I have been digging back into the mechanisms of composition over the past few days, not only the standard melody/harmony/rhythm/timbre/all the rest things, but the whole pre-compositional process, the planning and so on. There is always the temptation to dive straight in, to have an idea and begin running with it, but I have found time and time again that the more planning one does before the writing itself the more easily the piece can come together. It was my work on a new piece that caused me to go right back to before the drawing board, as I have hit an impasse, with very little idea where to go next. It has been refreshing, as always, to seek out other composers’ ideas, and you could probably find as many different approaches to writing as there are writers, but, even into middle age, I still have not settled down into a standard routine for writing, even though I know that certain things work for me far better than others.
Firstly, like many novelists (Stephen King, P D James, William Boyd) I insist to my students that the act of composition needs to be done via physical contact, with pencil on paper. While working directly to computer is all fine and dandy, there is something about the physical action that triggers a critical part of the brain, whether it is to do with shape, hearing or anything else. Also, as Boyd pointed out in a recent interview, working on paper allows a writer to keep track of the thought behind the creative process, the crossings out and the revisions, the changes and the scribbled thoughts – on the computer screen these all vanish and are replaced by the new version, as if you have arrived at a destination but with no memory of the journey.
Secondly, a balance needs to be sought between the precise and the vague early in a piece’s life. Too constrictive a view of material and form does not allow the piece to breathe in the creative process, and it is a living, changing entity at this point, everything you write having an impact on everything else, necessitating a constant rebalancing of all elements at every point in the compositional process.
Thirdly, I need to improvise more when writing, jot down ideas, sit at the piano and use my organist’s head to improvise within certain parameters maybe, but also just throw things uncritically down onto paper. I always prefer to work away from the piano, but I think I need to accept that it is a useful place to come up with core material for a work, and then I can move from piano stool to desk at a later point.
There are many more aspects to composition I have tried to nail down with a little more precision over the past few days. I met and chatted with a teenage writer a couple of weeks ago, and he said “I’m trying to work out my voice” and I said “Me too, you’ll get used to that feeling!”, and that constantly moving target is part of what attracts me to this strange world of gestures becoming sound that has the potential to change how people feel.
I am coming to the end of The Universe In Your Hand, a book that has literally changed my view of the world and everything around it, so much so that I might start it again right away, just so I can try to understand a bit of it. It struck me the other day that a writing a piece of music is a little like observing something on the quantum scale – all possible versions of that piece exist side by side until a composer puts pencil to paper, at which point all but one of those pieces collapse. Then all possible versions of that new piece exist…and so on. Put like that it is a fascinating and thrilling activity, and maybe I’ll begin to think of writing in that fashion, so that I no longer think of creating pieces out of nothing, but out of everything. That’s some thought.