Composerly Thoughts

CAUTION: Composers at Play! [composition workshop]

CAUTION: Composers at Play! [composition workshop]

A Soundsmith’s Collection of Games

When people make music, we say that they’re “playing.”  Nevertheless, I often slip into thinking that composing music is “work.”  What’s that all about?

Part of the problem is that the world around me worships the God of Work, which offers us a powerful soul-killing mantra: “I have so much work. I am so busy. I have no time.”  I’m actually afraid to tell people that I took the afternoon off, for fear that they’ll imply that I’m not a “serious composer.”  (Oh no!)

Musicians have our own special “work words.”  Most of us grew up with an intense fear of this thing called “wrong notes,” a fear we often pass on to the next generation.  We refer to technical exercises as “drills,” which is the same word that dentists use when they fill cavities.  We think of “practice” as “that which makes perfect,” but that’s not what practice is!  “To practice” simply means “to do.”

Once I buy into “work thinking” — and sometimes I do — I start believing that if I have too much fun writing a piece of music, it must not be any good.  But if I can get the dealy Kool-aid out of my system long enough, I come to my senses.  I truly love creating music, almost all of the time!  Even when I’m working under a tight deadline or struggling to work out a particularly gnarly passage, composing is a joyful a endeavor.  For despite that fact that discipline is absolutely necessary, the only thing that makes composition feel like work is my own attitude.

And the truth is — dare I admit it? — that I really-o-truly-o write my very best music while acting like I’m a kid on the playground.  You can do this too!


I. I Spy

There are so many things hiding inside every text!  What’s in a word?  A phrase?  I spy with my little eye:

1. The Meaning:  Get into each word that you think is important.  Look at all the nouns.  All the verbs.  The most profound words.  The funnest words.

Are there musical possibilities that reflect what a word or phrase means?

2. The Sound:  Just for a little while, forget about the meaning of the word.  How does it SOUND?  How does it feel in the air – in your mouth – in your ear?

Start noticing phonemes.  Phonemes are the tiniest, simplest sound in a word.  “Mat” has three of them:
    1)  A soft, voiced consonant: “M”
    2) An open but kind of “flat” vowel: “A”
    3) A sharp, unvoiced consonant: “T”

Notice what’s “voiced” and “unvoiced” – that is, whether or not your vocal chords are vibrating.  Speech therapists say it’s “when you turn your motor on.”  If you turn your motor on and off at the wrong time, “mat” becomes “ban!”

II. Charades

When you play charades, you stand up and act out what something means or what something sounds like.  This helps people guess what you’re trying to say.

Try it with parts of your poem. The idea isn’t to use the conventions of charades, but to get up and move!  Say the text while walking to it, moving to it, dancing to it.  Chances are, you’ll realize which phrases are static and which are dynamic.  (Some can be both.)

You’ll also figure out which individual words stop the motion, propel it forward, pump up the energy, makes us laugh, leave us speechless, make us angry, or give us peace.  Where do those observations lead you?

This exercise often tells me alot about what my composition can do to help the audience “guess what I’m trying to say.”  (And it’s fun.)

III. Duck Duck Goose

    Duck, duck, duck, duck, goose!
    Duck, duck, duck, duck, goose!
    Duck, duck, duck, duck, goose!
    Duck, goose!

The whole idea of the game “duck, duck, goose” is to mess with the expectations of your playmates.  Composers do this all the time when they write music, often without even knowing it!

What kind of expectations?  The example above uses phrase length: “soft, soft, soft, soft, loud!”  But you can do this with phrase lengths, melodic shapes or directions, rhythmic or harmonic patterns, articulation…

Try it.  Establish a precedent.  Set up some expectations.  Meet them.  Or don’t.

Surprise us.

IV. Play the Field

When a composer looks at a word or phrase, there’s often one rhythm that suggests itself immediately.  It’s often the perfect rhythm for that phrase.  But you don’t have to settle on it right away.  Come up with a few more first.  You might:

     Invite the phrase to waltz.
     Give it dotted rhythms.
     Think up a rhythm in 5/4.
     Give it a hip-hop feel.
     Make up a rhythm that doesn’t work with the words at all – then see if you can make it work anyway!

V. Yahtzee

Admit it. You have some feelings about these words.  In fact, you might even be in love with some of them.  If you like a word or phrase, you might:

    Give it a long note value or a great rhythm
    Give it some big-time harmony
    “Melismize” it (In other words, write a melisma by having a single syllable be stretched out between one or more different notes. I don’t think “melismize” actually a word.)
    “Unisonize” it  (In other words, have many words or syllables be sung on a single pitch. I am certain that “unisonize” is not a word.)
    Have it sung over and over and over again: Yahtzee!

VII. Dungeons and Dragons

But if you’re not in love with some of the words? If you are working with an excerpt from a longer prose text such as a speech or a letter, it could be best to leave some words or passages out. Problem solved!

Okay okay, but what if your text is a carefully crafted poem? I’m not one to mess with a poet’s vision lightly! Before getting out your scalpel, figure out exactly what you don’t like about the awkward passage. Crawl into the dungeon and sit down by the dragon. Argue with it. Ask it to sing to you. Take it out to brunch and buy it a cup of coffee. Depending on how large the dragon is, either walk around with it in your pocket or let it walk around with you in its pocket. Do this until you understand the true nature of its dragon-ness.

Computer programmers sometimes say that if you can’t fix a bug, turn it into a feature! I nearly abandoned a great text because of one harsh phrase full of flat vowels: “sham at fact.”  After struggling with the phrase for a long time, I decided to set the words in an intentionally harsh, flat way, and that line became one of the best parts of the piece.  That was a good lesson for me!

VI. Connect the Dots

Okay, now you are — in the words of my teacher Steven Stucky — “thinking composerly thoughts!”  But how does it all work together?

This process is really personal, and intuitive.  For me, it is the most exciting part of composition.  I call it “The Big Picture.”  It involves finding a very very very very simple organizing principle for your piece, to keep yourself on the right track.

It doesn’t have to be sophisticated.  For instance, the “Big Picture” for Ravel’s “Bolero” might be: “Keep getting faster and faster and louder and louder until the end.”

If you can describe the concept for your piece in just one or two sentences, you’re probably working in a way that has clarity, direction and vision.

VII. Don’t listen to anyone who might be “boo-ing” from the sidelines

Just as berating a little league player for stiking out is abusive, so is belittling a composer’s work.  This includes kicking yourself for writing a piece which doesn’t come up to your own standards!  Music is intended to challenge, soothe, entertain, inspire, uplift, engage and empower.  Whatever you do, make sure it’s that way in your own life.

Adapted from Elizabeth’s composition workshop at the National Conference of Unitarian Universalist Musicans Network. Copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Alexander

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —