A collection of Q &As with living composers about their practice and creative process.
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.
Anywhere and everywhere. I definitely need outside stimulation to start the process: it’s like the grit that the pearl forms around in an oyster. The beauty of being an artist is that you are on duty all the time: you don’t go to the office. So, as an intelligent, sensitive, curious human being, everything you see, or read, or feel, or hear changes you. You should look at everything, even mistakes...
‘An accident is perhaps the only thing that really inspires us.’ Stravinsky
Also it’s worth remembering that most music comes from other music: the Italian composer Luciano Berio said, ‘there is no tabula rasa, especially in music’.
Listening, copying, stealing, borrowing, absorbing other people’s music is natural to the creative process. Everything is a found object.
‘A good composer doesn’t imitate, he steals.’ Stravinsky
It’s about half and half. When I was younger, I used to start with a big idea (the whole shape, or drama of a piece) and work down to the details. So my oboe concerto started off with one big idea about the discrepancy between one oboe and a huge symphony orchestra in a big hall. Melodic, structural, rhythmic, timbral and poetic ideas flowed from that initial thought. Now I'm more experienced and confident about making large-scale structures (that won’t fall down in the middle) I tend to work from small to big. I usually, as it happens, start with pitches and then find rhythms. But an orchestral colour or atmosphere might equally be a starting point.
Anything and everything affects you. You can't separate the things you want to influence you from everything else. You may be looking hard at medieval techniques, but you've still, perhaps, seen an awful lot of junk TV and pop music and so on. Sometimes you might react against something that comes your way. The Polish composer Lutoslawski said that one of his major pieces came to him while he was listening to a piece by John Cage (which he wasn't enjoying). I take it that to be an interesting artist you have to be an interesting human being. Or an interested one. Throughout my life, I've lurched from one enthusiasm to another. At the moment, I'm obsessed with gardening (and reading about it). I haven’t a clue how this changes me as a composer, but it’s all part of the process.
Like many composers, I'm attracted to codes and ciphers. (Bach, Messiaen, Ravel and Schumann, for instance, translated words into music). Grove’s Dictionary has an excellent entry on codes and cryptography written by Eric Sams. He quotes three musical ‘alphabets’ by Honegger, Ravel and Michael Haydn.
When you've got something down on the page you look at it, and see what it sparks in your imagination. You never know when inspiration will strike. It might be that you have a brilliant idea at the outset and everything flows from that. On the other hand (and this is true for me) other composers have to make some material somehow (and it can be virtually anything) and then the inspiration comes from seeing what can be done with it. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats said you can make a poem with anything, it depends what you do with it.
‘An idea is a beginning point and no more. If you contemplate it becomes something else.’ Picasso
Half at the piano, half away from it. Partly to check things, partly because doodling around on a keyboard can inspire you...
‘fingers are great inspirers’ Stravinsky
‘The composer improvises aimlessly the way an animal grubs about’ Stravinsky
...and partly because there's a danger of the act of composing getting too far away from the practical business of making sounds. I can spend days hammering out chords or scraps of melody over and over again. I like the idea of getting inside the sound, not to mention familiarising myself with, or learning, my own material. You don't want composing to be like making a pot without getting mud on your hands.
I’ve taught myself a number of traditional techniques for taking an idea and making it bigger or longer. All are very familiar and traditional. Some are very old - isorhythm, hocket, canon, organum - and some are newer: Stravinsky invented some simple and beautiful ways of proliferating notes, which virtually all my colleagues have borrowed or adapted.
‘The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.’ Stravinsky
‘Certain critics have done me the honour to see poetry in what I do, but I paint by my method with no other thought in mind’. Seurat
It’s an important exercise to keep remembering what the most important single thing about your piece is. It's a fast piece, it’s a slow one, It's a singing piece, a dark one, a high-energy rhythmic piece etc... And then making your piece the darkest, or slowest, or fastest, or most energetic one you can. The painter Francis Bacon said ‘Art is a question of going too far.’ Keep checking that you don't unnecessarily stray from this fundamental point. If your piece is fast, why have a slow section? The answer may be that a bit of contrast could intensify the big idea. But if not, throw it away. The French film-maker Robert Bresson said ‘One does not create by adding, but by taking away...‘. And he also said, ‘Empty the pond to get the fish.’
Challenge is good. It helps stop your music getting stuck in a rut: if you are a master of piano miniatures, write an opera. Certainly, there can be problems in composing, and certainly you find ways of solving them. But the way composers use the metaphor of composing as 'problem-solving' always sounded a bit grim to me. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen sees the matter differently: ‘I want to pose problems, not solve them.’
Yes, but it's only habit, my habit at that. If you asked a room full of composers how they approach the process of composing you'd probably get as many different answers as there were composers. As listeners, we don't mind what a composer does as long as the resulting music is wonderful.
I don’t have set ways. Because I've written a lot of music I know how much and what I have to do to produce, say, a twenty minute orchestral piece within a year. But what I do within any particular day doesn't bother me at all. Some days it's better to read the paper, or make endless cups of coffee and not to work. You have to follow your nose. Other times I’ve spent a week without much sleep, working most of the time. My pieces tend to start slowly, tentatively - I have to feel my way into them. But when they get going they generate their own momentum.
I go away and do something else and don't think about it; and then, usually, when I come back I know exactly what to do. I also find it valuable sometimes to think about my music away from the paper - on a train for instance. It's a useful exercise to try to go through a piece in my head and see how far I can get. That also helps get the whole shape of the piece in perspective. If things get out of control it's good to simplify, get back to basics, to ask myself simple questions - what do I most want to do in this bit? To what extent am I fulfilling that ambition? How could I do it better?
I’m largely self-taught, but if I’d been taught by the French novelist Stendhal it could have been: ‘To be clear at all costs’.
I'm not sure if I know where ideas come from. Purely musical ideas do not often come to me unless I'm sitting waiting for them (i.e. composing!), although something that does recur is that a live concert may spark off an idea out of the blue: that’s not to say that I hear something and copy it, in fact it can cause an opposite reaction - what results probably wouldn't give anyone the least idea of what had started it.
Non-musical ideas precede the actual composition; once I'm composing the ideas are almost invariably musical ones - even if they are abstract (i.e. architecture/shapes, rather than notes). I often think of a piece in terms of colours, although that's a personal thing that may not make sense to anyone else.
The process of beginning a piece usually follows the same pattern: I tend to amass material, both melodic and harmonic, which may be quite amorphous, and then organise it and look at it analytically. Usually I will build charts derived from this material - note rows (rarely 12-note rows) and chord charts - most often 4, 5 or 6-note chords - which I subsequently use selectively. It may happen that a lot of background material of this kind is accumulated, but in the event I use very little of it. However it's always a useful process. Sometimes - not often enough - ideas come out of the blue with no piece attached.
I'm not sure if this counts as an 'extra-musical' element - setting texts is, of course, an altogether different process, since the text will have a direct influence on the music, on the structure, determining melodic elements etc. But the two are inextricably intertwined, since the music hardly exists without the text. (I have, however, added texts to pre-existing music, which is not a procedure I would recommend!)
Some time in the late 1980s I was commissioned by the LSO to write a piece for Rostropovich to conduct, in a series devoted to the music of Britten which was planned for 1993. It was not intended to be a tribute to Britten, and when I discussed it with Rostropovich we agreed that it might take the form of a Concerto for Orchestra, something of an orchestral showpiece. I made some initial sketches, but didn't find it easy to get the work started. In 1991 I visited my grandfather's grave on the Somme - he was killed in 1918 - and saw for the first time the Thiepval Memorial, Lutyen's huge untriumphal arch commemorating those soldiers whose bodies were never recovered from the Somme battlefields. Although the musical reaction to this was not immediate, it began to determine the character and shape of the piece, and I gave it the title 'Memorial’. This wasn't at all the piece I'd expected to write initially; and because I am wary of attaching labels to pieces - 'it's about the First World War', which ultimately it isn't, since once the musical ideas took shape, they moved away from anything so emotive - I didn't intend to reveal the source. But in an incautious interview before the first performance I mentioned the Thiepval connection; and inevitably the piece is now stuck with it. However Rostropovich, who knew nothing of the background, decided that it was a memorial piece for Britten, which goes to show that extra-musical ideas count for little in the end...
In this case of the piece I wrote for Rostropovich, yes, the piece is a kind of arch, although in shape, not ABCBA but more like ABCAD, and in fact the first A section was not the first part to be written - the structure remained rather fluid during the composition process. But this is not an easy question to answer: I find generally that whatever may have influenced a piece, it takes on its own musical logic and leaves everything else behind. I might mention two pieces that have titles which might sound as though they are influenced by extra-musical concepts, but whose musical argument is much more important.For ‘Hidden Variables’, written for BCMG in 1989, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek programme note relating it to theories of particle physics; but the work itself pursues a purely musical path in which pastiche minimalist ideas are confronted and destroyed in the course of the piece. ‘Broken Symmetry’ (1992) also takes its title from particle physics; here there is an abstract musical concept where the music - a sequence of scherzos and trios - reaches a central point, as if hitting a mirror, and then runs backwards. But the symmetry is broken because the sequence doesn't follow a straightforward backwards path, and the music is systematically distorted and foreshortened. This concept may be more extra-musical than musical : I certainly conceived the piece initially in terms of its shape, but the musical path it took wasn't quite what I'd expected.
For the most part, yes, more so than I used to; I've never been able to write piano music away from the piano. I'm not a natural musician and don't consider myself to have a particularly good ear (I've always thought that what I do have is a certain imaginative ability, which might have been applied to other art forms - I did think of taking up painting before I left school). Consequently the piano is a pretty indispensable aid, and I don't feel comfortable composing without one to hand. But it can get in the way: the ideal is straight from mind to paper.
This really needs a 1000 word essay, at least! I work quite systematically, although recently I've tried to be more intuitive; but I always try to make a point of ignoring whatever specific processes I may have used in the previous piece, so that composing always has an element of starting again: I don't like repeating myself. The composing process is rather a mysterious one, and I prefer to keep it that way.
I think that that's what composing is really about: the ability to be self-critical. I'm critical enough about existing pieces, let alone those which have, in whole or part, been discarded. Also I try to retain a sense of freedom while composing which means that, however pre-determined the piece may have been, I'm prepared to change it, perhaps radically, at any stage. It can be a revelation to find that a piece has been going in quite the wrong direction and needs wholesale restructuring, even if it's difficult to make the decision to reject a lot of hard work.
Again, this is the essence of composing. I'm very wary of finding easy answers to composing, although it's a very good feeling when the problems become solved and everything suddenly seems to go smoothly.
The answer is no, most pieces demand a new approach. I'm not sure what I can answer otherwise here unless I launch into theories of language and aesthetics, which I'm reluctant to do without considerably more space!
In the first place I nearly always tend to be working on more than one piece at the same time, so that if I get stuck on one I can turn to another, and quite often there's a certain amount of cross-fertilisation. I need stretches of at least several days at a time to feel comfortable - the odd snatched day is not often useful. In purely practical terms, my composing day usually doesn't begin until the afternoon (which doesn't mean that I may not have tried to get started in the morning) and the best time for composing often between 5 and 8 pm. I work with pencil (2B only) and paper (usually 22-stave A3 landscape for sketching) for the initial drafts, transferring to computer (Acorn Sibelius, not PC, since it's closer to 'real' working methods) for the later stages (always the fair copy; sometimes 2nd drafts). If a work is going well I can work at any time; which is of course also the case for fair copies. (As an aside, I was initially extremely wary of working on computer, and although I've been using it for nearly 10 years I feel very strongly that it's essential to be master of what it does, rather than blindly accepting what it offers. I worry that there's a new generation that will have relatively little experience of writing notes down on paper: I don't think that the relationship of the computer to music is the same as words to word-processor.)
Stop. Preferably sleep on it.
To be prepared to discard ruthlessly what might have seemed good when it first went on paper.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
You could take a pitch spiral by analysing the contours of a spiral (I think there are two basic types - one that unravels evenly and one that widens as it goes round) and transferring them into a line of pitches. The start of the line might emerge as being very chromatic and the intervals could widen as the musical spiral unravels. The extra-musical ideas that I have mentioned are all related to structure at some level. I have already described how a harmonic language can be formed out of these ideas. On a larger scale certain pitches can be identified as being more important than others, it could be that they don't crop up very often in the spiral of pitches so they need special treatment! These 'special' notes could be assigned to a role of 'signifiers'; whenever they are heard something changes or a passage is repeated - as in ritualistic structure. Many of Birtwistle's early works use ideas like this; good examples of pieces to listen to would be 'Verses for Ensemble' or 'Ritual Fragment'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
My ideas equally come from sound and poetic starting points. Also from commissions! Ideas that others provide can open new doors. There are themes I seem to keep returning to - to do with real and other. Brief glimpses - farewells (death) - the intangible - melting clocks - nonsense, the surreal - impermanence - joy and spiritual ecstasy - spiritual devotion - the south (Spain, Middle East.............)
A quality of sound, a kind of resonance, a kind of movement (vibration).
More poetic and spiritual ideas than more objective or structural or sculptural ideas.
Melting clocks is obvious - intangibility through unresolved harmonies (they feel both here and elsewhere) ambivalence through symmetric scales. e.g. whole tone or octatonic (tone-semitone-tone semitone etc.), joy through lifted, heightened rhythms.
I am a great believer in the idea that the large mirrors the small. They grow from the same DNA. So the whole structure might be an expanded mirror/ reflection of a short moment. I also believe, keep thinking the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Yes. I can feel the material. If I compose only in my head, it can easily be more contrived, less natural.
My favourite metaphor at the moment is re-potting! All material results from an original plant but it is continually re- grown in other environments, transplanted, discovers new branches, new shapes, new sizes, new environments. In other words all material is developed organically. I look for patterns/ features/ characteristics - say two significant intervals, or a rhythmic gesture - and then spin these out in all sorts of other ways. I invent systems out of actual discovered, felt material rather than in any more objective way.
I try to listen and distance myself. I listen through first thing in the morning, as if it's somebody else's music. Look for simplicity and organic unity - sadly many good ideas have to go just because they get in the way of others, are overbearing or dominate too much and create confusion. Keep it simple. Less is more.
Once I have started gathering material I look out for things that stand out as key ideas, I try to look for organic processes, then be rigorous about following through every possible implication of an idea. For example, if I particularly feel the interval of a 5th and a semitone together are significant in the unfolding music then I plot lots more of them.
Often by improvising, recording this then listening carefully for things that seem to carry the essence of the feeling I want. Then carefully extracting this and working the same material over again.
Usually mornings. I always stop for ‘The World at One’ on Radio 4. The only set point in my day.
Know that somehow I have to let go. Try and rediscover that things look different from a distance. The most valuable thing I ever learnt, and it took a long time, was the ability to say no to material and let it go.
Start each day as if you’ve never composed before.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes the music can start to suggest it's own shape/structure which always feels more natural to me.
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.
Polyrhythmic planning, heterophony, repetition, number patterns, pitch and chordal rotation (as in late Stravinsky), transposition. Anything I can think of!!
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.
Absolutely not! I don't believe in making anything more difficult than it need be and certainly not setting myself challenges.
No. If I did have a set way of writing, I'd get bored of doing it.
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.
Stop and get depressed. Going out is helpful. Just setting foot out of the front door can help sometimes.
Olly Knussen - 'If you get stuck trying to write something try and do the complete opposite.'