Regular readers may have realized by now that the fodder for these columns often comes from conversations with fellow student composers both here at the University of Illinois and elsewhere. Such conversations are usually civil and collegial, sometimes heated, and occasionally downright furious. Recently, though, a discussion of compositional process with another Illinois composer took on an entirely different tone: She was utterly baffled to hear that my music has its origins in apparently Rube Goldberg-esque precompositional contraptions, and I was amazed to learn that her highly rational, structured pieces are composed in a completely intuitive manner. We were like a raven and a writing desk.
Since this revelation, however, it has occurred to me that our music is probably less a result of our processes (be they serial, algorithmic, intuitive, aleatoric, or whatever) than vice versa: We want to meet certain goals in our music, so we’ve accumulated, synthesized, and exercised skills that allow us to accomplish these goals. In assaying our music, we’ve made adjustments—calibrations, so to speak—to our processes that have, in turn, aimed our music more accurately at its objectives.
I enjoyed the peek through Randy Nordschow’s compositional window he allowed us in his recent post (“Confessions of a Speed Freak“), and I wonder if such a radical way of composing conforms to this model. Speaking for myself, if I wrote a twenty-four-minute piece in twenty-four minutes (for example) it might turn out okay, but I certainly wouldn’t bet the farm. My aforementioned colleague and I get our notes from very different sources, but we both bring the full weight of our craft to bear on every compositional decision—and we take as much time as we need to get our pieces the way we want them. After all, it’s what we do; we are composers. (Admittedly, we don’t have kids or SUV’s, two distractors cited by Randy.)
On the other hand, one could make the case that writing quickly might be the only way to arrive at certain musical goals; I’m reminded of Giacinto Scelsi’s notated improvisations, which for all we know might have crashed and burned if he’d agonized over every pitch and rhythm. If this is the case, Randy has pointed us to a galaxy of unexplored compositional potentials predicated on similarly radical processes.
However, to return to the long-lost initial topic of this column, our ability to comprehensively understand one another’s compositional thinking will be further weakened when these potentials are widely explored. For that matter, it’s not unreasonable to propose that by modern standards the act of composition was much more uniform from one composer to the next a hundred years ago than it is today. In other words, my capability to grasp your compositional process is necessarily and inevitably diminishing. What ramifications will this present for compositional education?