Composing As Self-Discovery

Composing As Self-Discovery

Beethoven Sketch

This past week, I’ve been listening to some old favorites by Mozart and Beethoven and also looking at the composers’ own sketches whenever possible. Sketches in a composer’s hand are always revealing, and it’s difficult to give either composer’s sketches a cursory glance without being struck by how deeply each composer’s sketching habits express their own musical personalities. Beethoven’s sketches are full of inserts, cross-outs, and rewrites, and usually scribed with a thick, almost gouging pen stroke that reeks of creative effort; Mozart’s manuscripts (which are so complete they can rarely be called “sketches”) were penned quickly, almost breezily, with comparatively few changes other than filling in more supporting voices.

When I compare these two approaches, it’s difficult not to arrive at the impression that Mozart was recording something already (or mostly) formed in his inner ear, while for Beethoven composing was an often laborious process of figuring something out.

The Mozartean process of recording or transmitting idea (and of being open to the dictates of the subconscious) certainly has its advantages—especially if the composer is working within a received stylistic tradition (as Mozart, for all his wonderful wit and inventiveness, largely was). For those who seek to express themselves by pushing the boundaries of tradition, or who aim to discover uncharted territory far removed from tradition, it is often necessary to sketch and rework, as a more vigorously active participant. Most composers, I suspect, combine these different attitudes in all kinds of t ways, although just as Mozart and Beethoven we all have our predilections.

In today’s composing world, I hear an echo of the Mozartean attitude– though often without Mozart’s characteristic humor and child-like naturalness—in the ways that we tend to teach music composition. Despite the healthy stylistic openness that I’ve been happy to discover in today’s institutions of higher learning, the way that one is “supposed to” compose usually revolves around some variation of: “Figure out what you want to do first, then do it”, which indicates a profound separation between the conception of a work and its realization—composing as recording the results of already-worked-out parameters. This way of composing is often explicitly extolled (along the lines of “you have to know what you’re doing first before you can do it!”), and implicitly privileged in countless preconcert talks, college symposia, and lessons, in which the composer of the moment explains his or her intentions, following which the composition in question is judged on how well it “succeeded” at realizing these intentions.

This can be a useful approach, and I have no problem with it per se. But by over-emphasizing a way of composing that privileges faithful representation of mental constructs, I wonder if we’re failing to point out that composing can also be a process of discovery, experimentation, and play unrelated to prior planning (and resistant to critiques that rely on intention). While composing can be a way to transmit something that we already hold as essential, it can also be a process by which we come to understand our own thoughts and feelings.

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4 thoughts on “Composing As Self-Discovery

  1. chris s

    Nice discussion. I know from experience of stumbling upon good ideas by accident which improved the whole composition or got me out of a rut.

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Dan, I wonder if the ‘representation of mental constructs’ is too simple a conclusion, too dry, and maybe even a little dismissive.

    Of course, we can only speak to our own experiences. Mine involve a great deal of ‘discovery, experimentation and play’ — sometimes months — before a piece gets written down. But the final draft is what gets written down. I don’t sketch or play in the physical world to get to the final draft, and so I leave no Beethovenian artifacts. The Mozart method of writing down what appears to be some manifestation of great mental constructs can be an illusion.

    My method was learned because I spent two hours each way on a bus commuting to and from college many years ago. It was too bumpy to sketch and there was nothing to play, so I developed virtual sketching and virtual play. There’s even an advantage: lots of stumbling on good ideas when the body isn’t distracted by itself trying to sketch, and can instead let in the world around.


  3. danvisconti

    Hi Dennis – thanks, and I appreciate these points, especially re. the Mozartean method being an illusion in some cases.

    Of course, “representation of mental constructs” is a really coarse way of putting it, which is why I also tried to identify what I see as the advantage of being open to subconscious, inner voice. Sometimes in the efforts of our own will, we bring another type of complication into the mix, and I have to admit that this probably has to do with the lack of Beethovenian artefacts, as you said. I think this sometimes makes revision a more natural process, incorporated along the way with each pass.

    Anyway, I absolutely think that the (for our purposes) “Mozartean” impulse is capable of great naturalness just as the Beethovenian working-out of ideas *within* the physical world can be clunky or limiting as well.

    As I wrote above, I think both impulses are important and I do my best work when freely flowing between both. I’d like to see the more intuitive aspects of the Mozartean side emphasized, because right now it’s very much been *reduced* to the idea of “mental constructs”. I also think about grant applications where one is somehow supposed to state reliably what one will compose–obviously it’s good to have *some* idea (and to be able to communicate said idea), but the extent to which this turns into a self-imposed paint-by-numbers game makes me think this is an unhelpful way to frame things.

    Lastly, I should just add that it’s certainly unfair to saddle Mozart and Beethoven with these labels, which grew out of a real observed difference in approach yet is hardly the whole story on either composer’s process.

    And then there is the tendency for composers to leave behind the sketches that they can tolerate being “found”…

  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Dan, thanks for clarifying. Both methods — and the range between them — produce amazing art.

    My main concern was that appearances are certainly deceiving with the ‘Mozart’ model and, because that’s my model, I can be touchy about the suggestion that writing down final or nearly-final compositions does not represent “inserts, cross-outs, and rewrites” and is instead some sort of gurgling inspiration upchucked onto paper. For me, and perhaps other composers, these rewrites are simply more efficient when done and discarded before writing them down. They also have far less psychological investment. If I spend a week or a month writing a section of a piece to paper, then it’s really, really hard to toss it if it isn’t any good. In the mind? Just forget I ever thought of it! And the un-memorable bits also get forgotten — a good thing — with the artifacts being at best the even-lengthening copies saved on the computer with new names and filed away to vanish in a haze of digital rot. :)

    You make a very interesting side point about grants. I’m not a grant guy. I’ve been a lifelong composer, but not a ‘career’ composer, so aside from a general political objection to a system that offers so little cultural commitment, I had always found it impossible to articulate grant-inducing details well enough (“lie”) about a piece much less about its likely audience, how it will serve some imagined community, and all the other social ornaments hung on a grant application.


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