Wednesday 9 October 2013

A Composerly mind

I find composition very difficult. I start something in all enthusiasm and slowly I lose heart and can't get it to go anywhere. I usually benefit from the struggle though - I appear to need to try to compose! The problem, it seems to me, is that composing is such a slow process. I simply can't get it down quick enough. And computers get in the way rather than help. So I'm much fonder of improvising.

But lately I've become dissatisfied with improvising. Much of my improvising feels (and sounds) a bit 'lazy' (this is the improviser's curse). There isn't enough invention; not enough contrast; not enough grit; not enough structural coherence. Which brings me back to being 'composerly'.

A composer thinks more carefully than an improviser about what they want to say, and they plan carefully how they are going to say it. My experience is that I think about what I want to say, decide, but when I come to writing down my plans, my intentions change. I start to want to scrub initial plans and replace them. But then that changes the whole ball-game, and I spin out of control.

The emotional side of this is important. The spinning out of control is a process of disenchantment. That in turn might be a process of disorientation; a losing of one's way amongst the complex thoughts and ideas that emerge only slowly in the creative process, and which I can only turn to sporadically. What was enchanting (an initial inspiration) loses its enchantment through the drudgery of notation. So why notate?

Notation is a medium for working out intentions. It's not just the intentions concerning what other people (players) should do in one's piece. It's also the intention of what the piece is about.

Technology ought to be able to help. But I've really struggled with it. It has made things very difficult. Not least because using pen and paper for composing (which may still be the best thing) seems anachronistic when all my other creative work goes through the computer. Also, it requires peace and quiet, space and the kind of organisational skills which I've never possessed. Computer are much more effective as organising tools. But computer notation packages are still clumsy.

But composing is also about making sound. Finding ways of notating sound is a secondary practice (for me at least). Technology is good at creating new ways of making sound. Ableton Live, PD, MaxMSP, etc are all pieces of software which I have found powerful in this respect. The question is perhaps how one can go from notes on the page, initial intentions, to the making of sound in ways where the evolution of intention is captured, not erased.  That seems to be the real problem with the computer - its complete erasure.

So my notation now begins and I keep going. The technology can help me keep everything - like a continually growing corpus. Yet through this process of growth, I can find the final balance between intention and the content that I eventually decide to bring through, using the content that I might have otherwise discarded in the background but still make it present.

Obviously composers of the past weren't able to do this. But then again, ours is a very different world to write music for...

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