Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

The Compositional Process

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I have a question about process. When you are composing, are you working at a keyboard, or are you at a writing desk, or a table? Or do you use software and write with a keyboard?

ALBERTO GRAU: The first approach is without a piano. I will take the text and organize whether to separate [it] into 2-3 parts. What are going to be the climatic points, the deep points? All the scheme is done at a desk. Then I use a piano for the melodic and harmonic points to come out.

JORGE C"RDOBA: In my case, I am contrary to Alberto. I think that a piece has a life of its own. Sometimes I need a piano to write it; sometimes I do not. I do not use software to write music. No two compositions of my own for choral performance have been written with the same process. Sometimes I just write it. Sometimes I use a piano. Sometimes I write bits and pieces and then compile the whole work. The basic idea is the intuition. That is the main process, intuition.

STEPHEN PAULUS: I write at the piano. I use a Pentel rolling writer, which is basically a felt-tip pen, to do a complete draft. It doesn’t matter if I make a mistake; I just cross it out. Then I hand it over to my copier who puts it on Finale, and sends me a final copy, and that’s it.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I have a question related to the process. When you’re thinking about what you’re going to write… As a performer, I have had the experience of being given pieces that were fantastic, but also extremely difficult, and so, if you think about performability, that a piece may be at a level, what do you think about settings that take high-level forces, or large forces, knowing that it may not be performed as much as you might like?

ALBERTO GRAU: I would like my music to be performed more—and of course to be bought more, but I insist on the fact that when you compose, you should think to whom you are composing for. Sometimes if something is extremely difficult, you as a composer should make it easier, if you see that the performer is not able to do it. But sometimes for respect of the institution, you have to do things harder, because the choir that is going to sing this deserves such an amount of difficulty.

JORGE C"RDOBA: In this case, I think that it is risky to think about the performer. That does not mean that I am opposed to Alberto’s idea. I was commissioned in Mexico from very high-level musicians. They talked to me and they actually got into my ideas of the compositions. They were in the process with me. No one can sing those pieces besides them because they are too difficult, and that is why I think it is too risky to think about the performer for whom one writes. In the case of the Norwegian choir that just sang my piece, I did not know the level of this choir, because I never talked to them before. That is why I wrote a piece that I think was not as complicated as it could be. It would be very risky to compose something very complicated, that they may not be able to perform. That is why I think that it is good to think about the interpreter, but your piece could be isolated if you think in this line.

TOM HALL: Your piece is written for a 26-voice choir, sometimes divided into 20 parts. There is a lot of divisi… Steve, you were writing for a group that you know very well…

STEPHEN PAULUS: I always try to work with the conductor, get to know the organization, whatever, ask for recordings, though it is best to hear them live. Then to write a piece that stylistically is consistent, although you may be writing difficult or a more accessible piece, I think you can keep your own style as a composer, but you can tailor the piece so that the group is challenged somewhat but they can do the piece. So if they cannot perform the piece, they are going to be frustrated, they won’t be happy with me as a composer, and I’ll think, “What’s wrong with this group? They can’t sing my music?” Well, the group is a community chorus, can’t be as challenging in terms of divisi and certain intervals and certain other things. Whereas a professional chorus of 20-40 singers—when you have those opportunities, you just have to set your sights in the right direction. A pro-chorus that can do these kinds of things, you say, “Oh, boy! Anything goes!” The San Francisco Girls Choir, the group I heard this morning, they did Alberto’s piece. They can do anything! If you were fortunate enough to receive a commission from them, you would say, “Oh, boy!” That is a wonderful feeling for a composer to be able to do anything, and as a matter of fact they may want you to try things a little bit hair-brained, or crazy, or unusual or they haven’t been asked to do that before. They rise to the occasion. And other groups will need help with notes, etc, and that’s okay too.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: In listening to some of the composers that had long careers, and hearing where they were 20-30 years ago, and things that they have written now, I get a sense that for some the end of their career they try to sum up or make a statement about what has happened with music in their life. Of course, all of you are very young and healthy and have many years in front of you, but do you think about your own voice, and how you are trying to comment on or incorporate what has happened in the last century or in the last 10-20 years, or whatever?

ALBERTO GRAU: I am so young still, and am not yet thinking about that.

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