Mixing Things Up

Mixing Things Up

Despite my primary instrumental training having been on guitar, I haven’t written for the instrument since I completed my first handful of pieces. I’ve always said it was to allow me the opportunity to branch out, but there’s an ulterior reasoning as well: Every time I try to write for guitar now, it sounds like the music I used to write, and not what I want to write now. I’ve had a similar experience with the piano; my sound world, or at least some aspects of it, is trapped in what seems like a past life.

It only recently occurred to me why this might be. I haven’t always used the same compositional process; initially I relied on MIDI, and as a result my music sounded a certain way. That changed as I worked more at the guitar and piano. Finally, now that at least conceptually most of the work is in my head, the music has evolved to sound completely different yet again. I had previously given this all to artistic growth, but now I’m not so sure. Since I can, to a greater or lesser degree, play both guitar and piano, I try to compose with them at hand if I’m writing for them, even though I don’t do that with any other instruments.

Involving the motor cortex in this way changes my musical focus. In my usual role as composer, I’ve become primarily interested in the emotional and intellectual; as a performer, in the emotional and visceral; and finally, to the degree that I improvise (but never in public), in the visceral and intellectual. As a result, in all of these roles I have different preferences; only as a listener do I really and truly appreciate all different aspects of musical affection. But really, I believe that’s because my compositional process is thought-based, not action-based. It seems certain to me that the way people compose will affect their output – whether it comes from the ether, as it were, from a spirited improv session, or from a careful working out on the instrument itself. The facilities accessed must play a crucial role in the creative process.

A course which need not be so individually monolithic, it would seem. All my life I’ve been told to find the process that works for me. But why is it a singularity? I don’t know any composers who drastically change their process piece to piece, but why not? If it’s capable of achieving different results, ones that might fit a project better, being scared of changing the sacred compositional process is counterproductive.

Of course, making any scientific pronouncements based on personal observation is fraught with peril. Do other people experience the same thing? There are those who wear only one hat—who compose the only type of music they want to listen to or play. But this is an increasing rarity by my own observation. I have a hard time believing differing methods wouldn’t change what you wrote, even if not so drastically as it affects me.

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3 thoughts on “Mixing Things Up

  1. Colin Holter

    I was asked to write a piece for two guitars a year or two ago. As a middling amateur rock guitarist, I started writing the piece away from the instrument (like I usually do); however, I found it too difficult to compose idiomatically for the guitar without holding one. So I picked up my guitar and finished the piece at the instrument, and I ended up with probably my favorite piece that I’ve done.

  2. William Osborne

    Trevor makes some interesting comments. He mentions that when he involves his “motor cortex” it changes the focus of his music. He also stresses that his music is “thought-based” and not “action-based.”

    At least in some respects, such mind/body dualism might be based on false assumptions about what humans are. In the last two decades, cognitive psychologists such as George Lakoff have argued that there is no Cartesian dualistic person with a mind separate and independent of the body. Reason is not disembodied. Its very structure comes from the details of our embodiment. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty, also view the body as inseparable from reason, the primal basis that shapes everything we can mean, think, know, and communicate.

    In short, we “think” with our whole body, not just our brain. This seems especially relevant to music, because musicians consciously work to build engrams through practice. They build an entire network of body/mind functions that increase the size and complexity of nerve fibers and muscles used in music-making. Musical knowledge becomes a networked Gestalt of body/mind function.

    Recent science seems to confirm that thought is an integral function of both the mind and body. Studies have shown that children allowed to gesture and move as they think, are more likely to solve mathematical problems that would normally be beyond the ability of their age-group. There might be a good reason for the proverbial pacing of some professors when they lecture. Moving the body in coordination with our thoughts can help us think.

    For another example, MRI scans of persons reading words have shown that reading a verb that refers to a face, arm, or leg action causes increased blood flow and activity in the motor cortex. For example, reading the word lick would increase blood flow in sites corresponding to tongue and mouth movements.

    This creates a much more complex model of our body/mind knowledge of the world. If the word lick, for example, were combined with images of someone sexually attractive, many other parts of the brain would probably light up, including a variety motoric and emotional centers. These inherently integrated cognitive, emotional and motoric reactions bear close relationships to various kinds of musical impulses.

    Based on similar studies, it has been proposed that our ability to understand language hinges on activation of interconnected brain areas that assimilate information about a particular word and its associated actions and sensations. I think one might also find correlations between associated actions and sensations reflected in music notation and the stimulation of specific areas of the cortex used in music-making. An accomplished pianist, for example, thinks music by moving her fingers, and conversely, feels stimulations in her fingers when looking at musical notation. Even in its most abstract forms and techniques, music will probably always be a form of embodied knowledge and expression, because the body and mind are a single entity.

    In spite of computer music’s many marvels, we may find that there is no quick path to putting the body in music, and that without the long, existential process of making an instrument and the body-mind one, we weaken cognitive structures that are essential to musical meaning. I think that solutions for this problem will formulate a large part of future research and development in computer music. It will also require the development of new aesthetic theories.

    William Osborne

  3. philmusic

    “…All my life I’ve been told to find the process that works for me…”

    Trevor, I think if you just keep working the process will find you.

    Phil Fried



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