Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

When I first tried my hand at composing one concept that always seemed elusive was musical continuity, or as Boulanger called it, la grande ligne—the “long line” or thread of inevitability that courses through a piece of music. As the proud owner of a not-particularly-well-developed musical imagination, I was only able to interpret (or misinterpret) this useful concept in the most limited of ways. Along the way I did figure out how to string musical phrases together in an appreciably narrative manner, but as I gained competence in this elementary skill it also became evident that something in my understanding of la grande ligne was flawed or at least incomplete.

As I worked through the symphonic repertoire, I began to wonder why a work in four movements could be considered cohesive, whereas by my very simple criteria the same symphony presented in one “movement” (with fermatas crammed between each section) seemed almost silly. This apparent paradox was just what I needed to help me see past my own misunderstanding, and now armed with a slightly broader imagination I was able to realize what is now obvious: that there needn’t be a contradiction between what Boulanger meant and large-scale musical contrast.

I now have no problem accepting and experiencing la grande ligne in all sorts of music, from ragas to pieces by John Zorn, although in some situations it’s certainly less useful to me than others. Like many compositional ideas, aesthetic theories, and assorted pearls of wisdom it has served as a great tool—but only after I had learned how to wield it. I’ve had very similar turns with both Schenkerian analysis and set theory (albeit not as egregious), and for me at least it’s safe to say that I thought I understood these tools much before I actually did.

If that’s the case, composers are pretty lucky—our tools may need a little extra breaking in, but unlike their physical counterparts, our musical tools only become stronger and better-calibrated with the passage of time, provided we take them for a spin once in a while. That means engaging those musical ideas, making mistakes, and even making a total fool out of oneself, on occasion. Or as the neighborhood handyman I used to run errand for once quipped, “Who would trust a carpenter with a bunch of shiny, unused tools hanging in their garage?”

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One thought on “Tools of the Trade

  1. Troy Ramos

    I sort of had the same experience that you did, at least in regard to listening to pieces. I still find a really difficult, however, to hear the long line in the works of certain composers who seem to create soundworlds from a more pointilistic perspective (like Boulez, perhaps; assuming, of course, that a long line is intended or there).

    As for composing, even though I try to keep the idea of a long line in mind throughout the process, it’s funny that I will still often finish a piece and then scratch my head wondering how I lost the thread; that is, I could be pleased with the sections or parts, but the overall flow might seem strange or displeasing.

    On the other hand, sometimes the long line makes sense, but then its sections might be uninteresting to me, perhaps because I’ve composed too conservatively for fear of losing that thread. Of course, sometimes an overall flow that works just sort of rises naturally out of whatever you’re doing (those are the good days :)


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