Composer as Chef…or Architect?

I’m in Charm City at the moment on a short trip designed to fit in as much of Baltimore as I can around the MENC Eastern Division Conference, and after a couple of months of not interviewing any composers, I have been able to schedule a couple of sit-downs in the brief windows the conference is providing.

Yesterday found me in a damn fine pub eating a damn fine burger, hoping no one would trip over my extension cord, and digging deep into the compositional process of my colleague (again, I’m keeping most names out of the column yet till I’m a little further along in the project). This particular composer described a process by which he sings ideas into a digital sequencer, overdubbing layers as he goes, until he’s created several “moments” in whatever piece he happens to be composing. Once satisfied that he has enough material, pencil and paper are used to construct the piece out of those moments and from there, orchestration directly to full score.

This discussion grabbed me in two ways. First, while the concept of singing a musical idea into a recorder isn’t new, I hadn’t thought of using the layered sequencing capabilities of software applications such as Logic or Digital Performer to sing on top of those sung musical ideas. Personally I have found singing over top of notation software playback to be very useful, and it wouldn’t take much to set up a studio to allow for this “layered singing” approach. Granted, some composers might not necessarily feel this process was efficient enough for them (my interviewee was a singer by trade, so it came easily to him), and the technique lacks the kinetic “touch” that many composers desire. This was, however, one of many new and intriguing ways that I have found composers using to hammer out their creations in the privacy of their studios.

Secondly, I was reminded of a pattern that I’ve been noticing ever since I began to interview composers last summer. When it comes to process, I have seen two camps emerge: the architects and the chefs. “Architect” composers tend to emphasize pre-planning of the overall structure of the work first; visual aids such as intricate diagrams are often made as the composer sculpts out the overarching form and various parameter details are filled in. Once the “blueprint” is complete, sketching out musical material for each section can occur. “Chef” composers tend to focus on the material first—I’ve described it as “going shopping for ingredients”—and once they have enough ingredients for the work, they explore the relationships between the different ideas and experiment until they find the proper “recipe”. My colleague hadn’t ever thought of himself as a musical “chef”, but once I described to him these concepts, he readily agreed with my assessment.

Obviously each case is slightly different and most of us have at least passing experiences with both “camps” of creating music, but inevitably everyone who I’ve spoken to so far (and we’re up to 30 now) has demonstrated their membership in one camp or the other. The mystery of how composers create their art is a tricky and ethereal subject to tackle, as it is vastly different in many ways from person to person and project to project, but I hope that as more of these patterns come to the surface, the more of the mystery we can understand.

2 thoughts on “Composer as Chef…or Architect?

  1. mdwcomposer

    Rob, your categorization seems both clear and a very useful model to think about our thought processes. Do you believe it important as a teacher to impart both working methods? It seems to me that the type of piece one is composing is better suited to one approach or the other. For example, a short (or several short) character pieces might better benefit from growing out of material directly related to the instrument(s) at hand, as stride grows directly out of a kind of texture that the piano does well (the “chef”). But a multi-movement / multi-section work (which may not even be long) where the intent of the piece is based on the development of an idea or the relationship between several musical ideas would benefit from more “architect”.

    Of course, many of us tend toward one direction or the other. One composer may not find the idea of a “character piece” a very interesting concept. Another may be intrigued by a particular sound or sonority, and want to show that sound rather than be interested in an unfolding developmental narrative. But the more tools (i.e. ways of thinking) we have in our toolbox, the better, in my opinion. Thanks for the posting.

       – Mark Winges

    Reply
  2. Rob Deemer

    Hey Mark! As a teacher I very much believe that both concepts are useful when working with young composers…the ability to disconnect and reconnect content and structure and to vary which comes first in the process is a good thing on many levels. You’re totally right that the nature of the individual work tends to drive which concept is predominant. What these interviews have shown me is that at some point in a composer’s growth they tend to decide that one method works better for them generally, but that the other is always there when they need it (perhaps it’s because they’ve also decided on what types of pieces they want to focus on in their careers, which might necessitate one concept over the other – cue the chicken/egg discussion).

    BTW – “more tools in the toolbox” has been a mantra of mine ever since I started teaching at SUNY Fredonia, and can be used in conjunction with basic techniques, genres, styles, collaborative projects, etc.

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