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Thursday, 22 January 2009

Questions for composers

When you compose, do you start with the form or with the content? Do you decide on the structure before you gather materials? Do the materials suggest a structure to you or vice versa?

I've never been so good at structure and I really need to do something about this. I wonder if there are any good books on musical structure? Maybe I should try to write some stuff with historical structures. Not sontata form, though. When I was at Wesleyan, I realized that I wrote everything in sonata form and stopped doing that, but I didn't really replace it with any other structures, just sort of trying to intuit things for every piece.

What pieces are best to study for cues into form and structure? I've been thinking of looking at John Cage's Square Root pieces, something my supervisor has encouraged.

But I think I should also get a book. Back in my miss-spent youth, I thought I wouldn't need to know anything about non-electronic music because the world was shiny and new and out with the old and in with whatever I was doing. So I didn't pay a lot of attention in some of my classes. Much like when I was 17, and similarly had an idea that I would never need to know statistics.

So, due to a lack of diligence in my studies, I'm totally unclear on how this works at all, really. I imagine that it's like having a bunch of plastic boxes, like you use for food storage. And in each one, there's a different sort of food. Each like a course of a fancy meal. So they all go together, but they're all separate. However, they probably have ingredients in common like olive oil. Or pumpkin both in the pie and the soup. However, this metaphor is crap, as it's non temporal. Pumpkin soup is a gestalt. It doesn't change over time. Maybe it's like stanzas in a poem or chapters in a book? I imagine that stanza length is decided a head of time, whereas chapters seem to stem from the content that fills them?

Is it ironic not to have a structure of understanding to apply to structure?


Dan said...

I'm not much of a composer; but I usually just let the sound fill its space until I get bored and move on. My music is not very good. I have no idea what I'm doing, and it shows.

When writing, though, I try to stay consistent. Avoid one long chapter and a short chapter at a random interval. But I like patterns, so that's me. I also like the punch of short there is a goal there.

I remember one of my poetry professors, Lucia Getsi if I remember correctly, said something to the effect of, a form is the frame that you use to ornament with your words. She said something more elegant; something like it's the fence upon which the grapes you will grow and the wine the reader makes from the fruits of your labor. Something. It was 10 years ago...

Matt said...

Most of the time when I'm composing something (not that I really do much of that these days), I spend most of the time trying to _fight_ structure. It's very instinctive for me to even out phrases, balance voicings, use regular times, etc. If I didn't control my subconscious urges to balance everything, it would all sound like Bach or the Beatles, albeit with no really good souce material.

So, I deliberately try to undermine the order-- tonically, rhythmically, harmonically, or with timbre. The thing I try to do is just to taint it a _little_. I feel like there is a sweet spot between rigid order and total chaos. When in doubt, I try to lean toward the former.

I'd rather have a piece that can engage a casual listener, like, "hey! dig this catchy little ditty!" and then frustrate the listener just enough to keep them engaged. Clipping phrases, setting up an obvious cadence and then swerving right before the resolution, whatever. I'd rather do that than the converse-- trying to come off as very chaotic and letting that unfold into something very ordered. If I'm doing something like that, I just want it to coalesce enough to give the listener hope that I'm going to pull it together and then wander off again.

I think "adding a little frustration to the listener's ear, but not enough to scare them off" is what I aim for. Of course, the "listener" is mostly me. You can never really tell how other people are processing your compositions.

For a while, I had a great need to finish every piece the way that it started, to somehow justify the stuff in the middle. I tried to break out of this by making what I call "AB" songs. I tinkered with deliberately putting the A/B switch at the "phi point", but then played around with having a small A with a larger B-- without making the A sound like an intro.

I always think a lot about structure, because I try so hard to break it, but I can never really let my self go wild.

Heather Perkins said...

I actually like structure - I always felt like the token "pop" artists at Mills! - but I don't always get a structure. Sometimes I get an amoeba. And sometimes I turn it around, if I get too attached to something.

Like, if I find I'm having a tendency to start small, get big, then end small again in too many pieces in a row, I'll start the piece out with a huge KARAAANG!

As far as how a composition starts, sometimes, especially when working with choreographers, I draw out a graphic score to help me. But usually I just start with a single sound or musical idea that suggests the whole piece and structure. And honestly? Sometimes I just stumble across a cool title or phrase, and that leads the process.

When I get stuck I occasionally use Eno's Oblique Strategies. I actually have a set someone made for me, but there's a Mac widget too. I love them.

I get very thinky about pieces sometimes, but more often I find myself working very quickly and intuitively, and then rearranging much later - or not at all.

Interesting discussion, Les, I look forward to reading more. Thanks!