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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Composers' Process Project: Wrap Up and Analysis

For those of you just tuning in, the Composers' Process Project is an assignment I'm doing as part of my masters in jazz at U of T.  I've interviewed five composers (six if you count the interview with myself), transcribed the interviews, and posted them on this blog (click here to see all the related posts).  This post will formally conclude the project (and all my course work for my masters!), although I may post interviews with artists on this blog in the future. I've learned a lot - sometimes about unexpected things. For example, I learned a lot about how to conduct an interview! I really enjoyed doing this project, and I found the whole process very beneficial - even the part where I was just typing out the dialogue, which was what I spent most of my time doing, as it turned out.  Despite being time consuming, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on what had been said. It amazed me how much I missed in normal conversation - people were trying to tell me things that I totally didn't pick up on until I listened back to the recording and wrote down every word!

That was what I got out of the process... what did I actually learn from what people said?  There is a lot to summarize - the interviews together take up 51 single-spaced typed pages, and that is just the edited-down versions!   I'll start with the most concrete observations and progress to more abstract conclusions.

Word-Frequency Analysis

Here is an analysis of the frequency that various words appeared in the conversations.  I picked words that appeared in more than one interview:

112  music
 59  idea(s)
 46  jazz
 39  listen/listening
 36  sound
 32  piano
 25  chord
 17  love
 15  enjoy
 14  language
 14  voice
 12  classical
 12  mind
 10  pretty
  9  clarity
  9  weird
  8  beautiful
  7  Stravinsky
  6  Ellington
  5  Bartok
  5  Wayne
  5  Metheny

Recommended Books

Me: The Gifts of Imperfection, The Creative Habit
Dave Wall: Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, Theory of Harmony (Schoenberg), My Musical Language
Andrew Downing: The Shaping Forces In Music
Alan Gilliland: Jazz Arranging and Composition: A Linear Approach, What To Listen For In Music, The Study of Orchestration, Inside The Score, Composer to Composer, Charles Ives: A Life With Music, Gil Evans: Out of The Cool: A Life With Music, Hallelujah Junction, Bela Bartok: An Analysis of His Music
Christine Bougie: The Creative Habit, On Writing (Steven King), Songwriters on Songwriting

David Binney was the only one who didn't recommend any books, saying only "I've never studied any of it."

Admired Composers

Here is a list of the composers that people said they admire:

Matt: David Binney, John Coltrane
Dave Wall: György Ligeti, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Xenakis, Alfred Schnittke, Todd Sickafoose
Andrew Downing: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bill Frisell, Alfred Schnittke
Dave Binney: Wayne Shorter, Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell
Alan Gilliland: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Mauler, John Corigliano, John Adams, John Williams, Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, Art Herman, Michael Giaccino, Ellington/Strayhorn, Gershwin, Bernstein, Metheny
Christine Bougie: Joni Mitchell, Ry Cooder

As we saw earlier from the word-frequency analysis, Stravinsky is a popular composer - his name was the first word out of Andrew Downing & Alan Gilliland's mouth, and the second composer mentioned by Dave Binney. Ellington/Strayhorn, and Wayne Shorter were also spoken of with reverence. Shostakovich, Schnittke, Prokofiev, Metheny, and Joni Mitchell all got repeat mentions as well. I'm a little surprised Bartok didn't figure more prominently - I always thought he was the Mt. Everest of 20th century composition. Of course, as Dave Binney pointed out, it is a "mind-boggling" question; it is impossible to list all the composers that one's been influenced by.  For example, I know from her blog Christine Bougie is a big fan of Bill Frisell.

Routine/Compositional Phases

David Binney was the odd one out here. He didn't admit to following any routine - he said he used to write very late at night until the early morning, but now he may write at any time of the day - and he also insisted, despite me prodding him with repeated questions, that his compositional process does not follow any phases -   "I basically put my hands on the keyboard and I just start writing."

Everyone else said that phases like research, planning, brainstorming, editing, proofreading, etc. are a part of their process. Alan Gilliland had an elegant way of putting it - "The Three C's of Composition" - Creativity, Craft, and Copying.

A common thread among those whole follow a routine is that the morning is an important time for creativity. Alan Gilliland has had a habit of composing from 5-7 am for over a decade. Christine Bougie avoids checking e-mail until the afternoon so that her mind can be clear for creativity. Dave Wall says "I just get up and I start writing." I liked what Dave Wall said about not forcing himself to compose for an extended period - instead, he composes only as long as he feels like it, and strings together many sessions that might range in length from 5 minutes to 2 hours. David Binney and Christine both alluded to similar approaches.  I've tried to practice Dave Wall's technique since the interview, and it's worked well for me so far. For those of us who lack the discipline to follow a routine like Alan's - for example, me - Dave Wall's approach might a workable solution.

What do you consider the most important principle(s) of good composition?

This was a difficult question, but it was one that I ask myself a lot.  When something is good, why is it good? That's the mystery.  I really do believe that there is something similar going on with all my favorite compositions - from "Blackbird" by the Beatles to Cello Prelude #1.  Defining what that is, however, turns out to be a difficult task.

Me: Elegance
Dave Wall: Clarity
Andrew Downing: Consistency (details of a composition that makes it feel like itself)
Dave Binney: "just whether I enjoy it or not"
Alan Gilliland: Clarity

It seems somewhat remarkable that both Alan and Dave Wall chose "clarity" out of all the available words in the English language.  Does it have something to do with the fact that they are the two "classical" composers? In a broader sense, there did seem to be a theme of clearly communicating something to the audience, with Dave Binney again being the odd one out.  He insisted "I'm seriously not ever judging music other than if I like it or not."

Have you experienced composers block? How did you deal with it?

The thing that got this whole project started was my struggle to overcome composer's block, so I was pretty surprised that the general response to this question was to shrug and say "not really." However, I still got some useful advice when people explained what they felt was the reason for them not experiencing it.

Me: yes. acknowledge your fears and decide to proceed anyway
Dave Wall: no, ideas are a dime a dozen
Andrew Downing: no, even if you end up throwing things away, that's still part of the process
Dave Binney: no, it is just easy for me, it is my natural language
Alan Gilliland:  no, even if you end up throwing things away, that's still part of the process

As you can see Andrew and Alan both had similar things to say.  I think their point of view could help me avoid becoming negative during my process. Also Dave Wall's point that the important thing is how you develop your material, not what you start with, seems a good bit of perspective. Overall, I was struck by how nonchalantly everyone answered "no". It changed how I thought about the creative process. I may have felt like suffering a bit was an important part of it, but it seems more like good music comes from enjoying yourself. Dave Binney in particular - one of my favorite composers - talked about how much he enjoyed the entire process, from composition to performing to recording to listening - and how he was driven by his love and excitement for music.

What mistakes do inexperienced composers make?

This one surprised me because of how little agreement there was. I guess there are a lot of mistakes to make! However, there did seem to be a common theme that inexperienced composers do not develop themes and use repetition enough, and end up putting too much stuff in.

Me: "over-doing things"
Dave Wall: too much material, not respecting the use of repetition
Andrew Downing:  don't think about the total sound, don't think about the instrument
Alan Gilliland: don't stick with a theme/idea; lack notation skills

What do you find to be the greatest challenge of composition?

There was little agreement on this one as well - even more so. It seems everyone finds composition challenging in a different way.

Me: overcoming my fears and anxieties
Dave W: "To never be boring. To keep it unified, but always changing."
Andrew Downing: to let go of a piece and stop revising it; to not be derivative
Alan Gilliland: keeping the business side of things going
Christine Bougie: writing from the place that I am yet not to repeat myself

Why compose?

There were a lot of answers for this one.  They included (in order of my subjective judgement of popularity): the joy of having created something uniquely your own, enjoying the act of composing, expressing something you couldn't otherwise, and curiosity about music.

How do you want to develop as a composer in the future?

Again there were a lot of different answers for this one.

Me: connecting to audience through mastering form
Dave Wall: have a tangible effect on audience
Andrew Downing: be better about thinking about forms
Dave Binney: "I don't have any goals with it, I just want to keep kind of moving forward."
Alan Gilliland: explore jazz & classical music

Themes and General Impressions

Each interview made an impression on me and left me with many things to think about.  For example, with Christine, the word I left with was "honest", which she used several times in our conversation. I'd never really thought about whether or not my compositions were honest - just whether they did what I wanted them to do!  (Dave Wall also used the word "honest".)  I think the most exciting interview for me was Dave Binney, because I'm such a big fan of his music, and I do want to emulate some of his style, and I have actually spent a lot of time wondering "How does he make this stuff? What is he thinking? What is his process?" I feel like I have a better understanding on that, although it seems like it is a bit of a mystery to Binney as well - which may be key to why his compositions are so fascinating to me, as I also find they have a sense of mystery to them.

There were also several themes that I noticed over all the conversations. One was the debate of writing for the instrument - i.e. with the instrument in mind first, coming up with something that is easy to play on that instrument - vs. writing for the sound - i.e. thinking of what sound you want first, and then thinking about how to make instrument(s) produce that sound.  Other issues that had to be considered included:

  • trying to be yourself or to not overdo things vs. trying to push yourself or discover new possibilities
  • imitating or emulating other composers vs. trying to be original
  • writing for yourself vs. writing for the audience
  • experiencing the piece moment to moment vs. experiencing the piece as a whole
  • the language, values, and traditions of jazz vs. the language, values, and traditions of classical music

One thing that unified everyone was the idea of finding an original voice. Which reminds me of something I said to Alan in what seems to be, looking back, a moment of clarity for me: "I'm more interested in just getting the courage to check out those twelve notes on my own. I've been to school for ten years, I know tonnes of theory, I just need to inspire myself to find my own ways." This assignment concludes my Masters Degree in Jazz Performance. On to new adventures!
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