Bricks and Mortar

Bricks by Marc Falardeau on Flickr

There was a small bit of my recent conversation with composer David Froom that didn’t make it to the final interview, but that I found really interesting and have been thinking about a lot. It was an anecdote Froom told of a conversation with composer Alexander Goehr, with whom Froom was studying at the time:

Goehr: “How do you decide about the quality of your material?”

Froom: “That’s not a question anyone can answer.”

Goehr: “It’s the only interesting question.”

This does seem like a stumper at first, but it’s one of those probing questions that begs some possibly heavy navel-gazing introspection. Froom said that at that moment he argued that it’s the development of musical material that makes or breaks a composition, but Goehr stood firm in his conviction that the initial material itself has to be of a high quality. It makes sense—you can’t build a sturdy brick wall if your bricks are not well constructed.

So how do you answer this question for yourself? Personally, I go through several rounds of sifting before finding the heavy-duty building blocks for a new piece. This is true whether it is an instrumental work, electronic, or both, and it involves a game of leapfrog between the left and right sides of my brain. After an initial “brain dump” of possible material, I comb through everything (which usually exists as a mix of written components—both words and musical dots—and original recordings), picking out chunks that strike me as potentially useable. At this point I’m not being incredibly picky, just grabbing for the bits and pieces that seem interesting. After that, I start to assemble the hunks of stuff into various configurations, like a jigsaw puzzle, to discover how the raw elements might fit together. At first it’s a fairly intuitive process, but as I find connections in the content, it starts to color the way other bits are mixed and matched, until I can see themes and threads starting to reveal themselves. That is when I get brutal in choosing what stays and what gets jettisoned; anything that doesn’t seem to fit into the emerging musical context gets dumped (which often means stashed away for possible future reference in another composition). It’s not an entirely cerebral nuts-and-bolts fest, and I know that if I have a strong visceral response to a musical idea—quite literally a gut reaction—chances are it’s going to work, and work well. By the time I’m finished with this stage of the composing process, I have a set of materials that I can spin along in a largely intuitive way and feel confident that what comes out next will make sense—or that I can make it make sense.

I’ve noticed that the more pieces I write, the more I also throw out during this creative phase, which can be challenging since my natural state is as a “composer of relatively few notes.” That is just one of many reasons to make sure that the elements being used are rock solid.

6 thoughts on “Bricks and Mortar

  1. Cole T

    I think the source material has to be compelling, but since I’m Satie-esque in my treatment of material it doesn’t get ‘developed’ too terribly much… Also, good material can be developed terribly, and horrible material can be developed to the point of sounding fantastic, but that raises the question of whether the developed material is still the same ‘stuff,’ or if it is something new of which the impetus was the source material… I’m not sure it matters much so long as the music does.

    Reply
  2. Jonathan Elliott

    This is a complex issue and one that seems to me to lack a clear answer. Bach and Beethoven are two composers who often worked with material that was, on its face, pedestrian. Yet they each created intense drama and amazing structures with these materials. Other composers–Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, for example—-came up with ravishing material that goes nowhere. It seems to me that the quality of a composer’s imagination is the issue. Banal material can be transformed, but beautiful material can quickly grow dull.

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    1. David Froom

      I tried this precise argument on Goehr. I cited specifically Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and the Opus 59, No. 1 Scherzo. He said “those are the exceptions.” I had to yield the point. I agree with you that there is no clear answer. I agree with you that people have made strong music out of weak material, or weak music out of great material. The point was that it is important it is for us to take the trouble to ask the question, worry about it, try at least to answer it for ourselves. Because it is a difficult question, unanswerable in a universal way, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be asked. I love the way Alexandra describes her processes, the way she asks and answers this question for herself.

      Reply
    2. Judith Lang Zaimont

      The question of intrinsic quality of materials came up a lot with my grad students at U of MN. Some were so tied up by trying to be distinctive that they couldn’t make headway.

      Since it’s often the way a magnificent moment is *prepared* (and led away from) that has everything to do with our experiencing it as magnificent, I would ask the student to write a slew of unrelated “bagatelles” within one week: very short statements in a particular medium which represented just a peak moment itself – no prep, no denouement. But they had to compose at least six; and the composition of each should be done on a different day, or at least a time widely-separated from the work on the previous bagatelle.
      Then we threw these six-plus pieces of paper on the floor and worked to put them “in order”. Soon enough, the developing composer would discover some type of affinity between perhaps 3 – 4 of these, which would then suggest an ordering of “arrival points”. That narrowed down the compositional issues (for the moment) through identifying goal posts within a movement; this often came with the plus of a design for a movement that perhaps differed from the student’s usual methods of building form. This also prompted other creative questions of crafting effective preparations-for and segues-from one goal post to another, along with the always-important matter of the proportions needed for an original form.

      In this way, it became possible for the evolving composer to
      start by zooming in on “the distinctive” (instead of hoping to arrive there by a process of connecting up other materials), and took care ahead of time of the question of validating the materials.
      That left most of the work to be on the perhaps more intriguing composerly matters of “just plain solving the puzzle”.

      Reply
  3. Brighton

    I agree with ms Gardner and mr Elliott. I think the original post was making a point about the role of intuition and musical judgment in selecting thematic materials afterlife improvising and planning a piece. A lot of composers don’t see any role for intuition anymore and I think that’s a mistake. I also agree that there have been amazing examples of musical development like the fifth symphony or also sprach Zarathustra that made amazing music out of mundane licks.
    I tend to appreciate the well crafted works rather than the inherently beautiful, but there’s no doubt that the mature composer leaves a lot on the cutting room floor either way, which I think was Alexandra’s point. There are good licks and bad licks, and you put yourself in a good position by picking the ones that have some meaning to you immediately.

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  4. Phil Fried

    For me words can fail to describe the intrinsic nature of music. For example my 2nd symphony is based on long and short durations. Not very descriptive is it? Generic? Sure, and there are many different ways to approach this.

    Then again what is crucial is the composition itself.

    Reply

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