Thoughts On Composing Music

Thursday, 23 February 2006

I am a guitarist. I am also a composer. I wrote my first composition on guitar when I was eight years old.

I have always heard and created music inside my head — not guitar music, but multi-voiced band and orchestral music. Wanting to find and use those sounds on the guitar has led me to invent new ways of playing the instrument.

The music I create on the guitar leads to technical innovations, and the technical innovations spur further creativity.

I have done quite a bit of exploring of guitars and tunings. Every guitar and every tuning has a different personality, and certain personalities suggest certain compositional directions. Pursuing those directions has led to many new compositions and much creative evolution.

You could say that my music over the past thirty-five years has been the result of a dialogue between what I have heard in my head and what I have heard from the guitar. Sometimes I apply my will to a situation, other times the guitar speaks first, and I answer. Either way, one of the wonderful things about composing on the guitar is that I have often gotten back more than I expected.

I would like to talk about some of the elements that contribute to an effective composition, and my composing process.

A composition of any kind must have something to say beyond the instrumentation, techniques and conventions it employs. It must evolve in some way, whether the composition is one minute long or twenty minutes long. It must tell a story of some kind.

This story might emphasize the harmonic/melodic, the rhythmical, the textural, the spacey/moody/ambient, or a combination of any of these at different points, but there needs to be a theme proposed, developed, ventured away from, and returned to in such a way that, as a listener, you both recognise the theme and understand it in a new way.

This return to the theme need not always be literal. It can be conceptual, i.e. not included in the composition but still finished in the mind the listener.

The first thing I look for in creating a composition is an essential, interesting idea. Finding this idea is the most important task. Developing it is the second. Bringing everything home the right way — fulfilling the promise of the idea — is the third.

This core idea need not be melodic. It can be about any kind of sonic event or sequence of events — a harmonic progression, a percussive groove, a bassline, a series of textures. It can be two or more improbable sounds that, in and of themselves, are of no great interest but — pitted against each other — create an entirely new issue.

It can be an involved sequence of pitches and textures, or it can be something incredibly simple. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most interesting.

It might be called a motif, a melody, a riff, a groove, or a theme. Whatever you decide to call it, it will be the anchor for all later development, the lens through which everything is brought into focus, and, ultimately, the justification for all the activity.

In my composition “Ladies Night”, the core idea is a four-bar percussive funk groove that, while possessing minimal melodic content, propels everything forward rhythmically.

In “Love In The Old Country” the core is an Old Europe-style rubato melody that conjures up images of cafe life in an earlier, simpler time. Later developments in the tune expand upon this initial premise.

A composition can be made up of two or more smaller compositions that balance each other in such a way as to form a larger work. In the case of my tune “Franzl’s Saw” the unifying theme of the two very different parts is the eerie, spacey texture of the slide.

An instrument can suggest its own composition, especially when you play it for the first time. When T-Bone Wolk, the bass player at a recording session I was doing several years ago, asked me to try out his electric baritone guitar, I instantly composed “Valhalla”.

Some ideas will show me, with very little effort, how they want to be developed, what context(s) to present them in, what secondary ideas(s) to balance against them, and how to bring it all home.

Some ideas won’t tell me anything, but refuse to go away. It often pays to spend time with an idea to discover its best use, since understanding its particular strength will usually show you what to do with it. But not always. An idea can hang around for years before suddenly clicking into place as the long-lost missing piece in another composition.

Lots of experimentation may be called for. Time away from the idea may be the quickest way to fulfil it.

An idea can be so “good” — as in, so versatile — it could be used in multiple contexts. This means a choice will have to be made before you can move forward with the composition. I find this to be one of the toughest parts of composing — having to choose among several conflicting directions for an idea.

Once an idea is decided upon, it must be developed. What is most important at this stage is to clear the way for it, to make sure everything around it supports the story being told. Too many secondary ideas, however clever or worthy they may be in their own right, will clutter and weaken a composition.

I save these for future tunes.

One way to develop a theme is to repeat it using varied and progressively more dynamic techniques and textures.

The theme of my composition “Crossing Open Water” is a fingerpicking pattern in seven-eight time that keeps returning in successively more dynamic versions, climaxing in a percussive slap-bass explosion, and finally appearing as a coda in slightly changed form.

Another way to develop a theme is to contrast it with something very different that increases the tension of the system, and then bring it back.

“Slap Funk” begins with a percussion-filled theme and development, but then goes into a fingerpicking bridge in the middle that builds up dynamically with the aid of strumming, and then back to theme.

I have found that writing solo guitar music involves discovering what a composition is trying to say, and then making full, imaginative use of everything available — both within myself and on the instrument — to say it, while all the time observing the principles of good composing.

It means constantly stepping back and looking at what is emerging from the tune.

It means that where it may be appropriate to be edgy and outrageous in one situation, a more traditional approach may be needed in another.

As with any creative activity, composing music requires that you trust yourself. An understanding of music theory and a lot of playing skill can be a good starting point, but what an idea means to you — how it makes you feel and what you ultimately say with it — can be the only real criterion of its validity.

Walter Piston wrote, in his introduction to Harmony, that music theory follows the common practice of composers over the last several hundred years. I believe that common practice and the creations of others will never show you how to create your own, living music. You must find your own ideas, decide where they are going, develop them boldly, and believe in the choices you make along the way.

My own history with the guitar has shown me that there are no rules of guitar playing, only the requirements of the composition I happen to be writing. Through the years I have trusted myself to invent my own techniques and approaches while making full use of conventional methods wherever needed.

The result of a successful composition should be satisfying, entertaining, involving, and, on some level, edifying, whether it be long or short, simple or complicated, easy to listen to or not. Some compositions require multiple listenings to digest and enjoy. Some are instantly pleasing. But there will always be something that feels right — natural, organic, alive — about a good composition.

A good composition gives back energy. It continues to evolve inside the listener over time.

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