Stage 1: Thinking
22 May 2011
Inside the Classics

I started this post in January, rather ambitiously, back in the midst of the Ecstatic Music Festival, and before I had finished writing the portion of Sh’lomo that was set to be premiered in March. Needless to say, I did not finish it! And I’m now much further along in the process of writing my piece for the Minnesota Orchestra than I was back then. Still, I thought it would be good to begin at the beginning of the compositional process, to walk you all through the ways I think about writing music, and how I have been approaching this project. So, here are some thoughts about beginnings, and where the initial impetus for a piece comes from. If the tense ever suddenly switches, or if the writing is temporally awkward, now at least you’ll know why…

The first stage of beginning a composition takes place before the commission, before the announcement, before the phone call or the e-mail asking you if you’re interested, before the first day after you’ve completed the previous piece you’re writing. It happens before you even know you’re writing the piece.

When I started writing this post, back in January, I was nearly ready to put my commission to write for the Minnesota Orchestra on the front burner, in the hot heat. There were always other pots on the stove; themes and textures that were simmering and slowly sautéing. The form has been given a long, slow roast in the oven. But a lot of the work was already done for me before I took down the saucepan or preheated the oven. I don’t mean that there’s a pre-made box of Hamburger Helper (or one of those vegan alternatives) on the shelf. That’s how bad composition is made — you work with pre-packaged ingredients, using stale imitations of familiar flavors to give the illusion of a pleasant evening spent with an orchestra (or a string quartet, or a vocalist, or whatever it may be). Real composition involves cooking from fresh ingredients, and even if you try to replicate something you’ve tasted before (remembering Stravinsky’s dictum that “good composers borrow, great composers steal”), it will come out differently each time. This isn’t like cooking for a restaurant, either, where replication is necessary. I’ve been given the task of finding good ingredients and coming up with a brand-new recipe.

So, back to Stage 1, the work done before I knew that this great orchestra wanted me to write a piece. To continue the cooking analogy, imagine if you had a sous-chef who followed you around, all the time, looking for fresh ingredients and interesting spices, and preparing the foods for future use. That’s the subconscious of an artist, and it really works that way. When I sit down to write, I already have a host of ideas in the fridge; they’re not likely to be the big, noticeable surface elements of the piece you’ll hear, but they’ll be present in the structure that surrounds the melodies and motives, in the textures in which they’re embedded, and in the small details that make a work of art truly come to life.

It may occur to you, as I write this, that this way of approaching composition might yield some similarity from piece to piece, in a given period of compositional activity. This is absolutely the case. Just as you cook with what’s in your fridge, with what spices are on your shelf, and with what implements are in your kitchen, you likewise make a work of art with the methods and techniques, ideas and experiences that you’ve had up to that point, and which are fresh in your head while you’re writing that work. Some of these shift over the course of months or years, while others remain intact for one’s entire life. From the historian’s or the fan’s perspective, when an artist’s work has a discernible set of characteristics for a certain stretch of his or her output, it is usually called either a “period” in that artist’s life (if they deviate from those artistic features), or a “style” (when applied to the artist’s entire career, or a broad span of that career).

In Stage 1, we’re not yet getting into the technical elements of constructing a piece; I’m not consciously bringing my training to bear. But even in the filters that my subconscious applies to the world around me, I’m making decisions (unintentionally) that will carry over into this entire period of my compositional output. After all, the ideas that I take from the world aren’t usually so specific as to be reserved for just one piece. They might be used in more than one piece, or much more likely, in no piece at all.

That’s Stage 1. Since I’m deep in Stage 2 and transitioning into Stage 3, I’ll try to write about #2 before we have to do another Time Warp.

Finally: many, many thanks to everyone who’s been donating to the project — it’s extremely heartening, from a state-of-the-field standpoint, and I am deeply grateful to you all.

<April 2020>

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