What shall we call you?
Composing in Color
Part of a new chamber concerto for bassoonist Brendon Sill.
Every day in the studio, library, or coffee shop, an artist is making decisions, taking risks.
Though letting go of perfection is a huge part of the decision process (at least for me), I’ve found some other mind tricks that help me decide the details of a piece.
Happy creating in 2020!!
How many times have I found myself asking the same question? I swear it must be the hundredth time, though it feels like the millionth!
“Should this note be an A# or a G#?”
“Should this measure be in 4/4 or 5/4?”
Sometimes I feel plagued by the tiniest details of a piece. Even though I know they’re small – seemingly insignificant – they feel so giant, overwhelming. How has it already been thirty minutes, and I’m still asking this question? Am I crazy or just incompetent? Maybe I simply can’t make up my mind today, but this also happened yesterday! Could there be a simple answer I’m missing? Maybe…
My solution these past few months has been to try making more decisions, minus the overthinking. I’m finding some success, but if that’s an illusion, at least I feel like I can create more easily.
What I’ve been thinking about more is something a past teacher told me. When I was studying horn at IU (Indiana University), my professor went on sabbatical my freshman year. Filling his position was an alternating flow of teachers from across the country, a multitude of horn players. Among them, one made a lasting impression on me, and I am so thankful to have met him, Thomas Jöstlein.
In lessons, Jöstlein would say something like, “Make statements. Don’t ask questions.” He could tell that I was second-guessing myself while playing the horn. Instead of focusing on the music, specifically the pitches, my brain was busy asking many questions: “Will I play the right notes and rhythms? Will my tone or articulation be good enough? Will this sound in tune?” My insecurities of playing the horn, like the plague of details, were preventing me from sounding my best. What I needed to do was focus on my target, making a statement with the music and not hesitating or questioning in the process.
Focusing on my target, the music, allowed me to let go of distractions and better commit to performing. With me, Jöstlein emphasized letting go just as much as he emphasized commitment to high-quality music making. I can still see him, sitting in the chair beside me, speaking seriously, but with the compassion and understanding of any great teacher: “You will need to learn to let go.” Years later, I think I’m finally starting to “let it go” more regularly.
To be clear, letting go doesn’t mean allowing quality to slip. It’s absolutely necessary for any musician to work towards high standards of musical excellence. The most details of music are absolutely important to any meaningful performance. Bringing them out is what makes great music possible! Letting go isn’t about ignoring details. It’s about approaching them differently. Details should be there to enrich the bigger picture (concept, idea, etc.), not to project insecurities.
The more I let go, the easier it becomes to make decisions about the details. I can work towards the bigger picture of a piece without fretting and halting my creative process. Once some of the bigger aspects (form, keys, etc.) are in place, I can spend more time refining details because I have a better understanding of the whole piece.
In a moment of composing, it doesn’t even matter sometimes if I make the right decision. I just have to make a decision! Inevitably, I know I will change my mind later, (I’m a voracious reviser!) but before I can even begin to make changes, I need something to work with. I tell myself to make a decision, take a risk, and create. If I’m going to write some wrong notes, why not compose them first and get them out of the way!
In part 2, I'll discuss some of my tips and tricks for deciding the details of a piece. To be continued...!
When composing, there are times when I simply don't know what to do. After several years of great teachers and my own experiences, I've found 14 key ways of "unstucking" myself.
1.) Free Writing – Just keep writing and go with the flow. If you feel like you’ve wandered off too far, stop. You can choose to evaluate what you’ve written, what works and what doesn’t work, or continue exploring unexpected twists and turns the piece could go. You might find that your free writing leads to the discovery of an exciting, more interesting idea. If not, you at least have something to work with now! Sometimes what you create in your free writing can be applied elsewhere throughout the piece, not just the section you’re working on.
2.) Mini Variations – In the last couple measures where you are stuck, try rewriting them in as many different ways as possible. When I do this, I like to have a goal number of 20, but sometimes you only need to write 5 to get on the right track. All you need to ask yourself is “what if?” You may choose to make the variations relevant to previous or forthcoming material or entirely new!
3.) Map it Out – Draw out some possible ways the piece could continue. Formal and structural diagrams help show how what you’re working on relates to the “big picture.” Another possibility is to map out one parameter of the music like register or dynamics. Graphic notation like this helps me write down the gist of what I’m thinking without having to translate it to proper music notation.
4.) Verbalize – Talk out loud to yourself (or a friend) about why this section is bothering you, why you feel stuck, and what ideas you have to keep moving forward. The overall goal is to develop a solution you can take back to the drawing board. When I do this, I really like to record myself for about 10-15 minutes and then listen back. This gives the opportunity to respond to my own thoughts in real time! When I do this exercise, I like to either walk around my home, lay down with my back on the floor (I found a comfortable rug), or take a nice, hot shower. If you’re going to record your shower lectures make sure your phone is waterproof or in a sealed container!
5.) Going Pitchless – Write down a passage without using pitch. This is a big help for me when the unlimited variety of pitches feels very overwhelming and I can’t make up my mind. I use college-ruled line paper to do this and keep the ruled lines horizontal. However, some prefer to do this where the paper is landscape, the ruled lines are vertical, and the distance between two lines represents one beat.
6.) New Tunnel Vision – If you feel like you’ve been focusing all your energy on one particular aspect (harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, form, registration), forget about it! Place all your energy some place you haven’t been looking or experimenting.
7.) Opposites – Try doing the completely opposite thing of your initial idea. You never know what you’ll find! This can help eliminate any prior assumptions you’ve made about the piece that are getting in your way. Even if you don’t like the results, it will get you to “think outside the box.”
8.) Scope – Try looking at the piece at a global level. Looking too locally can lead to distracting tunnel vision. Instead of focusing on a single, exact moment, focus on a phrase, section, part, movement, etc. Consider its broader relevance.
9.) Reorder – Sometimes it’s not that any of the music is bad, incorrect, or inappropriate for the piece, but that it is coming at the wrong time. Try seeing the events in a new order, a different flowing through time. This was the subject of my most recent lesson, and it 100% changed my outlook for the piece. Does this idea happen to early? Should this part go like X, Y, Z, or like Y, Z, X?
10.) Copying – Copy your piece by hand or work on the engraving. I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole thing, but maybe 5-10 measures before where you’re struggling. A teacher once told me that when experiencing a problem in a piece, the real problem is actually often a little earlier. You could also copy an earlier, completed part of the piece you’re proud of. I find that I can be more productive when I find something to be excited about. Morton Feldman claimed that copying his own work was the most valuable advice John Cage gave to him.
11.) Analyze – Create an analysis of the music you have already written for the piece. Why does it work? What makes a certain moment or section special? Are there any curious, unexpected patterns? Are there any problems? Sometimes the answers to a good future are in the past.
12.) Core Decision Thinking – Shrink the task down to a few limited choices, namely five options:
a.) Do what you’re already doing.
b.) Do something new.
c.) Do something you did earlier.
e.) End the piece
13.) Move On – Simply put, work on a different section. Personally, I have a bad habit of just endlessly revising the music I’ve already written. The last few years I’ve slowly developed an ability to write the music that I think comes after a section I am struggling with. Sometimes knowing “where you are going to” is more important than “where you are coming from.” Often times I write sections of a piece in an order different from how they are heard. Some days I feel like I can hear all the piece at once, but I have to sift and sort to learn what comes first, next, then, last, etc.
14.) Step Away – Sometimes it really is more productive to get away from it and clear your mind. This is especially true if you’ve been beaning your head against the wall for a while. Get up and be active, walk around, take the dog outside, meet a friend for lunch, run some errands, etc. Anything to get your head out of the misery of “stuckness.”
“Off the Beaten Track” – Romantic/Early 20th Century
“Contemporary” – Modernism, Experimentalism, Post-Tonal, Etc.
“Standards” – Good Things to Know
“Just for Fun” – Music to Delight
Score-video Channels on YouTube
21st Century/Experimental Focus
1.) belanna000 – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIfIMnhUfLBTZnheAF7Osrg
2.) Score Follower – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsCyncBPEzI6pb_pmALJ9Tw/featured
3.) Incipitsify – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZkBfgFnWZdr2Kcsgcjba4Q
4.) Dai Fujikura – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCS260HeJI2k7hAHRLlJO8AQ
5.) Michael Seltenreich – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwtPIdWXQVLRnvdPHkLYP-w
Romantic/20th Century Focus
6.) tomekkobialka – https://www.youtube.com/user/tomekkobialka/videos
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A brief, but compact summary of horn writing I prepared for an orchestration class at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I hope this will be of use to many composers in the future!
When imagining a job in the food industry, certain scenarios always come to our mind: stories of horrendous, angry customers; miscommunications gone terribly wrong; confusing language barriers; and bizarre, questionable requests. In my year of working in the food industry, between my bachelor's and master's degrees, I experienced all of these, some leaving lasting impressions and others creating endless hours of laughter. Through it all, I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of a business. Nothing will ever terrify me more than being in a restaurant exploding with a mob of new sorority girls twenty minutes before closing time. January 6, 2018 will not be forgotten.
Despite the worst of moments, I found that I enjoyed my job and loved the people I got to work with. It was my first time having coworkers; the closest'd thing I'd experience was fellow musicians in music ensembles. Connecting on a social level at work with people outside of music and academia was rewarding and refreshing. More than ever, I felt encouraged to just be myself and talk to all the different kinds of people around me. (A little sentimental mushyness, but true.) If anything, the job actually made me more social. Even simply communicating with customers, "daily strangers," helped get me outside of my social comfort zone. Most satisfying though was that when I shared something about my music, whether it was with an employee or customer, it was a personal specialty, and not just some part of my music-career-job-kinda-thing. I got to share a part of my world with others who don't engage with classical music as frequently as I do.
My time in the food industry came with a surprising amount of lessons applicable to life:
1.) Be proactive - Before the lunch or dinner rush, you better have the restaurant stocked, locked, and loaded for action. Be prepared.
2.) Keep a positive attitude - You can't escape having a bad day now and then. Center yourself, stay calm, keep going, and see the long-term silver lining.
3.) Practice your best courteousness - Just because the previous customer was rude, doesn't mean the next customer deserves attitude. Every "daily stranger" needs respect. (Well, most... Do your best.)
4.) See a need fill a need - If you see someone needing help, you can be the help! Sometimes it's only holding the door open for an elderly customer.
5.) Speak slowly and clearly - Everyone has different hearing and speech abilities. Effective, respectful communication makes a lasting connection
6.) Develop a sense of compassion and empathy - expand your ability to care about others. It will make you more responsive and more likely to go the extra inch for someone. Your tone best communicates a genuine, caring response. Kindness is a power anyone can possess.
When combined, all of these lessons contribute to our personal growth in an increasingly difficult world. As a musician, composer, human in the 21st century, I need these skills to foster a career dependent upon networking as my authentic, musical self.
Happy future purchases foodies!
Ever since I was a child, my greatest impulse has been to create. First, it was designing elaborate toy train layouts complete with tunnels, stations, and bridges. This lasted until the age of seven when I developed a healthy obsession with Legos, building increasingly more complex layouts and sculptures. Briefly, there was a stint of stop motion animation, but I settled on composing by age 13.
When I’m not composing, this impulse to create has appeared as cream and sugar sculptures at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery. This catalog of works captures the creations of 2015 and 2016.
My intention in writing Loneliness and Imaginations was to create a piece unlike anything I had written to date. From the outset, I knew it needed to be for guitar and chamber orchestra, in several movements, and more than twenty minutes in duration: new instruments, new genre, and new form. Naturally, treading through unfamiliar territory presented many challenges to be addressed. How would I balance the soloist and ensemble? How would I keep the music engaging for so long? How would I create a cohesive piece with so many movements?
The most pressing dilemma for me was to create strikingly dissimilar movements that belonged together. Part of the solution was to find what I felt was the right emotional trajectory for the work, the balance of emotive ups and downs that could act like a narrative. The order and character of the movements was always up in the air, constantly being remapped as I composed. It was first in 15 movements, then 6, 13, 5, 10, and only finalized in 8 at the last minute. For months I planned on an exciting, bombastic ending, but it ultimately didn’t fit the piece and was dropped.
Contrast between the movements was designed by using the guitar and chamber orchestra in a variety of ways. For the guitar, each movement focuses on a different technique of playing. (e.g. scales, glissandi, chords, and polyphony). Similarly the chamber orchestra shifts between various roles: an ambient environment of sound around the soloist (II. Filigree and VII. Constellation), a rhythmic accompaniment sharing musical material (IV. Dance and VIII. Loss), a shifting reverberation of the guitar’s sound (V. Proclamation and VI. Interlude), or as a smaller ensemble with soloists (III. Song). The chamber orchestra is absent in the first movement, Meditation.
What ultimately binds the movements together is not shared motifs or melodies, but a trilingual harmonic scheme. Movements rotate through three harmonic languages: noise, atonality, and free tonality. The noise based harmony relies on extreme registers where pitch becomes unrecognizable, and instrumental techniques like blowing unpitched air or bowing various parts of an instrument. In the atonal and tonal languages, pitch cells weave together to connect vertical harmony shared by the movements. The two languages simply differ in how they progress horizontally.
My most sincere thanks and gratitude goes to guitarist Eli Schille-Hudson who premiered this piece and collaborated with me over several months and hundreds of sketches.
Listen to Loneliness and Imaginations here.