Saturday, 14 April 2012

Music, Meaning and Compositional process

I've often wondered why I find composing so difficult. I always wanted to be a composer (much more than a learning technologist!). But I struggled to get notes down. It was only much later in my education (after studying music at University) that I realised that getting notes down was the most difficult thing, and the principal objective of any composer. [I wish someone had told me this at the time!]. I have spent years analysing the problem in the hope that one day I will find a solution. This angst and struggle has not (I believe) been in vain, since many ideas which have been useful in other areas (for example, learning technology!) have emerged from it. But still, I haven't really cracked it.

Composing is weird for me because I struggle to understand how writing notes is different from writing words. I don't struggle with writing words. Or at least, when I am working on a paper, I know where I am in the process and can coordinate myself accordingly. I have a set of techniques which are now well-developed for getting words down, getting rid of them, honing arguments, etc. This seems to work for me (even if it doesn't always please reviewers).

But my composing process goes something like this...
  1. I feel like doing it (I get inspired)
  2. I begin to notate the musical idea that excited me (either on paper or on the computer)
  3. I end up with 3 or 4 bars of music which I am happy with
  4. and then I stare at the blank staves which are left unfilled and think "what do I do about that?"
  5. If I have enough energy, I will battle on to try and get something down in these gaps, although at some point I get tired and give up
  6. My intention is to return to the composition... 
  7. If I do return to it, I may add bits and pieces for the next week or so
  8. But gradually it fades from my consciousness and nothing materialises 
I ought to say that in the past I have completed pieces (some of which I'm happy with), but this is a rare event. 

So what is the difference between writing music and writing a paper? 

In my recent reflections on meaning, I have been thinking about this issue in the light of one of the tricks which I tell students about refining written work. They find this very useful: I call it "last sentence, first sentence". The point of the trick is to tighten written style by parsing paragraphs of a first draft and examining their last sentences. Often, I suggest, it is the last sentence which contains a more clearly-defined essence of what the paragraph is about. Because of this, what is at the end would work better at the beginning, so the reader doesn't need to "beat about the bush".  I would now rephrase this by saying that when we write a paragraph, we articulate our thoughts in search of what we mean to say. Each paragraph is an attempt to hone out a meaning, and once the meaning is reached, we stop searching for that meaning and begin a new paragraph in search of another.

I use this technique all the time - although not so much on my blog, because I consider that a place for 'just getting stuff down' (apologies to readers!). But how might this technique translate to writing music?

I think the key is meaning. When writing, I search for meaning in each paragraph. Having established my meaning, I seek to bring it out (by reorganising sentences) so that the meaning has the maximum impact. I think meaningful music in the composition process works slightly differently to this, although there are deep similarities. I don't think the musical imagination seeks meaning in the way that a linguistic imagination does. Music is a short-cut. It goes directly to what is most meaningful straight away. When the meaningful music hits us, we feel inspired. It is at that moment that we have to get it down. 

The composing problem rests in the fact that having got the meaningful bit down, there is no context which we have written in the notes on the page which can render the music as meaningful as it was in my moment of inspiration. In my head, when I thought of the music, there was a whole host of things going on which contextualised my moment of inspiration. But on the paper, I only have that moment of inspiration and no context - so it's rather unsatisfactory.

There are a number of easy mistakes that struggling composers like me make with this. First of all, I tend to write down my meaningful music as the beginning of a piece. That leaves no space for the creation of a context which might make it meaningful. So I've started writing my inspired musical ideas in the middle with lots of space around it. Secondly, I cannot convey the confused array of phenomena which rendered my idea meaningful in my head. So I've started to think about techniques for creating a musical analogue which would frame the idea as meaningful on my manuscript paper. Rhythmic, harmonic or melodic elements can be used to frame an idea - just as one would frame a picture. And then there is the question of how the framing can itself be framed - not least by beginnings and endings.

Music teaches so much, and in this case, the lesson I have learnt is about the relationship between inspiration and action. We so often get inspired but fail to act. In my written work, I know the importance of acting on the moment of inspiration (i.e. writing notes with whatever device I have to hand). If I don't do it, it is lost. But inspiration itself I believe is an intensely meaningful moment. Understanding the ways in which meaning can be captured and communicated lies at the heart of some of the most difficult challenges of human organisation.

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