Composition lesson

Me composing at age 19, i.e. 13 years ago, i.e. just kill me now.

Me composing at age 19, i.e. 13 years ago, i.e. just kill me now.

It recently dawned on me that I have now been composing music for TWENTY YEARS. I wrote my first piece for a 7th grade English assignment on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I was 12 then. I’m 32 now.

I’ll spare you the psychological torment that’s accompanied this realization and instead offer you some advice from my two decades of experience:

Process

  • Think carefully about what you want your piece to depict / represent / express. For me, this is probably 75% of my time spent working on a piece.
  • Listen to your favorite pieces while reading along with the score. Don’t be afraid to imitate music by the composers you like. Eventually what is theirs will wear away and what is yours will remain. A composer’s language is the assembled residue of his many influences.
  • Establish the ‘ground rules’ early on in your piece. What is the basic style / musical language? Is this piece going to be full of surprises? Full of whimsy? Full of solemnity? Give the listener some idea early on.
  • Sometimes you’ll start off writing a piece following a certain “concept” (a theoretical approach, a program idea, a mathematical formula) and you’ll get to a part where your gut tells you to break the rules you’ve set up in order to achieve a more satisfying musical moment. Follow that instinct.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw out what’s not working. With each passing year, I grow more confident abandoning ideas that I may have been developing for days. The effort you put in will pay off somewhere down the line, and your piece will be much the better; there are always more ideas. That said, sometimes composing is a real slog.

Structure

  • Use patterns. If you want to surprise your listener with something odd, striking, or novel, it’s best accomplished by breaking an established pattern. Sudden changes in texture / style / patterning should be the exception, not the rule though.
  • Structure your piece so that the main climax comes towards the end of the work. In the classical era, this was often the end of the development / transition into the recapitulation. The climax is often the most dissonant moment. (See the golden ratio.) Consider very carefully the architecture of smaller climaxes leading up to your main one.
  • Fill the space. Look at a painting by a great artist or a film by a great director. Visual artists are keenly aware of managing the space in their frame and balancing all the parts. The same thing goes for musical textures. Think of each bar as a frame, a single shot, in your progression. Each beat, or the subdivision of each beat, is an area of the screen. Be very careful to balance the bar so that it is full. (See: Ravel, Dukas “La Peri”.) (But of course, not too full. See: Star Wars “Special Edition”.) The melody is like a character moving through the space.

Melody

  • Let every bar of every part ring with melody (see: Brahms, Debussy, et al.)
  • In traditional styles, the melody should have a fill at the end of a phrase (sort of a little melodic ‘tag’).
  • Very often the best melodies have one apex pitch – a highest (or lowest) pitch that is not repeated. Many composers save this pitch for the end (or towards the end) in order to give the melody a clear shape.
  • Melodic patterns that ascend by step are often very memorable (see: Richard Rodgers.) Stepwise patterning also breeds predictability, which gives you the opportunity to break the pattern and deliver a pleasant surprise.

Writing for musicians

  • For some reason, Richard Strauss got away with writing outlandishly demanding passages for his musicians and nobody batted an eyelash (well, maybe they did, but now they don’t.) You’re not Richard Strauss. Make your music challenging and interesting and even novel, but achievable.
  • Keep in mind that your musicians will be more engaged if they’re not sitting around for too long. That being said, when writing for orchestra or large ensemble, don’t include every instrument in every texture / passage. The orchestra has thousands of possibilities for chamber ensembles.
  • Create opportunities in which you are writing for people you know, and write for their particular skills and personalities. This will make your pieces more rewarding for everyone, and will keep your performers coming back for more.
  • Think too about the instruments you’ll be writing for. What makes them special / sound their best? What was their historical function? Try to structure your piece in some way around the instruments themselves.

Finally, I’ll just mention that I think the greatest compositional challenge is to write music for a solo instrument, especially an instrument capable of playing only one note at a time. Bach’s sonatas and partitas for the solo violin are about as good as it gets, but strictly speaking, we might say Debussy won this contest:

Shouts out –

–to two of my baller friends:

Caitlin, who got a major profile in the New Yorker and whom you can see whenever you please on YouTube at Ask A Mortician:

Branden, (who, in addition to having a WIKIPEDIA PAGE has a fancy New York based profile of his own) who’s going to helm a new HBO drama, and who probably wouldn’t even want anybody talking about it since, as he says, ‘it’s just a pilot, and I actually have to write it.’

And let’s not forget about Eric and his several recent pieces, including birthright citizenship, megalomaniacal whiskey distillers, and innocents who plead guilty. And Courtney and her unlikely success with a Holocaust themed children’s book.

Suffice to say, I must be a good luck charm.

Ask a Maestro: Metronomes

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A couple things I didn’t get to, since this video was already too long:

  • Bartok is another composer who has weird metronome-based issues. He always gave specific metronome markings at the start of his pieces, and then he wrote a final timing at the end of them. If you multiply out the tempo by the number of beats, it almost never equals the final timing that he gave. If you then listen to his own recordings of his works, you usually wind up with a third timing!
  • There is, of course, Dr. Beat, which is expensive, but which has all kinds of crazy advanced capabilities, and allows you to do metronome exercises that can really improve your musicianship.
  • What did people do before metronomes? I imagine they just had a teacher that would beat them if they played out of time. Also an effective tool.

Food TV

Look, it’s no secret that I spend a lot of time watching cooking shows, but it’s confusing to some people (like my mother), because they know perfectly well that at home I literally eat only hummus and salad.

So why do I love watching cooking shows? At the most basic level, it has to do with what Stephen Sondheim talks about in the preface to his book: there’s an inherent satisfaction in learning the technical details of a craft even if it’s not your own.

Beyond that, it’s about the personalities, and here’s where I should stop and clarify which cooking shows I like to watch. It’s basically three: Martha, Ina, and the Two Fat Ladies.

Should we investigate why I gravitate towards saftig older ladies? Probably not. But I will talk about what I like about each of them.

Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa)

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With Ina, it’s her pleasantness: she’s always in a good mood, she uses excellent ingredients, she makes large quantities, and she lives part of every year in France. Do I enjoy seeing the interior of her East Hamptons house and garden? You bet I do. Would I want to live there? Probably not, although if we’re being totally honest, I’m sure I would jump at the opportunity.

I should also take this opportunity to point out that my blog, which I’ve maintained for something like eight years at this point, continues to generate a large portion of its traffic from an appreciation of Ina’s hottie gray fox model friend T.R (the guy who couldn’t catch a fish.)

Jennifer & Clarissa (The Two Fat Ladies)

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With the Two Fat Ladies, it’s really the zaniness of Jennifer (whom I like way more than Clarissa) that interests me most, the fact that she’s always liable to break into song & dance, her ring-studded, nail-painted hands, her cigarette and vodka at the end of the episode. She’s basically my grandmother transported to the British Isles. And let’s not forget how lovely the scenery is in every episode, and the beautiful music.

Martha (MSL, Everyday Food, etc.)

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With Martha, it’s Competency Porn. There’s literally nothing this woman can’t do. She builds trellises, plants crops, bakes bread, crafts her home decor, and explains it all with such perfect diction that I’m just slobbering over myself at the end of an episode. And though I’m a fan of everything Martha’s done (including her immediate post-incarceration shows where I’m sure she was drunk the whole time) nothing beats Classic Martha: the episodes of MSL from the early-mid ’90’s that I grew up on.

I also love that Martha has an opinion on the best way to do EVERY LITTLE GODDAMN THING, because I am the exact same way. And she never shies away from it – she just tells you that her way is ‘a good thing’; you can figure out for yourself what doing it another way is.

Plus, you all know how much I love homegirl’s social media presence.

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Bonus: Yolanda (How to Cake It)

This YouTube Channel is one of my more recent culinary obsessions, and the nature of my interest in it is different – more philosophical. I don’t find Yolanda a very appealing personality. In fact, I think she’s probably one of the most annoying people on the face of the planet.

But you guys. The DETAILS that this woman puts into her cake creations are INSANE. She puts so much time, care, and attention into these cakes. It’s not like Cake Boss (cake boss) or Ace of Cakes or whatever: it’s far, FAR more refined and creative. Look at this freaking pizza cake and tell me it does not look like an honest-to-god pizza. Well it’s not – it’s fricking CAKE.

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What I do like about Yolanda is that she ends each video by eating her creations, often just chomping into them without a fork. There’s such an irreverence for her painstaking efforts. When you see her make these cakes, you feel like nobody should ever disturb the finished product. I truly think it’s akin to those Tibbetan monks who make the sand mandalas and then blow them away, and that’s why I like her. It’s actually a lot like music performance: you work and work and work towards a concert, you play it, and all you’ve produced is sound waves, the least permanent thing there could ever be.

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