Composing can be difficult. Even during those relatively rare and much coveted periods when my brain overflows, with notes spewing forth in surprisingly pleasing orders, I can find it quite challenging to block off enough time to sit uninterrupted in order to vivify those ideas. Since I move back and forth between several different workspaces—each of which presents its own challenges—it’s been essential for me to create rituals that allow me to quickly take over an unfamiliar room. Generally, my first stage of composing involves physically writing out my ideas in pencil on paper, and so I carry the tools of my trade in a very light plastic portfolio case, ready to emerge at a moment’s notice. If you look inside this envelope, you’ll find a .9mm mechanical pencil, an equally large eraser, a 15-inch straight edge with cork backing (so it doesn’t smear the graphite markings), and 11×17 staff paper. Lots and lots of large staff paper.

Tools of the trade

Everything that I need to compose, on a desk that I’m only using for the day.

Several years ago, I created my own paper with blank staves barely large enough to allow me to create legible music, and with just enough vertical space between them for my relatively long-winded performance markings. I use 11×17 paper so I can photocopy it anew each time I run low on supplies (and since I long ago lost my original file and copy, the quality of my staff lines has gradually deteriorated over time), in landscape layout so I can notate up to twelve parts on a single page and see the music run horizontally for a gratifyingly long time. When I compose for large ensembles, I either handwrite a short score, waiting until the computer transcription to see all the parts on separate staves, or I forgo my usual paper in favor of a vertical layout.

For me, the main advantage of this large paper is that it allows me to view big swaths of musical materials at a single time. In solos and small ensembles, I can fit several minutes’ worth of slow music onto a single page, and even for a piece as large and complex as my 20-minute toy piano concerto I was able to notate the entire work on a mere 14 sheets. This feature allows me to lay out entire compositions on the lid of a piano or across a desk, freeing me up to view potential confluences between distant events that I might have otherwise missed. In addition, when I want to create a visual representation of my musical plan, I find that I can sometimes roughly map the form for a new piece on a single piece of paper. Finally, when I’m in the process of sketching new ideas, the large paper permits me to separate different types of materials into their constituent categories while keeping all the various motives for a composition in one place.

The key challenge that often leaves composers afraid of enacting the switch to big paper is how to transport these bulky pages. While students used to purchase large portfolio cases, which they carried around conservatories as a badge of honor (at least I did), our current need for laptop computers and other items that don’t easily fit into such containers makes this solution less viable for our contemporaries. Instead, I simply fold my paper so it fits into an envelope built for 8.5×11 sheets, using a draft page in the middle so the graphite doesn’t smear: a simple solution, but one that is only feasible for composers who don’t worry about the relative condition of their handwritten drafts.

If you’ll excuse me, it’s probably time for me to turn away from the computer and towards the big paper.

Score head

Another advantage of the large paper is that I can hide behind it.

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5 thoughts on “

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Wow. We still use the same tools. I carry with me 12×18 paper in landscape format with tiny staves (a legacy of a print shop that I worked in about 1974… started with a few thousand sheets, still a hundred or so left), a few pencils and a sharpener (never liked mechanical pencils), and that very same ruler in your photo!

    I love notation software, but nothing allows that broad curve into sonic space better than a pencil sweeping across a large sheet of paper. Back in the 1980s I gave a future-talk about large sheets of reconfigurable paper that could turn into anything, from reading material to typing surface to composition sheets.

    We’re getting there, but it’s still all too small and lacking scope and soul.

  2. Dave MacDonald

    I too am a big fan of big paper. I go back and forth between a 12×18 Carta pad (The really thick off-white stock is nice for durability) and homemade 11×17 like you. When I make my own, I will sometimes make very slight adjustments my paper for the project I’m working on. I also like to go back and forth between portrait and landscape, but I find landscape to be more enjoyable. I think the longer systems are closer to the way we (or at last I) hear music. It’s a one-way trip, no going back to the left every system.

  3. Mark N. Grant

    David, you and your “big swaths” are in good company: here’s Henry Cowell’s description of his 1931 visit to Alban Berg’s studio (from Joel Sachs’s excellent new Cowell biography, pp. 191-2):

    “He was writing music from the high stool, and he had each page of “Lulu,” on which he was then working, separated, and in the form of garden paths through the studio, so that you walked up Page 1, Page 2, Page 3 and so on, all laid out there, so he could see them all, if he wanted to turn around and look at what he’d already written, so that he could relate the music to what he’d already done. He didn’t have to remember. He looked at it. Walked all up and down. It was laid out like an English garden….He always composed that way, yes–which I thought was very interesting….”

  4. Mark Phillips

    It might interest some of you to know for most of his career, Don Erb always used pads of 60-stave paper … whether he was composing for orchestra or string quartet.

    My preference was more like pads of 34-stave (and sometimes for small pieces I’d even slice it in half so it would fit comfortably on a piano). But then my ideas were probably almost never as big as Don’s.

  5. Mark Winges

    Absolutely love larger paper for the note-scribbling process. Although I’ve cut back to 11 x 14 landscape (make my own). That’s a good size for tacking multiple pages on a studio wall and still allows a lot on a page. Dennis & Dave, I’ll have to try 18 x 12 sometime – my printer handles that (9 x 12 TwoUp is pretty useful), but I’ve never tried making manuscript on that size.

    I was going through some old envelopes and came upon a cache of large-size onionskin. Wondering if I could use it for composing.


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