Sunday, March 22, 2015

4 Strategies to Boost Your Composing Skills

Over the years, I have developed a few strategies to aid my composing process. While these strategies might not work for everyone, I have found them to be particularly effective, and offer them in the hope that composers can adapt them to suit their own needs.

1. One Minute a Day Challenge 

One of the biggest hurdles in starting a new piece is staring at a blank score page. That page can be quite intimidating! What if the notes I scribble down aren’t good enough? How can I possibly fill up the entire page with amazing, earth-shattering music? Self-doubt and high expectations can be real buzzkills. So years ago, I decided that whenever I start a new piece, I would write one minute of music a day for seven days. It doesn’t have to be a great minute of music, or even a good minute, but it has to be one full minute. Giving myself permission to compose without judgment is an essential point to the strategy. While the first few days are typically challenging (with some truly terrible ideas littering the page), I eventually produce solid ideas that have real potential. I also get increasingly focused on how to creatively use the instruments. By the end of the week, I look over all of the sketches, choose the best ideas, and officially start the composing process for the new piece.

2. Create a Road Map

When I was in high school, I had an economics class in which the teacher proposed a problem: two people in two separate cars want to drive from California to New York. One person hops in his car and just starts driving, randomly selecting highways as he goes. The other first studies a map, lays out a plan, and then drives. Who would get to New York first? Now, this discussion took place in the mid-1980s, so we didn’t have access to the internet yet to the extent that we do nowadays, nor were commercial GPS devices available, and a mobile phone (if a person could afford one) was the size and shape of a brick. The point of this exercise is that the person who took the time to lay out a plan (probably using an AAA TripTik!) had the better odds of arriving in New York ahead of the other who elected to just randomly select a route. I feel the same is true with composing. How can a piece have direction if you don’t have a road map of its formal structure? Once I have a general concept of what I want a piece to be (fast, slow, lyrical, sweet, dramatic, etc.), then I draw a graph for the work. The graph can show many elements – how many sections the composition will have, what characteristics each section will contain, how will the music grow and release tension, and so on. My graph often evolves over time – I might want to add or delete a section or change some characteristics – but I keep the graph in sight as I compose to ensure I know where the piece is headed.

3. Part Artist, Part Scientist

One of my favorite teaching strategies in working with students is one that I have been employing since my own graduate days: we should consider ourselves as part artist and part scientist. Composers need a creative spark to get a piece started. But once they’re composing, what happens when they aren’t sure of the best way to shape a phrase, or how can they move past a roadblock? Composers can’t help but be subjective about their work. So I propose that we become objective in moments that we are indecisive or find that we’re stuck. For instance, when I get stuck, I back up to a few measures before the trouble spot and begin experimenting by rewriting the passage at least two more times, each time leading to a different musical outcome. Within an hour or so, I then have three or more possible options to consider. Not only does this process usually unearth a new way to proceed, but it can also supply additional musical material that I can use elsewhere in the piece. This strategy also serves to bring home the point that there’s no one exact path that a composition needs to follow. Instead, there are several potential paths, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. My job as a composer is to discover the path that best fits the musical material at that particular juncture in the piece.

4. Adding Buffer Zones to Deadlines

When I was in college, I had the habit of finishing a composition only a few weeks before it was to premiere. While this is not an unusual pattern for students in school, it doesn’t bode well in the real world. Professional musicians expect to receive their parts six to eight weeks prior to a concert; large ensembles need even more time than this. I made these longer deadline adjustments rather easily, but a new issue became apparent: if I was composing a piece right up to its due date, I ran the risk of having to compose so quickly that I didn’t have the proper amount of time to make the piece do something original. Or, worse yet, life events would unexpectedly intrude on my already-scarce composing time, leading me to have to write even faster than I’m comfortable doing. It took a few bad experiences for me to realize that unless I did something different, I ran the risk of turning out a long string of half-baked works. This isn’t what I wanted for my career, nor for my own musical development. So I instigated a two-month buffer zone rule on all pieces: if a work was due August 1st, then I had to be done with it by June 1st. This strategy has been immensely helpful. Sometimes I’ll have an unexpected event crop up in my life that takes away from the time I thought I’d have to compose; the buffer zone provides me with enough extra time to still do a good job composing the piece. Better yet, if I finish a piece two months early, then I can get a jump start on the next piece.

Ultimately, each composer needs to find strategies that best fit his or her own writing habits and schedule. Once you identify weaknesses in your composition process, explore various options to increase your productivity while giving you ample time to write exactly the piece you want.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How "Flight of Icarus" Became a Collaborative Project

Some pieces are very straightforward – they don’t have much of a backstory, nor do they easily lend themselves to collaborative experiences. Some, however, do. In 2012, I wrote a saxophone quartet named Flight of Icarus. From the beginning, I knew this would be a very unique piece. The piece is already taking on a life of its own, which I am greatly enjoying!


With the Capitol Quartet at the premiere.
Several factors played a role in the crafting of my piece Flight of Icarus. When David Stambler and the Capitol Quartet commissioned the piece, David told me they’d like a piece that’s really “out there.” That’s just the kind of thing a composer likes to hear – I can get really experimental! I started out by brainstorming a list of sounds that saxophones could make. Several ideas sprung to mind - air tones, pitch bends, flutter tonguing, multiphonics, and microtones. Then I asked myself, which sounds could be developed into more than just a passing effect? While creating this list, I kept thinking about one of the very first works I ever composed. It was a saxophone quartet called Soaring Eagle. While I remember only a few measures of the piece, the concept of soaring was still captivating to me; it seemed that air tones and flutter tonguing could lend themselves to the sound of beating wings, while pitch bends could emulate the call of birds. 

Also around this time, I set Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem Not They Who Soar for choir (click here to read the poem). The main motive of my choral setting contained two rising perfect 5ths, which I thought would sound just as glorious on saxophones as it did with singers. So I asked David if I could quote a section of the choir work in the saxophone piece (he was fine with it). 

Additionally, I’ve had a longtime interest in Greek mythology. The idea of soaring and the sound of beating wings could be put to great use in the tale of Deadalus, the architect and engineer, and his son Icarus. On the island of Crete, Daedalus had built a maze for King Minos. Minos imprisoned a Minotaur (a half-bull, half-human creature) within the maze and annually sacrificed Athenians to the creature. Angered by this, Deadlaus helped another king to successfully navigate the maze and kill the Minotaur. When Minos sent his army after Deadalus, he and his son Icarus affixed wings crafted of wax and feathers to their backs and took to the sky. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too low, so the waters would not weigh down the feathers, nor too high for the sun to melt the wax. Icarus, however, was so elated with the thrill of flying that he drew too close to the sun. The wax melted, and Icarus fell to his watery demise. Icarus’ ascension towards the sun became the first movement (titled Icarus Ascending). In addition to using air tones, flutter tonguing, and pitch bends in this movement, I also incorporated multiphonics to depict Icarus’ fall to the ocean. For the second movement (titled Deadalus Mourns), I employed microtones and pitch bends to illustrate Deadalus’ grief over the death of his son.

Because of the large amount of effects used in the piece, I needed far more interaction with the musicians than usual. In particular, Capitol Quartet member Christopher Creviston spent a lot of time playing effects over the phone for me, as well as sending me photos of his suggestions for how to notate sounds that I wanted. The Capitol Quartet premiered Flight of Icarus in March of 2013.

Expanding Icarus into a Multi-Media Collaboration

In the spring of 2014, Mark Engebretson of the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet contacted me and said they planned to program the piece later in the year. Mark asked if he could share the piece with a few other artists to see if there might be interest in turning the performance into a multi-media event. This sounded great to me, and soon after, filmmaker Michael Frierson and choreographer Jan Van Dyke (of the Van Dyke Dance Group) joined the collaboration. Jan brought two female dancers from her company in to Michael's studio at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to do some filming. I asked both artists for their thoughts on how they developed their component of the project:

From the left: filmmaker Michael Frierson, choreographer
Jan Van Dyke, and the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet

Michael Frierson:

The most interesting aspect of the Icarus story for me is actually his father Daedalus who was an engineer of sorts and seemed to have a knack for invention, including the Labyrinth where the Minotaur was kept and of course the wings he built to escape from Crete. The historical footage I included is from a WWII test of a rolling explosive device called the Panjandrum.  I had kept that footage in my mind since 1987 when I first saw it -- it's unforgettable footage that shows a piece of technology destroying itself. The footage seemed to mirror Daedalus' doomed experiment with wings:  they both seemed to carry the idea of a failed reliance on technology. Placing the dance elements against the footage was a choice of convenience -- a graduate student had built a large paper "room" in the television studio on campus for another project, and projecting the footage on that surface for the dancers to interact with seemed the simplest way to combine the two.

Jan Van Dyke: 

As the choreographer, I knew in advance that my work would be edited sharply, chopped up, timing changed, background altered, not necessarily shown with the music I had worked with.  As a result, I responded with movement that seemed to represent emotion -- hope, surprise, despair, waiting, tension, etc. including an effort to portray a relationship between the two dancers. Michael then worked with the material I provided, putting it to the music which was already set.  It was a real collaboration in one sense, since I did have a say in what Michael was doing, but the music was a given and my work did not relate to that in any linear way except in mood.

Michael created a video component for the first movement in which two female dancers and the Panjandrum are both presented onscreen (click here to view the video). For the second movement, Michael had a still image of the Panjandrum visible while the same two dancers now appeared onstage; they slowly worked their way from one side of the stage to the other. Jan focused on repetitive movements for the dancers; their movements ultimately climaxed in one dancer subjugates the other by pushing her down to the ground. I found Michael's and Jan's additions to be quite captivating, with each collaborator’s own interpretation of Icarus adding another layer of meaning to the original story. 

Screen shot from Michael Frierson's video for movement I. Icarus Ascending.
Click here to view the video.
As a composer, seeing one of my works reinterpreted through other artists' eyes is always an amazing and fulfilling experience. I look forward to seeing what new meanings future ensembles and collaborators add to the story of Icarus as more groups take up the piece!