The Weird Obsession Phase: shortcut or obstacle for young composers?

Recently in a conversation with a composer some years my junior, I was fascinated to recognize a younger version of me: utterly bored with familiar sounds and positive that their unique ideas around some musical niche or theoretical quirk will pave their way to genius status and shape the future of Western classical music. For me, this Weird Obsession Phase, as I’ve decided to call it, began with an excessive enthusiasm for Elliott Carter’s method of combining minor thirds and tritones to create all-interval tetrachords, and ended in several pieces of music and a slightly fanatical paper with terrifying color-coded charts, the substance of which is summarized in the meme above. As I listened to Younger Version of Me expounded upon their devotion to a similar obsession, I began to wonder if this Weird Obsession Phase, awkward though it may be, is a necessary rite of passage for every young composer, a vital part of the growing pains that eventually lead us to a more grounded, well-informed, and individual artistic identity. When I reflect on my own Weird Obsession Phase, I can identify at least three positive outcomes that proved essential in my development:

I became a post-tonal theory badass overnight.
My Weird Obsession was the key that unlocked music theory for me. Given the sad and tormented history of my freshman and sophomore theory classes, I never imagined I’d walk out of an advanced theory class with an A…but that’s exactly what happened a few months after the onset of my Weird Obsession. I began devoting numerous hours of my personal time to messing with my crackpot all-interval tetrachord ideas, and this resulted in two incredibly useful skills: I developed a very strong “mental piano” that could be adapted to any audiation or mentalization exercise, and I become completely secure with the ins and outs of integer notation, pitch class sets, and tone rows before I ever set foot in my first post-tonal theory class.

I got better at analyzing what I was writing.
Creating nerdy, overly-complicated theoretical frameworks for composition – if somewhat naïve in its aims and imagined scope – was like a shot of growth hormone for my budding composer brain. Those crazy color-coded graphs, for all their retrospective silliness, trained me to be more self-evaluative and take a step back every so often to analyze what I was writing in terms of the theory that had sparked my compositional decisions. This in turn taught me to adapt my analytical approach to the aims of the particular piece I was working on, as I found myself often departing from my initial theoretical framework during the composing process to incorporate other kinds of musical ideas…which brings me to my third point…

I learned to balance theoretical ideas with following my intuitive musical sense.
Happily for me, my all-interval tetrachord obsession was grounded in a liking for the actual sonorities, and not just their theoretical coolness. That being the case, whenever I found the pre-compositional map I had created to be in conflict with where my ear intuitively wanted a melodic line or harmonic progression to go, I felt free to experiment with those intuitive options rather than remain rigidly within the bounds of my pre-compositional work. I found real joy in this push-and-pull between my theoretical frameworks and my musical intuition, and embracing that tension significantly revved up my maturation as a savvy musical decision-maker.

What about the drawbacks?
Though it certainly increased my overall social awkwardness score by a good many points, my Weird Obsession Phase was an incredibly valuable shortcut to greater musical competence and compositional maturity. That said, I feel there are two significant pitfalls to the Weird Obsession Phase that young composers should watch out for, even as they embrace the useful aspects of this particular form of nerdom:

Rigid adherence may stand in the way of further learning.
One student composer I knew in my undergrad days was so enthralled with their Weird Obsession that they refused to try other compositional techniques or even incorporate the feedback their teachers offered to help them develop versatility and technical prowess. If your Weird Obsession is preventing you from exploring new territory and developing a variety of skills, then it’s no longer serving you. Instead, it threatens to stifle your creativity and impede your development. I think most of us have the ability to recognize when our Obsession is no longer serving us, and will move on accordingly. So, by all means enjoy the adrenalin ride of your Weird Obsession while it lasts, but be willing to allow other interests and even short-term practical goals like meeting a deadline or learning a new skill to organically edge it out of the way.

If it starts to define your creative identity, a crisis may follow.
Around the same time as my own Weird Obsession, I knew another young composer with an equally intense Weird Obsession who followed said obsession all the way to an expensive overseas degree program that catered to devotees…only to become profoundly bored with the obsession to the point of choosing to abandon the writing of concert music altogether. I want to honor this person’s journey and point out that this was probably exactly what needed to happen to launch them into a musical career that will bring them more fulfillment. However, it strikes me that some drama could have been avoided if their Weird Obsession hadn’t been quite so central to their creative identity. Even at the height of my own all-interval tetrachord obsession, I managed to recall that the joy I found in musical experimentation and my more adaptable and run-of-the-mill talents (e.g., a strong melodic sense) were the real guiding lights of my creative identity. For this reason, my caution to young composers is to realize that your Weird Obsession is what you’re into right now, and NOT who you are as a creative artist. Your potential as a creative person always transcends the bounds of whatever you are creating right now!

We could all do with a Weird Obsession Phase, or perhaps even several, so long as they’re tempered by a good dose of self-awareness and willingness to flex as new creative needs and interests enter our lives. The real value of our Weird Obsessions, however enthralling we may find them in themselves, is in their ability to provide us with a fun and effective path to continuous discovery and personal development.

Memorizing with the Inner Ear

DSC_0023 (2)by Nathan Cornelius

In my ever-evolving journey towards becoming a professional musician, my current “day job” is working on ear-training skills with conservatory students. To succeed in ear-training class, students have to be able to write down a tune or some snippet of music they’ve never heard before, only by listening to it (a task formidable enough to inspire the half-joking moniker “fear-training”). I’ve noticed recently that remembering what the tune was often presents just as much difficulty for students as writing it down. For most musicians, memorization only follows a long period of working on the music, not only hearing it many times but also reading it many times, until it imprints itself on the brain as if by osmosis. Thus, I often find myself spending just as much time working with students on strategies for efficient memorization as on converting sound into notation.

This work got me thinking about the role of memory in composition. Psychologists believe that our capacity to imagine nonexistent objects and situations is fueled by our ability to recall, deconstruct, and recombine experiences we’ve already had, mixing and matching elements of real situations to create plausible non-real ones. I suspect many composers work by an analogous process, consciously or unconsciously  constructing their music out of musical objects they remember from elsewhere. Most musicians have some experience with memorizing what they play and (if they survived ear-training class) with memorizing what they hear as well. However, I’ve become convinced that another step beyond this is necessary to become a truly adept composer: While a good musician is able efficiently to memorize music they have heard, a good composer is able efficiently to memorize music they have not yet heard.

I believe creativity flows most naturally when the artist is playing, in the full sense of that word, whether improvising at your instrument, doodling on paper, or responding intuitively to another artist. When you stumble across something you like, you write it down, and the piece takes off from there. The more proficient you are as an improviser, the more well-defined, and far-reaching this process can be as a first stage of composition. This is one reason more composers have played the piano than any other instrument, as it can realize the greatest range of musical textures of any single instrument.

However, most composers will eventually desire to write music beyond the scope of their main instrument. Even on an instrument as versatile as the piano, there are many aspects of ensemble timbre, texture, and harmony that cannot be reduced enough to be played at all, let alone improvised, by one person. Thus, many composers’ creative process changes dramatically when they write for large ensemble. Instead of starting from spontaneous gestures, they begin to work much more carefully and systematically, pen on paper, making it difficult to keep the same freedom and fluidity as before. The music easily becomes a bit stale.

The solution, I think, is for the composer to keep improvising, not with their hands or their breath, but in their mind. If I try to freely imagine music for any instrument or ensemble purely by hearing it in my inner ear, I’m often surprised at the vitality and freshness of what I can come up with. The problem is, when I try to replay it so I can write it down, the whole thing falls apart in my mind. It seems that I am not able to capture the musical information I imagine with my unconscious mind clearly enough for my conscious mind to be able to retain or inspect it.  While this is frustrating, I’m convinced that the only way forward is simply to develop my faculties of imagination at a higher level so that I can both mentally “play” and “transcribe” my creations, first simple ones, then more complex.

But how can a composer go about acquiring this skill? It’s a complicated activity that can be approached from several angles. First of all, try to visualize the music you actually do hear. This means going beyond your required ear-training classes to apply these same skills to every piece you hear, from Beethoven symphonies to microtonal pieces, trying to identify what you’re listening to as specifically as possible and imagining what the score might look like. Second, you can “auralize” the music you actually can see, with the score (but no instrument!) in hand, imagining what it will sound like before you play it. I’ve found this process can be a very beneficial way of practicing repertoire, but it can also be extended to works for instruments you don’t play, then chamber pieces, and eventually, larger scores. Finally, when you are ready to try to imagine music you can’t physically hear or see, start with small, manageable tasks. Ask yourself to invent a phrase of melody without making any actual sound and then write it down immediately. Try to imagine a harmonic progression that modulates and then retrace your path from one tonality to another. Or try to picture a dense texture in your mind and then figure out what instruments it could consist of. Once you succeed at these little challenges, gradually put them together into more complex ones.

If this seems all but impossible at first, don’t give up. This skill does not come easily (and I’m far from attaining it myself). But when you think about it, neither does learning an instrument, singing in a choir, mastering solfege, or (of course!) composing. We pursue them as musicians not because they’re easy but because they’re worth it to be able to achieve our artistic goals. With enough determination and desire to succeed and a clear roadmap for the practice needed to get you there, I firmly believe this level of creative ability is within reach for anyone.

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.