Wednesday, June 15, 2011

i will grow old and grow apart from all that's dear to me

Naturally, my biz partner and I were discussing religion and the impermanence of life on the F train on the way home from the MATA Festival last month, when he paraphrased a mantra from his vipassana meditation that first broke my heart before I saw its beauty and peace:

"I will grow old and grow apart from all that is dear to me."

Immediately, the phrase had a melody to me. I raced home, flew into the basement, and recorded myself singing some ideas and plunking chords at the piano. It's an a cappella Southern gospel hymn. It has to be.

I will grow old. I will grow old. It's true. This is as young as I'll ever be and I'll not loop back this way again. But all of this awareness of my transience sure doesn't seem to be helping me get this music-making done any faster. Or, at least, not in any helpful way. I just feel anxious.

As of June 1, I am on summer break. Spring projects finished, reports delivered. High fives exchanged. I wanted this. I constructed my whole season in order that it would be interesting and satisfying and then come to a distinct and recognizable END. And for the first time in my entire life, if someone asks me "What are you doing today/this week/this month/this summer" my answer is "Writing music."

That's it. I am composing. I am songwriting.

And now that I am here I have a big fat question to ask anyone who might capably give me an answer:  "HOW THE EFF DOES A PERSON GO ABOUT DOING THAT?"

I have never had a composition lesson.  In college I took an educational arranging course as part of my music ed degree for which I did a wind symphony arrangement of an Indigo Girls song. (That was a Terrible Idea.) Otherwise, songs have always kind of written themselves at me accidentally. I don't understand where the ideas come from or why they come to me. Many of them are unfinished songs because I get ideas I really like but I lose my way because there are no rules for what to do first, second, and third. There is no doing it right. There are no rules for what to do when you don't know what you want to do next. Or when you want to do something but you don't know how to do it.

I am floundering.

But I have spent a great deal of time around composers over the past few years. And so I take some comfort in having witnessed "Today's Most Important Composers" go through similar aimless flopping and self-doubt when beginning a new piece. I once asked John Adams how a new piece was coming along and he said it was like "feeling your way around in the dark." I saw it with Steve Reich. The frustration when starting a new piece, not knowing where he wanted to go with it. But in both of those cases, I know that they sat down in their studios every day, tried things, trashed them, until one day came a CLICK followed by a white hot period of fierce and inspired composition until BAM I was sitting in the audience at the premiere.

At Ojai a few years ago, Steven Mackey said that he finds most composition students don't need a teacher, they need a therapist. In which case I need to look into some kind of amazing musical health insurance.

For now, I will self-medicate with a list of admonitions (rules?) I've gathered from those I've observed:

1. Show up at the studio regardless of how inspired you feel.
2. Don't "listen up" for far away ideas, just "write down" the ones that are already there.
3. Follow the thread. Doesn't matter where it goes, or whether you don't think it's going anywhere, or whether you end up tossing it all in the end. You can't skip steps.
4. Play around with whatever seems musically fun/attractive, even if that means doing something "unproductive" like singing along with Bonnie Raitt for 6 days in a row without writing a single new note.
5. See #3. You can't skip steps. You may end up throwing away the first week of work but you can't write the second week's work until you've written and thrown away the first. (Suck! I want to skip steps! I want to skip steps!!)
6. Study, copy, steal. Listen to and note (study) things that other composers/songwriters have done that you really like. Practice doing those things with your own music.

To those capable and more experienced composers/songwriters who may be reading this, I turn the question to you: HOW IN THE WORLD DOES A PERSON GO ABOUT COMPOSING?

Any words of wisdom for a very late beginner will be much appreciated.


  1. I was a really late beginner myself, so I know exactly how you feel. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the task, so the way I've learned to work (from my teachers, and then validated by my actual experience) is to make maps.

    Whenever I start a new piece, the very first thing I do is to somehow map out the shape of the piece as a whole. I usually (read: always) start a piece around the same place you are right now, with an urge to write music but no specific musical ideas. I don't think I've ever written a piece because I had a melody/rhythm/harmony etc. idea I couldn't get out of my head.

    Mapping takes off the pressure to come up with material right away. I can just relax and feel the contour of the music: where the high points are, where the low points are; which of those high points is highest, which of the low points is lowest. Does it feel fast or slow, loud or soft, smooth or edgy, rhythmic or pulseless, full of motion or static? How does it feel emotionally? Is the emotion strong, or is it kind of detached?

    Once I've answered as many of those questions for myself as I can, I actually draw a map of the piece (usually a timeline of some sort) and put those answers on it. So by this point I've made all of my large-scale decisions about the piece, and I haven't written a single note.

    The next stage is the hardest, because I now have to write actual notes! So I just sit and try to quiet myself as much as I can, to allow the music to reveal itself--almost as if the music already exists in its ideal form somewhere else, and if only I can silence my ego it'll come a little closer to me, and come into a little better focus.

    (A choreographer once told me that, for her, the creative process was like groping around in a dark room, looking for the end of a ball of yarn. Until she found the end of the ball, she felt hopeless, but once she found it, she just followed it.)

    Bonne chance!

  2. Thanks very much, Jeremy. I'm mostly interested in songwriting but it seems like mapping could be helpful even on that smaller scale. I usually get a really strong and insistent idea that I can't get out of my head, but the development of that idea often leaves me stranded.

  3. Collecting some very useful comments from composers on Twitter so I can refer back to this in times of darkness:

    @Numinousmusic Joe Phillips:

    "mirroring vipassana's meaning (to see things as they are), it's finding what the piece is, not what I think it is. the beginning everything is possible & you need all in order to find out what piece really is...sometimes letting go (of great idea, what I want piece to be than what it is) is the hardest part"

    @jaybatzner Jay Batzner:

    "You ask more accomplished people than me, but I pick a direction and go. If writing becomes a struggle, it was the wrong way. ... If it feels wrong, it probably is. The question is 'what does the piece need' instead of 'what do I want'...Composing is like making ecosystems. Everything depends on everything else. Sometimes you want to add something but it won't fit."

    @OscarBettison Oscar Bettison
    "You just have to keep at it. Time, patience and an open mind. You've got the right idea. After a long while I find I'm thinking 'in' the piece rather than 'about' the piece. ... I write everything down. 'Thinking on paper' is the key, I think. I tell my students that an idea isn't an idea until it's written down. Not strictly true, of course, but it underlines the point"

    @clusterhocket Ken Thomson:

    "IMO write EVERYthing down;edit it/decide what it is l8r; that is,if you don't start w/idea or plan. ... For me, sometimes the best way to get it *out* of my head is just write it down. And not be afraid to start over from scratch."

  4. And another one. Makes total sense:

    @jayuhfree Jeff Harrington:

    "i always try and keep it physical. if you're writing songs, just start singing. if you're writing a piano piece, start bangin'"

  5. re manuscript v. notation software:

    @jaybatzner Jay Batzner

    "Paper is the only way to go when you start a piece. Notation programs want to know too much too soon. I separate the process into Creation, Notation, Orchestration. I scribble a lot, very raw but it gets the ideas down. Then I worry about the specifics of making it pretty, that is when I turn to notation software. I tweak things then."

  6. Composing is all about finding out how YOU work best. There is no "only way", seriously. Ignore anyone who says that.

    A good way to find how you work best is to try several methods. Many people here have suggested some. The method (or methods) that is right for you will likely make itself known by the fact that you enjoy doing it. It's as simple as that.

    I struggled with "composing" for years and years. Eventually I found that working with audio made me want to keep working on it, even if I was just bullshitting around making silly loops of samples from the show 7th Heaven on my crappy sampler. What first hooked me was listening to stuff that I made. I would sit and listen to my silly loops for hours on end.

    After a few years of fucking around with my sampler I started using Ableton and began composing out full tracks. Working on these made me feel intoxicated and the time flew by. I loved listening to the stuff I made. I listened to it over and over. I would export my early mixes onto my ipod and listen to them on the subway on repeat for my entire ride.

    Eventually I went from Ableton to Sibelius and began writing for humans. I do the same thing with these pieces, listening to them over and over, even though I'm listening to crappy Sibelius MIDI sounds. I usually start with a tiny sketch or melody, listen to it a bazillion times, and then I'll hear another part (either following what I have or along with) and add it. Then I'll listen to that a bazillion times. Rinse, repeat. Eventually the form, etc. will suggest itself.

    Finding a starting point is often difficult. When I began, everything started with a sample. I'd find a loop in my record collection of something awesome, and build everything from there. Recently I've been writing a lot of vocal music, mainly using found text or lyrics written for me. I'll find a part of the text that I like the sound of and sing it to myself with different melodies until I find one that I like, then I take everything from there. If you ever doubt your skill in melody, think of Beethoven. Many of his best melodies are pretty stupid by themselves (Beethoven 3, 1st MVT? Do-Mi, Do-Sol, Do Mi Sol, Do... Seriously? Or Beethoven 9? Mi Mi Fa Sol, Sol Fa Mi Re, Do Do Re Mi, Mi-Re Re...) but he builds worlds around them.

    Anyway, I'll stop now. My caffeine-fueled rant is long enough. Good luck and LMK if you'd like any more thoughts!

  7. Oh yeah, another thing that's oddly inspirational to me is this:

    Composing is not a higher calling. You're not saving the world by writing music. You're not making the world a better place. There's nothing mystical about it, nothing divine. It doesn't require enormous talent or inspiration, it simply requires someone willing to work to make something they're proud of. Write the kind of music you want to listen to, that's all.

    Composers love making composing sound like a daunting task, only fit for a select few individuals who are willing to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders as they scream truth into the darkness. Fuck all that.

    K, I'm done I promise. :)

  8. For a cross-platform view on the creative life, you could try "On Writing" by Stephen King.