How, What & Why?
I don’t teach much these days. I am happiest when writing music and am able to do this full time. But, when I do have the opportunity to teach composition, I start the lesson or workshop off with 3 simple questions “How?, What? & Why?’. These questions might seem strange for a composition class but they get to the core of who a composer is or could become as an artist. At the Outreach Festival in Schwaz, Austria, I teach a workshop to local composers, songwriters, and instrumentalists who are just beginning to think about composing, and when these questions are posed to them, I see a light bulb go off. They never thought about asking these things of themselves, they simply wrote music. But when we start investigating these questions we find certain things we are doing that could be better, or even change completely some of the practices we use to write music, practices that come from habit and instinct as opposed to deep understanding and inquiry into one's artistry.
How?. Well ‘how’ could mean many things. We can talk about the skills needed to compose music, like knowledge of theory, instrumentation, orchestration etc. But my ‘how’ is a reaction to a question many students ask me. “How do you start a piece?”. It’s a fair question, except it presumes there is a correct way. So the first rule I teach is, that there are no rules with ‘How?’. How does it work for you? and does it work? and if it does, then it is the correct ‘How’. So I ask each of the students to show me how they start a piece of music and am usually surprised that they never really thought about it. Its again instinctive or routine which turns into some kind of music, which of course usually sounds like something else. The ‘How’ of composition can’t be taught in one workshop, so each student shows me their skills and ways they go about starting and writing a piece of music. Many get stuck after their initial idea, so we discuss the development of that idea and other ideas that can be generated from the first. We talk about form and the various ways you can travel through a piece of music etc. But with multiple students in the workshop, it's hard to really get into the 'how', you can just show new directions and techniques that the students can take away and experiment with later.
From my compositions, as an example, I can show them many pieces where I use these various techniques. I usually choose a piece that has a minimal amount of materials and much development of that material. One piece like this of mine is ‘Fix II’. Originally for percussion quartet, it has only one melody in it, and the rest is rhythm and color around this melody to develop it. The ’II’ version is scored for a ‘Soldiers Tale’ instrumentation and it’s all about color, groove, and multiple tempos at once, but still just one melody and a few harmonies.
Here is Absolute Ensemble performing this piece:
And here is the score to it:
What?. So what kind of music are you going to write? For many students, this is again instinctive, or they say “I write what I hear in my head”. Which is fair enough, so I ask them to play me their music, and many times I will agree with them, yes it is what you are hearing in your head, but what you hear in your head happens to be music that you hear from outside sources. It has not gone through your artistic personality, you are merely reshuffling notes and rhythms around and saying things you hear from others. It sounds like everything else and has no unique voice. At this point, we get into what makes a great composition? The answer I try to convey to them is that its a personal and unique voice that makes a good composer (more on that in the ‘why’). To talk further on this, I, of course, show them what I know best; my own music. What do I write? One thing I say immediately is whether people like or hate my music after they hear it, they all agree that it has my own unique sound. And for me, that's the compliment, regardless of the listeners' tastes. I then tell them something I always explain when people ask me how I write and what music I write. I live with an idea in my head for a while and before I start writing one note, I have the piece finished from beginning to end. I don’t know any of the notes, or rhythms, or the exact form, etc. But, I know the full essence of the composition. And the essence is what makes this music me, it is the unique and personal part that I can’t put into words. If I could put it into words, there would be no reason for me to write the music. So I have the essence, then all that is left, is to sit down and put down the little black dots and various directions that make up a musical score that will convey this essence that I created. This part is a journey and it requires much skill in composition and the ability to convey your musical ideas to others using the various languages of musical notation, and/or creating your own language for that purpose. I personally love that part of composing, that process is enjoyable. But I do not get to that process until I find the essence, the ‘What am I saying?’. So the ‘What?’ is, not what does the music sound like? or what kind of style or genre am I writing in? but ‘What am I saying?’ what am I trying to convey to the world that is uniquely me. Once you find that ‘what’, and of course learn the craft of composition, a good composer you can make.
Every piece I write goes through the above process, so I show the students a bunch of my music and talk briefly on each composition. Again you can’t explain the essence, but you can talk about certain ideas that come from the original essence of the composition.
Here is my piece called ‘Essence’. Yes, I wrote a piece on the word I use so often to describe my musical process.
It's for piano and drum set performed by Derin Öge and Cesare Papetti from my album
‘Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death’
Here is the score:
Why?. So I guess the question that is the strangest to student composers is “why?”. Why are you writing music?. To most the answer is obvious; “I have a need to express something, and I am doing it through music”. Which is a fine explanation, that is how most people begin their compositional interests, and this should be encouraged in young people starting out. But I want the students to expand on this thought, and really ask themselves the value of their contribution to the sounds being created in the world. So I describe to them my “why?”. My why starts off simply, I write music that I want to hear and do not hear anywhere else in the world. I literarily write for an audience of one, me, who is in search of a certain sound that I can’t find anywhere else, thus I have to create it myself. Which to many students sounds like the opposite of what they are attempting since many of them are trying to copy music they hear and like and recreate it from their perspective. usually, it just sounds the same as what they are recreating and lacks a personal and unique voice. So I continue with my ‘Why’. Besides writing music that I want to hear and cannot find in the world, is the music I am writing uniquely me, does it express a new essence, does it bring something in to this world that has not yet existed and will it ask people to stretch their understanding of the sublime, of art, of humanity in some way. The ‘why’ of a piece of music can get very philosophical, but I believe the answer to the ‘why’ is exactly what creates original and beautiful art. In class, we ponder on this topic and I ask each student to think about the pieces they brought and see if it stands up to the ‘why’. Most realize their music might lack in that original unique essence you can only get from deep meditation on the ‘why’ and I hope they leave the class with a new outlook on composition and how to approach it with their own inner voice.
As an example of creating something that does not exist in the world and I myself have to create it, I show them my compositions that started of with a ‘what if?’. For example, what would it sound like if you mix dodecaphonic music (twelve-tone technique) with American Old-time music (North American folk music)? I have not heard this in the world and I want to hear it, so that is why I am creating it. Here is my piece that does just that:
performed by the Outreach Orchestra at the Outreach Festival 2013
Or a different type of question. What would it sound like if I video my friend Keve Wilson roller skating and playing oboe at the same time, then taking the audio from that and making an electronic track with which I will create a piece for 2 violins, cello, piano and video Samplestra (pre-recorded electronics)? Here is the answer to that question:
performed by Lynn Bechtold and Mioi Takeda - violins, Jennifer DeVore - cello,
Vicky Chow - piano. As part of Ladies First concert presented by Composers Concordance
at Bohemian National Hall.
Or, what kind of sound would I get if I combine very distinct musical forms? Like for instance; punk rhythms, string orchestra music, quotes from Handel, Mendelssohn, and American folk melodies.
performed by the Composers Concordance String Orchestra,
Thomas Carlo Bo - conductor. From the concert 'Legends' as part of Composers Concordance
3rd Annual Festival: 'Timbre Tantrum'
We go through many of my pieces that start with questions that when answered and executed properly, created original and unique musical compositions. Each having my musical language as the glue that unites them and yet each one still retaining its own distinctive sound world. I encourage students to search for the same in themselves, to ask the hard question of why am I creating this piece of music, how will it progress humanity artistically, what am I saying that has not been said before and will my distinct voice add to the sublime.