I recently had a request from a young composer to vlog my composition process as I was writing a piece of music. I declined, for a number of reasons.
First, my composition process often happens in fits and bursts and I can’t be getting up to turn on a camera at the moment of inspiration. Second, much of the ‘composing’ actually takes place inside my head on walks or while I’m half-asleep, which doesn’t make for the most exciting viewing. Third, I go a little crazy when I’m working on these pieces, and I need to feel totally unselfconscious, which I don’t think I could with a camera rolling.
So instead of a vlog, I responded with a summary of my process (as I view it) in these 12 points and I thought I’d post them here:
1) Logistics. Whom am I writing this for? What’s their level of proficiency? Where is this going to be performed? When does it need to be ready? How long does it need to be?
2) Emotional Content. Once I have an idea of the scope, I start to carefully consider what the piece is going to be about: is there a theme? Is there a text? What emotions do I want to evoke? Given the length, size, and scope of the piece and what I know of the performer’s personality and technical strengths, what kind of music (in terms of emotional/musical content) is best suited for this project?
3) Big Structure. Then I think about large-scale structure: is this a single-movement or a multi-movement work? What is the overall flow of the music I’m looking for in terms of tempi? Where do I want the big climaxes to be? What is the ratio of the different sections in terms of timing? If the work is in multiple movements, do I want to cycle any themes throughout the different movements?
4) Overall Sound. As I’m considering all of that, I try to imagine to myself what this music will sound like in a broad sense: the general harmonic, melodic, and textural landscape. Sometimes this comes to me in dreams, but the dreams leave only a very general impression, and I can never remember the details (though I do keep a music notepad by my bed to try to grab as much as I can).
5) Improvisation. Now I sit down at the piano and start to play around with musical ideas. This is sort of half-improvisatory – it’s not pure improvisation because I’ve already thought so much about what I want the music to sound like. I write down everything and I make a few notes about where the different ideas could wind up in the piece.
6) Development. I start picking the best ideas and improvising them more thoroughly. At this point I try to settle on a distinctive opening (which will influence the piece in so many ways), and I start a new Finale file.
7) Shaping Outlines. Once I’ve got the beginning and a few of the other main motives worked out, I start to imagine how they will fit into the Big Picture scheme that I came up with originally. Then it’s just a matter of working things through. (It was easy to write that last sentence. The actual carrying out of this process is always maddeningly difficult.)
8) Filling Them In. As I continue with the piece, I am always sketching ahead. I’d say I generally have about three stages of development at any given moment: 1) the section I’m currently working on, rigorously working out the shape and the detail; 2) the section I’ve been working on the previous days, which is now in for polishing (and often changes in light of what I’ve written after it); and 3) rough sketches for what’s to come.
Here I want to make a special comment: As I have continued to improve as a composer, what I have noticed is not that my ideas are better from the start, but that I am more and more willing to discard music that isn’t working. Maybe it’s a great passage but it just doesn’t fit with the piece overall; maybe it wasn’t good enough to start with. Experience has imbued me with the confidence to know that there will always be more, better ideas at hand.
9) Polishing. Working through this way, bit by bit, you find your way to the end of the piece. But writing an ending is not the same as finishing the piece. After there’s an ending, I then go over the whole thing many more times to make sure the pacing works, and that the details all somehow contribute to the whole. I will sometimes make major revisions (like inserting a whole section or deleting or reworking several bars) at this stage.
10) Sharing. I have a few very trusted musician friends with whom I will share work in progress (usually in the final stages of development) to gauge their reaction. I like to be in the same room as these people when they’re hearing it; they won’t always tell you exactly what they think, but their body language will reveal a TON as they sit listening.
11) Performer Reactions. Unless I have a specific technical question, I don’t share too much of a work-in-progress with the intended performers. I want to give them a work that has a big shape already, and then I want them to have a lot of time with the material before they comment on it. So often, the first instinct is often to glance at something quickly and register a thumbs up/thumbs down reaction at the first impression. Especially when you’re trying to stretch their technique, they really need to practice a new piece for several days before they can give a fully-informed answer about whether or not a passage is technically possible, and certainly they need weeks to absorb the whole piece to know if it ‘works’ or not.
12) Rehearsals and performance. The rehearsals and the first performances are all part of the composition process. You will make tons of adjustments, fixes, and alterations, and you won’t really know how the piece lives and breathes until you play it in front of an audience. Then you will almost certainly make further changes according to what you heard and saw. At that point, I consider the piece as finished as it’s ever going to be (god willing).
A few more words about that last point: one tremendous hurdle facing composers of classical music today is that our music is measured against the masterpieces of history. And while I think that every composer should constantly strive to add to that magnificent canon, it is important for performers to remember that those composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy – all of them) all tested their music in performance and revised their music over a period of many years.
These masterpieces may now seem to us like manna from heaven, but truly, the they were forged in the fires of real-life, practical performance and revision. The only way our contemporaries will continue to add masterworks to the repertoire is with the willing collaboration of their musician colleagues, and of course their own humility in the face of what they hear.