Composer Q and As 1 Creating Music at Home (Instrumentalists) >

BCMG works mainly with living composers. Each one of these composers is inspired by different things, has a unique creative process and all have useful advise to share. Over the years we have put the same set of questions to the composers we have worked with and this resource shares a selection of their answers.

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Introduction:

composer q and as 1

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) works mainly with living composers and has commissioned over 150 new pieces of music since the group was formed in 1987. Each one of these composers is inspired by different things, has a unique creative process and all have very useful advise to share. Over the years we have put the same set of questions to the composers we have worked with and this resource shares a selection of their answers. As you read, don't worry if there are words you don't understand - there is a glossary at the end or you can look them up. 

The Questions

  1. Where do your ideas come from? And, are there particular sources that reoccur?
  2. Do your ideas normally start as musical ideas, or as extra-musical ideas?
  3. What form do the musical ideas take?
  4. What form do your extra-musical ideas take? And, why were you attracted to them?
  5. How do your extra-musical ideas become musical ideas?
  6. Do your extra-musical ideas determine/generate structure? How do they do this?
  7. Do you compose at the piano or not? Why do you work this way?
  8. What techniques do you use to develop musical ideas/material?
  9. How do you make decisions about which ideas to keep and which to discard?
  10. Many composers talk about setting themselves challenges which they work through in a piece. Do you identify with this?
  11. Is there a set way you approach the process of composing?
  12. What is your working practice?
  13. What do you do when you are stuck?
  14. What is the best piece of advice a composition teacher has ever given you?

Shiori Usui

CLICK HERE for her website

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1. Where do your ideas come from? And, are there particular sources that reoccur?

My ideas come from everywhere. In a way, as an artist, I think that everything you experience in your life manifests itself in your work in some way or another, consciously or unconsciously. Even if you decide to put a lid on a certain thing and try not to reveal it, your work still shapes around it and influences how you make decisions and so on. So, you cannot really escape from who you are.

2. Do your ideas normally start as musical ideas, or as extra-musical ideas?

Most often they start as extra-musical ideas.

3. What form do the musical ideas take?

That depends on the specific musical ideas - it’s different each time. I tend to amass many musical ideas before composing but then actually do not use them all. I try to listen to a musical idea and see where it wants to go. Sometimes when I play a musical idea by myself, it also suggests where it wants to go. So, there are constant conversations between musical ideas and extra-musical ideas, and that shapes the form. 

4. What form do your extra-musical ideas take? And, why were you attracted to them?

In general, I am fascinated by things that enable me to perceive the world from a slightly different angle than I normally do. Something that makes me feel like making some small exciting skips, jumps or dance moves. Or, something that makes my heart feel heavy with overwhelming feeling. It can be anything - how a baby reacts to a tiny thing with her/his fresh mind, music from other cultures (sometimes the idea/function of music itself is different in other cultures), nature, people’s life stories, paintings, food and so on.

Having said that, I do have some reoccurring sources in my compositions - a long fascination towards the sound of the human body and other creatures in nature such as a parasitic fungus and deep-sea animals.

5. How do your extra-musical ideas become musical ideas?

By imagining sounds or shapes of sound from extra-musical contexts.

6. Do your extra-musical ideas determine/generate structure? How do they do this?

Sometimes the extra-musical ideas already have a structure in themselves. If not, I tend to find something that I would like to investigate deeper in the musical materials derived from the extra-musical materials. Through this process, I naturally think of how the material could fit/develop into the bigger picture that I have begun to explore and jot down some possibilities. However, most of the time, I do not end up in the place that I originally imagined because the

6. continued....

materials themselves have their own life. It’s as if they were 'breathing'. So, I also try to 'breathe' with the materials. Sometimes I enjoy it, and sometimes I am a little too scared or tense to do it (i.e. not knowing where it is going when there is a deadline looming). But the structures emerge from the constant conversations between the big picture and the materials that I work with.

7. Do you compose at the piano or not? Why do you work this way?

Yes, I do sometimes but not all the time. I write ideas on paper, experiment with whatever instrument that I am composing for at the time (i.e. getting physical) and, sometimes, I ask my friends questions when I don’t have the instruments. Everyone has a different idea of what works best. Sometimes I use the piano to check things, or when I am stuck, I try to be more physical i.e. actually playing instruments, or drawing, or going for a walk - so using the piano is a part of this too. 

8. What techniques do you use to develop musical ideas/material?

I sometimes use spectral analysis for generating pitches, and almost all the time, I experiment with instruments to generate a collection of sounds that I want to use.

9. How do you make decisions about which ideas to keep and which to discard?

Intuition.

10. Many composers talk about setting themselves challenges which they work through in a piece. Do you identify with this?

No I don’t think I do that… Composing itself is a challenge each time for me… 

11. Is there a set way you approach the process of composing?

Not really as I do not want to get stuck with one way of generating sound worlds. I like to try other methods of composing if they appear intriguing. However, there are some recurring processes such as those described previous answers.

12. What is your working practice? 

I work best in the morning. I also try to take a break outside with a nice cup of tea. I try not to check emails/social media sites before working in the morning, and leave it until afternoon (but ideally I would not like to check them at all when I am deep into composing).

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

Go for a walk or run. Going outside is generally good for me because it reminds me that you and your work are not the centre of the world, and the world is so much richer than your tiny worries or obsessions. It is such a relief.

14. What is the best piece of advice a composition teacher has ever given you?

'You should go for a walk on the hill'. When I was stuck in a composition, one of my composition teachers told me this. Although, at the time I did not have the capacity to appreciate it and wished he had had spare time to talk through some of the 'problems' I thought I was facing in my work.

Phil Cashian

CLICK HERE for his website

Phil Cashian 0001

1. Where do your ideas come from? And, are there particular sources that reoccur?

This is a difficult question. They tend to start as non-musical ideas that give me an overall feel for the piece. Recent examples are a chapter from a book that describes a raucous festival in Spain, a poem about night by Kathleen Raine and the Apollo 11 space mission. I like to get an overview of the whole piece - almost seeing it from a distance and then getting closer up to it as I get more specific ideas. In other words from the vague to the specific. I don't have a sketch book or keep musical fragments. What doesn't get used in a piece goes in the bin. There are sources that recur probably because I write each piece in pretty much the same way. A lot of ideas tend to be visual. Musical ideas early on are always chords which get pushed around until something new comes from them like a short melodic idea or a rhythm.

2. Do your ideas normally start as musical ideas, or as extra-musical ideas?

I do have vague musical ideas, usually from listening to other people’s music. For example, I want to write a slow 6 -10 minute orchestral piece because of several pieces of this kind I've heard. Although I don't want to copy them, the 'genre' of such a piece interests me.

3. What form do your extra-musical ideas take? And, why were you attracted to them?

What attracts me to starting from non-musical ideas is that something like a text or visual image can give you a focus for a piece of music that you can return to. It's a good way of being able to put your finger on what it is you are trying to do in a piece without being technical. This is particularly useful if you get bogged down with detail or get stuck. I'm also attracted to non-musical ideas as I just find them exciting. It can be a way of collaborating without actually having to! They are a good way of erecting scaffolding before you've written any actual music so giving yourself a frame within which to start writing. And beginning is always the most difficult bit. Having said this I am starting to write more without non-musical ideas behind the music as I'm finding that different pieces are starting to do the same things in different ways (like generating fast music or similar structures) which I'm interested in pursuing.

5. How do the extra-musical become musical ideas?

The first movement of the ‘Three Pieces’ is based on a chapter from 'Joseph', a novel by Julian Rathbone which describes a raucous Easter Festival in Burgos, Spain in the early 19th century. The chapter moves quickly from one scene/image to another. The music does the same, 15 or so short sections are placed back to back with no transitions or links. The music doesn't literally copy the narrative of the chapter but hopefully captures something of the chaos and festivity of it.

6. Do your extra-musical ideas determine/generate structure? How do they do this?

Sometimes the music can start to suggest it's own shape/structure which always feels more natural to me.

7. Do you compose at the piano or not? Why do you work this way?

I don't have a good ear and need the piano to hear chords and check things. I think it would be a good idea to write away from the piano more and am trying to do it. I'm also trying to use Sibelius more as a tool for composing rather than just typesetting.

8. What techniques do you use to develop musical ideas/material?

Polyrhythmic planning, heterophony, repetition, number patterns, pitch and chordal rotation (as in late Stravinsky), transposition. Anything I can think of!!

9. How do you make decisions about which ideas to keep and which to discard?

Time is a good natural selection process that does it for you. It sometimes feels better to get rid of something than create something and can be quite liberating.

10. Many composers talk about setting themselves challenges which they work through in a piece. Do you identify with this?

Absolutely not! I don't believe in making anything more difficult than it need be and certainly not setting myself challenges.

11. Is there a set way you approach the process of composing?

No. If I did have a set way of writing, I'd get bored of doing it.

12. What is your working practice?

I only work when I know I have at least 2 hours free, When I'm actually composing I tend to work for no longer than 30/45 minutes at a time without stopping for a few minutes. I can only really work in my study at home.

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

Stop and get depressed. Going out is helpful. Just setting foot out of the front door can help sometimes.

14. What is the best piece of advice a composition teacher has ever given you?

Olly Knussen - 'If you get stuck trying to write something try and do the complete opposite.'

 

Tansy Davies

CLICK HERE for her website

tansy davies 0001

1. Where do your ideas come from? And, are there particular sources that reoccur?

Ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes just listening to music can make you want to write some music because you get ideas from what you've heard and you start to think of ways of doing things differently. Sometimes an idea can come from a sound - an extended technique that you'd like to explore and push to its limits.

2. Do your ideas normally start as musical ideas, or as extra-musical ideas?

Extra-musical ideas can be helpful, they can give you instant structure. I often look to nature and science for inspiration because there are so many patterns and systems to be found which can be transformed into music. Using found patterns in this way helps to inform atonal music with a logic which can underpin everything from harmony and rhythm to large-scale structure.

4. What form do your extra-musical ideas take? And, why were you attracted to them?

A musical idea could start with an imagined sound or texture, a sequence of pitches, a rhythmic bell, in fact it could be anything connected to sound.

5. How do your extra-musical ideas become musical ideas?

An extra-musical idea could take the form of a shape - a spiral for example. I'm attracted to abstract shapes and natural systems because those things are very closely related to music - music is abstract and music uses systems (like repetition, even temperament, the harmonic series etc.)

7. Do you compose at the piano or not? Why do you work this way?

I don't do much composing at the piano. I tend to move between working out systems at my desk and putting ideas together on the computer. The first stage (at the desk) is like making the substance or material which I can work with - like a potter who has to make his/her own clay before they can begin. The second stage is the actual composing part - it's about identifying the nature of the materials I've made and forming roles for them. At this point I identify or make relationships between different materials so that a context emerges and the musical ideas become part of a deeper and more intuitive process. I work with the computer because it's there. If it wasn't there I'd work in another way. I don't think it matters how you do it.

 

8. What techniques do you use to develop musical ideas/material?

I use quite basic techniques for developing material, such as taking a line and altering it by augmenting or diminishing its intervals. I also apply this sort of technique to rhythm. I invent rules, games and impose restrictions on material as I go along and they often only apply to a few bars so I tend to forget them. The rules normally come out of the material itself, so they are hard to reproduce.

9. How do you make decisions about which ideas to keep and which to discard?

Decisions about what to keep and what to disregard are the most important ones. It's all down to intuition and it's to do with working out what it actually is that you're trying say.

10. Many composers talk about setting themselves challenges which they work through in a piece. Do you identify with this?

I have a low boredom threshold so I have to keep myself on my toes. I never repeat anything I've done before and I'm driven by a desire to explore new ways of doing things so that I'm constantly challenged.

11. Is there a set way you approach the process of composing?

For me composing is like tuning in to a higher level of consciousness and a deeper level of thinking. It can be a very calming thing to do as I have to block out the rest of the world in order to open the creative channel.

12. What is your working practice?

My ideal day is to work from about 8am to 2pm and then go out to the gym! However composers often have to go out and do other things to earn money- so not every day works out like this.

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

When I'm stuck I go and lie down for half an hour during which time a solution usually comes. If not then I go to the gym to get rid of the tension and stress that's caused by worrying about it.

14. What is the best piece of advice a composition teacher has ever given you?

George Benjamin said "Just because you can't see all the leaves on a tree at once, doesn't mean you can leave them out".

Simon Bainbridge said "Make something happen every ten seconds".

John Woolrich said "You don't have to be forceful to make an impact".

Simon Holt said "You've got to let rip".

Michael Wolters

CLICK HERE for his website

me with bird

1. Where do your ideas come from? And, are there particular sources that reoccur?

My ideas come from watching things around me. The starting point is never a musical one. I'm not one of those composers who says “Oh, I'd like to compose a piece about love or peace” and then the piece sounds nothing like love or peace because they are abstract things that can’t be expressed through music. That’s a really old-fashioned romantic idea of writing music to me. For me it’s more like “Oh, page turns are funny…they are part of every performance but people treat them as if they’re not there. What would it be like if I wrote a piece on massive pages that make a huge noise when turned? That could be fun.” I just want to play, I guess, and that’s the recurring element. 

2. Do your ideas normally start as musical ideas, or as extra-musical ideas?

Always as extra-musical ideas. That’s very important to me. It gives me a feeling of being connected to the world. In fact, the actual music comes at a very late point during the composition process.

3. What form do the musical ideas take?

That depends on the piece. Whatever the idea needs. The hardest thing is to know when it’s okay to make a decision based on personal taste. As soon as I'm thinking “ah, that’s nice” I get suspicious, because all it means is that I've done this before and it’s familiar … that’s why I like it…so I shouldn't use it again.

4. What form do your extra-musical ideas take? And, why were you attracted to them?

Anything can trigger something. It can be about a performative element such as page turning or about the Concord, supermarkets, household appliances (I sing along with them…and…as I found out…many people do!)

5. How do your extra-musical ideas become musical ideas?

That’s the one thing that I can rely on: The extra-musical idea will always demand a certain musical idea. I won’t have to make that decision. If I did make that decision the piece would be about me and not the extra-musical idea any more.

6. Do your extra-musical ideas determine/generate structure? How do they do this?

Most things that exist have a structure. One just has to look closely enough. When you work with a poem, for example, you get a whole amount of structure. I turn into the Count in Sesame Street: I count the verses, the lines the words, the letters, vowels and consonants (I don’t laugh that much in a sinister way while counting, though). All this information can be translated into a structure for a song.

7. Do you compose at the piano or not? Why do you work this way?

I'm surprised people still ask this question. Does anyone still compose at the piano? I compose in my head. If I have to work out some chords later on in the compositional process I might sit down at my very out of tune mini-piano and try some things out.

8. What techniques do you use to develop musical ideas/material?

I could write an essay about this one. Basically, I try not to repeat techniques. However, that’s almost impossible and very exhausting. So, I have to pick the particular point in the composition where it doesn't matter that I'm applying a technique. Using the same chord progressions, for example, is fine, as my pieces are never about the sound. Using the same rotation of cells or notes as I did in a previous piece is also fine. Writing another piece about page turns is not fine unless it does something very different. I always think if something has worked before there is no need to do it again. I want to ask questions and be surprised. I don’t write pieces to show how well I can do something. I find that sort of virtuosity really dull in other composers. I don’t care that much about “well-crafted” music. I just want to be excited. Well-crafted things hardly ever excite.

9. How do you make decisions about which ideas to keep and which to discard?

The ones that make sense in the process stay, everything else is kicked out. When I wrote the second movement for “I see with my eyes closed” (BCMG commission 2010) I wrote 25 one-minute sections of the same chord progression (C-Em) in 25 different orchestrations. Then I spent six months filling in those sections, embellishing them and making them more complex until I realised that what the piece needed was the pure chord progressions. So, I deleted everything I had been doing for six months and went back to the very first draft of the piece.

10. Many composers talk about setting themselves challenges which they work through in a piece. Do you identify with this?

Every work is an exciting challenge. If it doesn't feel like this, if it feels too safe, I know I have to manipulate it somehow until I'm excited by it. I strongly believe that as an artist it is your duty to challenge yourself and everyone around you.

11. Is there a set way you approach the process of composing?

Thinking, thinking, thinking…and talking to my friends about it. 

12. What is your working practice?

I think, research, have a lot of fun and think some more. The hardest thing is not to waste time. Sometimes I know that there is no point trying to write music yet because the idea is not ready yet. Over the years I have learned to stop trying to compose music too soon. Finding a good complimentary activity is important, too. I love cooking to recipes. It’s the exact opposite to my work practice: I do exactly what someone tells me to do and I use techniques.

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

Cook, go on a walk, go to Alton Towers, go to the cinema, watch telly, play badminton. Again, I have learned that sometimes ideas need time. You can’t force them. I don’t believe in disciplined practice, i.e. sitting down every day and trying to write down something. I’d rather enjoy myself doing something that I want to be doing. Again, it’s about playing…you can’t force yourself to play and have fun.

14. What is the best piece of advice a composition teacher has ever given you?

“You can’t do that!” That response made me do it.

An A-Z of Musical Terms

Accidental: these are flats and sharps (the black notes on the piano)

Articulation: this is the way you play a note e.g. short (staccato), smooth (legato)

Canon/round: where the same melody is started one after the other i.e. London’s Burning

Consonant: the sounds or notes are in or use conventional harmony

Crescendo: getting louder 

Decrescendo: getting quieter

Diatonic: using the notes that are not flats or sharps i.e. the white notes on the piano

Dissonant: when the notes or sounds appear to clash or not using conventional harmony

Drone: a single pitch that is used as an accompaniment - either as a long note or repeating note

Duration: the length of a note

Dynamics: how loud or quiet a note is

Extra-musical: an idea from outside music - poetry, science, text, art etc.

Gesture: a musical idea that is more characterised by its shape and character rather than a particular melody or rhythm

Harmony: how the music is organised vertically i.e. the sound created when one or more notes/sounds are layered. Most obvious example is a chord.

Heterophonic: a texture where there is simultaneous versions of a single melodic line

Improvising: making up music on the spot – sometimes freely, sometimes with rules

Melody: the organisation of a series of notes in a line, making a tune with pitch and rhythm

Layering: putting sounds or notes on top of each other

Orchestrate: deciding which instrument plays which bit

Ostinato: a repeating pattern

Pitch: how high or low a note is

Pitch contour: the shape of a melody or groups of notes

Polyphonic: more than one sound or melody at the same time doing their own thing

Rhythm: the pattern of a series of durations

Score: a written, computer generated or drawn version of the music in notes or other images

Sequencing: put notes or sounds in an order

Structure: how the music is organised

Tempo: how fast or slow the music is

Texture: the overall feel of the music. This could be in terms of the width between the lowest and highest pitches, the number of voices/parts or the relationship between these voices/parts. A piece's texture may be changed by the number and character of parts playing at the same time, the timbre of the instruments/voices playing these parts and the harmony, tempo, and rhythms used.

Tuned percussion: percussion instruments that play notes of a specific pitch

Unison: everyone plays together

Variation: a musical idea that is repeated but with some alterations e.g. to pitch, rhythm, harmony etc.

 

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