Wendy’s World

Part 6: The Compositional Process

Frank J. Oteri: So then, the limits to technology. I couldn’t help snooping around your studio and I see there are handwritten manuscripts everywhere, which I think is wonderful. But nowadays, we talk about technology and everybody’s notating everything on computers.

Wendy Carlos: I do, too. A lot of these scores lying around here are done on computers. I’m a Finale user. I’ve been using it since it first came out in—what was it, ’87? Something like that. Great tool!

FJO: That was back when it could hardly do anything. It was really hard to manipulate.

WC: It’s a nice program now. It’s gotten very friendly and powerful.

FJO: But there are still a lot of composers who insist on writing everything out by hand.

WC: It’s a habit anyway, a useful one. With a bit of practice one’s music handwriting can become rather fast but still legible. One of my “favorite things” is a book containing the original hand notation of many great composers. One volume has an analysis, and the other volume contains the score photocopies. When you had to write in ink with a quill pin, scratching changes out, it wasn’t so easy. Seeing later sketches by people who had a temper, like Beethoven, is often painful. It’s terrifying to consider growing deaf as a composer, how did he manage to create anything, not to say, masterpieces, under such conditions? Then others, like Ravel and Stravinsky, their handwriting is so systematic, clean and precise. I try to copy that approach for my own. But although I can read my own notation, using Finale it’s almost more fun to produce scores that are a visual pleasure to read. You can hand one to any musician and say, “Hey, can you play this?” and they can look at it and say, “Oh yeah, this is fine,” and they can go at it.

FJO: Since your music is primarily created in studio and is realized electronically, who is the score for?

WC: For me. As I said, it’s a useful tool. I don’t think that art can reach the refined quality of a mature art form until it’s notated in some way. I’m thinking in this case of the narrative stories which we were told around the campfire, as it were—let’s put it in the evocative images we all have—it was an oral tradition. You would hear the stories repeat enough to learn them. You’d tell your kids, they’d grow up, tell theirs, and it would be passed along like that. Of course, the story would evolve, like a joke that’s told repeatedly. It mutates. The art form of literature brings to mind Shakespeare, who wrote his plays out. They weren’t just informally coached: “Okay, then you say…and then I say something like…” No no no. It was written down. That gives you the chance to think past the initial impulse, to revise, edit, polish, and throw away perhaps 90 percent of it, to get to the 10 percent that says it best of all. It combines the improvising right brain hemisphere with the syntactical, organizing left, one plus one equals three, four, five.

FJO: But of course now, with recorded sound, you could do that with a recording. You could throw out stuff. You don’t need notation.

WC: That’s true; certainly there are more recent alternatives, like note and track displays in a mature, powerful sequencer, like my favorite, Digital Performer. But for composing, the new alternatives are still clumsier, bulkier, and less convenient, say: to spot check, jump around many pages, compare, edit. A beginner may enjoy the ease, but an experienced composer is only slowed down by the literality of it all: to have to keep playing back over and over, what you hear in your head just fine.

Most composers begin with some form of improvisation, which is the essential heart of music. But if you have only the heart, without, say, the lungs, you’re going to have a hard time taking air in, to keep going over a longer work. Jotting the notes down in some visual form has so many benefits. You can study how they stand up to the scrutiny of “a week from now,” or even just tomorrow, a wonderful “moment of truth.” You can do it over on the sofa, or in the subway, you don’t need your equipment powered on and booted, so it’s nicely informal. It helps greatly to look, study something you’ve done, when you no longer have your ego tied up in it, as you do when you first create it. You can be far more objective. Often you’ll find a slightly nicer way to make a point. Do it again later, until you reach the point where there’s no need to touch it anymore, it only becomes different, not better. That’s a good time to stop!

[Smiles]

FJO: But can’t you do that with just your ears?

WC: Of course you do, and best of all with your inner, silent ears. Why limit yourself to only one method, like audible playback? Consider the poor poet or novelist who can’t write or type but has to use a cassette recorder only: it’s a hard way to write. The objectivity of the printed notes, even when imprecise, is a filter that lets you pick out more sides of a piece’s structure. It’s like using parallax to judge placement and depth of objects in space. It’s a second point of view, not just one: not just listening to a MIDI output. There’s a reason notation has lasted so long and has been perfected.

I think of my father, who was a fine pencil-sketch artist, and he would first sketchily visualize where he wanted to place objects and people: “How about here?” We know that the great painters did the same thing, gradually define with each additional stroke. They’d constantly revise themselves. You can do it on canvas with charcoal or a nearly dry brush. My father would make constant light pencil motions, until they averaged out into a final form. The fine art of Disney-type animation is another field I admire greatly, and it’s done similarly, sketching, even on computers.

Certainly there are many kinds of art. But there’s a flexibility to the forms which combine all available approaches, forms which combine the intuitive with the cerebral sides of human nature. I worry if you only work with the audio, you may limit yourself to the right hemisphere, improvisatory expression without a lot of polishing and developing. Some composers just sit at a desk and write it all down directly, as Mozart is said to have done, relying a lot on the left brain. Anyway, there are no rules here, only anecdotal suggestions and tips from other creative people. Try them out for yourself. I’ve only tried to emulate the methods used in creating the music which has most influenced me over my lifespan. That turns out to be a merging of several skills: the written and the played, the felt, the performed, the heard-in-ear and/or head. I’ve found it all comes together so that you not only see a note on the page, you hear it in your ear and you feel it under your fingers as you perform each note. Those work together as a sort of naturally interrelated trinity. I don’t know how to explain it better, I’m sorry.

FJO: So how much of a work do you conceptualize before you actually make it sound?

WC: Quite a bit, quite a bit. The best ideas, I think, come that way. And if they don’t, as with tight deadlines, like film scores where you frequently don’t have much time, you work at it fast and furious, even if you end up not liking a bit of it. But then you go to bed, and while you’re drifting to sleep, you might get a brainstorm, perhaps jot a quick note to yourself, and the next day you’ll wake up and you’ll have a much better idea. It isn’t that that brainstorm came to you just because you’re a great genius… no. All that work and the struggle, the analysis, hacking away, and the frustrations, they leave a trace behind that your brain chews on later, when you’re not so inhibited. Often something comes out which seems like magic, you know?

What does the impresario tell the composer in the classic ballet film, The Red Shoes? “Of course you can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat unless first there’s a rabbit in the hat!” The brain continues, the inner ear works away. The next day you look at the sketch, which seemed completely off the top of your head. And you can be surprised: “Gee, this is really good… but it isn’t quite right over here.” So you fuss a bit and end up with something nice, by using all of yourself, conscious, subconscious, inner ear, logic, eyes remembering note and chord patterns on the score paper, even fingers perhaps on an instrument. Why limit? There are many ways that the mind operates, and I don’t see any reason to limit ourselves arbitrarily. Notation is one more real asset, although you have to learn the language, become a bit glib with it. It doesn’t take that long to learn the basics. And then it’s something you can rely on, stack the cards in your favor creatively. I can’t speak for anyone else, but, honestly, that’s how it’s been for me.

You can certainly abuse notation. Consider a composer who has no inspiration. Sit and draw it out, make visual patterns, what used to be called “Eye Music.” Ah, there’s nothing quite like contrived, heartless music. It happened in the middle of the 20th century. New music lost its ear. Things were done because they looked good, clever or intellectually stimulating. But the sounds were so… ehhcht. Oh, that’s right, I forgot: an “ugly time” like the 20th century was best reflected by “ugly music,” ri-i-i-ight.

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