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.

The Lighter Classics

One thing sorely missing from the concert life of major symphony orchestras these days is the Light Classical repertoire. The major conductors (and those hoping to replace them) seem to think that by associating themselves with Serious Masterpieces written by Intense Male Composers (Mahler and Shostakovich) they too will go down in history for their Deep Interpretations.

It’s a pity of course, because the lighter works add sparkle and luster to any program. They often carry strong thematic connotations, frequently stemming from ballets and operas, or representing various folk traditions. They can add context to more serious works (all the major composers in Europe, for example, adored the work of Johann Strauss II) and generally leaven a program that might be overly dense.

Suites, medleys, and other short works also allow for variation from the standard overture-concerto-symphony format. O-C-S is a fine concert format, but it’s even more effective when it’s not all you hear.

All this is why I was so very pleased when I stumbled upon David Ewen’s The Lighter Classics in Music, a beautifully written survey of this particular repertoire published in 1961 (basically on the eve of this music’s ubiquity.)

This book introduced me to many hidden gems, by composers well-known, lesser-known, and unknown (to me anyway), much of it music that hasn’t made it through the filter of history. Ewen writes beautifully about these composers and their music, and he does a fine job of representing the geographic spectrum of this particular style. I’d very much recommend picking up a copy, but if you don’t care to, I’ve assembled a Spotify playlist (above) of representative works from all the composers mentioned in his book.

One thing worth noting is that this stuff didn’t just die off in 1961: composers are still writing light music. We just have to listen.

Schubert’s 10th

On a recent program, the local symphony orchestra included a movement from the reconstructed “10th” symphony by Franz Schubert, as realized by Peter Gülke. It is an abomination at every level, and it is a scandal that Schubert’s name should be associated with this musical misadventure.

The music sounds nothing like Schubert. It sounds more like Vaughan Williams. Rather, it sounds like a high school composer’s bad imitation of Vaughan Williams. Actually, that’s not being fair to Vaughan Williams. Or high school composers. Or bad imitations.

Gülke wasn’t the only one to realize Schubert’s sketches for a late symphony in D Major; Brian Newbould also created a version, and that version was later revised by a certain Pierre Bartholomée. But the materials they were working from were fragmentary at best, mostly just a few melodic ideas with some bass lines filled in and the occasional working out of inner voices.

No surprise then that neither the harmonies, melodies, nor orchestration make any sense in the version I heard. The big lesson here is just how many iterations a piece – nay, a phrase, a motive, even a note – undergo on their way to becoming a completed work that’s representative of a composer’s style. Many composers have tried to hide the painstaking process behind their greatest works (see, for example, Johannes Brahms, who burned all his drafts) but even a Mozart doesn’t necessarily sound like Mozart at the first stages of a draft. Certainly a Gülke doesn’t sound like a Schubert.

But on top of that, there’s another, much more objective sense in which this piece can not be said to be Schubert’s 10th symphony: Schubert only wrote seven and a half symphonies in the first place.

You probably get what I mean by the ‘and a half part’ – the two movements that comprise Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. But, you protest, the ‘Unfinished’ is Schubert’s 8th, and the 9th is the well-known C Major symphony, so certainly he composed eight and a half symphonies at the very least.

If that be the case, ask yourself this: when’s the last time you heard Schubert’s 7th? Not ringing any bells? That’s because there is no such piece! Rather, one might say that any piece purporting to be Schubert’s 7th suffers from the same essential musical invalidity as does the so-called 10th: the piece only exists in sketches which have since been realized (also by Newbould.)

Actually it’s a little more complicated. When publishers were bringing out Schubert’s symphonies, they purposefully left the No. 7 spot blank, publishing the ‘Unfinished’ as No. 8 and the Great C Major as No. 9. Scholars had come across references to a symphony composed by Schubert that they believed to be lost (the so-called ‘Gastein Symphony’). They kept a spot open in the chronological numbering in the hopes of finding it.

It’s now generally agreed that the symphony referred to was in fact the Great C Major. Which, ironically, means that the musicologists did the right thing, since the Great C Major really should be Symphony No. 7 (if we’re only counting completed symphonies.)

To tidy up the rest of the mess, I’d propose (to… the world?) that the ‘Unfinished Symphony’ should just go by that description alone – no number at all.

But at the very least, if you’re going to keep performing this so-called 10th symphony (and by all means, please don’t) at least put Gülke’s name up front and bury Schubert’s deep in the program notes; it’s the least we can do.

Halloween Belongs to Alfred Schnittke

Did anyone even celebrate Halloween in the Soviet Union? They did not. But does my boy Alldead Slitsya need some bogus holiday to creep you tf out? HE DOES NOT.

This number,”Es geschah…” from the opera Historia von D. Johann Faustus, is so satanic – and I’m guessing you didn’t know this already – that it was used by Alexander Plato in the final round of the 2016 Armenian Eurovision Song Contest Finals:

What a musical work does

In the next few months, I’m planning to write a lot in response to The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap, easily my top recommended music book of this decade, originally released in 2013 but republished in paperback last month, and now available at a reasonable price worldwide.

I am broadly sympathetic with Borstlap’s central thesis: that we make a category error when we refer to atonal “sound art” as “music”, particularly when we try to stuff it in to the institutional framework of classical music. Borstlap claims in his introduction that he is not out to make a rigorous argument in defense of this thesis, but rather to write a series of examinations on this theme. In truth, he tries to have it both ways and some of his argumentation works while other times it falls down under scrutiny.

One thing that I think Borstlap is great at is defining his terms, and they are very basic terms that are so often taken as axiomatic. Like, for example, tonality:

Tonality is the relationship in terms of resonance that exists between separate tones, a relationship made possible by the physical phenomenon of overtones. In every tone, other tones softly resonate; above the fundamental tone these overtones are in the order of octave, fifth, again octave, third, again fifth and smaller intervals which spread out in an increasingly diffuse and faint range at the top.

This relationship is like a force of gravity which pulls a sound toward its fundamental tone. In a musical work, a fundamental tone could be compared to the vanishing point in figurative painting: it is the point to which all the lines of perspective and all the objects in the “virtual” space of the image are related, thus creating the effect of space in an otherwise flat surface.

In a comparable way, the fundamental tone is the focus of all the relationships that operate in a piece of music at a given moment, and since music moves in time and all the different tones move according to the parameters of melody, harmony, and rhythm, they continually shift their relationship toward the fundamental tone, in continuously varying degrees of distance and strength of connection, thus creating the effect of energies moving along between fixed, less fixed, and floating positions.

The result is what metaphorically could be called an “aural perspective” in which the force of tonality, with varying intensities, continuously focuses upon the fundamental tone: a “musical space” comparable to the quasi-physical space created by perspective in a figurative painting.

The gravitational force of tonality makes the scales – the basic materials of music – possible and the simultaneousness of different tones forming a coherent unity: harmony.

These differences of correspondence can create the impression of energies flowing from one type of intensity to another and can thus be used by the composer to create a musical narrative that gives the impression of movement, and thus a musical rhetoric is made possible.

What I especially like is that Borstlap’s definition of tonality is quite a broad one which basically includes all traditional musics and excludes only one thing: the recently contrived atonal sound art of the 20th and 21st centuries, in which composers must strenuously work to avoid the use of tonality.

Per Borstlap, Western equal-temperament is rightly considered one example of tonality, and he fully acknowledges that it is a human (and indeed a European) invention:

But the tone system of Western art music is not exactly the same as the interrelatedness of natural overtones: it is an adaptation, an artificial structure within which the natural interrelatedness – the tonal “gravity” – can function, binding tones together, but with enough flexibility to make all kinds of tonal complexity possible.

Tonality is not this equalized, flexible system in which the music can go in any direction, but is the “gravitational force” created by the relationships of octaves and fifths, gradually weaker in smaller intervals, a natural force operating within this human construct.

Using this definition of tonality, he begins to form his argument:

Tonality – the binding force created by nature – is a flexible and ambiguous force. It is a field of energy and not a “structure” or “system”, and when seen as such it will become clear that the idea of trying to create an art music without tonality is inherently absurd.

A form of music which is not organized on the basis of the “gravity force” of tonality is not music at all, but something else. It is indeed nothing less and nothing more than “sounds art” or “sonic art,” an art form typical of the last century and which does without the entire range of communication and expression that had been the normal territory of art music for ages.

In comparison to a past golden age of strongly expressive masterpieces, it is no surprise that even the “best” sonic art is not of much interest to people who love music.

Then he gets to the definition that I really love, about what exactly is a piece of music and what it does:

Sound as such is different from music because music transforms sound into emotional, psychical expression, it goes far beyond its physical presence, while sonic art stops there. This difference goes down to the heart of the concept of musicality itself: musicality is the capacity to understand what a musical work does, which is creating a mental space in which the musical energies move in forms, narratives, and flows, and which can be emotionally experienced by both the performing musician and the listener.

Forms, narratives, and flows. I just think that’s a brilliant choice of words. [Though, ironically, it could EASILY be the title of a new piece of atonal sonic art.] It succinctly sums up so much of music: forms like sonata, rondo, AABA; narratives like tone poems, heavy metal ballads, or ragas; and flows like minimalism, drumming patterns, or ragas.

And that’s the thing – most if not all music is some combination of the three. Certainly most Western art music combines forms, narratives, and flows. Look at the Pastoral symphony as an obvious example. Much of that piece is based off of the repetition of short melodies and motifs which can only be described as flows of musical energy; and yet, these flows are bound within the structure of a form and the form itself is at the service of a musical narrative.

Well that’s enough gushing about this book for now. You go read it, and while you’re doing that, I’ll get ready to tear apart the parts that I don’t like in my next post.