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Advice for the Emerging Composer, Part I: Notation

December 6, 2008 at 5:28 pm UTC


I don’t believe there is a ‘correct’ way to compose, or even a ‘best’ way to compose. As a composer you’ve ultimately got to invent your own method – whatever it takes to get the sounds in your head onto the page. And there’s really nothing more important than that damn page, because without it, you’ll never be able to communicate to other people the exquisite pain, joy and sorrow that is flooding your heart.

Here is the method that has worked for me:

I use a pencil and paper. That’s it. I’ve tried Finale, tried Sibelius – I just seem to write better when I’m using ‘old school’ materials. Something about the smell of the lead and the feel of the paper make me feel more like I’m working, and for me that’s an essential part of the process. I like to get to the end of a writing day and have sore fingers and little bits of eraser all over my clothes, like a woodworker leaving his studio. And I love that at the end of a day I have something physical and real to hold in my hands, even if it’s only a stack of pages that I wrote and immediately discarded. (There are LOTS of discarded pages, more on that in a different post).

I always use the biggest manuscript paper I can find, at least 11×17 and at least 18 staves, even when I’m writing four-part a cappella music. For me, it’s important when I write that I can see as much of the music at one time as possible, partly so I can get a sense of the overall structure, and partly because it’s a great way to sketch a lot of ideas and quickly refer back to them. The big pages are also great for lining up on the floor (or on my 8’x10′ corkboard on my studio wall) so that I can get a visual sense of how the entire piece will play out in real time.

My first scribblings on the page aren’t pretty. I write as fast as I can, and oftentimes I won’t even worry about the rhythm, or the key, or ‘proper’ notation. Sometimes I’ll just write the noteheads and the shape of the phrase – anything to get the general motion of the gesture onto the page while it’s fresh in my mind.

Sometimes, when I’m just beginning a piece, I’ll turn on my sequencer (Digital Performer) and just record myself improvising, because every now and then my fingers will find an interesting chord or progression and I’ll forget it before I can write it down. And sometimes, after I’ve written it down on paper, I’ll sequence parts of a piece so that I can get a general idea of how it will sound when I’m finished. (I sequenced all of Equus, just to make sure it would work).

When it comes to the actual notation, though, I try to stay away from the computer. As I said before I really don’t think there is a correct way to do it, but for a beginning composer I think the computer can be a real trap. Here are my three biggest arguments against it:

Cut and Paste. Finale or Sibelius have made it so easy to cut and paste that you don’t even have to cut anymore, just highlight and drag. And I think that is a bad thing.

It’s not just the obvious argument that the music suffers from exact copies of a musical motive all over the place, or that it breeds mindless, quasi-minimalistic ostinato patterns that don’t develop and have no real destination. The real problem is that it is easy to do, and it should not be easy. When you are working with pencil and paper, and you have to copy and paste something, it is a major pain. You have to either literally ‘copy and paste’, with a copy machine, scissors, and tape, or you have to rewrite the same material over and over by hand. And when you are faced with that much work, you stop and think before you write something down. That is a good thing. That pause forces you to reflect on the worthiness of the material you’ve got, and makes you think about the larger structure of the piece before you forge ahead. It encourages reflection and introspection, and in my experience reflection and introspection are two of the best friends a composer can have.

The Playback Sucks. I don’t care how good your samples are, its going to sound awful. You’ll write a big section of the piece, play it back, and want to kill yourself. You’ll question your writing and change it. Worse, you’ll hear the crap playback performance and begin to believe you’re a crap composer, which messes with your confidence. And confidence, along with reflection and introspection, is most certainly one of a composer’s best friends.

Or the converse: if you’ve got a fantastic sample library, you’ll think your piece sounds great and then be devastated when you hear it played by a live human ensemble. The real-live horn section might suddenly sound thin compared to your 16 Hans-Zimmer-conquest-horns patch. That gorgeous cello/English horn line might not balance so well when the English horn is sitting seventy-five feet from the cellos, as they often do in a real symphony orchestra. And human voices, once so lush and seamless when played by samples, suddenly sound un-tuned and strained as they try to navigate vowels that your computer couldn’t replicate during playback.

You’ll stop using your imagination. I think the most important skill a composer can develop is the ability to sit quietly and ‘hear’ the music in their mind before they write it down; it’s something I’ve been struggling with for twenty years, and will probably keep struggling with for the rest of my life. When I’m composing, I’ll often just take walks (or long showers) and work on the music there, away from my studio and my piano, and try to imagine the music as it’s being played in the ‘virtual’ concert hall in my mind. I think most of my best compositional solutions come that way.

I find that the computer notation programs can damage this process, because the temptation to hit the playback button is just overwhelming, even after you’ve only written a few bars of music. When I’m working at the computer it’s very rare – for me – to just sit and stare at the page in total silence, trying to hear what I’ve written and imaging where it ought to go.

Now I know what you are thinking, and you’re right – so many composers these days use Finale or Sibelius. In fact, I don’t know a single composer my age who still writes with pencil and paper. Still, I’m going to be the dusty old luddite professor and offer this: just try it. Use pencil and paper, at least for the first draft, and see if it doesn’t dramatically alter the music you are writing. I think you’ll find that if it worked for Bach, Bethoven, Debussy, Stravinski, and Britten (et al), it can work for you.