Inspiration And Composition

Good day and top of the bill to ya… ‘ol Scott here with an awesome article on "Inspiration and Composition." My friend Dominik Zieba has been kind enough to give his time and knowledge by writing an essay on the subject of "writer's block". If you’ve never had it, consider yourself lucky. When it hit’s… IT SUCKS! Most of our guitar heroes have experienced this in one form or another. Between depression, drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll… and now this too? Yep, it can happen to the best of them. That’s what so cool about this article… Following some of the suggestions given below, I think you’ll find some real cool nuggets of information that will help you when you feel burnout and uninspired.


Inspiration And Composition - by Dominik Zieba

My students often ask me about what "writer's block" is. Here is an explanation and some tips on how to get beyond it :). Treat this as a FAQ Article :)

After you develop craft as a composer, this will not be a problem. For that, it is most important that you write and write and write! No time is ever wasted while in the act of composing -- even if there is no tangible result. There are any number of remedies that have been tried:

* Take a walk. -- Physical activity seems to stimulate the creative centers in the brain.

* Drink a cup of coffee. -- Caffeine (in moderation!) really will do that.

* Open the window. -- Oxygen is necessary for normal brain cell function.

* Do something completely different for a few minutes. -- the Monty Python solution: "And now, for something completely different!"

* Study a musical score or listen to a recording. -- Appropriate an idea and make it your own! Say it in your own way.

* Austerity: walk barefoot in the snow (Beethoven). -- not recommended.

* Luxury: wear fine silks and lie on soft pillows (Wagner).

* Fasting: always consult your physician before going on a diet.

What do I do when I get stuck after writing only a few measures?

Analyze what you have already written. Then consider one of the following options: A/A -- repeat "A" exactly. A/A' -- present a varied repetition (development) of "A." A/B -- follow "A" with contrasting material. These simple choices apply to all levels of composition: motivic, phrase, section and movement. The best place to look for a new idea is in what you've already written.

Is it OK to compose at the piano?

Everyone must develop their own approach to creating. Many use improvising at the piano to get the ideas flowing. However, at some point in the creative process, it is better to get away from the keyboard for a more object view. Certainly, you should not let your fingers and reflexes dictate what you write. Composing is a atter of LISTENING and thinking. It is possible that reflexes can suggest a starting point. For instance, the chords at the beginning of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and also those at the start of Danses des Adolescentes from Le Sacre du Printemps were both suggested by hand positions on the keyboard. While the ideas came from something tactile, what Stravinsky did with them had nothing to do with the keyboard. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with writing music which lies well for the instrument. Piano music should be pianistic. Clarinet music should be clarinetistic!

Why is it so important to write down my music?

Notating your music is the best way to clarify your ideas, especially the rhythmic ones. Also, analysis and self-criticism are much easier with a written copy. For a composition lesson, it is essential that you bring your music already notated, on paper or on computer disk. Verbal descriptions and demonstrations at the keyboard are impossible to evaluate effectively.

How can I find a title for my piece?

There are a number of methods you can try. Normally, your title should reflect the basic idea of the composition. But it doesn't have to! Consider some of the titles of works by Milhaud and Satie. Recently, designations like "Symphony No. 2" and "Sonata" are coming back into vogue. In some ways, a title serves as a kind of packaging. It should be interesting enough that listeners will want to find out what is "inside."

* Consult a thesaurus or dictionary (Just open it anywhere and start looking).

* Look through literature or poetry.

* Try a word association game.

* Use someone else's title.

* Ask someone else. (Ask your mom!)

What are some of the opportunities for composers?

The most comprehensive list of opportunities for composers is published by the American Music Center. A membership allows you to receive their Newsletter and Opportunity Update as well as discounts on brochures such as Opportunities for Composers (a listing of grants, competitions, etc.) and Contemporary Music Ensembles: A Directory. Ask for their Information Packet.

Isn't composing expensive, at least in the initial stages?

There are certainly expenses for getting your music notated, performed and recorded, but you should consider this an investment -- in yourself.

Should I purchase a computer for my work?

A computer, notation program and synthesizer are very useful tools for producing a score, especially a large one. It's much easier to listen for wrong notes than to find them visually. And, of course, computers can extract parts! Music notation programs are only tools and should not be a factor in creative decision making.

How do I get my music copyrighted?

Unless you're a big name rock star, there isn't much reason to apply to the Library of Congress for copyright. The small circle-c (©), date and your name at the bottom of the first page is sufficient. Publishers actually prefer that you not register your own copyright. If, at a later time, it is accepted for publication, they will have to re-file for a change of ownership.

How do I get my work published?

Concentrate first on writing music and getting it recorded, on cultivating working relationships with performers and on developing an audience. After you have a body of work, you may approach a publisher, usually, this is after you have a number of significant performances to your credit. Publishers doesn't just print your music, they invest in the person and that person's potential.

Why is the study of music theory and history all that important?

More than just passing your courses, it is critical that you have an in-depth understanding of music theory and history. When you write, you write from what you know--from everything that you have experienced.

I'm writing my first string quartet. Will knowing the Beethoven quartets make any difference?

In order to be "original," some composers do not listen to any music other than their own. However, composing in a vacuum outside of a tradition is very difficult, and it would be better to take the opposite approach. First, you should make a study of the origins and development of the medium for which you are composing. Then, get the scores and recordings and start listening and analyzing. Try to understand how your piece relates to the literature. This may take quite some time, but it well worth th e effort. Novelists often spend many weeks researching a subject before starting to write.

Many composers have looked to the past for ideas and inspiration. Bartok's "night music" may have been suggested by the second movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. The origins of Stravinsky's mixed meter can be found in the works of Mussorgsky . Even the works of Webern contain many references to the compositions of earlier tonal composers such as Beethoven and Brahms. There is much to learn from what has already been written.

What are some of the skills a composer must possess?

* Performance - Keyboard skills are particularly useful, even though todays synthesizers can read large scores better than any pianist.

* Analytical - Half of composing is analyzing what you've already written.

* Conducting - Most composers, at one time or another, are in a situation where they must conduct their own music.

* Administrative - There is a business side to being a composer, and you need the ability to organize time and deal effectively with others. Sometimes, it seems like we spend more time arranging for performances, sending out scores, applying for grants, etc. than actually composing.

How can I achieve more unity?

Resist the tendency to always create new material. Look back to what you have written previously and try to integrate and connect. In other words, draw your ideas from what you've already done.

I just added a new section to my work as dictated by my overall plan. Why doesn't it sound as if it belongs?

It could be that the new material does not follow what you previously composed. (This is a matter of judgment and experience.) However, this is usually due to sticking too closely to a preconceived idea or plan. Remember, your overall plan should be flexible and responsive to the musical material itself. Your concept of the overall structure may change as your ideas develop. Furthermore, try not to get too attached to what you write. You should have no regrets about trashing two weeks of work if it doesn't come up to your highest standard. We should try to reach a balance between thinking everything we write is the "greatest" and being overly self-critical.

What is the "elements approach" to composition?

It's a very simple way of analyzing your own music as you compose. You take each element individually (pitch / register, rhythm / meter, timbre / instrumentation, texture, dynamics, etc.) and see how you've handled or controlled it.

How do you achieve a contrast between sections?

The individual movements and sections of a work should be clearly defined. When you finish a section and are preparing to start the next, consider each element of music separately and think about how (and if) you will make a contrast using that element. Consider delineating sections with some element other than pitch or rhythm. For example, a change of register produces an excellent contrast. A change in dynamics and tempo is always a reliable procedure. Consider the deep contrasts between the moveme nts of the Bartok Piano Sonata. The prevailing dynamic level of the outer movements is forte and the respective tempos are very energetic. The middle movement is very slow in tempo and mostly pianissimo. If you get a chance, listen to the piece. It works!

What about mixing musical styles in one composition?

Whether you mix styles or maintain a consistent one is a matter of personal choice, but you should do one or the other exclusively. If your work proceeds in the same style for 2-3 minutes, and then a new one appears for no reason, it will not be convincing. The context for the change is important. There are always any number of stylistic influences in a composer's work. However, in order to maintain integrity, it is better to establish limitations which will result in a unified style.

When do I stop revising and let a work stand?

This is a matter of judgment and maturity. Some do not revise enough. Others continue re-working the same piece for years. There is a point where nothing further can be learned from revising, and it is better to move on to a new challenge.

Bruckner revised his Ninth symphony, but today the original version is preferred. Brahms, on the other hand, knew exactly what to alter and what to let stand. Late in his life, he re-worked his youthful Trio in B Major, Op. 8. The changes to the first movement, particularly giving the cello the melody at the beginning, were an inspired improvement. However, he had the good sense not to touch a note of the Scherzo.

What are some general principals that I can follow?

You might want to keep the following in mind when composing:

* Length vs. Material: Is the length (phrase, section, movement) appropriate for the material?

* Appropriate for medium: Is the musical material appropriate for the instruments (voice) for which it is written?

* Know your instruments (voices): Thoroughly research the capabilities and characteristics of the instruments for which you are composing.

* Satisfaction: Is the musical material you are presenting developed at some point? Or is it introduced only to be dropped--a practice which is very unsatisfying!

* Save it: If you withhold an element (it could be a pitch, rhythm, motive, timbre, etc.), it will sound fresh when presented.

* Contrasts: Are contrasts clearly drawn? What is the role of each element in this respect?

* Historical Context: Know how your work stands in relation to what has already been written, both recently and in the more distant past.

* Unity vs. Variety: Is there too much repetition causing predictability? Or is there too much variety, also causing predictability? The result is the same. The trick is to write something that sounds inevitable but not predictable. Strive for background unity with foreground variety.

* Control of the Elements: Am I exercising control over each element of music?

* Consistency of Style: Either stick to one style, or mix styles--but not both.

* Simplicity: Direct, simple ideas often communicate better than complex structures.

* Avoid cliches: The use of cliches weaken what you are trying to say. This is true for music composition as much as it is for English composition.

How do I develop a personal style?

Don't place too much emphasis on being "original." A personal style develops after you have written much music. Seek and find the sounds your ear hears, but try for those which are fresh. Avoid cliches. Sometimes avoidance, which is another way of set ting limitations, will help you find a new approach. In the early 20th century, Schoenberg avoided the two most prominent musical characteristics of the previous era: reference to a tonic and a steady pulse. The Beatles took a similar route when creating their Sargent Peppers album. They avoided most of the then current trends in popular music. The result was an album with a variety of styles and genres instead of a single one.



"We all have idols. Play like anyone you care about but try to be yourself while you're doing so." - B. B. King

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