This resource is for teachers and composer-educators supporting students composing at KS3, 4 and 5. It consists of 14 questions and answers from a range of composers about the process and practice of composing. It can be used in two ways: (1) To teach the process of composing and help solve particular problems in developing a composition, (2) To give students a general understanding of how composers work and what composing is about.
There are 2 main ways to use this resource:
NB this could be good preparation for future work with a composer on a workshop or residency.
Each composer was given the same set of questions (listed below). Not all of the composers answered all of the questions and in some cases joined questions together.
My ideas can be both musical and extra-musical. Once I've found a way for these to coincide, the piece often goes much faster.
The musical ideas can come from other music, either by quotation or allusion; but they also can be my own inventions. These tend to be very short - a few notes with a definite shape (rise and fall), ‘feel’, or ‘motion’ and/or intervallic pattern. I find, in general, that short ideas allow the music to grow more fluently than longer ones. If I've taken material from somebody else, it’s usually with a firm sense of where it will fit into my work – especially to do with how audible it is, or may become.
My extra-musical ideas tend to focus (still!) on two main areas: memory, the relationship between turbulence/disturbed emotion and tranquility/achieved serenity. Memory has led to all sorts of particular formal ideas, especially to do with the emergence and disappearance of things; the quality of memory to do with nostalgia has had a very strong effect on the kind of harmonic colours I use. The way turbulence and serenity interact I have found a very useful stimulus to my musical expression. I might equally have found other terms/ideas that have led to the same music – dark and light for instance – but they do the most for me.
I compose at the piano to best hear my ideas. I often ‘come across’ ideas too through improvisation at the piano. I use the desk to have good, hard looks at my work to make things more economic and refined. I also use playback on my computer now, which has helped me a great deal with matters of momentum, pacing, and ease of revising details.
I think of ideas more in terms of being extended, or drawn out, or in terms of moving from one thing to another, rather than as ‘development’. Perhaps, this is in part because I am concerned at all times to keep my music ‘focused’, and I fear that traditional developmental thought might merely generate notes and lose contact with expression. However, two composers at random who have had an influence on me - Sibelius and Berio – would I'm sure be called developmental in their approach by many.
Listening to what fits and to how one thing leads to another. But also, as the piece goes on, and I get more and more into what I am trying to achieve, ideas that do not fit in simply fall away. That said, in certain works, I've tried to push the (my) boundaries in terms of the range of ideas that can go into a piece without it losing coherence – not in the name of experiment, but for expressive reasons.
To some extent. But really the ‘challenge’ for me most of all is to continue to keep with my initial ideas/vision of the whole as the piece goes on. I find starting much easier than keeping focused as the piece grows.
There’s a lot of movement between piano, desk and computer after it gets going. But it always starts at the piano.
On a day that is just for composing - and I don’t get caught out by email which I too often check when I'm at home! - I’ll begin by playing a Bach keyboard piece to centre myself, then look/listen/count through to where I'm in the piece, and then simply try to keep going. Though I sketch in my mind the whole piece (and re-sketch too as the piece goes on), I rarely write sections of music out of sequence.
Listen again and again to what I've written up to that point, and try to re-find the initial stimulus for the piece in concrete musical terms. There are times, though, when being stuck means the piece is simply too confused and must be discarded.
Trust your ears.
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.
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.
I sometimes imagine what the extra-musical idea would sound like if it were already composed.
Yes, sometimes. Dimensions from a picture could be used or, from a poem, rhythms or durations.
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.
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.
Absolutely. Each piece is a new challenge in some ways but I find it good to set yourself challenges to work around too.
Only to keep at it!
Listen to other music. Read poetry or writing about music and other composers.
Be ruthless with cutting parts.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thinking, thinking, thinking…and talking to my friends about it.
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.
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.
“You can’t do that!” That response made me do it.
My ideas come from what I experience at any time and that could be linked to reading, listening to music, paintings, thinking. I hope and think that I am open to all sources but, of course, my own sense of taste will influence what I choose.
Either. Usually it’s musical ideas as I can find the act of listening can provide ways of thinking about processing the musical shapes and sounds.
Sometimes the ideas can be a melodic shape of a few notes or a chord, or a sequence of chords, but whatever it is it is something of a specific character that draws me in.
Again this depends on what I'm thinking about at the time, but I am more influenced by the nature of music itself. Sometimes painting and sculpture can be a trigger.
Structure and form are what drive the musical ideas and material.
Yes. If it's visual art I enjoy the process of linking the shapes and their feelings and expression to music. With text the words and their meaning and the shape of the text will influence the musical process.
I compose away from the piano to start with and when I need to hear something, which is quite often, then I try to play it.
Transforming cells into sequences, transposing systems and motivic cells into various other related harmonic patterns within the parameters I have set up.
Whether they work within the form, harmony and general expression of the piece.
I try to be as clear as possible in how I notate my ideas. That in itself is an extremely hard challenge.
I think about it. Then try to write it down in slow degrees. Prefer not to have to rush any decision making.
As many hours of it a day as possible that I can fit around everything else, not least playing the oboe. Sometimes I ditch everything and concentrate for a prolonged spell on the composition in hand.
Do something else!
I’ve never had a composition lesson so no advice has ever come my way….maybe it’s about time!
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.
Most often they start as extra-musical ideas.
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.
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.
By imagining sounds or shapes of sound from extra-musical contexts.
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
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.
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.
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.
No I don’t think I do that… Composing itself is a challenge each time for me…
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.
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).
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.
'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.
They can come at any time, but I’ve found that ideas for pieces most often come about when I’m walking or reading.
My ideas for pieces are always to do with sounds, their characteristics, how they occupy space, how they can change, how they could be made to interact with one another.
I’ve often found that looking at paintings, particularly abstract paintings, can suggest ways in which different sounds could relate to one another, or how shapes or patterns or layers of sounds could be formed in ways that seem to me to be linked to aspects of visual perception.
If I think that an idea has potential I live with it for a while and work at developing it, seeing what I can make from it. Gradually, with this process of working-through, the more fertile and interesting ideas take precedence in my mind and I can see more clearly if something is not essential to a piece, in which case I will discard it. This self-editing can feel very liberating and can often sharpen one’s focus of what is essential.
Yes; and the nature of each new piece’s intrinsic challenge is always closely tied to the specific instruments I am writing for. I ask myself what I want to hear this specific instrument or group of instruments do.
I go for a walk or read a book, or both.
Always think carefully about what can actually be perceived in a piece of music.