Composer Q and As 2 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

composers 2

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?

Celeste Oram

For Celeste's website CLICK HERE

Celeste Oram is a composer and musician who was born in Manhattan, USA, grew up in Aotearoa New Zealand, and is currently living in San Diego, California. She is currently working on Counting Steps for BCMG, a duet between trumpeter Richard Blake and a young musician. Both will record a series of parts remotely that Celeste will compile into a virtual trumpet choir performance. This commission is part of BCMG's digital series Soliloquies and Dialogues.

Celeste

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

Usually the first things I consider - and which already start to sculpt a piece - are to do with who will be performing the piece, where, to whom, and in what circumstances. I am fascinated by musical micro-climates and micro-histories. I want to make pieces that celebrate the unique musicianship of individuals, or the unique social dynamics of a certain musical community or organisation. 

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

Related to the above, I guess these initial ideas are “extra-musical” in the sense that they are not “notes on a page”… but intensely “musical” as they relate to the personal, social, and historical conditions around music-making!

3. What form do the musical ideas take?

Usually my first strictly musical decisions are broad-brush, almost crude, assertions of what “kind” of piece it will be: loud or quiet? Long or short? Virtuosic or humble? Notated or improvisatory? Consonant or dissonant? Of course sometimes one combines these characteristics, but addressing such stupidly basic questions up front help to point me in a concrete direction.

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

Wow, these questions are hard! OK, let me answer this one in reference to the trumpet duo I just wrote for BCMG. The extra-musical ideas that got me going were a couple of quotes of text from an 18th Century textbook on old-fashioned European church counterpoint. (I like text because I like things that clearly mean things.) I decided I wanted this text spoken in the piece - so, figuring out how the text would be delivered amidst the music is what gave shape to the piece overall. 

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

Well, again, in this example, I made a few decisions: I wanted the text to be spoken conversationally, rather than, say, declaimed theatrically, or chopped up into phonetic elements. This determined the rhythm and pacing of how the text was spoken, and how that rhythm & pacing related to the music played in between. And I decided I wanted the text to be repeated in a certain way, which then suggested related patterns of musical repetition.

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

I would say yes, because structure is usually a decision I make pretty early on. Often these structures will employ repetition in some way - but repetition with a purpose. For example, stirring honey into your porridge is a repetitive action - but one that DOES something, and which can’t be undone. 

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

No, almost never. In fact a few years ago I finally made a blanket decision to actively seek out ways of composing that *don’t* rely on pianos! The main reason is that my piano skills are… let’s say… merely functional. (After all, expecting every musician to play the piano fluently really is a hangover from a bygone era, and obsolete presumptions about who “composes”.) So it just doesn’t make sense for me to try to “think musically”, or operate creatively, via techniques that I'm less than fluent in. It’s so important to compose via techniques and activities that actually make one feel creative, in control, and emboldened to experiment. For me, this means more familiar ways of sound-making, like singing or vocalising.

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

It really depends on the medium, but I find electronic tools to be extremely useful when working on a piece, even if the eventual performance won’t involve electronics. I like to mock up bits of material, for instance with my voice or my flute, and then work with those recorded mock-ups: splicing, processing, layering, re-arranging. I find this method really helps to kick-start my sonic imagination, as well as practically help me comprehend how a piece is shaping up.

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

Usually the sense that an idea is getting needlessly complicated makes me flag it for deletion…! I will definitely keep something if I just love the sound of it, whether or not I can explain why.

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

Yes, very much so. Performers do this all the time: you start working on a piece that’s slightly harder, or that presents different challenges, than the last piece you learned - and that helps you grow as a player. I have a dear friend & fellow composer Justin Murphy-Mancini, and I learned this from him: composing is something you practice. Just like playing an instrument, it’s a skill you hone the more you do it. So that’s the value in setting myself challenges: it’s a way to *practice* composing.

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

Something that my answers so far have perhaps revealed is that, for me, composing is a sequence of choices. If you make one decision, that closes some doors and opens others - and then you need to make more choices in order to go on from there. And that process is fun, because you don’t know exactly where your choices are taking you!

12. What is your working practice?

In terms of a routine, it’s so changeable based on the other demands of my life…! But I always try to think of composing as an “on the clock” job. I never think, oh, today I’m going to compose x seconds of music, or finish this section, or whatever. Instead, I say to myself, I’m going to compose for x number of hours today. Not only does that save me from my workaholic tendencies, but it encourages me to actually get to work in the first place, and it acknowledges the often meandering nature of creative work. Even if after a day’s work I don’t have x amount of music to show for myself, I can trust that something is simmering somehow, because I’ve put in the time. Then I’m less likely to throw my hands up in despair that “I’m stuck”. (Needless to say, however, that approach only works up until the week or so before the deadline…!)

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

Yes, it still happens :) I do one of three things: (1) stop working and do something else - ideally going for a walk or some kind of physical exercise. (2) Do some serious journalling about *why* I am stuck - what exactly are my doubts? What decision am I actually trying to make, and what are the pros and cons of each available option? (3) Ask someone else for help! I’ve found, though, that friends/family are most useful (and willing) advisors when you ask them a very specific question. Rather than playing them a mock-up and saying, “so, what do you think?!”, play them a couple of different versions and ask “which did you like best and why”, or play them something and ask “tell me what you hear”. Sometimes figuring out the right question to ask them will get you halfway to the answer…!

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

One of my composition teachers in undergrad, Eve de Castro-Robinson, had a couple of really choice phrases that continue to shape how I think about composing. One thing she often talked about was composition being an exercise in “releasing the angel”: a reference to Michelangelo chipping away at a shapeless block of marble until an angel emerges. I guess that’s not “advice” in the sense of how to make a piece “better”, but I don’t think there is such thing as a magic wand anyway…! Rather, this idea of composing helps me trust the process: if I make careful choices along the way, and chip away in the right places with the right amount of force, whatever figure emerges from the marble will be an angel worth beholding - even if it’s not the angel you were expecting

Donghoon Shin

For Donghoon's website CLICK HERE

Donghoon Shin is a composer from South Korea.  Recently he composed Couplet for solo violin as part of BCMG's Sililoquies and Dialogues digital performance series. Here BCMG violinist Alexandra Wood performing it:

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

Ideas can come from anywhere, but the most significant ones for me come from the literature and the music itself. Argentinian writer Jorge Borges has been the biggest artistic influence and I’ve been fascinated by his way of interpreting and re-creating old texts since my teenage years. I also look at scores of old music. The idea for my new violin concerto for example came from Bach’s solo violin pieces as well as “Erbarme Dich”, a well-known soprano and violin duet from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; from these pieces emerged the idea for a concerto about the history of the violin.

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

Both are possible and it’s different every time. While the idea for “Anecdote”, written for the BCMG in 2019, came from the cyberpunkian and nocturnal scenes of my home town, the idea for the violin concerto, as I said above, was purely musical. An extra-musical idea needs to be transformed into a musical one.

3. What form do the musical ideas take?

Everything that’s related to music and sound can become a musical idea. It just needs compositional skills to craft and develop the idea musically.

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

Stories. I have loved stories since childhood. A well-made story helps building the structure of the piece. A narrative with multiple points of view sometimes gives me ideas for polyphonic music.

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

I write at my desk with pencil and paper, and imagine sounds in my head. Sometimes it is helpful to hear and control complex chords or elaborate polyphony on the piano. But mostly I play the piano to comfort myself in an intense period of work, and for pleasure.

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

Every piece calls for a different set of techniques. I might use some intervals and develop them throughout the piece, or employ modes, or mix them.

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

Instinct, and reason to control the instinct. Instinct is crucial but as my teacher George Benjamin taught me, instinct and intuition are always lazy.

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

In each piece that I work on, there is a unique technical challenge. My work is the process of resolving this challenge.

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

I make countless pages of sketches. I find materials and develop them. Then I start writing on the manuscript paper. Once I finish writing, I revise the piece while I proofread. Then I proofread again. Finally, I send the finalised full score to my publisher.

12. What is your working practice?

9AM to 12AM, lunch break and then 1:30PM to 4PM. When a deadline approaches, it could be additionally 4:30PM to 7PM (like right now…)

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

I cook or talk about everything and nothing with my wife.

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

As I mentioned before, 'instinct and intuition are always lazy', 'compose with materials, not effects' from George Benjamin. And 'music must be magical' from Unsuk Chin.

Charlotte Bray

For Charlotte's website CLICK HERE

Charlotte BrayCharlotte Bray is a British composer living in Berlin, Germany. Not only did she study at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire she was also BCMG's Apprentice Composer in Residence in 2009/10.

And here she is talking about her piece at the Speed of Stillness performed by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra:

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

Nature is a big ideas bank for me, whether it be our planet or further out! Poetry is also somewhere I constantly return to for inspiration and direction.

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

A mixture of both I'd say- sometimes a melody, chord or musical kernel I want to explore, and other times I will respond to a painting or more abstract idea, finding ways to translate that into my own language. 

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

I sometimes imagine what the extra-musical idea would sound like if it were already composed.

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

Yes, sometimes. Dimensions from a picture could be used or, from a poem, rhythms or durations.

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

For pitches and when I am working out the harmonic language of a piece, yes. Then I tend to move away from it, which I think frees my imagination more.

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

Rotations and chordal inversions, transpositions of motifs, overlapping ideas and harmonies... I use graphic representations of material to help generate more material or develop what I already have.

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

Gut instinct!

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

Absolutely. Each piece is a new challenge in some ways but I find it good to set yourself challenges to work around too.

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

Only to keep at it!

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

Listen to other music. Read poetry or writing about music and other composers.

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

Be ruthless with cutting parts.

Richard Causton

For Richard's website CLICK HERE

Richard Causton is a British composer based in Cambridge. In December 2019, BCMG performed Transients by Richard at CBSO Centre, conducted by Michael Wendeberg.

richard causton

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

Ideas can come from anywhere – it could be hearing a sound (the sound of fireworks, ice cracking or an approaching train on the rails. Or an unusual instrumental sound that creates a special feeling). Or a piece of writing, an image (a painting, sculpture, photo or something else). Or finding a chord I like or a little rhythm or scrap of line/melody at the piano or in my head.

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

Sometimes the first ideas are musical, but they don’t have to be. One recent piece came from a small child’s definition of the word history. He said “I say now NOW, and a moment later it is already history”. And it struck me as a profound but simple description of how we perceive musical time: the moment we’ve registered a sound, it has passed and we’re hearing something else. So in a way, the idea is extra-musical AND musical.

3. What form do the musical ideas take?

The musical ideas could be harmonic, rhythmic, melodic/linear, colouristic or spatial. Or they might relate to some sort of pattern of accentuation, as in spoken language.

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

Extra-musical ideas which come into composition (or start one off) can be from words (often poetry), visual art, landscape, or soundscape (traffic/cars hooting, animal cries, noises from a school playground as you walk past).

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

The musical ideas occasionally come easily, but more often through incredibly hard and laborious work to capture something – a mental image – from the extra-musical stimulus, and do it justice in sound. It’s a bit like trying to catch a butterfly in a net. But there can be a sort of no-man’s-land between the extra-musical and the musical – a kind of abstract energy which is part light, part movement and part sound. It might also involve words, or be triggered by them. It’s quite hard to talk sensibly about, but if words (or numbers, or days of the week or whatever) ever have colour associations for you, then it might make some sense to you and hopefully not sound so crazy!

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

Extra-musical ideas can help determine structure. I was once writing a piece in which I wanted the formal (sectional) structure to come under increasing pressure, as if it were being compressed more and more, generating huge tension at the same time. It was a question of cramming the same music over and over again into a smaller and smaller box. And there, the formal structure really came from ideas of compression and pressure, which then demanded release.

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

I use the piano a lot when composing – I need to know how things will sound, and very often the harmony is too complex for me to hear in my head. So I will spend hours playing chords and chord sequences. But it’s important to work away from the piano too, as I can have greater freedom conceptually without all the keys laid out in front of me. Sometimes I make my own instruments, and obviously that is a different kind of hunting for sounds that takes me right away from the piano.

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

I often try combining/juxtaposing/superimposing ideas, transposing them and mixing up/cycling round rhythms and pitches. If nothing else, it gives me a different perspective on the material I’m dealing with, so I get to know it better. It’s a crucial early stage in writing a piece.

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

These kind of decisions tend to make themselves – the really interesting ideas get me all excited and lead on to other ideas, whereas other ones just fall away.

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

Yes. I find that as I get older, I sometimes need to work harder to get into a new piece, to find the really exciting bit that makes me desperate to spend as much time as I can on it. And that can come through the most unlikely things, like little compositional exercises that could look at bit unpromising to start with. It’s like starting a fire – you never know when it’s going to ‘go’.

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

No – I feel like a complete beginner every time! So it can be extremely daunting starting, like beginning from first principles every single time. But that also keeps it exciting, as there’s a huge sense of possibility with every piece. I literally don’t know what kind of music I’m going to end up writing, which can be both terrifying and thrilling.

12. What is your working practice?

It varies quite a lot depending on what sort of piece I’m writing, but at some stage it usually involves hours sitting in front of a piano hunting for notes that make sense.

13. What do you do when you are stuck?

Getting stuck is so miserable, and it happens to me a lot! It’s important to recognise when you’re going round and round in circles and take a step back – go for a walk, do some cooking or something that allows your mind to rest a while. I also find that skipping to another part of the same piece (e.g. jumping to the end and trying to write the final bars) can help.

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

'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

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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