I Am A Composer

Pre-ramble


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Gail Wein having compositional thoughts during last year’s ACO “Compose Yourself” class; photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra

I was seven or eight the first time I sketched out a theme on staff paper so I could play it on my clarinet, the instrument I began on before I “graduated” to playing bassoon. It was the Nestle’s Chocolate theme, and my big sister had to show me how to fill out the last measure with quarter rests. Years later I arranged a piece for my high school woodwind quintet—maybe it was even an original theme. For some reason, I thought parallel 5ths would be a good idea. Not so, as I found out in freshman counterpoint class in college (and as the playback confirmed).

Then, I married a composer. I thought that would be as close to writing music as I’d ever get (and no, you haven’t heard of him, and we parted ways years ago).

He seemed awfully nervous when I started getting interested in composing. How hard could it be, after all? Some tools, some ideas, and some paper. Luckily for him, I never found the time between my job as a computer programmer, my avocation as a bassoonist in community orchestras, and my contemporary music radio show. That was about 20 years ago, and for the most part I forgot about the ambition to compose. Then, last spring I heard about the “Compose Yourself” class offered by the American Composers Orchestra—five sessions during which you would learn about composition from the likes of John Corigliano, Tania Leon, Michael Torke, Derek Bermel, Robert Beaser—pretty much some of the best composers in the United States. I was immediately intrigued, and I signed up. This was an experience I could not pass up.

Even as I was signing up for the course, I wasn’t sure it was because I want to compose. Now that I live in New York City, I try to go to at least one concert every day. It’s so easy here. There are scads of choices spanning the big halls like Carnegie, the medium sized places like Symphony Space, and the smaller and less traditional venues like Le Poisson Rouge. On top of that, there are the various noontime weekday concerts, which are all free.

But I digress. The point is, I hear a lot of music, and a lot of that is new music. And I sometimes write about it for various publications. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to get inside the composer’s head, to understand more of the process and therefore have more insight into the music.

As the day of the first class approached, I got a little anxious. Would I be expected to actually write some music? After all, at the final class, ACO musicians were going to be on hand to play some of the new compositions. And how could I possibly pull something (music) out of nothing (thin air)?


Session I: Focus on Strings

The first class is about to begin, and I’m glad they’re holding the sessions at WNYC, the public radio station. This is a place that is reeking with creativity, even in our non-descript conference room. Audio production, something I’ve done a fair amount of throughout my radio career, is quite a bit like composition; putting together sound clips rather than notes.

I arrive pretty early, and as the students trickle in, I notice that some are older than me, some younger, and it is about half and half on the gender mix. Pretty much a cross-section of the people I see at some of the concerts I go to. Based on the introductions, it seems that several are already composers: two of our classmates work in the commercial music business, and most of the others have tried their hand at it one way or another. I’m consciously trying not to be intimidated.

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Derek Bermel gets animated during the “Compose Yourself” class; photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra

Between Derek Bermel’s comments about the composition process, American composers, and orchestration books, ACO assistant concertmaster Bob Chausow’s detailed demonstrations of the violin, and the composer Michael Torke’s drop-the-needle discussion of compositional techniques, it seemed like every sentence has contained an eye-opening revelation.

For instance, did you know that some composers learn by copying over the score of a master’s work? That it really does matter what key a piece is in, beyond temperament and tessitura concepts? That D Major is a great key for violin, in part because of where the open strings fall? I didn’t.

Being a non-string player, some of the most basic facts are revelatory. For instance, the range of the violin can be extended using harmonics, but those notes have a different tone color. These harmonics work best on the lower strings. The notation is Greek to me – and it actually looks like Greek, which I don’t understand, either. I knew about upbows and downbows, but not about sul ponticello, col legno, or con sordini (that last one is “with a mute”).

When it’s Michael Torke’s turn to talk, my eyes continue to bug out of my head. Repetition is one of the most useful compositional tools, he tells us, demonstrating with his work Atop the Eiffel Tower. It builds beauty, structure, and meaning. And then he talks about a concept that’s the most mind-blowing of all to me, to somehow use momentum to create a feeling of inevitability: the next note comes naturally out of the previous passage, as a piece of music unfolds organically.

At the end, we stumble out of the meeting room, most of us dazzled and astonished by what we have learned and have been exposed to in two short hours.

A couple of weeks later, at a concert of new music by younger composers, I am ultra-critical of most of the works. Doesn’t anyone learn—or use—form anymore? Why can’t they find a way to make their work more interesting? And then I realize that I don’t have the chops to write anything close to even the worst piece on the program. And the piece I like most—a cello concerto—makes me think twice about my own choice to write for the cello. There’s so much to know, and so many great sounds that I have no idea how to tell a musician how to make.


Session Two: Focus on Woodwinds

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Robert Beaser presides over a pensive moment during the “Compose Yourself” class; photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra

Attrition has reduced our class size from about 15 to 10. That’s okay; there’s more space in our snug conference room. The variety of snacks has diminished to paper cups full of microwave popcorn. Our topic tonight is woodwinds, and it’s a bassoonist that comes to demonstrate. I’m a little disappointed, because I would have liked to get to know a new instrument. I am quite relieved, however, to NOT have any revelations during his demo.

The following day, I’m at a George Wein (who is likely a distant relative) and Friends concert at Zankel Hall, listening to Warren Vache playing a lovely trumpet solo, with his golden, clear tone. As he intones the first notes of the phrase and melody, I think about the difference between songwriting and classical composition. Certainly they are different, yes. But how and why? Which is harder? And what about improvising, which is sort of composing on the spot. I think Paul McCartney is one of the most brilliant songwriters who ever lived, but to me his classical compositions lack depth. They have a two-dimensional character. Many classical composers draw on folk melodies, scales, and traditional material. What about something else? “Oh Lady Be Good” was one of the first tunes I learned—or tried to learn—to play jazz bassoon. (The other was “There Will Never Be Another You”; I only really learned two.) What if I tried to take that tune, or a fragment thereof, and write a melody around it?

The ensemble is playing Mood Indigo now—three B-flat clarinets all in low register, a really dusky, earthy sound. And now I understand that the register one writes in can make all the difference. The soloists now move into the middle and high register. I’ve not paid attention before now to how much difference register can make in the sound of a piece.


Later in the week, I’m listening to the Klangforum Wien play a trio by Enno Poppe called Trauben. I watch the violinist counting intensely. Do I have to make my piece rhythmically complex? I really love music in triple meter; I am a sucker for 6/8 time. Why write something if I don’t intend for it to be my favorite piece. Right? That doesn’t mean it has to be beautiful, just that I have to love it. So, it has to sound good to me.

What about audience environment? I love this concert and the other offerings at the Austrian Cultural Forum, but the chairs are so damn uncomfortable to sit in. Could it be part of the composer’s responsibility to contribute to the concert environment? Maybe I’d give everyone a pillow. Or earplugs. Or—hey!—eyeshades for an enhanced aural experience. How ’bout that?


Session Three: Focus on Brass

The world’s greatest procrastinator, I had decided that I needed to write at least a little bit before tonight’s class. How to begin, technically, logistically? I don’t have a piano or a keyboard. My bassoon has been in the closet so long I know taking it out will bring up so many other issues that I’d be completely distracted from the actual composition process.

There’s got to be some kind of shareware I can download to just get started, mostly to hear the playback. I know Finale and Sibelius are the industry standards, but I’m just not ready for that. I grab a demo version of some no-name software, download it, enter a few notes and figure out how to hear the playback.

I’m surprised that I write more than one measure. I actually put down two phrases, like an a and a b. I’m not sure I am entirely happy with them, but it’s time to move on to the rest of my day. I feel very satisfied that I have actually begun. Frankly, I had felt somewhat frozen by an unnamed fear of putting down my very first notes on paper.

Tania León is the guest composer at tonight’s class. She’s one of my favorites, both as a person and as a composer, so I’m disappointed when she has to rush in and rush out, hurrying to get to a dinner meeting. She plows through a couple of her pieces, and we follow along in the score as the recordings play. With this, she demonstrates the importance of “white space,” unpredictability and the element of surprise, and her use of poly-rhythms to bring the ensemble together in her piece Inura

After Tania’s whirlwind tour of her compositional process, we have our brass lesson. Derek had promised us that, no matter what instrument we intended to write for, we would want to switch to French horn after hearing Danielle Rose’s demonstration. And I have to say, he was right (though I did not actually change my own composition). It’s pretty amazing what you can do with the horn, via the overtone series, and quite impressive to watch Danielle play about four octaves of arpeggios by changing only her embouchure. The whole “horn in F” topic proves pretty confusing—if your piece is in C, do you write it in F for the horn? Or does it just sound like it’s in F? That will probably become very (painfully) clear when I sit down to actually write for horn and another instrument.

It’s three days later, and Lyn Liston, the coordinator of the ACO “Compose Yourself” program emails to let us know that we are to submit our compositions to Derek by May 1 in order to have it performed at our last class two weeks later. I immediately shoot back a note complaining that she has effectively moved my deadline up by two weeks. Since I planned to only finish the composition with a gun to my head (i.e., the deadline), I feel the figurative trigger click near my ear.


Session Four: Focus on Percussion

Jim Preiss gives us our percussion instruction in class tonight. “Less is more,” he urges, and shows us all manner of percussion instruments, techniques, and notation. I think notation will be the hardest part, as it’s so foreign to everything else I’ve experienced in music. I’m quite fascinated by all the different ways one can play something as simple as a triangle. Jim mentions that percussionists call some of their implements “toys”… but that we should not!

John Corigliano is today’s guest composer. He tells us he thinks of percussion as the “spice rack” of the orchestra. His compositional philosophy is similar to that of a sculptor: “The piece is the piece—you work inward till you find the notes.” He shows us how he constructs a piece from the top down, beginning with an enormous architectural sketch depicting the shape of the entire piece. It looks a bit like a landscape of mountains. In it, he’s indicated various intensities and peaks in the music. He starts there and works inward to the details of the piece.

I find the radically different approaches that composers take particularly fascinating. I had a long talk with Joan Tower recently about her compositional process, and it’s essentially the opposite: She begins with a single note, explores where it goes, and builds the piece up and around from there. It reminds me of my days as a computer programmer; there is “top down programming” and “bottom up programming”. It is essentially the same concept, but uses completely different sides of the brain.

When I tried to put my first notes on paper two weeks ago, my first question for myself was, “How to begin?” Am I a top-down composer, thinking of overall form first; or am I a bottom-up composer, starting with one note or theme or idea and working it out to see what it becomes. I had decided I’m top-down, and I tried to notate one of the melodies that had been rolling around in my head. The first thing I noticed was that it had been a quarter-century since I’d taken an ear-training course, and what I notated didn’t match what was in my head. Even moving those notes up and down by half-steps didn’t resolve that. I decided that either my head is out of tune, or I’m in a microtonal world. I decided against microtonality for this first attempt, so I compromised with getting notes from my inner-ear to the page.

Then I left for a week and a half of travel. Though I had my laptop with me the entire time, I predictably avoided the task entirely. When I return home, however, resolved that there is really nothing stopping me from actually composing, I sit down at 11 p.m. and somewhat miraculously come up with a few more measures to add to the paltry six I had written almost a month ago. Hmmm. Looks a little short. Since I seem to have two different sections, I decide to repeat the first section for a classic A-B-A form. Thirty-six measures, one solo cello. Is it enough? I decide it is, for my first attempt. At 2:15 a.m., I submit the piece by email. I also send it along to a couple of my composer friends.

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Less than ten hours later, Derek phones me. It’s a good piece, he assures me. Is it really my first? A few technical tweaks later, and the final copy is ready to go. Margaret Brouwer emails me. She likes my piece, too, and compliments me on my use of rhythm and pitch. I waver between feeling proud of myself and feeling catered to by my friends and colleagues.

I am a composer! I think I can say that after having written one piece.

In the wake of my actually completing my first composition, I attend an Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert. Listening to Rorem and Stravinsky, I reflect on why Stravinsky sounds like Stravinsky, whether it’s Pulcinella or L’Histoire or Firebird. I feel like I now have a bit more insight into this question, though I am still not quite able to articulate it. The Rorem songs strike me as having an “American” style, and I reflect on why I think this is so. This particular cycle is reminiscent of both John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs and Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer, 1915. It seems to be beyond classroom analysis for me.


Session Five: Performance

The moment of truth! It’s the final class, the one during which our pieces are to be performed by members of the ACO. Just like a “real” concert, there is a printed program, and I have to say it’s a real thrill to see my name in print as a composer. I am kind of sorry that I titled my piece so frivolously: Diddles. I can’t help thinking that my composition is the moral equivalent of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” so simple as to be trivial.

My piece comes about halfway through the program; eighth out of 13. While I’m listening to the performances of my classmates’ work, I am experiencing a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I am so anxious about the impending performance of my masterwork—and so flummoxed after hearing it—that it’s hard to register my feelings about the other music. And on the other hand, I’m impressed to the point of intimidation about how accomplished the other students seem to be as composers, and how good their music sounds. Nine chose to write for more than one instrument, and I am impressed all over again by those who dared to traverse into that additional dimension of composition.

During the performance, considerations came up that we, as new composers, never thought about, e.g. where the musicians would need to breathe and, in my case, tempo and articulation. Many notational issues that we take for granted are not to be assumed. It was also interesting to see how the players interpret what’s not specifically notated, like articulation, fermatas, tempi, and phrasing. Now I truly understand so much more about how much a given performance of the same piece can vary, depending on the interpretations of the performers. When ACO’s cellist began to play Diddles—much too slowly—it did not occur to me to stop him and ask him to do it in the tempo that I had imagined it. In retrospect, I am a little horrified that I had overlooked such a crucial and now obvious element: notating the tempo. Over the entire 36 measures of the piece, I kept thinking about how his performance didn’t sound like cheap electronic software playback that I used at home. Was it better or worse? I can’t say for sure; my memory is clouded by the fact that I felt slightly embarrassed at the public display of my creativity, and I was anxious for it to be over.

Before each of our pieces was performed, we had a chance to get up and say something about the piece. My comments focused on the process, and the unexpected fear that surrounded it. I also touched on how similar it was to the experience of writing an article – the foot-dragging, procrastination, delay, and ultimate delight in actually creating something and completing it. Ironically, the person whose piece was performed right after mine stood up and said, “I had some things I was going to say about my piece, but Gail just said everything that I was about to tell you.” Wow! It was surprising and somewhat comforting to know that I was not alone.

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Now, nearly a year after the first meeting of “Compose Yourself,” I still think about the experience. From time to time, I run into a few of the classmates of mine who had similar backgrounds, and we always have the same conversation. “Have you written anything since the course?” they ask. No is usually the answer. It was more about the learning experience than about actually writing music, we both agree.

On the other hand, when I am surrounded by composers, which I often am at many of the new music concerts that I take in, I smile and chime in, “I’m a composer, too.” And then I laugh, because 36 measures of Diddles for solo cello hardly puts me in the same league as Mozart, Mahler, or Moravec.

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Gail Wein


Gail Wein is a New York-based music journalist and media consultant. Her writing credits include articles for the Washington Post, Symphony magazine, Playbill, Musical America and NewMusicBox, broadcast features on National Public Radio, and CD booklet notes for Joan Tower’s triple Grammy Award-winning Made in America on Naxos American Classics. Ms. Wein’s diverse career path runs the gamut from producer for NPR’s Performance Today and general manager of the contemporary chamber ensemble Voices of Change to stints as a computer programmer and an actuary.