Subjective Judgments (Or, Why Do You Like That Sound You Like?)

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by Nathan Cornelius

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Walden School Creative Musicians Retreat in the beautiful countryside of New Hampshire. Over the course of the week, over 30 composers had their music premiered by the fantastic Wet Ink Ensemble and a chorus of festival participants. The format of the concerts was unique and interesting in that each premiere was immediately followed by a few minutes of discussion, hosted by composer Martin Bresnick. I was struck by the stylistic diversity of the program, from minimalist to post-spectral to neo-Romantic to jazz-influenced, as well as Bresnick’s ability to perceive the essence of each piece and ask penetrating questions about it, regardless of the particular style. At some point in nearly every discussion, though, he asked the composer how they chose certain elements of the piece, such as harmony, melody, or instrumentation.

As a composer, I long for a chance like this to get nerdy and talk about some complex process in my piece to a roomful of fellow nerds who might actually understand me. On the other hand, as an audience member, I found myself becoming bored whenever a composer launched into such an explanation in the forum. (I would do well to remember this when I’m the one talking.) The majority of the composers at the festival, however, did not take this route. Instead, most of their answers to the question “Why did you write that?” were along the lines of “Because it sounded good” or “Because I liked it.” Bresnick would then follow up by asking what specifically they found attractive that led them to choose that material, but most of them couldn’t pin it down any further.

For many composers, our music’s raison d’etre is fundamentally subjective, not objective. We cannot always offer a rational explanation for our creative decisions, because they stem from intuitions which operate at a pre-conscious or pre-rational level in our minds. (In terms of my last post, the heart chooses first, and the head comes into play later.) We sometimes try to hide our insecurity over this lack of rationale behind an elaborately constructed screen of technique and compositional virtuosity which baffles anyone trying to peer through to the motivations behind it. But admitting the composer’s subjective, personal preference as sufficient grounds for creating a work seems just as disturbing. If composers simply ought to write what they like or what sounds good to them, are they then at the mercy of their own taste?

All composers have probably had the experience of hearing a work for the first time, admiring it passionately, and dreaming of writing a piece like that someday. In other words, we like the piece, we think it sounds cool, and we want to emulate it. As I retraced my musical life in search of an answer to my dilemma, I realized that the kinds of pieces that provoked this reaction in me have changed many times. In the past decade of my music studies, I’ve successively fallen in love with the music of Dvorak, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Crumb, Penderecki, Carter, Sibelius, Murail, and Mahler—not exactly homogeneous in style. Along the way, I’ve modeled my attempts at composition after each of these composers’ work, if not stolen it outright. My pieces have literally quoted tunes by Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Sibelius, and Palestrina, and I’ve borrowed very specific processes from most of the rest.

In each case, my interest in writing music in a certain style was preceded by many hours spent listening to and studying that style. For example, when I was listening to a lot of Beethoven, I started to think it would be cool to write a piece that aspired to Beethoven’s ingenuity in motivic development and maybe quoted one of his themes too. Later, after discovering Penderecki, I still admired Beethoven, but imitating his style no longer seemed so attractive, because I was more intrigued by Penderecki’s expressionistic contrasts in texture, timbre, and sonority. In other words, the progression of music I wanted to write followed the progression of  styles I was immersing myself in as a listener.

Thus, I’ve learned that I can have a real influence on my own musical taste, not by willing myself to like a certain style, but by listening to it and studying it until I understand it deeply. My changing musical interests have not followed a linear process of evolution towards greater sophistication. But with each new composer who enters my circle of musical influences, the music I dream of writing gets richer, deeper, and more satisfying. And while I never actually reach the level of the masterpieces that inspired me, the very fact that my goals keep getting higher encourages me to keep trying.

So if you want to diversify your range as a composer while still writing music you like, try to cultivate a broader palate for your musical taste. Make a habit of regularly exploring music you’ve never heard before and see what happens. When something piques your interest, listen to everything by that composer you can get your hands (or earbuds) on. While this process may or may not lead directly to inspiration for a new piece, it will certainly expand the universe of sound worlds in which you feel comfortable both as a listener and as a composer. And if you do it for long enough, you may find that the kind of music you prefer has completely changed.

In music, as in life, it’s good to listen to what your heart tells you, but sometimes you also have to intentionally nudge it in a different direction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to some weird new scores I ran across in the library.

Does Music Come from the Head or the Heart?

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by Nathan Cornelius

I’ll admit, the title of this post might be a trick question, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Before trying to answer it, though, I have to confront a problem which persistently menaces composers’ work: the deadline. It seems we always have a project we’re struggling to finish on time… or at least not too far behind schedule. Many composers think  improving their compositional technique and analytical skills will bring greater speed and fluency of writing along with it.  Others believe a deeper emotional connection to their work will allow their music to pour out of them more freely. But is the connection between head, heart, and pencil really so simple?

A survey of the so-called “great composers” throughout history reveals a wide range in productivity and working speed. On the one hand, J. S. Bach was able to turn out a whole new cantata for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig nearly every week, composing hundreds over the course of his career. Similarly, Mozart famously quipped that the only limit to his compositional speed was how fast he could copy out the manuscript. Nevertheless, his rapidity may have only enabled him to procrastinate, as he was also notorious for finishing Don Giovanni the night before the premiere.

Other composers worked in rapid bursts with long periods of inactivity. Mahler, for example, did not compose at all during his busy concert seasons as a conductor, but every summer, he would retreat to his cabin in the mountains and try to sketch out an hour-long symphony. Rachmaninoff produced some works very quickly, but was interrupted by bouts of depression which stalled his composing for months or years. At one point, his psychiatrist had to repeat over and over to him, “You will start work on your piano concerto soon. You will work with great facility.” Still other composers worked at a slow but steady pace. George Crumb, for example, completed just one piece a year for most of his career, but has slowed down even further since he reached middle age.

Various factors can limit the speed at which a composer creates. The most obvious is simply the amount of time one is able to devote to composition. Having spent periods trying to compose while going to school full-time and working nearly full-time, I can attest that my schedule was often the limiting factor of how much I could write. Other times, even without being Mozart, composers run up against the time required for the physical act of copying out the score. Even computer notation software can only accelerate this process by a certain amount; there are still a fixed number of mouse clicks and keystrokes required to notate the music. Beyond this, there are differences in individuals’ creative processes. Some composers are simply faster at brainstorming ideas than others. Others are faster at developing and working through materials to turn their inspiration into a complete piece. Some choose to follow a more deliberate process, comparing and revising sections again and again, to ensure that their creativity reaches its full potential. As a result, pieces progress at vastly different rates for different composers, even if they are each able to follow their ideal working routine.

All of these factors, however, deal primarily with the intellectual side of the creative process. Clearly, there is an emotional component to it as well. Instead of bogging down in detailed compositional systems, some composers believe in writing what comes naturally, from the heart. They consider this to be the freest, fastest way of creating. However, as I’ve written before, music that flows purely from the composer’s intuition or feeling is vulnerable to falling into well-worn, default modes of expression. Without some sort of structure, however simple, to guide and even challenge the composer’s creativity, the music will meander through diffuse pathways and not actually make the powerful emotional statement desired.

But neither am I suggesting that composition should be a purely intellectual exercise. I do not believe art can be created purely in the abstract realm; it must have some connection to the world, to real life, to things that matter to us personally. I find I do my best work as a composer when inspired by something about which I feel strongly. Any precompositional or compositional structures I create are just tools to help me say, through music, what I feel compelled to say.

What is often overlooked, however, is that just as composers’ minds may work through ideas at different rates, their hearts may also. I, for one, am not an especially emotional person; I may only have three or four experiences a year which move me deeply enough to warrant a response in the form of a piece of music. Few as they are, these moments practically demand that I create something in order to deal with the beauty, sublimity, or frustration I feel in them. But they also require me to mull them over for a period of months or years before I can discover what kind of a piece I need to write to express that feeling. The composer Chaya Czernowin refers to this process as “incubating,” letting the idea of the piece gradually accrete and attract all the musical materials which belong with it. At times, I may have several ideas incubating, ready to be written, or I may have used up my store and be waiting for the next moment of inspiration.

And this gets to the crux of the problem with deadlines. Deadlines urge to the composer to come up with material and start writing now in order to finish on time. But there is no guarantee that the idea or seed of a piece will be emotionally (one might even say spiritually) ready to be written at that moment.  I think it’s significant that most of the pieces I wrote with a purely abstract sense of inspiration, free of any poetic or emotional associations, came near the end of a long year of school, during which a string of deadlines had used up all the ideas I had been ruminating on. And on each of these occasions, I have generally been less satisfied with the final product than when I to express an idea I had long been pondering. Rather than letting deadlines short-circuit this process of inspiration and incubation (thereby, in Alexander terms, end-gaining), each composer has to find a way to fit the rhythm of their work into it.

So the answer to my opening question, then, is “Yes”: Music, like any art, must come from both the heart and the head. The composer’s practice must be both rigorously worked out and deeply felt; one need not cancel out the other. But just as the mind needs time and space to produce an artwork, the heart does too. And just as some composers are faster than others at thinking through the steps to creating a piece, others are faster at feeling out the inspiration for it too. And, whether rapid or deliberate, feverish or contemplative, both sides of the process are necessary in order to generate a true work of art.