Composing Like a Painter

Composing Like a Painter

I do not do well with the “plan the piece, then execute it” approach. All these years, I have been slaving over getting the opening good enough to move on from before I know anything really meaningful about the rest of the piece. I thought that by doing this that I was giving myself a solid foundation, but all I was really doing was committing myself to the specifics of an idea without allowing it to really live with itself as music; in other words, the specifics of, say, the opening were so carefully worked out and solidified that it became difficult to go back and make any significant changes after composing the ending.

But it turns out I am much more oriented toward shaping music through revision, by modifying existing material almost like a visual artist. I’ve just had a great experience with a piece in which I basically wrote a pretty crappy “draft” version in about a week, then spent at least three weeks tweaking and even completely reshaping portions of the piece until I knew that it was done. I can’t say if the process resulted in a better piece or not, but I certainly enjoyed the process a lot more; in fact, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed composing so much since when I first gave it a shot at the end of high school.

How much easier it was to be able to think about a piece that already had a double bar and most of the blank measures filled in! Thinking of a painter colleague’s wonderfully tactile work habits, I kept destroying sections of the piece—both horizontal and vertical—and then building something new in its place, sometimes “painting over” sections with other layers. Just as one might say “there needs to be more orange over in this corner of the canvas,” I listened to each successive version of the composition in my head and adjusted it accordingly—draw out this section a bit longer, redo this section with a more active woodwind presence supporting these rising gestures, etc.

As silly as it may sound, this experience has come as a major source of reassurance as I’ve been trying to find a way to enjoy the craft and business of composing again after a somewhat fallow period. And in the end I felt like this method led me to a place that was actually closer to some of my original intentions.

The next time I’m feeling totally stumped, I’m going to fill up several pages with whole note Cs and then ask myself “how could this be better?” A hilariously open-ended question, no doubt, but now one which has some counterpart in reality rather than the sometimes dimly lit corridors of the mind.

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5 thoughts on “Composing Like a Painter

  1. mollys

    Judith emailed us to add these thoughts:

    During my teaching years, I’d encourage students to use ‘place-holder notes’ in spots they were struggling to get past so that the form of the whole was revealed at an earlier stage of work.

    This proved liberating for a good number of them — once they understood that the fine-ness ( the particularity ) of their piece would come forward most readily by making many editorial passes through the whole, adjusting with each pass. We talked about it as akin to a photograph growing more distinct with each moment it remains in the developing bath: The whole is somehow there, but it takes time to reveal it fully.

    Sometimes the tail end of a movement is the first feature to come clear, sometimes it’s the opening set-up. More rare, I think, is that the working-out segments are what the composer first ‘catches’. Being able to grasp the overall dimension earlier on can help guide good decisions for those spots in the piece which present the knottiest compositional puzzles.

  2. Chris Becker

    I’ve come to a similar “holistic” approach over the years in part thanks to composing for improvising musicians (and performing with them using Ableton Live) and composing for choreographers.

    Writing music for dance has been especially process oriented for me i.e. the movement comes out of rehearsals and the music is generated in pieces to accompany sections of performance as it is still being assembled into a time line. As the composer, my job is to keep track of certain musical motifs that can link the smaller parts into a whole. The musical components are kind of like a mobile.

    The painting metaphor is interesting – but what happens when we consider Rothko’s work in relation to musical composition? Morton Feldman of course wrote a lot about this topic with Rothko and Guston as his points of reference. Perhaps your next step is to let go of time altogether and unburden your music with a point A and a point B and a point C (etc).

    See also: Michael Veal’s wonderful book Dub.

  3. philmusic

    I’ve composed that way as well. Mostly I have composed directly into score-no changes. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I compose opera and vocal music – and also solo improvisation.

    I know what your thinking –those changes at least in theatrical music will be forth coming!

    Anyway, I have also composed by multi preliminary sketches that end up bearing no resemblance to the final composition at all.

    Personal misdirection. -go figure!

    Phil Fried, Skid Roe University, Free Beer!

  4. rskendrick

    rhythmic maps
    I find this whole discussion very reassuring. I too can get caught up too much into specifics early on… should the next note be an ‘A’ or an ‘Ab’. That sort of approach is really grueling for me. I’ve found that my best process involves getting a fairly good handle on an opening idea, but then create an entire rhythmic sketch for a large section or the entire movement. I worry about the contour of the line at this phase, but not exact pitches. I create curved lines above the rhythms to represent gestures. This has really improved my output and made the process more enjoyable. I also have found that I’m not as obsessive about single note choices with this approach.

  5. Juan Calderon

    Morton Feldman was all about composing like a painter. Check out “Give my Regards to 8th Street.” Great summer read!


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