Sunday, December 6, 2009

Annie Gosfield: Student Advisor

This morning, I had the great pleasure of reading the following article by composer Annie Gosfield.

While many composers are asked this question on a regular basis, I found Ms. Gosfield's highly articulate and overall atypical response to be quite refreshing. This article should be required reading for all student composers out there.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Indecision Making

Ways to use Sibelius and Finale to aid in the composition decision-making process.

Allow me to share a little secret with you: I hate making decisions. More specifically, I hate the nervous energy, the anxiety and, the often overwhelming pressure that accompanies decision-making. However, I thoroughly enjoy having MADE a decision. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes from having finally decided what to do and/or how to proceed in a given situation - especially if it turns out to be the "right" one (although even the "wrong" decision can sometimes lead to serendipitous results!).

So, it is ironic that I find myself a composer, which at its most basic level is an art comprised completely out of decision making. These decisions occur at all levels of the composition process: Do I compose for a string quartet or a saxophone quartet? Do I start fast, slow, or somewhere in-between? Will my first note be a B, a B-flat, or any of the other ten notes available to me (assuming I've chosen to use a well-tempered tuning system)? So. Much. Pressure!

The above examples, though, are somewhat superficial when compared to the big decisions that a composer must inevitably face when in the depths of the creative process. The big question that I am eluding to here is, quite simply: "What happens next?" This is a question that we all wrestle with frequently when composing. We write a section of music, and then find ourselves stuck trying to figure out where the music should go in the next section. Should the music change? Should it repeat? Should it extend what has already happened? Should it introduce a new idea? These are all questions that we all might have when reaching this moment of compositional indecision.

In actuality, we really only have two concrete choices to make as composers when we get to this point:

1. Do I develop what I currently have?, or
2. Do I contrast what I have with something different?

This fundamental dichotomy - to continue or to change - is the basis upon which all other decisions stem from. For example, if one were to continue onward with a new section that functions as a continuation of the previous section, then further decisions need to be as to what developmental techniques and processes should be used. Conversely, if one were to change up the music with a contrasting idea, then additional decisions need to then be made as to what changes need to be made to ensure ENOUGH contrast is established. It is important to note that both of these paths begin with the original idea, and that even if one chooses to contrast their original idea with something new, that new idea should still be linked to the original as a RESPONSE to it.

Both Finale and Sibelius offer the composer a unique tool in dealing with this decision making process: the ability to "audition" several different approaches before choosing which path to take. Using playback, one can compose several different "paths" for the music to take, and then audition each one in turn. While I often caution students to not overuse playback, using it as a way to hear multiple variations of an idea can be quite useful when trying to make a concrete decision. The danger here is that if one listens to the SAME idea too many times, it is possible to convince yourself that this is the only path for the music - all other ideas will begin to sound incorrect, even if they are in fact better choices. Avoid this by listening to all possibilities equally until a decision has been made.

Sibelius offers a second tool here that can greatly aid in the decision making process - the "Ideas" panel. I mentioned a while back that I had yet to use this tool, but always believed that it could be very useful given the right circumstances. Having now incorporated it into my work flow, I now firmly stand by that belief. It is all too often that I will create a musical idea or motive without knowing exactly where this idea will fit. By placing these musical fragments into the ideas panel, I can now streamline my decision process by referring to the ideas panel whenever these key decisions arrive.

Either of the aforementioned decision paths - to continue or to change - can be assisted through this tool. Assuming that I would at some point want to continue with my existing idea through development, I will always ensure that the ideas panel contains my original musical motive as a reference point (a practice which I recently began and now do with every piece that I write). This can be especially useful if my music has developed to the point where the original motive is almost unrecognizable. Having a convenient location to reference this motive is incredibly useful, and serves as a reminder for me as to where all of this music originally stemmed from. Likewise, assuming I will eventually want to contrast my current music with something new, I will also ensure that my ideas panel contains additional motives and concepts that I came up with in the early sketching stages of the piece. Using the ideas panel in this way has the added benefit that all of these ideas can be auditioned within the panel itself before bringing them directly into the music.

While none of these tools will replace the composer's responsibility to actually make the decision, being able to audition these ideas through both playback and the ideas panel allows for the composer to possibly make a more educated decision - especially when combined with good compositional technique and a good ear! In the end, it is the composer's duty to ensure that several possible outcomes have been considered at each key point in the music before a proper decision has been made. A decision doesn't need to be rushed, and while a little "analysis paralysis" might occur as a result of too much consideration, making a quick and hasty decision is a far worse possibility. These compositional decisions are what will inevitably separate a good piece of music from a great one, even if at times they can seem agonizingly difficult.