Back in the 1970s I would keep a small envelope by the piano. On the envelope was written in large green letters – “Are you listening?” I thought this would be a good adage – a principle for music composition - to keep near me. Over time I began to add more statements to the list – further reminders of what I thought were the keys to successful composing.
Prompted by the reading of Brahms' writings on composition, I thought I would share my list with some current comments on its import.
ARE YOU LISTENING?
The underlying principle that I used in thinking about composing is to ask this question: “Are You Listening?”
Am I hearing from an audience perspective, how a listener would hear and more importantly feel? I became aware early on that the very act of composition (and performance) itself could be quite intoxicating. However, the fact that I could work myself up into a frenzy of feeling was of little import next to the question whether any of those ideas or feeling were actually successfully communicated outside of myself. And from that perspective came the hunt for finding ways to create new music by always asking the question “Am I listening?” And from that question emerged the next question: “What am I trying to say?"
What am I trying to say?
This is a lifelong endeavor. When younger I may have intuitively understood that just expression of the “real” me or being “true to yourself” was more likely than not a trap – more about self-indulgence versus the discipline of real communication. Even though music is its own voice, I would work out a parallel world of images, articulated feelings and even lay out graphs of the emotional rise and fall of emotional tensions throughout a work. These days all that initial work seems to have been internalized. Now I can wait, letting ideas brew internally, and when I start to write it seems to flow forth whole cloth.
What is its function?
This question explores every aspect of the music, every phrase, every harmony, every section and to be able to articulate and understand how it fulfills these functions:
Is it direct?
Is every musical and compositional gesture direct? Is the expression working in as simple a manner as possible? If and when the music gets complex is there a true and legitimate reason for it? I will use, steal, acquire any style, technique, or sound - I am eclectic in my thievery - but it should always be in pursuit of the direct simplicity of my expression.
Does it project?
1968 or so, sitting in the last row of the balcony at Carnegie Hall at one of Vladimir Horowitz’s “return” concerts: From the entire concert the most compelling moment is the final encore, VH playing a minuscule version of Scarlatti’s E Major Sonatine. Barely audible, yet the projected force silences the 3000 member audience and brings them to the edge of their seats. Question? How to bring that sense of projection to the composition as well as the performance?
Is it a cliché?
Double check to insure that every musical gesture has been authentically thought through and is not a simple retread from another’s or even my own work. Yet at the same time, finding a balance to insure that the musical gesture is not composed just for the sake of invention, falling for the trap of undue or forced “originality”.
Have you given it full thought?
To ask the question is whether I am getting lazy about my process, not pushing through to explore and edit all aspects thoroughly.
Is it playable?
Make sure that each part is playable, idiomatic and fun to play for a particular instrument. Overly difficult parts make effective performances difficult. Simple part writing that is fun to play and interlocks with other parts into complexity will create better performances and in general more satisfying musical experiences for performer and audience.
Is it conducive to the instrument and player in performance?
Does every part leverage the best of every instrument’s sound and beauty? Every phrase of the music, no matter how languorous, or how furiously rhythmic, or supple must first be embodied, physicalized, so it can be danced by both performer and listener.
Does it have personality?
Does every line have a distinctive personality while remaining as simple as possible - a delicate balance between banality and quirkiness? Every line in counterpoint should have a unique personality.
How does it sound from the outside? From a listener’s perspective?
Once again rechecking that throughout all these processes I am not deceiving myself.
The craft of spirit
Every piece of music should be crafted on the level of spirit, as well as sound.
All music points to spirit or perhaps we might say music is the outer garment of spirit - the real music is in the silence.* But just to claim that my music is “spiritual” is NOT enough. The challenge is to engage the inner craft of spirit, the skills and discipline that exists in any art form to make it successful. Exploring the why and how to use sound to shift consciousness - (e.g. “shifting the assemblage point” a la Carlos Castaneda who first used drugs and then exercises to change consciousness).
What is the end point of a musical composition? In what space – spirit domain – facets of consciousness and feelings do I want to leave my listener? And what byways – contrasting emotions, rising and falling tensions – will the journey take? And when the final decibels of sound fade away where will my audience be – both as an individual and as a unified community of listeners.
Every note, every sound has a corresponding feeling. Even if minimal there is an effect on our being - from the merest buzz of an insect to a sonic boom to a pitched note. In music these micro effects coalesce into motivic fragments – which has an emotional mirror in our being. Motifs become melodies – which have more elaborate emotional content. Harmonies add subtle vertical dimensions. Counterpoint is a tapestry of various feelings - together and against each other the individual melodic lines of counterpoint generate tertiary emotional states that are not inherent in single lines by themselves – the whole if greater than the parts. Structure is the large-scale relationships of feelings against each other. The recapitulating nature of sonata has a spiritual correlation in creation, struggle, and then transcendent return – mirroring the Judaic-Christian journey of birth, life, death and transformative resurrection.
*(The real music is in the silence. By this phrase I mean something more literal than metaphor. There is a simple demonstration of what I mean. Sing a phrase from a favorite song with as much authentic feeling as possible. Now start singing the phrase again. But mid-phrase stop the actual sound, but let the underlying flow of energy, feeling and line continue. That is the real music - in the silence behind the sound.)
Recapitulation of the previous paragraph:
Every sound, every note, every musical phrase has feeling - inherent in it - perhaps derived from personal experience or perhaps by culture. All these small aspects, tiny fragments, in due course, merge into larger units of phrases of melody and counterpoint. Yet each has its parallel, antecedent of feeling. These phrases coalesce - like swirling galaxies making a universe of not only of sound but of feelings, feelings that each have their own emotional signature. And then larger structures emerge, playing off each other, contradicting emotional tensions and releases. These expressive fissures between structures create spiral nebulae of sound - mirror-tied to feelings – a place where each contrapuntal line is a layer of feeling - distinct expressions - feelings layered on top of each other generating tertiary experiences that resonate simultaneously in multiple dimensions. This vast world of sound-feelings moving both vertically and horizontally through time – the sonic stories told through enunciation, development and resolution – is the silent aspect of music and what it is all about.
Pursuing the vision of art, the idea, the gestalt.
Does a work stay aligned to what it is about? Too often does the composer become so wrapped up in the notes, the construction, he/she may lose track as to the goal – of what is trying to be said. Does every phrase, underlying feeling, impact fit into the story being told – does it support it or does it distract?
Does a work have its own life?
Is the integrity of the work so well-crafted, so well inspired that it can come alive when other performers, besides the composer (or original performers), play it. Will it be listenable and meaningful beyond the current time and place? Is there enough that is universal in its fabric that it will translate its meaning to future generations – and thus touch what it is to be immortal.
Does it create illusion (magic)?
Does it override intellect?
These two questions are related. Music can be magical or it can be pedestrian. To become magical it must first grab a listener’s attention and then stimulate her personal imagination. If the music has successfully grabbed a listener’s attention, the listener may at first use their intellect to follow the musical argument. When a performance succeeds, the listener’s intellect is overridden. The listener’s intellect can no longer process in real time all that is happening - formally, emotionally, aesthetically - the listener is forced to let go yet still stays focused and attentive. And thus magic is born.
Overall impression of simplicity – inside complexity
Music as a crystal – diamond
If there is any statement that represents my compositional musical goal it would be this: Overall impression of simplicity – inside complexity. Deceptively simple ideas and story supported by increasingly sophisticated compositional devices to create a much larger venture.
Ideally the overall gestalt of a work should be clear and transparent – a forceful, articulate linear movement. Though just beneath the surface there may be a complex range of musical ideas, harmonies, counterpoint – each simple in its own right – supporting the larger whole of the work. Brahms, for my taste, seems to be the master and inspiration for this idea. Throughout his music the linear and emotional gestalt is clear. Astute listeners always know where they are in the progression of the work; yet, the transparent, classicism of complex and contrapuntal gestures are endless. Thus the comparison of music as a diamond – crystal clear surface that revealing a limitless labyrinth of shimmering, prism rainbow light. (Does one’s name reflect who and what they become?)
Does the work entertain (first)?
Unless we grab a listener’s attention first and foremost - from the very first note onward, there is no chance for success. To hope that a listener will or should find their way to our expression is perhaps a truism of the “Untitled” avant-garde world. The truer history of music is that most great composers – with the odd exception - grabbed their audience’s attention immediately. Holding an audience hostage to a superior aesthetic for me seems contemptuous at worse or maybe simply naive. Music should be a friendly invitation. Waiting for an audience to find me is a recipe for self-delusion. To this end I also must decide who my audience is. On this I try to be clear. My audience is never my fellow composers – or even my teachers. The paradox - refuting to a certain sense of all what I said before – is that the ideal listener is someone like myself – not the composer self who actually understands Xenakis and Stockhausen or enjoys Berg and Schoenberg – but the listener in me who revels in Mozart and is still enraptured by Tchaikovsky or the glories of Beethoven. As a listener-composer I always remind myself why I was inspired to be a composer. It was not because I was enraptured with the music of Milton Babbit. The Gymnopedie of Satie and what it does to me (and most listeners) is the reason why I was inspired to compose. More can be found of what I want to say in the simplest of melodies than in all the complexities of modernism.
Is it all consciousness?
Musical performance is a sharing of consciousness. The privilege of sharing who and what I am – the feelings, ideas and perspectives. There is no more intimate act than this. This is why music is inherently erotic – not because it symbolizes the poundings of flesh, but because it reveals the most intimate, subtle and vulnerable parts of ourselves. At its best, it is to throw one’s soul, not just the senses into a piece - not only one’ s dreams and aspirations, but one’s hurts and sorrows, pains and joys - revealing the most delicate of secrets in a coded and public language that is both singular and universal . And with such revelation we touch both pride and shame – both ego and anti-ego. And to play or listen to a master’s music is to feel their most intimate inner world. Imagine what it is to know the nuance of Mozart’s playfulness, the triumph and vision of Beethoven, the rhapsodic yet steely transcendence of Bach, the heaven-bent desiring of Tchaikovsky, the struggle and luminescent otherworldliness of Wagner. It is a privilege to know another – no less such genius so well, so intimately. Thus what I try to offer through music is inherently sacred – because it ultimately tries to explore and reveal both the most public and secret parts of my psyche. And a performer, when successfully playing my written music – a roadmap into my psyche -- is in one sense replicating my consciousness. Yes, it is mixed with their insight, feelings and inner states as well. And indeed many of these feelings and sensibilities are universal, even though we all try to make them part of our own private world. Still in the most public of forums, the performer is actually feeling, knowing who I am, more deeply, more intimately – and thus more erotically – than any physical conflation could achieve. And then in that dance my music is re-created within the performer, my being comes alive, dancing, entwined with the performer’s own consciousness and feelings, emerging into the world totally new, different and yet somehow the same. A dance at once erotic, yet pure - beyond any thought of gender - male or female.