Thursday, November 5, 2009

FAT musings

A few random thoughts on composing and editing while waiting at the Fresno Air Terminal (FAT).

As a composer, I seem to spend quite a bit of time at the airport. Not traveling, necessarily - but rather sitting and waiting to travel. Ironically, I will be spending more time today at the Fresno Air Terminal (which bears the unfortunate abbreviation of F-A-T) then I will on my actual flight up to Portland.

Of course, with all of this spare time waiting, it would seem like a great time to crack open the computer and compose a little bit, right? Unfortunately, as a composer who likes to have a very specific set up when working, the end result is that my ability to compose (at least in Sibelius) isn't very portable. I have my laptop, yes - but I don't have my keyboard controller (nor do I own one that is truly portable), and - oddly enough - my laptop isn't the computer that I use to compose on anyways. I know - strange. But, that is what I am comfortable using, and I am not about to change that any time soon.

This is why I bring a print out of anything that I am working with me when I travel. Composing on the computer may be my main compositional approach, but when I am on the road I like to work on my music the old fashioned way, with pencil in one hand and a big "fat" red pen in the other. The music that I write during this time ends up getting sketched into the blank measures that are at the end of the score, often resulting with many bizarre scribbles, scratch outs, and pictures that might be more like hieroglyphics than music notation. Additionally, editing seems like a much less painful process for me during this time, and as a result the red pen ends up getting quite a bit of use as notes are changed, stripped out, added in, and transformed. Upon returning home, I often will find myself with an inordinate amount of new material, as well as edited material, all to translate and incorporate into my digitized score.

The strange truth is that by doing this, I believe that my music becomes all the better for having gone through this process. Looking at the printed music on paper, editing what I have with a nice RED pen, and writing new music by hand - even for just a brief period of time - all seem to help me gain a new perspective on my music that I wouldn't have had if I had composed it out in its entirety on the computer. It could be as simple as the temporary change of venue, but I honestly believe that by forcing myself to look at my music using different methods, I end up creating a better piece.

I often muse to myself that I should bring my music "on the road" with me more often - even if it is a simple road trip to the California coast. The truth is that I really do enjoy these brief periods where I look at my music in a more "traditional" light. The change of perspective isn't just helpful - it is needed. It serves as a "reality check" of sorts for me, to ensure that my music hasn't become some sort of computerized monstrosity.

For those of you reading, I might suggest that you find your own way to allow yourselves these brief "computer" vacations - where you break out the pen and pencil yourself and work on your score free from the trappings that these programs can occasionally thrust you into. This is especially so if you find yourself like me, trapped in one specific location and unable to compose anywhere but your own personal workstation. Occasionally allowing yourself these moments may translate into a unique new idea for your composition, a new perspective that simply wasn't evident before, or complete new music that you wouldn't have come up with any other way.

So, if you'll excuse me, I am going to break out my printed score now and sit at the airport bar for a while - red pen in one hand, and a nice black coffee in the other. How romantic.


  1. A composition looks totally different when viewed on paper vs. the screen...I've printed stuff out to edit and thought "woah, is this the same thing?" Because of this, I've caught things when editing pieces I wouldn't catch otherwise. This change of perspective is important, and there's really nothing more satisfying than making a change to process that affects the music positively. Thanks for this post.

  2. Very eloquent. I would in no way consider myself a composer, but I definitely notice that I do things differently when sitting at a computer vs doing them by hand. Print out any paper most of us have written and edited entirely on the computer and read it out loud. I'm sure there are moments most anybody will sound like a 3rd grader.