Mixing Things Up
Despite my primary instrumental training having been on guitar, I haven’t written for the instrument since I completed my first handful of pieces. I’ve always said it was to allow me the opportunity to branch out, but there’s an ulterior reasoning as well: Every time I try to write for guitar now, it sounds like the music I used to write, and not what I want to write now. I’ve had a similar experience with the piano; my sound world, or at least some aspects of it, is trapped in what seems like a past life.
It only recently occurred to me why this might be. I haven’t always used the same compositional process; initially I relied on MIDI, and as a result my music sounded a certain way. That changed as I worked more at the guitar and piano. Finally, now that at least conceptually most of the work is in my head, the music has evolved to sound completely different yet again. I had previously given this all to artistic growth, but now I’m not so sure. Since I can, to a greater or lesser degree, play both guitar and piano, I try to compose with them at hand if I’m writing for them, even though I don’t do that with any other instruments.
Involving the motor cortex in this way changes my musical focus. In my usual role as composer, I’ve become primarily interested in the emotional and intellectual; as a performer, in the emotional and visceral; and finally, to the degree that I improvise (but never in public), in the visceral and intellectual. As a result, in all of these roles I have different preferences; only as a listener do I really and truly appreciate all different aspects of musical affection. But really, I believe that’s because my compositional process is thought-based, not action-based. It seems certain to me that the way people compose will affect their output – whether it comes from the ether, as it were, from a spirited improv session, or from a careful working out on the instrument itself. The facilities accessed must play a crucial role in the creative process.
A course which need not be so individually monolithic, it would seem. All my life I’ve been told to find the process that works for me. But why is it a singularity? I don’t know any composers who drastically change their process piece to piece, but why not? If it’s capable of achieving different results, ones that might fit a project better, being scared of changing the sacred compositional process is counterproductive.
Of course, making any scientific pronouncements based on personal observation is fraught with peril. Do other people experience the same thing? There are those who wear only one hat—who compose the only type of music they want to listen to or play. But this is an increasing rarity by my own observation. I have a hard time believing differing methods wouldn’t change what you wrote, even if not so drastically as it affects me.