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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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