music composing

Pacing Pt. I

One of the trickiest aspects of writing music is pacing. Good pacing happens when the sounds do the perfect thing at the perfect moment. Because musicians often practice and perfect minute details of surface rhythms, melodies, harmony, motifs, and so on, they must be careful to not overlook the big picture events. I struggle with this as well in my composing--after finessing ten seconds of music for over an hour, I tend to view everything at a microscopic level. But when I take a day to step back and precisely place the sounds where they need to be, it is magical.

I'll be back with my thoughts and methods in pacing my music another day, but today I want to simply reflect on good pacing. Great orchestration is often the result of pacing. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, both excellent and visionary orchestrators, knew the right time to bring an instrument in or take an instrument out. They also knew how to bring a new sound in or out: Should the performer play suddenly or should they softly enter in from the texture? And they knew which sound should come in or drop out at the perfect time: I recall in particular the celestial violin note in La mer that backs the last iteration of the melody before the the exhilarating lunge to the finish. It is the right sound that enters the right way at the right time. The good performer will take the opportunity and run with it, and the good composer will not miss an opportunity to make as many of these special moments as possible.

More thoughts on this later, but if you're in the Phoenix area, be sure to come hear Julia Lougheed's concert that includes my piece Stone in Hand, performed by her, Charlotte Ethington, and Andrew Lineweaver!

Writing Notes

When writers have an idea, they jot their thoughts down in a notebook or in a Word document. From those first words, they formulate sentences, paragraphs, and eventually articles and books, some spanning hundreds of pages with millions of words. When music composers have an idea, they write some type of pattern of notes or rhythms on a paper. Or scribble some weird shape or texture that only they understand... or rush to a private place to record themselves singing some type of disjunct squeals (in the mind they are violins!)... They soon  find the nearest piano, only to realize that their idea is a lot more complicated than they anticipated. The rhythm is somewhere between a quintuplet and a sextuplet and the imagined colors seem impossible to render with an orchestra, let alone a woodwind trio or piano. Instead of writing in a well-understood language, composers must translate expansive ideas into something that their performer will understand and interpret well. 

Why is communicating with music notation so much harder than writing in a language? While words have a specific, distinguishable, and clear-ish meaning, the palette of existent sounds in the universe is endless (in fact, all words in every language are simply a subset of possible sounds). Music notation focuses on pitch, rhythm, and meter, and with less clarity it includes abbreviations and symbols for dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. While helpful, information is lost in the process of notation. There are twelve notes to somehow represent every frequency between a given pitch and double its frequency. Rhythms are only divisible by two and must be written as a tuplet to be more specific (except for the first subdivision in compound time, which happens to trip performers up constantly). Dynamics are represented by only 6 reasonable levels (pp-ff). And articulations are often entirely dependent on context and are to be interpreted from a combination of dots, lines, carrots, and curves above notes.

There are creative ways to expand the ability of the music notation, but performers will attest that even with these basic limitations, it is challenging to render a sophisticated piece of music well! Unlike the languages we speak that use a limited number of sounds and largely ignore pitch (at least for denotation), music may involve any possible combination of pitches and rhythms in each short gesture, which results in millions of possible combinations when only using a few notes (which is why performers are often hidden in practice rooms for several hours a day). In essence, notation cannot capture the nuanced nature of sound, but even in its limited capacity, the human mind must work tirelessly for years to communicate through it.

So what is the benefit of written music when so many cultures and notable people have created stunning artistry through an oral tradition? Perhaps all the stress about notes is because we forget they are indeed notes. However detailed or planned out by the composer,  notes do little more than give the performer instructions to enact, recalling information to complete the task. But how can a performer recall something in music they have never read before? The answer to this question is: Western music is also an oral tradition, as is all music (and all languages first and foremost)! Deeper than notes is the essence of the music itself, and musicians who expose themselves to a large and diverse selection of sounds will understand and accurately interpret this essence.

As our world becomes more interconnected, the expectations for musicians will increase, for Charlie Parker, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sting, and the Beatles all had something to say that Mozart's style did not (and we can't ignore it!). It is the job of the composer, and always has been, to communicate what they envision in the clearest manner possible, despite the limitations of the notes. Then, with whatever intelligible scribbles are on the music stand, the performer pulls from thousands of years of culture acquired by ear and a lifetime of practice  and continues that oral tradition all musicians preserve. The reasons why composers and performers would specialize in their respective roles and not cross over is a topic for another day (and it's honestly a mystery to me), but in the end, music is much more than the notes. But I'll toil away to get them on the page anyway because, while unclear and somewhat vague, they allow performers, audiences, and me to share in the communal experience they represent--the experience we have from our cultures, life events, and perhaps from things deeper and more eternally rooted in essence than we can comprehend.

Composer Opportunity List

Over this summer, I put quite a few hours into compiling a list of competitions, festivals, and residencies for music composers. There are literally hundreds of competitions yearly. Some are highly reputable and others are simply ridiculous. Some offer thousands of dollars and others offer a performance in a remote place on the other side of the world without any travel or lodging support and will not award you unless you spend thousands of dollars to attend. Some have no entry fee, and others ask for $100 to apply, as if it were a college application (or, perhaps more accurately stated, an overpriced lottery ticket). Some are aimed towards specific audiences (high schoolers, professionals, Canadians, New Yorkers, females, Jews, UK residents, LDS, NYC residents, people who can make a slam dunk, people who live in the New York metropolitan area) and others are for everyone who has placed a note on paper. Some are looking for graphic scores, electronic works, or the avant-garde and others are looking for that one song you heard with your grandma at the park in the afternoon 17 years ago at the county 4H fair. And many of these competitions are actually a commission for the composer; in other words, your reward is to put in another 50+ composing hours only to have it performed by an orchestra who expects you to print out the parts yourself and send them across the world (postage costs are yours)in a remote place in the Philippines that can only be approached by veering off from a guided kayak tour, and the expenses are not covered (the location is trendy though and would pretty neat on your CV, right?). On the flip side, these commissions provide opportunities to write for some of the best ensembles in the world and often provide a nice commission stipend for the composer. In the end, it takes lots of time to figure out what a competition expects of a performer, if the composer is even allowed to participate, and what possible expenses will result. It is up to each composer to decide which competition fits their writing, level of accomplishment and musical finesse, and aspirations.

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Festivals are similar. The entry fees range from free to $125 or more, they are often in remote places and do not offer travel expenses, and sometimes the tuition is thousands of dollars over the summer. Yet, there are some that pay for every dime of expenses involved, even providing a stipend and future opportunities for composers who make the cut. Some are for less than a week, while others are for an entire summer (which is great if paid for, but remember that you are sacrificing an income regardless!). Again, it takes planning and careful decision-making to apply for and attend festivals.

Now, why would anyone go through the hassle of applying to competitions and festivals? Well, my experience has been wonderful so far. Through competitions and festivals, I meet new people, collaborate with others (and learn how to successfully do so), receive good recordings of my music that will help in future applications (including schooling, employment, and more competitions!), and receive additional opportunities, including seeing different parts of the country or the world. Several of my pieces over the past three years have been written for performers I met at festivals and were excellent opportunities for me. Also, festivals in particular often provide musical training and seminars not typically covered in a college setting. The Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival focuses on musician entrepreneurship, in addition to working with performers on a woodwind quintet, and other festivals like the Atlantic Music Festival give composers the opportunity to meet a variety (like 10) of well-known composers, which helped me decide where I would and would not apply for doctoral programs. While I may have expended more money than I wish to admit (thanks student loans!), I believe in worthy investments, especially when the competition for teaching jobs and future professional gigs is fierce and requires a solid list of experiences.

Without further ado, this is the composer opportunity list. Please join me in creating the most efficient compilation there is of these competitions and festivals. Keep the format I have laid out (or make it neater without losing any info). Share it with friends, students, and teachers. I have designed this list to be available in Google Calendar, but you will have to contact me directly with a gmail account to be added to those lists. Thanks for being part of my network, where we can cooperate, rather than compete, for music's sake. May the odds ever be in your favor.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/17e91Xp2wl8huvgtR0dAxaWMTxVjAnmGE_LKWJktwP3g/edit?usp=sharing

Musings on the Creative Process

The artist looks at a canvas or an empty notebook (with or without staff paper) and sees infinite possibilities. For me, the paralyzing force at the beginning is because of a lack of ideas. Instead, it is the great question, "Which direction, if taken, will be worth the most?" Now, this leads into another question, "What worth can music have in the first place?" It seems like the majority of listeners believe that music has a purpose; however, it varies greatly among them. Many see it as a form of entertainment, others fall close to worshiping it, and then there are many who desire nothing more than background noise so that they do not have to face silence. I personally do not see music as such, though I realize that music has to have some sort of entertaining feature to maintain attention, can be worshipful and bring spiritual experiences to many people including myself, and by nature fills silence naturally. Yet, I still do not have an answer for one reason why music should be written, and that is fantastic. I lean towards creating works that introduce fresh sound worlds, invigorate the spirit, and explore how both tradition and experimentation can come together in a work. But whatever the case, none of this really tells us anything about the empty canvas. Returning to the first question, when we decide a purpose, now we need to make the choice of what we must do to achieve that end. Or not. Honestly, I often improvise. Or I start to do stream-of-consciousness writing (in words).  In the end, the direction we need to take is to take a direction. The first thing an artist needs is material.

Now I have this schematic of the digestive system that will also symbolize the Passion story of Jesus Christ. How did I get there? I thought that it was strange that the wording about the Resurrection is that death would be "swallowed up" in life. For me, I chose this as inspiration because there are a lot of decisions that I didn't want to make myself. The added bonus is that no matter which way the project turns I still have a religious component to it, fulfilling one of my joys in composing. How does this topic decide musical things for me? In this case, it gives me form. I have three parts of the Passion, suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, the death on the Cross, and the Resurrection. To swallow food, there are similarly three phases. This tells me that I can have three movements to the work. Then, I study how food is swallowed. Food is moistened by saliva, ground into pieces, and falls to the back of the throat. There is nothing emotional about those things, but I can make textures in the music that first become mushy and lose their form, then dissonantly grind one note against another, and finally let the movement have some sort of release, perhaps using some sort of balanced binary form. In other words, the form is AB and coda with A material. Yet, the one complication is, "How can I relate this to the suffering in the Garden?" Because I already have form from the digestive element, I simply apply different emotions related to willful suffering throughout the movement. Yes, it is quite dark, but I think of harmonic language, melodic content, and rhythmic motives can show hesitation, nervousness, anxiety, and at the fore, pain, and adjust my form accordingly. I believe that emotions can sometimes be mapped onto the physical experience of the performers, so when I write these types of passages, I think of how the violin bow will attack the notes, how the clarinet wind will feel as it articulates and how the fingers will feel as they noodle around the instrument, and how the piano hands will touch the keys (or bang the keys). If you ask any of my performers who have played this sort of music, they agree that some moments require suffering or patience. I assure them that it is completely intentional.

Another consideration in the creative process is how God created the universe. He first took material and formed it. Then He shaped it with all sorts of land and water features. Then He created opposition, setting the light apart from darkness. Then life started to happen. In my example, I gave the piece a form. I shaped it to some degree, and I plan to shape it more as time goes by (which still happens while we are on the earth--tectonic plates are still shifting!). Now, I need to have opposition. The most primitive opposition in the toolbox is sound and silence. Then come the differences between the sounds. I have at my disposal high sounds and low sounds, long durations and short durations, timbre varieties, articulation, and dynamics with which I can create opposing forces. Then, I have more complex tools to continue this work that deal with how our mind processes melody, harmony, and meter. This is where the second moment of writer's block hits. "What do I do with all these choices?!" The answer depends on the approach taken. I chose to use fourths and fifths to represent perfection and godliness, rooting it into the perfect interval association from the Medieval ages, and I chose to make minor 2nd configurations into a suffering motive. The task for me is to give the piece life by creating some sort of interaction between these two elements that persists throughout the work, at least for this piece. In traditional narrative form, one of the two ideas would triumph over the other, as if it were battle. I could I have chosen to make godliness triumph over suffering. Yet, Christ chose to keep the wounds in His hands and His feet, which meant that it might not be about putting the suffering behind necessarily. The suffering itself had value. I chose to end the piece by combining perfect fifths and fourths with dissonant seconds, especially in the piano, to create what I personally believe are rich, beautiful sonorities. My oppositions mold into one to become a living thing, as body and spirit come together, first for the spirit to subjugate the body but then to be united eternally in resurrection.

I referred to my thesis piece, Swallowed Up, in that creative process. Of course, there are many decisions to be made, but ultimately the secret to the creative process is making decisions that will impact the course of the music-making, even if it may lead to disaster. I completely scratched my first version of the first movement. I said that I wanted to imitate mushiness in the music. I used a system to increase harmonic fuzz, and it resulted in something that did not work when it came time to make substantial melodies (which I valued in this piece). The third movement also had several prototypes that were well under par. Without those choices, I would not have formed the resultant work.

This is one way to write music. I like metaphors because they give me structure in the endless choices I need to make. Mine are scriptural because my mind is there most often; however, I know of other composers who have used resources such as the Theory of Evolution, The Art of War, painting techniques, and all sorts of word writing practices to formulate their creative processes and specific pieces. If you are an artist, what is your metaphor?