Compositional Exercise

Compositional Exercise

I caught some fairly serious static last week for suggesting that there’s value in the difficulty of writing music. (I remember being criticized similarly for proposing a while back that composing can also be a character-building exercise, that its “sweat equity” is redeemable for benefits both artistic and personal.) It seemed like a fairly innocuous statement—maybe, like cardiovascular fitness, compositional acumen must be tested against steeper challenges in order to develop. As I pointed out in the “comments” section, the kind of music that comes easily to me is not very good. I have to work hard if I want to produce decent pieces. More power to you if you don’t, but I do.

That’s the bottom line: If you purport to be a composer, your responsibility is a) to be honest with yourself about what “good music” is and b) to write some. If you can get away with half-assing it, you might as well be half-assing some other line of work, because the money is almost sure to be better. The first obligation, cultivating criteria for “good music,” is a difficult and time-consuming process that’s completely unique to each of us. But it’s only a precondition for that second obligation, a task that seems immensely more difficult and time-consuming than the first. Unless, of course, it isn’t—and as I mentioned before, it may not be for everyone. It clearly wasn’t for Mozart. Was writing half an hour of music for every Sunday of the year on top of a bunch of other pieces difficult for Bach? Schubert wrote a song every day during some periods of his life.

If there was some kind of music I could spit out on a daily basis with the consistently high quality of Mozart’s, Bach’s, or Schubert’s, I wouldn’t be wasting my time blogging. There just isn’t.

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20 thoughts on “Compositional Exercise

  1. jchang4

    There is a scary aspect to realizing the limits of your own abilities. In piano, there’s always going to be some other guy who can sight-read or learn music a heck of a lot faster than you… and it’ll be crisp and clean and maybe even sound “musical.” Those people get the gigs.

    I had a friend tell me recently that one of her pianist buddies was making some good money playing new music for the composition faculty at her school. She said this to me as if to suggest that THAT could be me. And it’s a very nice thought, but I know this pianist that she speaks of… I know that she has skills that I’ll only be able to dream of… That composers will give her a piece, hot off the press, and she’ll have one or two weeks to learn it before the premiere, and she’ll do it. And she’ll do it really well, cuz apparently she’s kinda become the go to person for this kind of thing. But I know that I simply can’t do that… That, if given the choice, composers will stick with this other pianist or someone else like her because she/they can deliver in ways that I simply cannot. It’s kinda sad, but it’s kinda true.

    I guess if you cross the line into working too slow to really make a living, then you have to start asking yourself some questions. But maybe this doesn’t apply to composition.

  2. Lisa X

    your bottom line: “If you purport to be a composer, your responsibility is a) to be honest with yourself about what “good music” is and b) to write some.”

    Really? Maybe if you are an amateur or a real bohemian without financial obligations or you have a trust fund or you are successful enough to be in total control. People who feed their families by making music just can’t be so wrapped up in what’s good or bad.

    another bottom line: If you ARE a composer, your responsibility is a) to find enough work and b) do the very best you can within whatever musical situations you find yourself in.

  3. bvlasak

    I truly respect your commitment to your art form; composition, to me anyhow, is definitely about discovering a work and discerning whether or not the work should have been discovered in the first place. Monetary compensation, finding work, etc … is secondary to what is produced. Maybe that’s why it’s such a difficult process to not only discern what “good” music is, but also why it is difficult to discover/produce “good” music in the first place!

    As for the “old dead white guys”, you have to remember that they were composing in an idiom that was well-established. This is not meant to belittle their stunning accomplishments, but only draw attention to the fact that as composers now-a-days — without some overarching, all-encompassing tonal paradigm — we have to create our own context for every single work we write. While this may lead to a smaller output, it is all the more impressive to me in that we reinvent the wheel with every stroke of the pencil and still manage to create absolutely unique — and extremely personalized — compositions.

    — Brian

  4. Colin Holter

    People who feed their families by making music just can’t be so wrapped up in what’s good or bad.

    Very few people who make their livings solely from composing can afford to feed their families anyway. I don’t have a family to feed. I’m subsidized until the beginning of June by the taxpayers of Minnesota, and even after that, I won’t be relying on composing for a significant part of my income. Nobody’s beating down my door with commissions in hand, so I have the freedom to work on my craft without worrying about cranking out pieces to meet deadlines.

    If you have to put food on the table and insist on doing it by way of contemporary concert music without supplementary teaching, administering, etc., you’re a better person than I.

  5. Colin Holter

    By the way-

    we have to create our own context for every single work we write. While this may lead to a smaller output, it is all the more impressive to me in that we reinvent the wheel with every stroke of the pencil and still manage to create absolutely unique — and extremely personalized — compositions


  6. jcbatz

    I don’t believe there is a direct correlation between writing quickly and easily and “half-assing” it. Most of my best pieces were attained quickly with an enormous sense of flow. They seemed to write themselves and tapped into part of my creative energy that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Works that I wrote after much struggle and hardship really seem to suck. I learn valuable things from them, among the most valuable being: if I’m struggling that much, it isn’t my natural voice. I’m slamming my head against the wall and nothing good will come of it.

    It took me a while to be comfortable with that concept. I felt that my music had to be externally justified in some way. It doesn’t. It need to reflect who I am as a composer.

    Besides, when we are listening to a piece, is there something intrinsic in the work that indicates how much time went into creating it? There isn’t.

  7. philmusic

    “If there was some kind of music I could spit out on a daily basis with the consistently high quality of Mozart’s, Bach’s, or Schubert’s, I wouldn’t be wasting my time blogging. ”

    Colin, there is a difference between real time and hindsight. If a composers music happens to be high quality, sometimes they are the last one to know.

    Phil Fried Skid Row U, home of the .000007K rum run

  8. Jay.Derderian

    “Quit looking for the damn formula; there isn’t one. Enough said–more than enough, actually.”

    I second that.

  9. jchang4

    I don’t think it’s a question of finding a formula. I think it’s just that for some things, some people have to work harder than others. It takes me more time and more effort to learn a Chopin etude than it might take others (and perhaps I am able to learn it quicker than some also). And there is a certain measure of satisfaction that comes in the work. I don’t know if I’d feel quite as satisfied with my work if it came too easy. Sure, I could play a very basic, “simple” version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and I might be able to play it quite well, but it doesn’t bring quite the same satisfaction that I’d get from working on Mozart’s (flashy) variations on the very same theme.

    It’s like when you’re choosing pieces for your students to work on… You don’t want to make the mistake of choosing something too easy, and thereby boring them. But you also don’t want to choose something too difficult and thereby overwhelming them. Of course, there are some students that will only be happy if it’s easy. I just don’t happen to be one of those students. I like a bit of challenge. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, there’s also nothing wrong with wanting things to be easy… but I guess those sorts of people are either geniuses, or simply not interested in personal growth. Because I don’t believe being an artist is about being a master of the craft. I think it’s about master-ing the craft. I’m not so sure that we ever actually reach the summit. Aren’t you condemning yourself to a plateau if you choose not to challenge yourself?

  10. robteehan

    I think we are confusing “easy” with “simple”. The two are not necessarily the same. A composer whose music comes easily is not necessarily writing simple, uncomplicated music. Nor is he necessarily writing commercially viable music, nor is he necessarily “insisting” (what an incredible word to use, Colin) on making a living from writing contemporary concert music.

    I think we can all agree that writing music is usually hard. It takes time – we agonize over every note. This has been true of most of my pieces, complex or simlpe (I just spent three weeks writing a one-minute choral blessing. The final result was simple and pure – but the process was anything but easy). But – BUT – this is the whole point of the criticism against Colin’s original argument – we must not fall into the logical trap of assuming that harder work equals better music. Because experience for me has shown the opposite – my best works came when I was somehow so in touch with my inner voice that the music flowed out, needing minimal rewrite. I somehow knew exactly what I wanted to write, and I wrote it, and presto. I don’t know how or why it worked, but I do know that this music is also among the most complicated, technically accomplished, and well balanced out of all of my works.

    Wrap your head around that one – it comes easy, but the music is complex, sophisticated and interesting. Yes, it’s possible; in fact it’s desirable. It worked for Mozart, Schubert, J. S. Bach. So they’re either “geniuses” or “not interested in personal growth”? Really? That seems like a pretty mystical evaluation of the writing process. Wouldn’t you rather find that ability for yourself?

    Here’s my hypothesis: you don’t need to force yourself to “grow” every time you sit down to write a piece. If you are a lifelong student of music, which I think we all are, then you will naturally come to desire greater complexity and depth as you gain experience, and your music will keep pace with your own natural growth as long as you are writing honestly. The challenge is not in “challenging yourself” but in being true to your inner voice, and silencing the inner critics that tell you that every piece must be a complex masterpiece. That’s a pretty egotistical place to be, isn’t it? Are we really so great that we’re incapable of just writing good music, everything must be revolutionary?

    I guess everyone’s process is different. Leos is right: there’s no formula. But experience has taught me that if I try to push myself to write complex, challenging music, my music reflects exactly that: I’m TRYING. Too hard.

  11. Trevor

    It just depends what type of composer you are. I don’t know your music, Colin, but what I’d imagine from reading your comments for the last couple years is that you’re quite interested in the phenomenology of sound, so you’re working without the benefit of a firm syntax in the matter. Again, just guessing, but I imagine you’re creating from the ground up.

    Others who are responding here are composing within a system, using, yes, a formula. It’s just a fairly complex formula. Without making an aesthetic argument, just a neurological one, if music “flows naturally” out of you, you are working within a system that your brain has full control over – synapses firing everywhere, nearly instantaneously. The reason unfamiliar territory is difficult to deal with is because we have to rely on the plasticity of our brain to come up with the right solution, which takes time, and is a somewhat random process. And because it is somewhat randomized, which is why the more work = better piece formula is far too simplistic, like saying lots of mass = black hole. A piece like “It’s Gonna Rain” barely required any work. Does that make any less good? Finally, there’s no inherent artistic benefit in working within or without a system; its just a matter of what interested you about music in the first place.

  12. robteehan

    Good points, Trevor. I do have my own aesthetic biases and superstitions, and I think Colin and I are probably different species of composer.

    We should, therefore, remember that no one composer can make universal claim to the “best” process. I just know that my best process is probably very different from Colin’s, as is my music.

  13. jchang4

    Re: do or do not
    I realize that things for composition are not going to be exactly the same as it is for performance. I’m not trying to refute your argument… just throwing out a non-composer perspective.

  14. jchang4

    Just to clarify, cuz it bugs me that you think I’m stupidly wrong on this… Students of piano performance who are only happy when pieces are easy to learn tend not to be interested in growing as pianists. I see this a lot in my own teaching, so I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that this is true. Obviously, it does not fit perfectly with the composition model. But I don’t think I’m wrong in my perspective/observation.

  15. robteehan

    I think it’s a good analogy for performance, but I think creativity is a different kind of skill. I am a performer too, but I don’t approach learning a new piece the same way I do writing one. But, I think the headspace I try to access when I’m performing is the same one for when I am writing. I think there needs to be a certain ease and relaxation – which only comes after vigorous preparation – in order for spontaneous creativity to happen. For me the hard work is learning the language of music, not writing it, just as the hard work in performing a new piece is learning the licks to the point where playing is easy.

    I get very worked up about this issue because it’s very important and personal to me and a crucial element of why I became a composer in the first place. In hindsight my first post was pretty condescending, and I apologize for that.

  16. I_Edo

    I’m surprised, Colin, that you got so much beef for suggesting a compositional exercise. I mean doesn’t it make perfect sense to want to improve a skill set, so to become more fluent at the craft, which will probably produce higher quality work, which will lead to more work, etc.? And I like what you said regarding “reinventing the wheel with every stroke of a pencil”. It’s probably important to consider the language with which Bach, Mozart, and Schubert all used, because they had certain parameters within which to work (regarding basic tonal principles and so they molded rules as opposed to having to create them from scratch – and so that extra step of “reinvention” does indeed take that much extra effort and of course time.
    Hmm, maybe a good exercise would be just to crank out a piece in one day and see what comes out. Might be fun.

    O, and I like what said about learning music, and I think it is very true. Without doubt if one wants to achieve a certain level of musicianship, there has to be an internal push.

  17. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    A few things:
    1. Colin and I share a composition teacher, (he studied with her several years ago, I am with her now), and perhaps she gave us some of the same attitude towards our work. She has always made it clear that my evaluation of my own work should come from my satisfaction with it as a piece that accomplishes what I want to accomplish. For me the challenge is in knowing what I want to accomplish to begin with. I’m still a student, but I have the freedom to put on paper anything I want- I’m only following my own rules. In some ways this makes writing fabulously easy, since “my voice” is “my voice,” and it will always come from me. In other ways writing becomes very very difficult- unavoidably so- because it suddenly requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness. If I ignore this last part and leave my writing up to “my voice,” I might as well just be 5 drinks under at a bar, mouthing off about god knows what. If you follow your own rules, your challenge comes in making the rules. Personally, I usually don’t finish establishing my boundaries for a piece until the piece is long done being written. That’s why I’m still a student.

    2. “It’s Gonna Rain” required very little “hands on” work, in that once Reich discovered the process, he could literally just set things rolling. However, distilling his musical training and experiences into a coherent idea which embodied his “discovery” of phasing must have been a tremendously difficult task. You don’t just start a musical movement with a simple experiment.
    This, I believe, is the problem with how we view challenges. If it doesn’t take time, doesn’t require sweat and pain, then it’s not difficult, and probably not of any value. We see Reich’s piece and know the work that went into the actual making and recording of it, but perhaps we should look at what was going on in his head before, during, and after the composition of that piece….

    3. if you aren’t interested in this conversation, nobody is obligating you to respond. some of us like trying to figure out what makes us tick as composers, and if you don’t want it to be your business, i’m sure no one will mind.

  18. tjrenmuzik

    I just wanted to say thank you to everyone’s posts. I have found this discussion as well as “Tripping Down the Spiral Staircase of Reason” quite interesting and beneficial. Much of what has been posted has provided me with food for thought regarding my own compositional process and the struggles I face within my development as a composer.

    Theodore (Tedd)

  19. Querflote

    As a performer, the equation looks like this:
    no one at the concert cares how many hours you had to invest to get to the level of technique you bring to the performance. Likewise, as a performer I don’t care how much effort it took for the composer to get the notes onto the score – just how effective/expressive/beautiful they are. If the composer can produce 35 hours of music a year, rather than 1, so much the better.


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