Composing can be difficult. Even during those relatively rare and much coveted periods when my brain overflows, with notes spewing forth in surprisingly pleasing orders, I can find it quite challenging to block off enough time to sit uninterrupted in order to vivify those ideas. Since I move back and forth between several different workspaces—each of which presents its own challenges—it’s been essential for me to create rituals that allow me to quickly take over an unfamiliar room. Generally, my first stage of composing involves physically writing out my ideas in pencil on paper, and so I carry the tools of my trade in a very light plastic portfolio case, ready to emerge at a moment’s notice. If you look inside this envelope, you’ll find a .9mm mechanical pencil, an equally large eraser, a 15-inch straight edge with cork backing (so it doesn’t smear the graphite markings), and 11×17 staff paper. Lots and lots of large staff paper.
Several years ago, I created my own paper with blank staves barely large enough to allow me to create legible music, and with just enough vertical space between them for my relatively long-winded performance markings. I use 11×17 paper so I can photocopy it anew each time I run low on supplies (and since I long ago lost my original file and copy, the quality of my staff lines has gradually deteriorated over time), in landscape layout so I can notate up to twelve parts on a single page and see the music run horizontally for a gratifyingly long time. When I compose for large ensembles, I either handwrite a short score, waiting until the computer transcription to see all the parts on separate staves, or I forgo my usual paper in favor of a vertical layout.
For me, the main advantage of this large paper is that it allows me to view big swaths of musical materials at a single time. In solos and small ensembles, I can fit several minutes’ worth of slow music onto a single page, and even for a piece as large and complex as my 20-minute toy piano concerto I was able to notate the entire work on a mere 14 sheets. This feature allows me to lay out entire compositions on the lid of a piano or across a desk, freeing me up to view potential confluences between distant events that I might have otherwise missed. In addition, when I want to create a visual representation of my musical plan, I find that I can sometimes roughly map the form for a new piece on a single piece of paper. Finally, when I’m in the process of sketching new ideas, the large paper permits me to separate different types of materials into their constituent categories while keeping all the various motives for a composition in one place.
The key challenge that often leaves composers afraid of enacting the switch to big paper is how to transport these bulky pages. While students used to purchase large portfolio cases, which they carried around conservatories as a badge of honor (at least I did), our current need for laptop computers and other items that don’t easily fit into such containers makes this solution less viable for our contemporaries. Instead, I simply fold my paper so it fits into an envelope built for 8.5×11 sheets, using a draft page in the middle so the graphite doesn’t smear: a simple solution, but one that is only feasible for composers who don’t worry about the relative condition of their handwritten drafts.
If you’ll excuse me, it’s probably time for me to turn away from the computer and towards the big paper.