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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Interview With Myself About Composition

As part of an independent project assignment for my masters degree at U of T, I'm going to be interviewing composers about their views on creativity.  I needed a guinea pig to try out the questions on, so I started by interviewing myself!  If you are a composer (or writer, or whatever!) and want to be part of my project, please feel free to copy these questions and send your answers to me at  I found it pretty fun actually... hopefully my interviewees will feel the same! (If you have any suggestions for questions I could ask, please leave a comment!)
  • What mistakes do inexperienced composers make?
      I consider myself to be an “inexperienced composer”, so I probably lack the perspective to properly answer this question, but I'll take a stab at it anyway. I have noticed that inexperienced artists in many genres often make the mistake of over-doing things. They throw everything they know how to do into each work, because they have just discovered things and are so excited about their newly-acquired abilities. The result is that the work loses its effect because it has no subtly or unique character.
  • Do you think you have grown as a composer over your career? How?
      I think I've grown tremendously over my “career” as a composer. My compositions have become much more complex and elaborate. I've also become much more comfortable writing scores (vs. leadsheets) for large ensembles. Whereas before say about 2006 my writing (especially for large ensembles) was mostly focused in trying to imitate others, now it is more focused on trying to discover a unique sounds. Also, I've gained some insight into my own compositional process, which allows me to make creativity a scheduled activity, whereas before it was more a case of “waiting for the miracle”.
  • What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think back about the most important factors that contributed to your development as a composer?
      Studying Bach chorals with Bill Richards at Grant MacEwan, and arranging class with John MacLeod at Humber. And performing my own compositions over and over again. I have had the benefit of encountering many wonderful teachers. I think their encouragement was even more important than the information they gave me. They gave me the courage and the impetus to investigate things for myself.
  • What do you consider the most important principle(s) of good composition?
  • Have you ever experienced “composers block”? If so, how did you deal with it? What do you think causes it?
      I think that “composers block” is basically the off-stage version of stage fright. Basically when your fear of creating something overtakes your motivation to create, you have a block. I experience this all the time. I have a lot of little stratagems for dealing with it (some of which I've outlined on this blog). Ultimately, however, I think you have to just acknowledge your fears and decide to proceed anyway.
  • What do you find to be the greatest challenge of composition?
      Well, initially I definitely find overcoming my fears and anxieties to be the greatest challenge. Aside from that, the greatest challenge is to achieve that “elegance” – to arrive at a work that feels like a cohesive whole, rather than a sum of parts. Something that is properly balanced and has the right effect.
  • What is your compositional process? Does it have distinct phases? Do you follow a routine?
      I wish I followed a routine, but I seem to lack the discipline to keep one for more than a few weeks. I think most processes for the type of music I'm writing lately probably go through the same phases: research, brainstorming, realization, editing, and performance/review.
  • Have you developed any stratagems for helping your composition that come to mind and would be helpful to pass along?
      One thing I discovered lately and found hugely important is that during the brainstorming process, I try to make a point of writing down all the ideas I come up with – whether I think they are good or not. This is much more encouraging then just staring at a blank page telling yourself all your ideas are bad, and often some of the ideas you originally thought were bad turn out to be useful, or to lead to something that is useful.
  • Where do your ideas come from? How do you generate new ideas?
      My compositional ideas come from all over – playing bass, fooling around on the piano or guitar, singing, playing with theoretical ideas. Often I'll steal ideas from music I'm studying or playing. There is usually some kind of theoretical idea that is tickling my cranium at any given moment, so often compositional ideas will come out of that. Sometimes ideas come from stories or pictures or events in my life. Often I structure my compositions in a programmatic/tone painting sort of way. Sometimes I have dreams where music and reality are fused, and that is sort of the world my compositions come from.
  • What composer(s) do you most admire? Why?
      The first thing that comes to mind is David Binney. I guess right now I would really like to unlock the secret that makes his compositions so great to me. They seem mysterious to me right now. They are so simple, yet so interesting and compelling. They are interesting from the perspective of the performer and the music nerd, yet also they have a simple and direct emotional effect. I think a lot of it has to do with his band leading and the bands he puts together.
  • What composition(s) do you admire? Why?
      The first thing that comes to mind is John Coltrane's Love Supreme suite. That suite made a huge impression on me. Coltrane had a powerful vision and a beautiful message which came through very strongly through that suite. The whole thing is one message that is direct and clear – that is elegance to me. The next thing I think of is Beethoven's 5th Symphony. It also has a strong emotional effect. I like the way Beethoven plays with the themes – it is very easy to follow but still very interesting. After that I would say the Bach Cello Suites. They are so subtle and beautiful.
  • Why compose? What is the reward of composition? Is it pleasurable? What is the most pleasurable part?
      The biggest motivation for me I think is curiosity – wanting to understand music better, wanting to find and explore new sounds. I guess I would also have to say that I have something I want to express which I don't see how to express by covering other artists. Composition is often a very uncomfortable process for me, but it is a great feeling when I write something and hear it and really feel like it sounds good – maybe even the band has taken it to new places and it sounds even better than it did in my head. That's a wonderful feeling.
  • Can you recommend any books or videos which have been important to your development, or are important to your current compositional process?
      I would recommend The Gifts of Imperfection to anyone who is experiencing anxieties about their art. The Creative Habit is also worth a read to those who are interested in process.
  • What composition are you most proud of and why?
      Well, Duke Ellington apparently always replied “The next one!” but I prefer Weird Al's standard reply: “The one that I am currently promoting!” I'm really excited about “The Little Prince Suite”, which I am just finishing, and everyone should come see at Walter Hall at U of T on April 16th at 5:15pm.
  • How would you like to develop as a composer in the future?
      I'd like to get better and better at connecting with audiences. I think the key is the overall form and balance of the thing. I'd also like to get over my fears and anxieties a bit and understand my process a bit better so that sitting down to compose becomes easier for me, and I get straight to generating lots of ideas on a regular basis, which I think is the key to finding good ones. I'd like to bring more discipline to my compositional process.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jazz Mind, Beginners Mind

(This is actually something I posted to my Facebook page a while ago, but I thought I'd re-post it here, since it seems relevant.)

Lately I was re-reading a chapter from one of my favorite books, "Zen Mind Beginner's Mind", by Shunryu Suzuki, and I was stuck by it in a new way - I saw how it relates to my music practise. When I first started learning the double bass, I felt I had virtually no skill and everything to learn. Although this was very stressful for me, I practised hard and eventually saw some dramatic improvements. I didn't become a virtuoso, but in a two or three years I went from having a poor sense of time and being virtually tone-deaf to having a reasonable concept on the instrument. Since then, however, I think I have seen a gradual reduction in my rate of improvement. I've been practising the same things for years now and not improving so dramatically. When I first started, everything seemed extremely hard to me. Now I tend to practice things that seem fairly easy to me, with the hope of perfecting them. However, if I was really aiming for perfection, then they I would still regard them as hard, because perfection is very hard to obtain! I think this subtle difference in attitude, together with simply less hours put into practicing due to a lessened sense of urgency (the threat of getting kicked out of Grant MacEwan College for failing my technical jury no longer looms over my head), may be responsible for the diminishing returns I've been experiencing. Basically what I am saying is I think every time I practise it should seem "hard" to me, whether that is because it is something new which I actually can not execute presentably, or because it is something I am aiming to master perfectly. I want to feel like a beginner every time I pick up the bass. But that's kind of a tricky thing, isn't it?

Here an excerpt from the original lecture, which was given after a meditation session. I see further implications for music, beyond just technique, into creativity as well. I would highly recommend buying the book, it contains many other fascinating insights into life and art. You have to excuse his broken english - it isn't his first language.

"We say, "Sho shin." "Sho shin" means "Beginner's mind." If we can keep beginner's mind always, that is the goal of our practice. We recited Prajna Paramita Sutra this morning only once. I think we recited very well, but what will happen to us if we recite twice, three times, four time, and more? Then we will easily lose our attitude in reciting -- original attitude in reciting -- the sutra. Same thing will happen to us. For awhile we will keep our beginner's mind in your Zen practice but if we continue to practice one year, two years, three years, or more, we will have some improvement, and we will lose the limitless meaning of the original mind. In beginner's mind we have many possibilities, but in expert mind there is not much possibility. So in our practice it is important to resume to our original mind, or inmost mind, which we, ourselves -- even we, ourselves do not know what it is. This is the most important thing for us. The founder of our school emphasized this point. We have to remain always beginner's mind. This is the secret of Zen, and secret of various practices -- practice of flower arrangement, practice of Japanese singing, and various art. If we keep our beginner's mind we keep our precepts. When we lose our beginner's mind we will lose all the precepts."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review of "Gallery" by The Parker Abbott Piano Duo

Check out my review of the album "Gallery" by The Parker Abbott Piano Duo in the monthly 'zine "Spontaneous Combustion":

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Books About Creativity That I Love (or at least own)

In my quest to understand the creative process better, I've amassed a modest library on the subject.  I thought it might be helpful to post my thoughts on some of the books I own.  I feel somehow unqualified or disinclined to call these "book reviews", but I'll just say a bit about how each book effected me personally.  Here they are, in the order I was exposed to them:

It seemed everyone was reading this book when I was starting music school.  I hope young musicians are still reading this book, because I think it has an important message. It had a big effect on me at the time.  I started doing the "steps" and listening to the guided meditations during breaks in my practicing. I even attended a five-day workshop on this subject with Kenny at The Banff Centre in 2002.  (Actually, I just found YouTube videos of his wrap-up concert at the end of that week: part 1, part 2, and part 3.) Personally, I found the spirit and overall philosophy of this book to be very inspiring, but when I tried to use it as a specific path to achieving the kind of freedom it describes, it didn't really work for me.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Werner and his vision.  For me this is a good book to flip through now and again, to sort of soak up its vibes.

I purchased this book because I was excited and interested in the idea of creativity being a skill you could learn by practice - just like, say, juggling or playing a major scale.  I wanted to learn and improve that skill.  What I was hoping for was an almost scientific analysis of creativity, what it is, where it comes from, and how it can be harnessed.  I found only a small portion of the book was about the details of how a formulated creative process would work. The rest seemed to me a sort of catalogue of tricks for stimulating your creativity.  (Which is also helpful in its own right!) Along the way we get a bit of a portrait of Twyla Tharp as an artist.  All in all, I think it was a helpful book to read, and each person will probably respond to it in a very personal way, depending on their own strengths and interests.  For example, Christine Bougie considers it her bible - check out her blog posts on it here, here, and here.

I definitely feel that there is something fundamentally sympathetic between Zen and creativity; Zen lore and culture is full of beautiful art in the form of poetry, paintings, rock gardens, etc. When Samu Sunim (head of The Toronto Zen Buddhist Temple) found out that I was a musician, he remarked that artists often like Zen, because "Emptiness - that is like a blank canvas."  ("Emptiness" is a central concept in Zen.) However, I didn't really feel a strong affinity for this book, and I never finished it. It didn't seem to be addressing the specific questions I have. I'm sure there are lots of great things to be discovered in it though. Maybe I would be better off considering some of the original writings of Dogen et. all.

The bulk of this book is made up of theoretically-based composition exercises, but I was interested in the last chapter, which is basically a collection of rants on the compositional process by the likes of Bill Evans, Carla Bley, George Russell, Horace Silver, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Lyle Mays, Anthony Davis, Herbie Hancock, Richie Beirach, and Ralph Towner.  While I didn't find anything specific to latch on to, I found it really interesting to read the essays.  Each artist has a totally different perspective and set of interests about composing. I eventually flipped through the first section of the book, and was surprised that I found the compositional exercises fun to think about as well.

I've blogged about this book before - actually, twice.  This book isn't actually specifically about creativity, but I found it helped my creative process more than any other book I've read in recent years.  I guess I'm just excited about Brene Brown's whole "thing".  Part of that might just be because I have an affinity for her outlook - we both like to take a "scientific" look at "messy" subjects, and try to invent systems to deal with them.  (I think part of this book is kind of about learning to be comfortable not doing that.)  Lately I've been noticing that someone can tell me something really wise, but if it isn't told to me by someone I'm prepared to hear it from, in the way that I want to hear it, I don't appreciate it. Which is my loss. (And the aggravation of my teachers and everyone close to me!) Anyway, this book is about letting go of anxieties about who you are. I may read it a second time.

I was pretty excited by this book because the title seemed to be getting right to the heart of my issue.  Unfortunately, when I actually started reading it, I found it kind of poorly written, and even sort of bizarre.  However, I did find a few bits I really like.  I haven't yet finished it, but to me the best of everything I have read thus far can be summed up in the following quote:

"The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars."

I think if someone were to take just that quote and what is implied by it to heart, amazing things could happen.

Maria Schneider is apparently a devotee of this book - she reportedly carried it with her everywhere she went during her visit to U of T a few years back, and she sometimes does clinics with the same title.  I've only just started it, but it seems to me like a sort of manifesto for the modern artist (Robert Henri lived from 1865-1929), and it seems to espouse some ideals that I can get on board with. For example, it opens with this quote from Mr. Henri:

"There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge."

The book seems to be full of sort of fatherly advice that Robert Henri gave to his students.  So far it has been inspiring, and I'm looking forward to finishing it.

Have you read any of these books? What is your opinion of them? Do you have any other recommendations?

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