Basic Noise

Thoughts on composition

A personal view of the creative process and my methods of working.

For me, composing can be a painful experience which drains the mind of thoughts and feelings. Like any form of creation it demands the greatest care and concentration from the artist to produce something worthwhile. Most creative people are driven by an overwhelming desire or compulsion to be creative while their friends stand and watch them being consumed by an invisible force of spirit. Sometimes resulting in states of depression and lack of self-worth, a creative mind does not stop working when one project is done and the next is begun. The ongoing cycle of enthusiasm followed by disappointment is like a continuous journey across mountainous terrain where, upon the summit of a hill can be seen the valleys of all the next ones to come. Without this, however, the creative mind would stop.

I believe that all people have the ability to create, even those who boast that they do not. If a person can speak a language (if he has learnt a few words and can compose a sentence in conversation) then he does have such an ability. The vocabulary he uses however will determine the nature and quality of his conversation and ultimately determine whether or not he is a great conversationalist or a recluse. With music there is no difference. If music is indeed a language (as so many profoundly admit), then they should have no problem learning it in just the same way as French, German or Spanish. Once a few words and rules are understood, you get out and practise. Only with time and effort does a language become fluent or an accent become proficient, and there are no short cuts. The compositional skill of a musician however is based upon building-blocks of sound rather than words. Without any bricks there can be no house, so it is crucial to begin by making some.

There is no way to force creativity. In most cases, something produced under pressure or in a hurry seems to be either without sincerity (if that is important) or simply not as satisfactory as something which has enjoyed the benefit of relaxed contemplation. There are only a few days when I have the overwhelming urge to sit at the keyboard to write and actually have the time to do so for any length of time. For this reason, work is often very slow, sometimes with only a small number of bars being added to a work each week. The frustration comes when the desire to be creative is there but the circumstances are not; many thoughts and feelings that one knows could find their way onto the page get distorted or forgotten.

I try to keep myself at a distance from my work so as not to become too fond of it. It becomes very difficult to finish something that (after the initial phase of composition) is neglected for a long period of time, when there are feelings of duty and nostalgia attached to it. The music naturally demands that it is completed in the same manner in which it was begun, in the same style and with the utmost care not to weaken any existing parts. Therefore, no composition that is left unfinished is ever likely to be unless the process is carefully managed from a distance or the existing material is reworked into something afresh.

When setting out to write music of any sort it is always best to imagine what you want to hear. Early attempts at writing invariably sound like other pieces you know because it takes time to experiment with different stylistic vocabularies before settling on the one that suites you individually. With time, certain motives, intervals, chords, scales and other such devices become favoured above others to form a stylistic vocabulary that you can call your own.

It is often said that the simpler something is the more effective it is also. This is true in general although there are some dangers to be avoided when simplicity becomes another word for complacency. Simplicity in the music does not automatically mean that the music is easy to perform. Difficulty is relative in performance, and what is easy for one person is difficult for another. The same must be true of composition. Poor use of ideas and the over use of repetition has often lead me to write weak music, but when the process of writing has been deeply focussed and critical, the results have been considerably more satisfactory. Unless the composer’s purpose is to produce a sight-reading exercise, any piece he writes should be performable with some degree of practise. There is no need to be overly concerned whether the music is too demanding. None of the great masters ever sat at the keyboard and thought to themselves, “Today, I will write a grade 4 piece”, so neither should I or anybody else. Technical difficulties are consequential to the integrity of the music. If a piece is easy to play then so be it, provided the composition is not compromised by the proficiency of a performer.

The aim of any creative person is to progress, learning from each opportunity to better the next. Whatever the result, there is nothing lost in having made an attempt at something. The most satisfaction comes from the development of the composition process itself and not from the success of a single piece.

go to writing an organ symphony

© 2012 Martin Stacey