Process City: Like Mapquest (But For Composers)

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?

4 thoughts on “Process City: Like Mapquest (But For Composers)

  1. marknowakowski

    I’ve come to wait for Colin’s posts — they are always so intuitive (as well as describing many of the things I myself am going through.)

    Speaking of compositional processes, I will now quote from an email I received from a rather well known composer which I admire. I will keep (her) name secret.

    “You may run into teachers and other composers who talk a lot about intellectual systems in music — i.e. basing things on the Fibonacci series, or on set theory, etc. More often than not, that reflects a lack of genuine inspiration. Just tune it out.”

    My sentiments exactly. You say that: “We want to meet certain goals in our music, so we’ve accumulated, synthesized, and exercised skills that allow us to accomplish these goals. ” Isn’t this just another name for “style?” I notice individual patterns in my music, but generally try not to apply them in a consciously rigorous way. I do not want to add to the 75 years of “structured well past general comprehension” compositions which I’ve had to study.

    I’m not sure, in years of sitting through seminars, listening to process-obsessed composers ramble on, that I have not learned more about intellectual egos than music. Perhaps this is because I fall into the “intuitive” category? I simply cannot understand why certain professors of MUSIC have sometimes insisted on me adhering to a creative process, when things were coming out just fine on their own.

    Is the ideological and philosophical gap between the intuitors and the processors too deep to bridge? As an “intuitor”, I am forced to ask if the “processors” can remain clear enough of their process, to still write highly expressive music? I cannot help but think that there are far too many uncreative composers out there, who rather than switch careers, hide behind their elaborate processes, often helping to alienate the remaining few who would still support new music!

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    Thanks for the comment, Mark. I think part of the problem you’ve identified is that it’s dangerously easy to confuse an internally consistent, logical musical structure with a formulation that actually makes experiential sense to the listener (I’ve always felt that some of Earle Brown’s and Christian Wolff’s pieces, for instance, seem to evidence very aesthetic shapes on paper but do not necessarily engross me in performance). The even fuzzier question of whether these structures can admit expressiveness, meaning, etc. confounds the issue even further.

    I think the proof is ultimately in the pudding: If you labor over an artificial, pedantic process that produces genuinely solid music (and if you can be honest with yourself in judging it), more power to you. And the opposite is true as well: For every ivory-tower academic writing inscrutable, emotionally bankrupt music, there’s at least one hack whose supposedly sacrosanct intuition leads him to write boring music that’s as impoverished in communicative potency as it is in craft.

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  3. pgblu

    I don’t think there is any such thing as musical intuition. There are just influences. We choose to be aware of them or unaware of them. If we go the ‘unaware’ route, we like to call it intuition. My intuition also tells me to throttle people who don’t agree with me. What good does that do?

    It is only logical that if you are in a composition program that your professor will encourage you to make your influences conscious. It inevitably leads to better results. Of course there are hacks everywhere, but I’d prefer to have a conscious hack as a student than an unconscious one. A conscious hack is trainable; they can improve their product or they can transform their hackery into a virtue. Beethoven was kind of a hack, but he ended up with music that a more refined and sophisticated composer wouldn’t have dared. All us composition teachers want to be responsible for the next Beethoven, maybe.

    That’s my assessment, anyway. Great discussion.

    PS Don’t diss Earle Brown or Christian Wolff for bad interpretations of their compositions. The im- or explicit indeterminacy shifts much of the blame onto the performer. It’s a separate discussion, I think. -pgblu

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  4. keefrob

    I don’t think your ability to understand my compositional process is diminishing or augmenting (pun fully intended). It is as it’s always been. You’re separate from it for no other reason other than the neurons in your brain do not fire the way mine do.

    For me, composition of music and composition of anything else (a sound recording, architecture, a budget, etc.) are thoroughly related. Some fall together more quickly than others — a good solid process can produce an interesting piece that lasts longer than the time it took to compose it. But ultimately it comes down to how quickly you can organise your given materials. I think teaching of composition should be in defining these basic compositional materials and how to devise a personal, organic compositional process, away from the romantic notion that one must be “inspired” to compose. I.E., let’s determine what your mind needs to accomplish high organisation, and train you to tailor your compositional goals with that information.

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