Thursday, January 12, 2012

Composing Music

A while ago I blogged about composing a piece of music because a lot of people seem to think it's  a much more mysterious proposition than it really is. The tag for that series of posts is Vermont Song. One of the points made in those posts is that first you set your parameters - things like instruments, pitch set (scale), and meter - and then it's sort of like a game wherein you work to see what you can do musically within those parameters. 

So I was delighted to see Kyle Gann say in a recent post:

if you get an interesting enough scale, you can just explore all the inherent possibilities of that scale, both the ones you built into it and the ones that appear unexpectedly, and the piece practically writes itself.”

I quoted that in a comment and added: "That’s a wonderful way to think about composing – that you’re simply releasing inherent possibilities of a set of parameters – takes the conscious ego right out of the equation."

Kyle was talking specifically about one of his micro-tonal scales (this one has 36 different pitches per octave), but the concept can work for a bundle of parameters, not just one.

The phrase "conscious ego" might be one I start using regularly because it's a handy way of talking about what the lamas call "the self-cherishing ego", as opposed to the "neutral ego". In the case of composition, once you set the parameters, who you are will determine what you find in that space, there's no need to be constantly wondering what it is you want to say.

As I've mentioned before, the first time I hear a piece performed, or the first time I perform it for someone else, there's this amazing feeling of being in a waking dream state that I think is due to hearing how some part of me I'm not conscious of is being expressed.


  1. John Chesnut1/8/12 20:04

    About "releasing inherent possibilities": I like that idea, too. It sounds like what I think of as "exploratory behavior." I think of exploratory behavior as the expansive, information-seeking, meaning-making motivational force behind musical form. It is the opposite of the drive to make a conclusion that is a statement of belief.

    A few months ago, you made an encouraging comment to me on Kyle Gann's web site about a paper I have been writing about music, math and meaning. You, Kyle and Brian inspired me to finish the paper and post it at Scribd.

    The title is: “What is a Distinctive Musical Idea? Taking the Measure of the Cantabile.”

    Here is the URL:

    I hope that you will enjoy my paper.

  2. Thanks! Have navigated through to your paper and bookmarked it to get back to when I've got a chance to give it the time it deserves. It's going to be slow going for me because I merely recognize some of those names you're building on, but don't really know much about their work. I'll certainly be a test case for whether or not you can write for math-phobes ;-)

    By the way, I got a BA in English from Duke in '71. I remember the name Iain Hamilton, but just how I knew it hasn't floated up yet.

    Thanks so much for the mention in the acknowledgements. That the internet and blogging allow me to take part in such high level conversations still sort of amazes me.

  3. John Chesnut2/8/12 19:36

    It’s an interesting coincidence that you were at Duke, too. You might have been a freshman when I was there.

    I really have tried to make the paper readable. I would encourage you to just forge ahead, and skim over anything that slows you down.

    The paper can be read from different points of view – either as theory or as interpretation. So you can select the parts that are most interesting to you.


  4. I am forging ahead! So far I've been able to follow your argument, a least generally. It's just a busy time for me right now - house full of company, a church performance for my group coming up I need to arrange music for, and I don't have nice stretches of time where I can focus on prose far denser than my usual fare. In the Jungian quaternity of thinking, feeling, intuition & sensation - in music the thinking is probably my weakest area. Plus my musicological ignorance - the name Fux was totally new to me, and Schenker is someone I tried to read years ago and gave up on - just so you'll know what a naif you have on your hands ;-)

  5. John Chesnut3/8/12 09:42

    I appreciate your forging ahead.

    It sounds like you are just the right person I am trying to reach with the more interpretative side of my paper.

    In Meyer's-Briggs terms, I usually test as primarily an INFP and secondarily an INTP. So the paper has a bit of a split personality, which I think is OK as long as you are clear about what you are doing.

    It is interesting to me the number of entries you have about Buddhism in your blog.

  6. One small point - I've gotten to where you're comparing Fux and Jeppesen. While you give a thumbnail of Fux, so far there's none for Jeppesen. I was able to Wikipedia him, but it would have been handier if you'd set out clearly at the outset exactly who those two and Schenker were and why you'll be talking about them so much. I have peripheral knowledge of what you're up to, but someone completely unfamiliar with hard core music analysis might find the assumption of familiarity off putting (and, of course, experts would find it a waste of time - so I understand it's a trade off)

    All the Buddhist posts have to do with my notion that the tools of mind training set forth by Tibetan lamas can be useful in self teaching music making as well. As a music therapist I'm probably more interested in the process of making music and getting better at it (and how you can connect with an audience or client) than I am in "just" the music.

  7. John Chesnut3/8/12 11:13

    I appreciate the suggestion. There is probably a way to work out the trade-off.

    I like the connection you make between music-making and Buddhism. I suppose you are talking about both composing and performing.

  8. John Chesnut3/8/12 13:11

    I don't know if I should give the point more emphasis, but I am interested in exploring the limits of rational knowledge.

    I think that hard-core analysis is useful, up to a point, but it can only take us so far. Once you hit that limit, you can either pull up short, or you can take a leap into another way of thinking, where the answers are not that certain.

  9. Thanks for those comments.

    "I think that hard-core analysis is useful, up to a point, but it can only take us so far." As I've been working with your text I've had some of that as a response. To tie it with the Buddhist theme - a foundational principle of mind training is to realize that any action (karma) is positive, neutral or negative depending on the motivation behind it.

    Since you're writing this for a very specialised academic audience with the ability to catch all the references - you and they probably decided long ago why this type of analysis is worthwhile.

    For the lay reader, a brief paragraph on why you're doing this and why you think Schenker and Meyer are worthy of study and explication would be useful.

    I need to finish the paper and then go back and read it again before saying anything specific, but one thing I didn't get this first time is how you went from cantabile, which I need to look up in the Oxford Companion, to cantus firmus - in my naive mind they are vaguely related but not the same thing at all. It's probably something academics have settled on long ago but that lay readers might need more help with.

    Apologies for taking so long to give you a full response - but its very slow going for me. I often have to reread sentences and think about what you're saying before going on.

  10. John Chesnut5/8/12 13:03

    These are excellent suggestions.

    As for rereading sentences and thinking about them, that is the best kind of reading!

    I feel honored that you would even contemplate doing such a thing.

    I certainly do not feel that you have any oblligation to do so.

    You are quite right, the cantabile in general and Fux in particular are not necessarily the same thing. It is just that species counterpoint has been so thoroughly studied that it is easier to talk about it than anything else. So it is really just a short-cut to emphasize counterpoint so much.

    If I were to talk about the cantabile in general, I might want to go into the literature on the teaching of singing or the teaching of ear-training. That would open up the possibilities quite a bit.

    I happen to be much more familiar with the teaching of ear-training. Aside from the physical challenges of singing, I think it is hard to sing what is hard to hear. That raises a lot of issues, since different people bring different ears and different experiences to the classroom. And outside of the classroom, it is possible to devise specialized exercises to work on special problems, if you want to put the effort into it. So, the question of what is easy to hear is a moving target.

    Thank you so much for giving my paper so much time. You have already done quite a lot.

  11. I think I'm going to do a fresh post on all this in the fullness of time and link back to this discussion. Lots to say once I sort through my thoughts.

    Interestingly, Scholes has only a two sentence entry on cantabile, where I was expecting a longer discussion. I'd thought it was a particular style of singing - not that it just meant singing - which goes to show you how unfamiliar I am with all this.

    So I guess a better way to get at what I was trying to say is that the cantus firmus examples with their uniform and sort of plodding rhythms don't really seem like songs to me. I get why you used them and how handy they are for what you set out to do, though.

    I haven't really made sure - but it seems a discussion of Meyer's work is yet to come and is not in some other available file.

    Coincidentally I'm just now typing Contrapunctus I from the Art of the Fugue into Finale so I can make parts for flute, alto flute, clarinet and cello. Your point about how singing upward intervals feels different to the singer than downward ones is for me a great insight; something once made conscious of I realize I sort of always knew.

    (Sorry for the break in the action - had to submit to one of the medical indignities of late middle age and my schedule got whacked)