So You Want To Write A Song

Composition is a mysterious thing. I mean this in the typical artsy sense of “I don’t actually know the precise mechanism by which things ‘come to me’ when I’m composing”, but also in the sense that I don’t think most non-composers know what we do when we disappear into a practice room for hours at a time. To be sure, some of it really is just staring into space and trying to imagine something musically compelling, but some of it’s considerably more plodding, methodical, and mundane. It’s art, sure, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to the rhymes. So today I want to open up the hood and give you a peek into my compositional process.

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Clever Accidents

I’m in the middle of writing an oboe sonata! And I really do mean in the middle — I’ve gotten past the initial stages of figuring out the opening and the basic musical materials, and now I’m in the messy central stretches of picking those materials apart and recombining them into a compelling path to the double bar. Sometimes I sit down beforehand and hammer out intricate plans for the innards of pieces like this, but sometimes I just dive in and figure out what the piece wants to be in the process of writing the thing. This piece very much falls into the latter category.

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The Spigot and the Chute

I have a lot of feelings. I know, I know, this is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. But still, it’s true: Going thru life, I have lots and lots of feelings about the things I experience.

I also write music. And unlike some composers, I explicitly want my music to be emotional, to express feelings and to get people in the audience to feel things in turn.

Are these things related? Do the feelings I have in my day-to-day life translate directly into the art I make?

Well, yes and no.

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Don’t Be Boulez

When the French high modernist Pierre Boulez was studying with René Leibowitz, the older composer dared to suggest several places in which his student’s first piano sonata could stand some improvement. Hugely affronted, Boulez — who had been planning to dedicate the sonata to Leibowitz — screamed “Vous êtes merde!” (“You are shit!”) and stormed from the room. Later, when preparing the sonata for publication, he saw the dedication on the title page and viciously scratched it out with a letter opener.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most graceful way to handle criticism. And yet, I’ve definitely been there. Composing is intense, intimate stuff, and even mild criticism, gently couched, can feel like an attack on you as a person and everything you hold dear. When it’s not couched gently, when it digs below surface slip-ups to target the fundamental structure of a work, it can cut like the most vicious of knives. 

And yet, criticism is an integral part of creative life. You don’t get better without people pointing out where you’ve gone astray, often repeatedly and at length. How do you handle someone tearing into something you wrote without comparing them to excrement and symbolically stabbing them in the face?

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Circle of Tints

Despite having written about it twice before, it sometimes seems like a well kept secret that I have sound-color synesthesia. I do! This means that I “see” colors when I listen to music, but it also — and more importantly for today’s post — means that when I sit down to write music, I start by imagining colors, and those colors guide me to the sounds I need. Over the years that I’ve been composing, I’ve built up a pretty robust system of key-color associations, and today I’m going to provide a peek under the hood and actually list them out.

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Rotational Games

So I'm currently in the middle of writing a bassoon sonata. It's the first entirely new concert piece I've written since finishing my musical, the first such piece, in fact, since finishing my clarinet sonata in the fall of 2013. (I've done a couple of concert arrangements of selections from Window for various forces, and while all of them have new material spliced in, those additions are really just connective tissue to make the music work without the words; they lack the depth of compositional intensity that building a new structure from the ground up calls for.) It's going well: I have solid drafts of the first two movements and the third is off to a promising start.

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Because It's Hard

Ludwig Milde's tenth concert study for bassoon is a cantankerous, twisty little piece in C# minor. It is awkward and uncomfortable to play, and it is difficult to make the notes speak with the required rapidity. It is, in other words, Not Fun to practice.

I mention this specific étude not because it is unique in Milde's output for its difficulty, but because it's the one I happened to be working on when I was doing college visits my junior year of high school. On one such visit, I played for George Sakakeeny at Oberlin Conservatory. After working on some techniques specific to various problem spots, he asked why Milde hadn't written the thing a half-step lower in C minor. It would make everything much easier to play, and would probably sound better given the natural resonances of the bassoon after all. The answer he was looking for, and the only answer I find satisfactory, is that he wrote it where he did because it's hard.

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Making Up and Making Over

Western concert music, with its centuries-old tradition(s) of scholarship and study, has some very specific terms for very specific things: Essential Structural Closure, a modulation to the flat submediant, and my go-to bugaboo hexachordal combinatoriality — these all refer to pretty specific things and those specific things only.

Western concert music, being a rowdy and living tradition practiced by untold numbers of people with wildly different levels of formal education, also has some terms that can pretty much mean anything you want.

"Arranging" falls decidedly into the latter category.

I think most people, even non-musicians, have a pretty firm grasp on what it means to compose something. The specific process will vary from person to person, but at its heart, you go into a room with a blank piece of paper, and you come out with a piece of music. For some people, that involves literally sitting at a piano and plugging away, for others it involves fiddling with audio samples in a computer program, but either way, the result is much the same: The composer is the person who decides what sounds happen when*.

Arranging is much more nebulous.

At one end of its possible meanings, you have what can also be called transcription: Taking a work originally scored for one ensemble and scoring it for a different one, as with the concert band version of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide compared to the orchestral original. Calling something a transcription implies a high degree of fidelity to the original source material. The instruments change, but the form remains the same. If you run across something labeled as a transcription, you wouldn't expect to find different harmonies or new countermelodies, at least not in the way that most people use the term today.

At the other end of the scale, you have things like Jimmy Mundy's arrangement of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" for Benny Goodman, which alters almost every aspect of the original**, up to and including the melody itself. (Few arrangements take this degree of latitude in the concert music world, what with our general reverence for scores and source material, but it's absolutely common practice in jazz and other less score-based musics.)

A lot of things fall somewhere in the middle. When William Schuman arranged his New England Triptych from orchestra to wind ensemble, he transcribed the first two movements with minimal alteration, but completely revised the third, nearly doubling it in length from its original incarnation. Gustav Mahler's piano parts for the piano-vocal versions of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs are not simply reductions of the full orchestral score from his orchestral arrangements.

Then, too, there are cases where the orchestration — the determination of which instruments play which notes — is so striking, so specific that, even tho the melodies and harmonies of the original are preserved in every detail, it seems misleading to call the new work "just" an arrangement of the previous one. The most iconic instance of this is probably Anton Webern's arrangement of one of the fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach's Musical Offering — Webern's meticulously detailed and relentlessly modern scoring transform Bach's exacting counterpoint into a psychedelic whirlwind of motives and fragments; it's an arrangement, sure, but one so strongly marked by the arranger's aesthetic that one almost wants to give them co-compositional credit for the resulting masterpiece. (You don't need two different people, either. The end of Igor Stravinsky's Svadebka (aka Les noces aka The Wedding) is another place where "the notes and rhythms being played" and "the instruments playing them" seem impossible to separate; orchestration and composition become one. (The passage in question, where frenetic energy gives way to the purified ringing of bells, begins around 8'17", but the whole thing is worth a listen if you have the time.))

Given this nebulosity, it might be tempting to dismiss "arranging" as a useless term. To the contrary, it's precisely this nebulosity that makes it useful. I can say that I'm "arranging" some of the music from Window Full of Moths for wind ensemble, and I don't have to clarify that, while the second movement is essentially a transcription of "Beside You", the third is a mixture of the opening of "Hey" and a radically altered version of "Stop Dreaming", with some new material thrown in to stitch them together, and then —

Arranging encompasses all these things in a way that gets at the core of what I'm doing: This music existed before. I'm changing it in some ways so that it exists in another form as well. Some of these changes are small, and some of them are big, but for the most part, we neither need nor want to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty specifics of which are which. Having a catch-all like "arranging" lets us get away from worrying about arbitrary distinctions on a continuous continuum and gives us more time to spend actually making art.


*There are, of course, exceptions where composers leave room for other people or things to make some of these decisions. For now, I'm simply ignoring this type of composition, but I think it can be subsumed into this framework with little difficulty.

**I am not actually 100% certain that this is the original arrangement given the sheer number of recordings of this tune and Spotify's spotty bibliographic information. If someone could confirm this or provide a link to the actual original arrangement, I would greatly appreciate it.