences for me is deeply related to exploring what arises spontaneously in the space, not in concocting a new form of music like a mad scientist playing with sound. That actually sounds pretty fun when described thus… Plus, you’d get to yell “IT’S ALIVEEEE” at 3am in the morning as your Frankenmusic comes to life.

Sadly, as much as the image of a mad scientist/composer is a fun one, and as much as I’d like to be good at everything, I can only look to the place my music arises from and be faithful to it. If it happens to share an affinity with other composers’ music, that is simply a happy co-incidence. After all, I love Rachmaninoff’s music and have listened to at least as much Ravel, but that is not the music I hear when I sit to write, which suggests that the relationship is much more complex than one of exposure and imitation.
This is true too when I write fiction on occasion – I love Terry Pratchett but what I write has little relationship to his writing style, even though he is one of the few authors whose books I have read more than once. So it is not so simple as what goes in is what comes out.

So what are my musical influences? I don’t know. I can’t point to Three Major Influences. It’s as though someone asked “who had the biggest influence on your personality?” My answer to which is ‘stuffed if I know’, and when I try and consider it seriously I have the same problem; 100 possible influences, but which ones are still relevant or are the major ones I’d not be able to determine with any surety.

Alas, I shall keep trying. In mean time, I’ll be putting together a list of my favourite works from the past century.

Stay Tuned!

Who Am I? [Part I: Relating To Music – and the Rest of Reality Too]

Who am I, musically speaking? It’s a tough question to answer as living beings change and grow (and stagnate and wither too…) and where we are at any one time is something that can be quite difficult to pin down, and where we are going long term can be even more difficult to see. Really, adding an extra dimension to our perception of reality would make things a lot easier, although hopefully it would be less disturbing than it was for Donny Darko. As part of my PhD, my supervisor, Robert Davidson, has been encouraging me to look at myself, study myself, and understand myself and how that all fits together to make my music.

So let’s start with a smidge of self-analysis and explore first my relationship with music, and then expand outwards from there.

Relating To Music – and the Rest of Reality Too

I am already quite an introspective person by nature, and my focus in everyday life is definitely more inwards. Events happen but it is the internal consequence of those events that I tend to be orientated towards. This is true with listening to music and also with writing it. My primary way of relating to a piece of music or art etc is:

  1. The music is heard
  2. I have a response to the music in some form
  3. I observe that internal response
  4. If that response is unusual or special then my conscious mind starts to analyse, deconstruct and catalogue the event so as to understand both my response and what caused that response.

For example, I was recently listening to a work by Unsuk Chin for orchestra, and was particularly struck by one of the Timbral combinations which just had a very magical and alluring quality. Part of my brain then catalogued an impression of this timbre and the instrumentation. However, the magic didn’t last for me musically. The sonority was just one in a string of aurally distinct/unrelated sonorities. It was like finding a diamond in a bucket of polished stones, only to have it sink out of reach as other stones were ever added.

This was how it felt to me, and my conscious mind then analysed that experience and came to the follow conclusion:

This is one of the things that I dislike about this style of music, there are so often very striking and beautiful sonorities or moments, that are ultimately seem to be treated more as happy accidents than receiving the attention I feel they deserve.

What is important about this is reflection is that it shows how I relate to music. The importance of music to me is as a means of self-discovery, of internal astronomy, or perhaps archaeology. A way of uncovering what is already there, but unknown or unseen or unexpressed. It is not about subverting aesthetic conventions or trying to start a 3rd Viennese school, or experimenting. For me, this is what art is – a mirror held up to our minds and consciousness so that we can see what they look like. However, because we can’t ever see the entirety or it, or see it with the clarity a mirror lends us for examining the physical reflection, we have to explore this internal world through an ongoing process of exposure to a variety of ‘mirrors’ to see what remains true despite the change. As such, art – well, all of life does this really – provides an opportunity to apply perceptual differentiation to our consciousness as a means of discovering ‘deeper truths’.

However, what is interesting about this observation is that it very closely mirrors my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFP). While I wont go into a lot of detail about this, there are a few choice pieces of information about INFPs which relate directly to my relationship with music. The following, in fact, is the first sentence from the top Myers-Briggs site on google:

As an INFP, your primary mode of living is focused internally, where you deal with things according to how you feel about them, or how they fit into your personal value system. Your secondary mode is external, where you take things in primarily via your intuition.

From <http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP.html>

Both of these elements are clearly at work in my music listening process (outlined above), and it doesn’t surprise me that what is true broadly would be true in this central aspect of my life. While Myers-Briggs typing has never been properly scientifically validated, it does present a format for considering our thinking about and comprehension of reality, and I do feel some of the descriptions can be useful ways of discussing our perception and relationship with reality.

While I likewise think that, even if valid, human’s are more complex than the 16 Myers-Briggs categories can truly account for, there is nonetheless one strong message which has always stuck with me; People are different. Not better, not worse, just different. And so as strange as it is for me to think that some peoples’ relationship with music may be one largely of exploring the sonic frontiers or achieving the realisation of some philosophical ideal through sound, for me at least, such holds little interest ultimately… And that’s fine. And if you’re different, that’s fine too.

Ultimately, my music-making fills the following needs:

  1. Self-exploration, which also feels very similar to what Maslow termed self-actualization.
  2. Connection and Communication. For me, talking with people (with some few exceptions) is not really a comfortable way for me to express the deep undercurrents of thoughts and feelings that go on. Music fills this need – or at least, it can – and allows me to feel connected where my inwards focus can be very isolating. The need to communicate is still very strong, it’s simply that language often seems to lack the subtly required, especially in the spoken form.
  3. Something to do & something to hope for. There is a quote, whose origin seems uncertain, that we humans really need three things to be happy: Something to do, something to hope for, and someone to love. Composing does fill the first two of those needs. It provides a satisfying and rewarding work and countless things to hope for, even if there is plenty of soul-crushing rejection and indifference too.

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.

pasted-image

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:
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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’.

pasted-image-3
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:
pasted-image-4
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:
pasted-image-5

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:

pasted-image-6

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:

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

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The final chord of the sequence is:

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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.):

pasted-image-10

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

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

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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: http://www.math-only-math.com

So first, starting with the following motive:

pasted-image-15

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
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Rhythmic Diminishment

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Inversion:

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Octave displacement:

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

Sequencing:

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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):
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Cannoning:
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(etc…)

Cannoning with the second voice a fourth lower:
(etc…)
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Shifting of the rhythm:
(Probably better described as rhythmic permutation a la Shillinger)

pasted-image-26

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

pasted-image-27


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.