I was recently asked to write a brief description of my compositional process for a special concert/exhibition (which I will hopefully write about later). Here it is:
My compositional process tends to vary from piece to piece as instrumentation, length, and the commissioning ensemble often play the biggest roles in determining it. However, I typically begin at the piano, where I may come across a particularly intriguing chord or melody, after which the development of these initial ideas splits into two separate avenues.
The first is a more technical dissection of the musical material, breaking it down to its most basic elements and then creating new ideas from them. By “breaking down,” I’m referring to the practice of analyzing a musical object in terms of its constituent parts, which may include the lengths between different pitches (intervals), the pitches it does NOT include (complements), or the range from the lowest note to the highest note. To see these different relationships more clearly, I assign numbers to the different notes so that I can more easily manipulate them. The charts created by this process are the nascent stages for the making of a new piece.
The second avenue is more intuitive and tactile, as I will work at the piano to explore progressions and mutations that may arise from voice-leading or instrumental technique. This process may also lead to early formations of the piece’s structure by recording myself improvising through a planned section in a variety of ways. These “rehearsals” give me not only a better idea of the timing of the section, but of the different possible directions in which it could progress. By the end, I have a large collection of chords, melodies, and recordings from which to work.
The second step is far more difficult, as I search to develop a formal scheme that fits both my musical materials and the requirements of time and instrumentation. When I first began writing music, form usually consisted of a series of musical sections that could repeat or be developed. However, I’ve grown to view musical form as a type of behavior that the music acts out. Once again, this behavior is usually determined by the musical building blocks, but the difficulty is in finding the manner in which it can be best expressed. I’ve recently begun to create formal charts that grow in detail as the process moves forward. This helps me visualize the entire composition in one glance instead of having multiple pages of music.
I rarely begin writing a piece in its final chronological order, as I find beginnings to be both difficult and relatively high in importance. Instead, I tend to work outward from a fully developed section or phrase, allowing the music to ripple out from even just a single phrase. In some cases, the first music written eventually became the final measures. As this “spinning out” continues, it can sometimes affect the larger form, as a section becomes longer and more developed than previously planned. From there, I may begin forming a detailed chart of the various sections and progression in a piece, typically by using x- and y-axes to signify time, tempo and dynamics. These allow me to visualize the entire structure of the work in a single glance. Because of the time constraints that typically accompany each commission, I always write directly to the score, which means that I don’t typically employ an abstract version of the piece that is later orchestrated.
As you may have noticed, I have yet to mention any kind of conceptual or narrative aspects of the piece; or more pointedly, what it’s about. This brings me to one of the most difficult parts of the compositional process: the title and its subsequent program notes. I’ve never listened to music as a story. Instead, I’m more fascinated by the internal relationships within the music itself. Thus, my pieces rarely have any kind of overarching concept, but the story is enacted within the music and is itself the music. However, titles are one of the most important parts of a musical work, as it serves to determine the listener’s attitude and state of mind. Besides the rare occasions where I have a title to begin with, I tend to being considering titles midway through the process, when I have a good idea of what the sound-world of the piece will resemble. I then began describing in visual or conceptual terms what this world is like and try to find a suitable word or phrase. I will often turn to poetry, literature, or visual arts for many of my titles, though nearly anything may work.
Having selected a title, the final step is editing, creating parts, and beginning the rehearsal process. Though the first two steps can tend to be tedious and painstaking, they allow me to make necessary changes and corrections before handing to the musicians who will be performing it. The rehearsal and performances are by far my favorite moments, as I love working with performers and incorporating their interpretations of the work, which may differ dramatically from my own. At the point that the written symbols leap from the page and become music, all the tedium, frustration, and labor feel far less trying, and one is simply left with the privilege of hearing their creation made real.