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.

The Gift of Immediacy: A Meditation on Being Late for a Concert


Andrew Wyeth – The Carry

Me senté
en un claro del tiempo.
era un remanso
de silencio,
de un blanco silencio…
I sat down
In a space of time
It was a backwater
of silence,
of white silence…

Claro de reloj (Pause of the clock), Federico García Lorca, trans. Stanley Read

Actually, I stood up – at the back of the King Center concert hall with two of my friends, because we had arrived late. As the Lorca lyrics of Morton Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones wafted to us in a shimmer of vaguely Messiaen-ish harmonies and Crumb-ish timbre-textures, it was a backwater of crystalline sound – an unexpected music. The usual ritual of sitting down, clapping, and program reading foregone, we had walked in at the start of the Playground Ensemble’s October 26th, 2015 performance of this movement as though it had always been happening in that space. We had entered with no idea of who we were hearing, or of what; immediately, our empty hands had been filled with the molten, colored jewels that adorned that white silence.

One of the gifts of lateness and of not having sufficient time for anything (once you let go of the stress and the self-condemnation, that is) is immediacy. Immediacy is the elusive treasure of the 21st century, arriving secretly and remaining for a time veiled and useless to the possessor behind daily layers of panic and dissatisfaction. If those layers are peeled away, immediacy is revealed as the resolve to jump in and do what can be done now without fear; to let go of unhelpful expectations and worries that get in the way of now; to listen to intuition, allowing an experience or an atmosphere to have free reign in your consciousness without your own interference; to capture the absolute essence of something without trying, painting a truth in the broadest possible strokes; to engage in listening and conversation without the background noise of ego and preconceived notions. Immediacy is the sensory experience of a child – all eyes and ears and uninhibited fingers that reach without hesitation for the crayon.

Actually, come to think of it, we did sit down – once the Lauridsen piece was over and the stage was being reset. But for me, at least, the immediate hearing remained – that coming in out of the cold and dark to meet unknown sounds without context or expectation. I looked with only half an eye at my program, not wishing to spoil the feeling, and I half-learned that Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union was for “any group of loud-sounding instruments.” From the stage, one of the performers explained that Andriessen’s notation only specified rhythm and contour – not exact pitch. Then the framework that is Workers Union began to unfold, and I recognized again the gift of immediacy, remembering a quote by Andrew Wyeth: “That’s why I like fencing so much…it’s very much like painting. It’s that decisive, sharp, quick stroke that captures the essence of a subject.” I could hear how Andriessen captured the essential vision in the broadest strokes, and how the performers seized it, bringing their communication, their letting go, and their commitment to the immediate interpretation of those strokes.

When Workers Union came to an end, a conspicuously immediate conductor (viz., clothed in a tattered ball cap, unsuitable pants, sweatshirt, and well-worn shoes) took the stage and began to direct the Playground’s closing soundpainting. I’ve heard many soundpaintings before, but none as fresh, as energized, or as seemingly-composed-yet-also-seemingly-improvised as this one. A construction of sound emerged with flawless logic but the unmistakable torn edges of the immediate vision. I heard sounds I wanted to hang onto and dwell with for a while, letting the immediate experience continue on without me…But still immediacy held me in its grip, embodied in the hyper-alert musicians and their conductor. Together, with effortlessness and razor focus, they animated the living, growing organism of structured sound.

Actually – now that I think of it – we were neither sitting down nor standing up when the first movement of the Lauridsen began. We were hovering in the foyer, our own backwater of silence, because Claro de reloj was already underway, and the ushers were softly preparing to open the doors for us between movements. “When you go in, try to grab a seat at the back, or just stand until the piece is over,” they said, and handed us our programs. They might as easily have said, here, you lucky latecomers; take a double portion of the gift others left behind –

anillo formidable
donde los luceros
chocaban con los doce flotantes
numeros negros.
a formidable ring
wherein the stars
collided with the twelve floating
black numerals.

Yes, you missed the first piece; you are tired, you are late, you are burned out, and you have no good ideas left.

But your inheritance is immediacy.

The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form


I recently had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 10 for guitar and tape. Davidovsky is an Argentine-born composer who has spent most of his career in the US, especially at Columbia and Harvard universities. As with much American music from the more “academic” strain (Davidovsky’s biggest mentor was Milton Babbitt), Synchronisms No. 10 does not follow any traditional form. Instead, the piece appears to be through-composed, with a number of distinct sections following organically upon each other, creating an interesting and colorful variety of sound worlds. Somewhat surprisingly, the piece begins with several minutes of solo guitar before the electronic part enters. However, near the end of the piece, the guitar’s opening gestures recur exactly as at the beginning, but with an electronic accompaniment this time. As I listened to the performance, the obvious recurrence of this passage gave the whole a much more defined shape in my mind, causing me to smile and nod in approval almost involuntarily. Suddenly, it seemed as if I liked the piece a whole lot more, even though it had done nothing new.

Even though Davidovsky studiously avoided using any classical forms, I realized that this recurrence of the opening material was actually functioning in a way analogous to a recapitulation in traditional form, even apart from the return to a home tonality which is traditionally associated with it. This suggested to me that perhaps the main purpose of traditional musical forms such as sonata and rondo is not to provide a tonal structure, but simply a framework for recurrence. In a piece of any substantial length, some element of recurrence is necessary to create a satisfying listening experience, whether the language is tonal or atonal. In fact, I would argue that the longer a piece is, the more essential repetition or recurrence is to maintaining a coherent construction of form.

Similarly, in the visual arts, the larger a work’s physical dimensions, the more important its form or composition is. The painter, potter, sculptor, or architect constructs these forms out of elements dealing with the distribution of materials across space, such as shape, color, balance, and proportion. However, while a work of visual art can be grasped instantaneously, in a single glance, a work of music must be experienced through time. Therefore, its structure must be articulated through elements dealing with the disposition of materials across time, such as repetition, variation, recurrence, expansion, or contrast.

Because of this principle, I would argue that truly through-composed music (that is, forms relying exclusively on variation or contrast instead of repetition or recurrence) can only work on small scales. One significant exception to this might be so-called process music, in which certain musical parameters follow a clearly-defined trajectory over the course of the piece, so that the character of the music is constantly in flux and thus never literally repeating. These large-scale trajectories provide a way for the listener to conceptualize the entire piece in a single glance, so to speak, without needing to recognize material they heard earlier. Even so, most examples of process pieces use either repetition or recurrence as well to help construct the form. Composers may even construct processes that undo or spiral back upon themselves, so that the end of the piece is the same as the beginning—a sort of terminal recurrence that signals the piece’s completion. (For a brilliant example of process music, see Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days.)

In an earlier post, I reflected on how minimalist art showed me that the ideal balance between repetition and variation in a work often tilts much more towards repetition than I think. After my experience listening to the Davidovsky, I now wonder if this principle applies to all musical styles, not just minimalism. For example, one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had as a composer was taking a seminar in Schenkerian analysis, a music theory paradigm which attempts to show that tonal music uses the same basic patterns at all levels of its structure, from phrases to sections to entire pieces. As a theorist, I don’t necessarily buy all the assertions of Schenkerian philosophy, but as a composer, it opened my eyes to the potential to expand any musical idea without adding any new material, by simply replicating the pattern of the whole in each of the parts, much like a fractal.

To take a completely opposite example, serial music also relies heavily on repetitions of a basic tone row, albeit transformed through processes such as retrograde and inversion (not to mention extreme contrasts in rhythm, timbre, or texture). While serial music is notoriously difficult for listeners to comprehend, I wonder if this is not due to its lack of tonality but rather to the fact that the repetition and recurrence in its structure are not apparent to listeners, having been buried by the radical variation of other musical parameters. The same sort of structure is still there, but it fails to create a sense of cohesion for listeners if they are unable to perceive it.

In my opinion, the difficulty for composers in writing long pieces is not in coming up with enough ideas to fill the piece, but in stretching out a single idea to fill the appropriate amount of time, like blowing up a balloon or throwing a pot on the wheel. Much as novice potters tend to leave the walls of their pots too thick because they don’t realize how far they can stretch the clay to enclose a larger volume, aspiring composers tend to leave their musical materials underdeveloped, moving on from an idea before it has grown to its full potential.

So the next time I’m stuck searching for inspiration in a piece, I intend to check what I’ve already written and consider if it might just be time for some repetition, or at least a little more stretching of an idea. After all, if you never pop a balloon, you’re not blowing them up big enough, right?

The Investment Risks of Creative Ideas

chansonnier de zeghere van maleby Nathan Cornelius

In my all-time favorite music-nerd novel, Donald Greig’s Time Will Tell, Dr. Andrew Eiger is a young, ambitious, and painfully awkward musicology professor at a generic Midwestern university who dreams of publishing blockbuster research that will catapult him to the big time (in his world, an Ivy League post). He is convinced his breakthrough will come when he can crack the code of an impossibly convoluted Renaissance motet he ran across in an archive in France, in which just three lines of music generate a spectacular 36-voice canon. Of course, figuring out exactly how this happens is a bit of a pickle. But the paranoid Eiger is afraid to consult any other scholars about his work, believing they will steal his thunder—and musicological fame—by going ahead and publishing the piece themselves if they figure it out. When he tries to pitch his idea to Britain’s hottest early-music ensemble, Eiger’s social insensitivity—and inability to hold his liquor—get the better of him, leading to a hilariously unforeseen outcome for his project.

Greig’s novel seems an eerily true-to-life cautionary tale for aspiring scholars on the dangers of keeping your research secret from the academic community. I think creative artists such as composers often sense a similar temptation to safeguard their best work out of distrust for their peers. But in reality, it’s far more productive to collaborate and share ideas with colleagues, even if you may lose a sense of ownership. Yet I wonder how often we composers, even if we avoid this trap, fall into another pitfall and withhold ideas from ourselves by trying to save them up for future use, a sort of artistic tightwaddery. I’ll try to explain how this happens to me.

Sometimes I’m inspired with an idea for a piece of a music which reveals itself to be a Big Idea—one that stirs my heart and soul, demanding I put pencil to paper to capture a glimpse of its majesty. But, I say, a Big Idea deserves a Big Piece to properly work it out, and—alas!—I am not qualified to write a Big Piece at this stage of my career. Only Real Composers are worthy of that lofty calling, and I… I am still squirreling through the confusing educational labyrinth reserved for Student Composers, searching for the noble gate into the court of the Emerging Composers. And I certainly wouldn’t want to let my clumsy Student Composer self spoil the idea now, depriving it of its magic later. After all, you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins. So I stash the idea away in the imaginary storeroom I’ve created to hold all the inspirations I’ll come back to when I’m a Real Composer.

Author Annie Dillard reveals the fallacy in this creative mindset in her exquisite book, The Writing Life: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.” She also draws a parallel between hoarding inspiration for yourself and hiding it from others: “The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”[1]

As Dillard beautifully describes earlier in her book, the process of developing an idea into a finished work can be long and laborious. Naturally, bigger ideas may need more time to ripen and shouldn’t be rushed. But there is no reason to simply sit on them until your craft becomes equal to your inspiration. Not every big idea requires a big piece; it is possible to express a majestic idea eloquently in miniature. Furthermore, there’s no rule against writing multiple pieces on the same subject. Visual artists normally work in series, creating many variations on the same theme rather than shooting for a single masterpiece. As my composition teacher recently advised me, “Think of this piece as the first of a whole series of pieces exploring one idea.”

Withdrawing from the bank of ideas feels risky, like you could be wasting a unique opportunity. But stashing inspiration is guaranteed to waste opportunities, by stopping the flow of ideas and stunting your growth as an artist. Ultimately, you have to trust that your best ideas are yet to come; as your compositional technique becomes richer and deeper, your vision will expand to match it. As Dillard says, “These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.” Better ideas come only after you’ve put your creative muscle to work on the materials you have. So I resolve to go ahead and be generous with my ideas, first towards myself, then with others.

[1] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 78-79.

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.

Good vs. Great


by Nathan Cornelius

In conversations about music, several friends have asked me, “What does it take to be a composer?” This question always gives me pause as I try to answer. In truth, the list of skills required is terrifying; it seems you have to be good at everything to be a successful composer. And yet, we can all think of examples of composers—whether from history or of our own acquaintance—who have produced great work despite being really bad at certain aspects of their work. I’ve come to believe there are two sets of skills required to be a composer, skill sets which are not necessarily correlated with each other. This leads to some surprising conclusions for the aspiring composer.

I divide these qualities into those necessary to be a good composer, and those necessary to be a great composer: (I realize that “great” can be a loaded word in talking about art, but bear with me; I’ll explain how I mean it.)

Needed to be a Good Composer:

  • Work ethic. Writing a piece of music is a lot of work, so a composer must be willing to devote an insane amount of time to crafting it. More often than not, it doesn’t just flow out of you; you have to actively search to find the best music.
  • Dedication. As the process of composition drags on and the deadline nears, the composer must have the mental fortitude to keep working on the project, the belief that it will be worth it, and the commitment to whatever is necessary to make it succeed.
  • Perfectionism. There is no such thing as “good enough” in art, so the composer cannot rest until everything is exactly as desired. With incomplete work in the compositional process, the piece may not fully realize its potential; with incomplete work in notating the score or proofreading it, the piece may not communicate itself clearly to the performers.
  • People skills. Unless you are a proficient composer-performer, you need other people to play or sing your work. The composer must be persuasive and winning enough to convince them it’s worth their time to do this.
  • Administrative skills. Creating a score and parts, arranging rehearsals, booking venues, and communicating with all parties involved—the composer must stay on top of such things to ensure a successful performance.
  • Entrepreneurship. This sums up the previous two qualities. Composers cannot count on finding opportunities waiting for them in the world, so they must have the initiative and drive to create their own.
  • Knowledge of instruments. The ideal composer would be intimately familiar with every instrument, not only for its strict capabilities and limitations, but also for its idiosyncrasies, “sweet spots,” and hidden secrets. The goal is to write music that is not merely playable but strongly idiomatic.
  • Knowledge of orchestration. Having mastered the art of writing for each of the instruments separately, the composer must also study the most advantageous and rewarding ways to combine them.
  • Knowledge of music theory. Except for the few gifted enough to compose entirely by ear, composers must understand music theory to some degree before they can put pen to paper. The more you know about how music of the past was put together, the more aware you will be of how you are constructing your own.

Anyone who possesses all these qualities will undoubtedly have a successful career as a composer. They will consistently finish new works and hear them performed, likely to some degree of acclaim. Their services may even be in enough demand that they can make money from it. However, their music may be completely forgotten or neglected after their lifetime, when they are no longer able to arrange performances for it. There is no guarantee their work will have any influence on the larger culture or on the flow of other artists throughout history. To achieve that, one must be a “great” composer, not just “good”.

The list of requirements to be a “great” composer, however, is quite different:

Needed to be a Great Composer

  • Inspiration. A great composer must be passionate about something, which inevitably drives them to write music. The object of this passion can be internal to the music—a love for the notes themselves—or external—a love for an image, meaning, or story conveyed through the music. But the love must be genuine; no substitutes are accepted.
  • Imagination. A great composer must have a robust, vital, and fertile overflow of new ideas bubbling up and percolating down through their musical imagination. This is the only safeguard against repeating oneself, being forced to borrow from others, or becoming hackneyed or clichéd. Not all of these ideas will become the basis of a great piece, but the sheer abundance of them creates the fervid environment needed to incubate true creativity.
  • Iconoclasm. A great composer must have an ear for catching or inventing new types of musical materials which lie outside of, or even directly defy, existing modes of expression. They cannot rely on the solid, tried-and-true techniques, structures, or emotional affects, but always thirst to seek out the unexplored, the overlooked, and even the apparently impossible. Confronted with parched desert sand, they dig beneath the surface, deeper than anyone has dared dig before, and uncover a new well of water.

Obviously, only a tiny handful of human beings have ever even come close to possessing both sets of talents. The irony is that some lucky composers who were “great” but not “good” still managed to leave an enormous legacy. I think of Beethoven or Stravinsky, both of whom were infamous for their uncouth manners and blatant disregard for the limitations of their performers. Then there is Bach, who, whether through provinciality or humility, never managed to promote his music outside of his own town and was consequently forgotten for two generations after his death. Countless other composers ought, by rights, to have ruined their career through the opposite mistake of excessive self-promotion, and yet are still revered and admired today.

Thus, if you want to be a “great” composer, it seems it is actually not necessary to be “good.” But while all the traits required to be a good composer can be acquired and developed through hard work and practice, I know no way to teach or to learn inspiration, imagination, or iconoclasm. We can’t just throw up our hands and resort to the time-worn “myth of genius,” saying greatness must be inborn. But if it’s not, then how do you get it? Is it grown through exploration and wonder early in one’s childhood? Is it magically granted to you later in life while you’re pursuing something else?

But perhaps you “only” want to be a good composer. In that case, it seems you could still have a perfectly happy career and musical life without ever becoming great. This is some consolation for composers, such as myself, who may work hard to refine their craft and dream of being artistically influential but fear they don’t have the sine qua non to take that last, transcendent leap to greatness. But is it selling out to admit that I will never be great and set my sights on being “merely” good? Is it enough to work to the limits of my own ability, or do I have to go beyond them? I don’t know how to answer this question.

As a wise person once told me, “Sometimes the good is the enemy of the best. But sometimes the best is the enemy of the good.”

Does Music Come from the Head or the Heart?


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.

Worth the Risk? Thoughts on the Music of Eric Mandat and the 2014 Colorado Clarinet Days Composers Competition

clarinet3At the Colorado Clarinet Days Composers Competition concert in September, I had the unique opportunity to hear three new works for solo clarinet by emerging composers – including myself – alongside the music of veteran composer and clarinetist Eric Mandat. This experience initiated a great deal of reflection on my part about what it means to write well for a particular instrument, and whether composers ought to push the technical capabilities of an instrument to their outer limits, or stay within friendlier parameters. The works I heard on this concert made convincing arguments for both approaches, making this question a difficult one to resolve.

Of all the works on this concert, Mandat’s works were the most impressive and also the most technically challenging. The Jungle (1989), performed by Jacob Beeman, necessitated circular breathing and involved the very unusual extended technique of muffling the bell of the instrument using a pillow that the performer held between his knees. The Moon in My Window (2007)which Mandat performed himself, also presented special technical challenges; this delightfully whimsical yet extraordinarily difficult piece involves copious multiphonics, many of which seemed highly unpredictable. Mandat executed these with incredible skill, but I sensed that many of these multiphonics were very difficult to control. I found Mandat’s works very satisfying in terms of their overall shape, pitch content, and musicality, but I was also a bit awed by the difficulty level of these works, and reflected that very few clarinetists possess some of the specialized skills that Mandat’s works demand. For example, not all clarinetists can circular breathe, and I suspect that a large number of the multiphonics in The Moon In My Window are only obtainable with very skillful adjustments of the oral cavity. Still, the performances and the works themselves made a convincing argument in favor of taking such risks.

With the sounds of Mandat’s unpredictable multiphonics – and the questions they raised – still ringing in my ears, the second half of the concert featuring the works of the three finalists commenced. I was very impressed with Ryan Kargoll’s Polvo Lunar, an atmospheric piece that also involved multiphonics. Kargoll’s work was given an excellent performance by Jacob Beeman that almost made the difficult moments sound “easy.” Still, as with Mandat’s works, I sensed that this was a technically difficult, risk-taking piece.

Multiphonics in Ryan Kargoll’s Polvo Lunar

My own piece, Devotions and Dialogues, enjoyed a highly skilled and thoughtful performance by Michael Moy, but just as I noted instances of technically challenging writing in Kargoll’s piece and in Mandat’s pieces, there were a few moments in my own piece (in particular, passages that made heavy use of the altissimo register) that made me question why I had made such great demands on the player. The execution of my piece was highly musical, virtuosic, and sensitive, but I sensed that my performer was anxious about the high potential for mishap in certain sections of the piece, and I felt strangely guilty about putting him in that situation.

Use of the altissimo register in
Sarah Perske’s Devotions and Dialogues
(audio to be posted soon)

Of the three finalist’s works, my personal favorite was Tim Girard’s Complements V. In the weeks following the concert, I asked Tim to share a bit more about this piece, and I was fascinated to learn that he was working within very specific technical limitations set by the commissioning performer (e.g., no extended techniques). For this reason, Complements V is comparatively unintimidating in the demands it makes on the performer, yet it is expressive, enjoyable to listen to, and convincing in form. Tim was good enough to share the score of his piece with me, and I was struck by his sensitivity to the performer’s need to breathe – demonstrated by a large number of skillfully incorporated rests, breath marks, and frequent fermatas over rests – and the fact that the pieces stays within a very friendly register (presumably another stipulation of the performer). The highest note of the piece is the written E natural (sounding D natural) three ledger lines above the staff, and though this pitch sounds quite high and climactic (particularly if this register is reserved for key moments and approached carefully, as it is in Tim’s work), it is well within the bounds of what the average clarinetist can execute successfully without much danger of mishap.

The climatic ending of Tim Girard's Complements V

The climatic ending of Tim Girard’s Complements V

Tim’s work makes a convincing argument in favor of “playing it safe” with regard to instrumental technique, and suggests that this kind of “safety” does not in any way limit a composer’s ability to write good music. Why, then, do so many of us – including myself and veteran composer Eric Mandat – persist in writing difficult music?

In my own composing, I often feel trapped into writing difficult moments; the music seems to want this or that, I can’t find a better solution, and so I ask the performer if this or that is possible. The answer is often “yes – unfortunately.” Some years ago, I was present when guitarist Jonathan Leathwood recounted a conversation in which a fellow performer made a distinction between “impossible” music like the work of Brian Ferneyhough (which invites a certain amount of “faking” on the part of the performer), and music like Elliott Carter’s string quartets, unbelievably difficult yet “unfortunately possible.” Mandat, who is both a performer and a composer, seems to think that the “unfortunately possible” is worth writing, even if it may not always come off exactly the way he wants in performance. Perhaps the answer to my initial question – should we take risks or play it safe when it comes to instrumental technique – really depends on the individual who asks it. For me, I think the answer hinges on the answers to a few other questions: am I willing to accept something less than technical perfection in the performance? Do I care enough about this or that musical idea to run the risk of it possibly not happening at all? Finally, is this kind of writing in my best interests and in the best interests of the people I’m writing for? I continue to search for the answers to all of these questions with each new piece I write…



Sometimes the Who Can Be the What: Performers, Composers, and Audiences Revisited

by Nathan Cornelius

In an earlier conversation with my colleagues from this blog, someone made the remark that sometimes, the “what” of a musical composition—the specific content of a piece—can directly generate the “how”—the composer’s method of working on it. As I ponder the strange and difficult process of creating a piece of music, I’ve considered what other pronouns might afford composers subject matter with which to work.  Fundamentally, creating a piece of music is a collaborative process, requiring the efforts of not only the composer, but also of performers, conductors, presenters, and, ultimately, of listeners to bring it to life. Thus, the “who” of composing—the other people involved in the process—would be a logical starting point for the composer in search of ideas. In this post, I’d like to explore three ways in which these relationships inspire and inform my work.

  1. The audience’s knowledge

Writers of words must be constantly mindful of their readers’ preconceptions, interests, and knowledge of the subject matter. The same is true in music: composers would do well to consider who will be the initial audience for a piece and how familiar they are with various musical languages. Not to do so is to risk failing to connect with the audience, leaving them cold and confused. To be sure, the composer’s job often is to stretch audiences’ ears to hear sounds in unfamiliar ways. Nevertheless, it is the audience that provides the starting point from which they are stretched, and different audiences may possess varying degrees of aesthetic elasticity. Nor am I arguing that composers should pander to audiences’ tastes to ensure popularity and success. Music is essentially communication, a sharing of peculiar and powerful thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. For music to achieve its goal, it is not necessary that the audience like it, only that it communicate with them on some level—often an emotional one. But just as readers can only be moved by words in languages whose vocabulary they know, engaging music must relate, even if only tangentially, to something with which the audience is familiar.

  1. The performer’s ability

It goes without saying that composers ought to write for performers who can successfully execute their music. Too often, however, composers idealistically write a piece and then search for someone, anyone, who can actually play it. I can attest to the frustration to which this often leads, as well as the benefits of working closely with a trusted and capable performer. I remember one of my recent compositions which featured very difficult writing for one instrument. Although my performer was too polite to say so, I realized that what I had written did not lay very easily on the instrument. At the premiere, however, the performer was able to pull off the difficult bits with panache. Afterwards one of my teachers complimented me on my idiomatic writing for the instrument, which was mostly a function of the performer’s virtuosity. Even though the piece at times succeeded in spite of my writing rather than because of it, the quality of the performance casts it in a favorable light for future listeners. For this reason, I often let the availability of good performers—both proficient in technique and passionate about new music—guide the forces for which I write and the techniques I explore in my music.

  1. The performer’s personality

The individuality of the performer can influence not only the genre and technical requirements of a piece, but also the style and content. The composer David Maslanka says that before beginning to write a piece, he mystically receives a glimpse into some painful aspect of the performer’s inner life for which the music must provide redemption or catharsis. While I make no claims to such special insights (nor am I sure I would even want them), I do believe composers should write with the performer’s personality, musical or otherwise, in mind.  My most successful pieces have been ones in which I created the fundamental structure and texture of the work with a view to highlighting the performers’ unique strengths and downplaying any weaknesses they may have. Sometimes, the expressive character of the work may also play towards a performer’s musical sensibilities and interpretive style.

Igor Stravinsky said that the more restrictions he was forced to follow in writing a piece, the more easily he composed. Some composers generate these creative restrictions by first making a set of musical rules and then writing the work within them. Yet, a living, breathing human being is a far richer source of inspiration than an arrangement of dots and lines on a page, providing more fruitful tensions than can abstract compositional rules. As a composer, I believe my music will benefit from including the personalities, abilities, and idiosyncrasies of the wonderful people with whom I get to work. In other words… letting the “who” be the “what” might lead to a better “what”  than there was when the “what”  was just “what”.

What Do I Really Care About Here? : The “Soul” and “Body” of a Piece

by Nathan Cornelius

I’m writing this post fresh off my first lesson on a new piece I’m composing. I often feel some trepidation about showing a piece to my teacher for the first time, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond the mere fear of criticism, as any artist needs to come to terms with both positive and negative feedback on their work. Besides, the very point of studying with a teacher is to see where your pieces fall short of your goals for them and then how to improve them. When my teacher points out a weakness in my work and offers advice on how to fix it, my usual emotion is one of gratitude, not fear. At the very least, I feel that I’m getting my money’s worth.

Why then am I worried about what my teacher will say of my new piece? In pondering this question further, I found it helpful to distinguish between the “soul” and the “body” of a piece of music. The soul of a piece is the idea at its very core, the thing that impelled you to create the piece in the first place.  Like its DNA, it identifies this piece as unique, distinct from any other piece of music, and contains the germ of everything it could grow into. For me, the soul of a piece can take many different forms, such as a word or phrase, an image, a scientific concept, or a memory of a specific life experience. It can also be an abstract, purely musical idea that generates the entire piece. Wherever this original idea came from, I see the piece’s identity as firmly tied to it.

Of course, a human soul cannot be fully alive without a body. Similarly, the composer must work through a process of realizing his or her idea in notes so that it can have a life outside of the composer’s mind. What we call compositional technique is the skill with which a composer builds the skeleton and sinews of the piece. The specific manifestation of the piece (its “body”) can potentially be changed, either on a surface or structural level, without altering the piece’s identity (its “soul”). However, just as a person’s outward appearance may reveal or conceal his or her inner nature, a piece’s “body” may manifest its “soul” with varying degrees of clarity. The process of growth as a composer is one of learning how to construct pieces in such a way that the basic idea shines through lucidly (unless, perhaps, the composer specifically intends to obscure it).

Thus, I finally realized I’m not worried my teacher will tell me how to make the piece better by improving my execution of my idea. In human terms, this would be akin to adopting an exercise regimen, tearing down one’s body in hopes of making it stronger or more beautiful.  Instead, I’m worried my teacher will find the idea itself, the “soul” of the piece, lacking, and I find this prospect disturbing.  I realize I care about this idea, and I don’t want to let it go and replace it with a different “soul,” even if the “body” is superficially similar. My decisions as the composer determine whether this piece will live or die—and I earnestly want it to live. As the composer Chaya Czernowin has said, only by sensing “what is at stake” in writing a piece, what aspect of it is in danger, can you discover what is important to you as a composer.

I do believe a piece can only be as good as its original idea allows. And it may be beyond the skill of a particular composer to flesh out a suitable “body” for a given “soul.” Yet it would be absurd for composers to keep searching for better “souls” for their pieces before they start composing. If that were the case, no one could write any music until they find an idea with the potential to become The Greatest Piece of Music Ever. Just as there is no ideal, perfect human being, there is no ideal piece of music, and composers cannot sit around waiting for stronger inspiration to fall into their lap. Instead, all we can do is work with the ideas we are given, valuing each one as a unique and beautiful entity despite its shortcomings. Yet we are always dreaming, hoping, searching, and working to help it grow into the best self it can become—just as we ought to do for the human beings we care about in real life.