Constraints on Creativity

I’ve been visiting my parents down in Knoxville this week, and while describing the pieces I’m currently composing they asked me a good question: why don’t I call a thirty-minute composition for cello and piano a sonata?

As I tried to explain why the piece wasn’t really a sonata, my father interjected that he had gotten it now: “I see, you probably don’t want to be encumbered by all the constraints that come with traditional forms.”

That’s half true: while it is the case that sonata form in particular would have been an ungainly straitjacket for my project, it is not true—although many people seem to assume it–that I and most contemporary composers take issue with musical constraints per se; in fact, I thrive on constraints, just as I expect many composers do.

For me, asking “what form is this piece in?” is really asking two important questions: how is time divided into sections, and perhaps more importantly, what is the relationship between the sections? Right now I’m also working on a longish string quartet, in which I’ve opted to make every movement a kind of “broken” song. The movements are unambiguously tonal songs, but from the (often limiting) implications of that choice come some interesting ideas (including a strophic song in which each verse doubles in length, and a set of two mini-movements each for only two players that are ultimately combined into a third statement for the entire quartet. It’s one of the most challenging feats of counterpoint I’ve yet attempted, and not something that would have occurred to me without the need to somehow work around my initial mandate. It’s in this sense that I find working with restrictions inspiring, not stifling—whether they arise out of form, genre, or even the need to write for a pianist with only one functional hand.

2 thoughts on “Constraints on Creativity

  1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Dan- your parents asked an important question, and it’s one we should probably be asking ourselves more often. Form is easily neglected in favor of the juicier fruits of pitch relationships, rhythmic devices, or postmodern commentary. Linda Dusman, my former teacher, taught me however that form holds a unique position of importance, as it is one aspect of music which is perceptible to all listeners.
    Sonata form developed as a device to create tension by means of contrasting ideas, with the overall premise being a departure and return. The Baroque was content to limit each piece to a single “mood,” and so there was no need for contrast. Tension appeared on a much smaller scale. The Classical and Romantic sonata is a very subtle coloring of a piece, as it often guides a sort of musical narrative. Take Brahms’ String Sextet no. 1 (in Bb Major), 2nd movement- although it’s not in sonata form, it is a clear example of juxtaposed sections of music which are immediately identifiable to any listener as a shift in mood.
    What Linda taught me was that now, in contemporary music- as then in the Romantic- tension is not engaging without a mind given to proportion. Nowadays, when music is often littered with more complex sounds and compositional devices, formal divisions act as signposts for the listener and player alike. Music which obviously neglects it is successful only when it does so intentionally- Feldman, Cage, for instance. I think this is something that composers need to think of- that sonata form now serves as a reminder of the necessity of attention to formal detail.

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  2. rskendrick

    I agree, form is often overlooked, but as I’ve gotten a bit more seasoned, I now regard it as the most important element in my own compositions. No matter what modern methods are being used, I believe listeners still need a sense of sections, and internal relationships between the material in one section to identify it as such.

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

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