Intellect, Intuition, and Inspiration and Their Link to Compositional Process

When I was first studying composition, I watched an episode of 60 Minutes about a very young composer named Jay Greenburg. At the age of twelve, this young man had already written several symphonies and was studying music theory and composition at Julliard. Jay mentioned during this documentary that he often “heard” his music in his head, sometimes several complete pieces at once and only then needed to write them down. Because of this statement, one of the major subjects of this documentary was a discussion of “where” Jay’s music came from. Jay himself answered this question by casually smiling and explaining that he didn’t know. This was followed by a series of experts, including Jay’s teacher Samuel Adler, explaining how dangerous this is. I recall in particular Adler’s statement that the most important thing for Jay was that he continually keep questioning where his inspiration came from, and never take it for granted, lest it leave him. Jay, now 20, is still writing music and is currently published by G. Schirmer.
Inspiration itself is a tough nut to crack and is a dangerous tool on which to rely. Recently, while attempting to write a new work, I discovered that a new idea, unrelated to what I was actually intending to write, had crept into my head. I certainly would never claim to hear “fully formed” music in my head, but this experience is a related one. It is more like understanding how a piece works, how it moves from one moment to another, the sensation one has when listening to it, without actually hearing it. The actual task of composing then becomes a process of working out the details of how to recreate those sensations in a way that makes musical sense. I will admit that this has happened to me before, but this particular episode was significant because I became aware of the fact that it was happening at a strange and inopportune time while working on another piece.  In a way, I had the sense that my own inspiration was dictating when I should work on what.
Compositional process and inspiration, I believe, are intrinsically related. Much of the path that a composer takes from the inception of an idea to a completed work is determined by the way that composer fosters and reacts to their own inspiration. This year, while studying at DU, I had the pleasure of participating in a number of discussions about compositional process moderated by my colleague, Sarah Perske.  Sarah was going through an evaluative and analytical journey with her own compositional process and was kind enough to share that journey with the rest of us. For me, the most important element of Sarah sharing this was that it caused me to analyze my own process. I found that Sarah’s process and my own are strikingly different, and that these differences shed a remarkable light on the role of inspiration in our two different compositional methods.
I believe that Sarah’s process is largely driven by her musical intellect.  She begins with what she calls “a topic.” This can be something extra-musical, or can just be a sound or technique she wishes to explore. This is followed by “messing around at the piano” in an effort to find a sound that will fit with her topic. From here, Sarah moves into a sketching process that I know to be very in depth. She explains: “I start thinking in terms of creating ‘pillars;’ these could be important events in the piece, or textures that I want to create that have some sort of goal. Once I reach this point, I tend to alternate between ‘zooming in’ on detail, and ‘zooming out’ to look at the overall form.” This zooming in and out process seems to necessitate a non-linear composition process that jumps around the piece and, interestingly, is also how Sarah describes her method of dealing with writer’s block. Another thing that I found interesting regarding this stage in Sarah’s process is that the composition and engraving processes are largely separate for her; she typically doesn’t start on the engraved score until the composition itself is nearly complete through her sketches or until she has a complete, handwritten score.
I believe that my process is driven largely by intuition. For me, almost all of my works begin with extra-musical concepts and a series of decisions regarding instrumentation, pitch content, and form based on the “feeling” I wish to express about the given concept. Once I have these ideas formed, I listen to music for the ensemble I am writing for or to music that is related to my ideas in some other way. Usually during this time is when actual musical ideas are formed in my head. This is typically followed by brief sketches, usually consisting of line drawings and verbal notes to myself regarding textures and important events. To give an example of the brevity of these sketches, a current work in progress is made up of three movements; sketches for the entire piece take up only about half of a page in total. I then immediately begin composing directly into finale, feeling my way through the piece and deciding what happens next based on intuition. This process is almost always linear, though it may include vaguely fleshed out ideas or written notes between sections of fully notated music. If I get stuck, I stop working and wait for a solution to present itself to me. Often times this means returning to the listening portion of my process again.
Since I am not a third party to this comparison, I’m not really able to present an accurate discussion of the quality of the results of these methods.  I can say subjectively that I like both Sarah’s and my own music.  I believe that I can discuss the efficiency of these two processes though.  To me, Sarah’s process seems highly active and proactive. Her preparation time is spent in researching and improvising and when she gets stuck, her reaction is to work her way out of it. I see my own process as much more passive. I prepare by listening and waiting for something to occur to me and when I get stuck, I wait my way out. This, I believe, is the fundamental difference between the two processes, and leads to the fundamental danger that I frequently encounter in my own writing. On several occasions the end result has been me staring at a blank page waiting for something to happen, sometimes for months on end.
Inspiration, intuition, and intellect are resources that all composers share.  We all develop methods of creating that utilize our different strengths in each area and attempt to compensate for our perceived weaknesses. No one process actually yields “better” results than any other, but, like Samuel Adler explains, relying too heavily on one tool over the other can be dangerous. I don’t actually know if Adler is right; maybe we can’t rely on the tools that we use if we use them too much, but maybe we can. I have the sense that composers like Mozart, and perhaps Jay Greenburg, create solely based on inspiration.  I have spent a great deal of time trying to foster my own intuition and learn to listen to myself while creating, yet I remain a slave to my own inspiration. I don’t think I know how to change my process and still be authentic to the music that I feel compelled to create, regardless of the danger that implies. For me at least, I suppose staring at a blank page is as important to my method as anything else.

György Ligeti, Lux Aeterna

by Nathan Cornelius

At first, this piece presents an opaque surface to the listener’s ear, “like a dense, impenetrable cobweb,”[1] to use the composer’s own words. It is almost impossible to tell when the first two voices are joined by a third, then a fourth, until eventually eight independent parts are all singing the same note. Gradually, one by one, the voices diverge to different notes, creating clusters that are sometimes chromatic (as at 0:30) and sometimes diatonic (as at 0:45). Ligeti instructs each voice to sneak in imperceptibly, with the result that the listener does not perceive the discrete entries and exits of the voices, but only clusters gradually building up and then dissolving again.

This method of constructing the texture fulfills one of Ligeti’s main compositional goals. Ligeti was critical of the hyper-serial music of composers such as Boulez, where the exact timing, volume, and articulation of each individual note carry great significance. Instead, Ligeti sought to create music based on larger processes which were directly audible to the listener, and Lux aeterna is clearly music built of textures, not notes. Nevertheless, the score is very precisely notated, full of quintuplets and sextuplets. In each section of the piece, the different voices follow a strict canon, singing the same pitches in the same order with different rhythms.   It turns out that Ligeti follows a complex set of rules specifically designed to give the piece a smooth texture, neither experiencing any sudden change in the density of attacks nor making the timing of any individual attack predictable.[2]

Thanks to these rules, Ligeti’s complex polyphonic writing produces an effect that is anything but polyphonic.  Ligeti explains, “The polyphonic structure does not actually come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, under-water world, to us inaudible… All in all, you cannot hear my music as it appears on paper. Of course, while actually composing each piece I worked on what we hear, as we hear it.”[3] A serial composer such as Boulez might construct a complex set of “rules” or a matrix, like a carefully engineered machine, and then simply let it run and generate the piece as it willed. In contrast, Ligeti was constantly tinkering with his machine, tweaking the rules until they produced results that perfectly matched his conception of what the piece should sound like. The strict canons and evenly distributed attacks were for him merely a means to an end, a carefully designed process for creating the elusive textures and floating rhythms that for him symbolized the timelessness of eternal light.

[1] György Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, trans. Gabor J. Schabert, et al. (London: Ernst Eulenburg, Ltd., 1983), 14.

[2] For a lucid analysis of this, see Benjamin R. Levy, “‘Rules as Strict as Palestrina’s’: The Regulation of Pitch and Rhythm in Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux aeterna,” Twentieth-Century Music 10, no. 2 (2013), 203-230.

[3] Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 14-15.

Some Thoughts Regarding Electronic and Electroacoustic Music (Part I)

Last year I had several experiences with electronic music that have caused me to think a great deal about its composition, presentation, and performance.  In this blog, I’d like to address two issues related to the decision making process that composers face when writing electronic music and the ways that these decisions tend to shape the perception of that music by audiences.

The first issue occurred to me last year when I attended a performance by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as part of their “Inside the score” concert series.  While all of the works that were programmed were fantastically well performed and conducted, two works specifically stayed with me because of their treatment of prerecorded elements.  These were a new work by conductor Scott O’Niell which incorporated both the recorded sounds of crickets chirping* and whale sounds; and a work by Respighi entitled Gli ucceli which used the recorded call of a nightingale.  Here is why these works stuck with me, and why they have caused enough thought on my part that I am writing about them almost five months later: both of the recorded elements for these pieces were played back through the house PA system.

I know that doesn’t seem so interesting at the moment, but let’s talk about what that actually means.  The PA system in Boettcher concert hall is many, many feet above the orchestra, and generally operates using a speaker system that is dispersed around the room.  By contrast, the orchestra is set up in one location and each seat in the hall will actually have a slightly different experience of the sound as a result of the relative positioning of the individual players . So here’s the problem with that: in terms of how we hear, physical separation equates to psychological separation. Our brains are wired so that when we hear two sounds coming from two separate places, we assume that they are two separate and unrelated entities. This is great for navigating primordial savannahs, but it also means that it is very difficult for us to correlate the sounds from a PA system with those of an acoustic orchestra. This probably doesn’t always pose a huge problem, but for these two pieces, especially O’Niel’s piece which involved a great deal of interaction between the orchestra and the recording, it was a major drawback.

The solution to this problem is very simple:  The CSO should have put a speaker or two in the orchestra, probably back with the percussion. This would not only have merged the two sounds into one, but would also likely have been more in line with the early performances of the Respighi piece since it was written in the infancy of recording and amplification technologies and the likelihood that a PA system would have been available in the hall at its premiere seems very slim.**

This brings me to my first point about how composers need to think differently than we are used to when we write electronic music.  Putting the electronic element of a piece through the PA is not always wrong, but it will have different effects on the listener. This is especially true if the work also calls for acoustic instruments. We as composers have to think about the way the two elements will interact musically and make decisions about how they will interact physically.  If the acoustic instrument is supposed to be set apart, “surrounded” by the electronic element, the PA is certainly the best choice as this is the effect that the audience will perceive. If the two parts are supposed to interact, and to have equal footing, then a speaker on the stage, probably as close to the other performer as possible should be used.  Most importantly, we need to specifically state these decisions in the score and ensure that it happens when we attend performances. Our job as composers is to make and defend musical decisions about the kind of experience we want our listeners to have.  Allowing these decisions to be made by others countermands the work that we do in other, more obvious areas of our music.

The second issue occurred to me when I read a journal article by Miller Puckette. In this article he detailed a new algorithm developed for more accurate score following.  For those who aren’t familiar with the terminology, score following is essentially a way to remove the necessity for human intervention in performance of electronic elements alongside acoustic instruments. By sensing the pitch played by the acoustic performer, the computer follows along a preprogrammed score of the performance and reacts to what the performer is doing in specific ways at predetermined times in the score. In truth, my experience has been that a great deal of research and effort has gone into this particular topic and I have to wonder why. Rarely, if ever, is the computer actually making its own “decisions” regarding what happens. It is almost always the case that the computer merely triggers certain events to occur, a task that has demonstrably and repeatedly been easier and more accurately performed by a human. So why are we trying to remove a human from the equation?

The conclusion here is that we shouldn’t remove the human from the equation. This actually has more benefits than just being easier and more accurate. When a computer is on stage without a person operating it, there is a kind of disembodiment that occurs. The idea, particularly in a concert setting, that a sound is occurring without a point of origin seems to catch people off guard. What’s more, audiences tend to take certain visual cues regarding when the piece has begun or finished from the people on stage and a lack of these visual cues will often make audience members disoriented and uncomfortable.

The point is that we as composers need to make deliberate choices about the way our music is performed. It is very common for composers to include stage diagrams for their works and these diagrams could easily include the location of a speaker and a laptop. The problem is that we aren’t used to making these kinds of decisions so explicitly because a tradition already exists regarding where instrumentalists should sit on stage in relation to each other. Really, the only decisions we’ve had to make in the past are those of musical content.  But since electronics have so drastically changed the face of the music world, we have to also change the way that we control the experiences our audiences have.

*A recording of crickets slowed and pitched down has circulated around the internet for some time. The sound is quite beautiful and is worth hearing.

**I actually know very little about the history of this piece and am only making educated assumptions based on the time period when it was written and my understanding of the history of recording technology. If anyone knows more about this, I’d be fascinated to hear about it.

Sofia Gubaidulina, “Offertorium” Part II

Crucifixionby Sarah Perske

In my last post, I discussed the suffering-redemption narrative of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium” and explored the influence of this narrative on Gubaidulina’s approaches to pitch, dynamics, register, and orchestration. This suffering-redemption narrative is equally influential in Gubaidulina’s approach to form. “Offertorium” is, on its most basic level, a set of variations on the royal theme of Bach’s Musical Offering (a theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great). However, Gubaidulina departs far from traditional variation form – which generally reflects an additive process of embellishment – and re-interprets it as a subtractive process in which pitches are gradually removed from the theme “to symbolize the idea of sacrifice.”[1] Gubaidulina’s comments suggest that she thinks of the gradual “death” and eventual “resurrection” of the theme as the defining principle of the form:

“The first section consists of several variations, where the theme “offers” itself, “sacrificing” one note from the beginning and one from the end in each variation. In the climax, just one (central) note of the theme is left. Frederick’s theme gradually returns in the third section (the second section is devoted to images of “cross suffering” and the Last Judgment). The main event of the concerto, the Transfiguration, is in the coda: Frederick’s theme appears in its complete shape, but in retrograde motion, and nobody can recognize it.”[2]

Gubaidulina’s description, though it certainly captures the main action of the piece, remains a somewhat incomplete portrait. While the appearances of the varied theme are of great structural importance, they actually comprise a fairly small percentage of this nearly 40-minute piece, as the “sacrificing” of the theme necessitates its gradual replacement with other materials. Furthermore, the soloist’s role is somewhat removed from this process, as the solo violin does not play an assertive part in stating the theme until the third section of the piece. For these reasons, I hear this concerto as an interweaving of three different structural threads: the gradual transformation of the theme, the distinctive repeated materials of the solo violin (derived from the theme), and sections of orchestral music that often use material from the theme and/or the solo violin material, but are generally most notable for their presentation of sweeping, dramatic gestures that recur throughout the piece.



For the first five minutes of the piece, the listener can easily track these individual threads. The theme (pictured above), though gradually diminishing with each repetition, appears at 0:012:46, and 4:50 in recognizable and increasingly dramatic statements. The solo violin has its own distinctive material (first introduced at 0:19), varied appearances of a repetitious lament derived from the descending chromatic scale and final half-step motive of the theme. The orchestra, for its part, supports the soloist in these moments and then takes over, offering commentary on various motives of the theme and finishing with a dramatic gesture, often involving glissandi or chromatic scales (1:20, 4:21, 5:26). Gubaidulia presents these three elements in a clearly demarcated manner until 4:50. Following this third statement of the theme, it becomes difficult to distinguish between statements of the increasingly amputated theme and the fragmentary appearances of related materials that Gubaidulina has interspersed from the beginning. With the exception of the violin cadenza at 15:44, the three threads remain more closely woven together for the remainder of the piece.

Each of these threads plays a vital role in making the form comprehensible; the gradual death and resurrection of the theme forms the structural backbone of the concerto, while the other two elements serve to unify and support that structure throughout the gradual disappearance of the theme. The soloist’s material helps us to hear a cohesive narrative even in the midst of the chaotic middle section of the piece, partly through its use of thematic material and partly by virtue of a symbolic connection to the suffering-redemption narrative; Gubaidulina’s initial inspiration for the concerto was “the total surrender of self to the tone” that she perceived in the playing of violinist Gidon Kremer, and her remarks on the subject suggest a parallel with Christ’s “surrender” on the cross.[3] Similarly, recurring descending gestures in the orchestra contribute to thematic and symbolic unity by recalling the descending chromatic motion of the theme. These gestures denote suffering both through their traditional association with “sighs” or “falls,” and through the symbolism of chromatic material (associated with darkness or suffering) mentioned in my previous post. These gestures appear throughout the piece in miniaturized, understated versions (like those at 5:26 and 28:42) as well as a number of larger, more dramatic versions (like those at 1:20 and 37:00) that serve as structural pillars; such a gesture at 27:55, for example, signals the close of the second section and the beginning of the long journey back towards a resurrected theme.


The coda is one of the most interesting moments of the piece for me. Here, Gubaidulina brings the three threads together: the theme returns at 36:06, but now it is stated by the soloist, presented in retrograde, and subjected to embellishment, repetition, and octave transpositions (image above). Rather than simply end the piece with the transfigured theme, Gubaidulina unites the theme and the soloist with the third element, engaging the entire orchestra in a final chaotic downward sweep (37:00). This moment fulfills an expectation set up by earlier uses of this gesture, and complicates the expected trajectory of the suffering-redemption narrative in an interesting way; Gubaidulina emphasizes the ultimately redemptive character of the narrative by letting the solo violin’s high D continue through the chaos to emerge as the last sound we hear, but the dramatic descent seems to remind us that we still await ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’


[1] Vera Lukomsky, “Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘My Desire is Always to Rebel, to Swim Against the Stream!’” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), 26.

[2] Ibid., 26-27.

[3] Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: a Biography (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 194.

The Paradox of Monet

Claude Monet Nympheas Nuages detail

by Nathan Cornelius

In this post, instead of offering a “hearing” of a piece of music, I want to instead share my personal “seeing” of a work of visual art which has inspired me as a composer.

One of the most engrossing experiences with art I can remember was the minutes I spent with a large painting of water lilies by Claude Monet at the Art Institute of Chicago several years ago. I found myself absorbed in the image on many different levels, from the most delicate swirls of paint to the rich array of flowers and reflections which arose out of them. So, when I visited Paris earlier this summer, I eagerly looked forward to visiting the Musée de l’Orangerie, home of eight monumental canvases Monet painted of his lily pond near the end of his life. These works, collectively titled Nymphéas (“water lilies” in French) hang in two oval galleries specially designed by the painter to create the ideal environment in which to contemplate his vision. Those not fortunate enough to be able see these images in person can take a virtual tour at the museum’s website.

Claude_Monet_-_The_Water_Lilies_-_The_Clouds_-_Google_Art_Project detail

On my visit to the Orangerie, I began by admiring each painting from as close as I dared, being mindful of the security guard pacing deliberately around the room. Since each painting is six feet high and twenty to fifty feet long, it is impossible to grasp the whole picture from this distance. Instead, the close-up viewer peers into a dense thicket of curved brushstrokes, often bold, loose, rough, and even ugly. The brushstrokes pile up against each other, sometimes spilling paint out the cracks between them until it builds up into textured ridges, like foam on a breaking wave. My eyes were flooded with the vibrations of a myriad of colors, now complementing, now clashing against each other, from radiant lilac and salmon to drab green and brown. As I looked longer, I noticed that most of the brushstrokes were in fact loaded with several different colors which swirled into each other, outlining the traces of the individual hairs on the brush. Each section of each panel was awash in such details and, with its spontaneous yet balanced flow, could almost pass for an abstract expressionist masterpiece.


As I stepped back to view the entire sweep of the image, my view radically changed, and it took focused mental effort to keep hold of my abstract perception of the painting. As soon as my eye settled on any pattern for a moment, my brain immediately began to decode it as a lily pad or the reflection of a cloud, and then the whole abstraction dissolved into a scene of a pond again, as if released from a magician’s spell.  Despite the abundance of tangible detail in the work, it is remarkable how little Monet actually shows of the objects which the painting seems to represent so effortlessly. He provides just enough of a suggestion of foliage, light, water, and sky to allow the viewer’s mind to catch on and begin filling in the rest. Thus, it is not Monet’s lily pond I see; it is one of my own imagination. I seem to remember myself, at some time in the vague past, standing at the edge of a pond with the light falling through the trees behind me, looking at the reflection of a sunset sky in the calm water. I am not so much aware of what Monet was feeling as he made this image as of the strange emotional associations that the memory of lily pads, trees, and clouds calls up within me.

As I left the peaceful oval gallery, I felt a resonance between my desires as a composer and the lessons I learned from this great artist. I would love to create a music that absorbs and enthralls the listener in a rich and sweeping array of detail, as Monet’s Nymphéas do. Eventually, the listener will “step back” aurally to grope for something recognizable to take hold of in this delightful torrent of textures and colors.  I want to be able to reward this search by creating music that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, as listeners can lose themselves in the immediacy and freshness of the sounds as they happen or enjoy a larger structure that may even seem familiar. Yet, I wonder, how do I do this in such a way that the form which the listener perceives is not a window into the my (the composer’s) mind but a mirror into his or her own soul, revealing something they deeply felt along? I don’t expect to find the answer to this question anytime soon, as Monet’s Nymphéas series was the culmination of five decades of artistic exploration.  For me, this work does provide a compelling vision of what such a synthesis could look like. I would love to hear what works, musical, visual, or otherwise, do the same for you!