A brainstorm of possible things to think about when beginning to ‘compose’!
Questioning yourself and thinking about intentional listening, inspiration, visual thinking, instruments, structure, improvising and the world you’re composing in as you begin your HSC composition…
Starting a composition can be a confusing/difficult/exciting/overwhelming process. This document invites you to explore a variety of potential starting points that can be helpful to consider as you begin your 2 min HSC music composition:
- Intentional listening
- Visual thinking
- The world you’re composing in
Like with anything, different strategies will work for different people - however, do be encouraged to try out and experiment with new ideas and new starting points that you may not have previously considered…you might be surprised to discover a new way of working on your composition that really works for you!
You might already be asking - why not just open Sibelius and let my clicking hand do the random work? If you were an architect, you might think that it would be easier to design and build a building as you go - see the product ‘in the flesh’ as you work. However, if we’re honest with ourselves…the risk is high that such a process might not work and in the end, due to the fact we haven’t thought about setting up strong foundations and haven’t planned out the building as a whole…things might get a little wobbly. By creating models, analysing and being aware of how others have approached designing/building, research, documentation, sketching - we will get a much better, effective and stronger end result. The same goes for composing, by establishing a strong foundation of ideas in the early stages of our composition we are creating a basis for our composition that can only be helpful throughout the process. Sure the composition process might look something like this:
and creative intuition is valid and important throughout the process….but the strong foundation you’ve set up for yourself will help you at times when you might be stuck, not to mention result in a much more thought out composition.
For each ‘starting point’ idea, a variety of possible questions have been listed that can be helpful to consider. Questioning oneself and the decisions you’re making and the dots you’re putting down on the page, is vital to the compositional process and will ensure you gain a better understanding of what it is you’re doing and how you might be able to do it better…not to mention open up ideas and ways forward at times when you’re not sure what to do next. Create your own questions (and yes, it may seem silly), that you can answer to check in with yourself - document these in your portfolio!
Additionally, this document includes a variety of links to external resources that can be helpful to check out not only when you’re beginning but throughout the entire process of working on your composition…hopefully, these links will also allow you to greater engage with and appreciate music making/composing that’s happening now…instilling a lifelong appreciation for the composers, performers, writers, podcasters, humans that are passionate about music that is composed now and in Australia! Yay!
1. Intentional listening
Listening to music and documenting any ideas/influences you want to explore and consider in your own work is an excellent way to begin. The way we consume and listen to music for many of us is such a secondary/background activity (eg: we listen to Spotify’s “Calm Vibes” playlist whilst doing Maths study, we pop on in our headphones and block out the world on the train to school, etc). Use your composition portfolio/process as an opportunity to listen with purpose, making listening a primary activity and a focused activity in of itself (not just something that accompanies what we do, playing in the background…).
Be sure to ‘listen’ in a variety of ways - ranging from listening with a score to listening with a particular goal in mind (ie: I want to focus on listening to “Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives and focus on how the composer has explored the roles of instruments throughout the piece). There are several ways you can help yourself in breaking down your background listening. You can keep track by setting up a template (Download: Background listening scaffold) or simply jot down points/ideas as you think of them whilst listening. How you listen can really shape your experience of a piece of music and effects the way in which listening can be a helpful activity in relation to composition.
The next question….what do I listen to? Use background listening as an opportunity to broaden your musical horizons. There are so many resources available and so many things we have access to it can be difficult to find something that is relevant, interesting and helpful to support you in your composition task. Don’t just listen to music you like and don’t only use the pieces your currently working on with your teacher - try to find pieces of music for yourself that can actually help you in gathering ideas and starting your own composition. Be strategic in your listening. Allow listening to become a part of the fabric that will form your final composition - borrowing, reinventing, analysing, thinking about the ideas of other composers/musicians in your own composition is completely valid, helpful and inspiring.
Some resources that can be helpful to find something new/relevant to your own composition process (with a focus on music of the last 25 years):
Australian Music Centre*: the AMC is a centre point for all things Australian Music and a valuable resource for any musician. As a high school student you can join the AMC for $25. You will have access to over 13 000 scores instantly for free from the Digital Library as part of your membership. Use the website to navigate your way through works written by Australian composers - for eg) you can search for works by instrumentation or explore one of the many comprehensive Introductions to Australian Music where you can engage with various starting points ranging from Aus Music that’s been influenced by pop music to visual art influences.
102.5 New Australian Music for HSC: listen to episodes of instrument focused works composed in the last 25 years by Australian composers and get to know the repertoire beyond the piece with Jason Noble (an amazing clarinetist and teacher!). This is also a great starting point for finding new repertoire to perform for your core performance but equally helpful in discovering pieces of music to model/gather ideas for your own composition.
Youtube: navigating through youtube in a clever way can allow you to listen to pieces of music (sometimes even with the score) and subsequently discover related pieces of music through the ‘related videos’ tab. Searching for the instrumentation you’re interested in writing for in of itself can give you a way into repertoire that might be relevant to your composition…just make sure you’re only binging on solo piano miniatures and not entering the rabbit hole of tiny kitchen youtube tutorials.
What can I listen to that will be helpful in relation to gathering ideas for my own composition?
What do I want to focus my listening on?
What structures/parameters can I set for myself so that I can make documenting my listening easy for me?
Why do I like this piece of music? How does the composer do this? What can I take away for my own composition?
How has the composer of this work created something that’s interesting and sustained my interest?
What are the central ideas to this piece of music I’m listening to and are these ideas relevant to what I’m composing?
Before you begin your composition, why not think about structure, the way you plan to structure your ideas and the journey you will take listeners on? 2 mins is a short (and long) amount of time to explore and you need to be resourceful in the way you explore and develop an idea/s. You can use visual diagrams, images, graphic notation, a timeline, even lists of words of what you’re hoping to achieve throughout your piece to document your ideas. Think about existing/conventional structures you could use and perhaps reinvent, the structure of other pieces of music you like or find interesting and how the composer has achieved this.
Here’s a cute video looking into Martin Subotnick and Joan La Barbara’s “space” for composing… Joan La Barbara share’s some of her amazing visualisations of her scores/structures:
Is there a particular structure I want to work with?
How am I going to use 2mins to develop my ideas?
What journey will I take the listener on?
What are ways I can develop an idea throughout my composition?
In what ways can I document/notate/visualise my ideas (so as not to forget…but also keep track of in my portfolio!)?
3. Visual thinking
Translating musical ideas to notation can be hard. Using Sibelius can be difficult as well. Sibelius is a tool that can help us create a polished, notated score. Notation is a tool that can help us to communicate our ideas as a composer to a performer. Snapping out of the usual rhythm of notation by using graphic notation or other visual sketches can be a helpful strategy to begin to document and translate ideas we have in our heard to paper. Using sketches, drawings, graphics etc to translate our musical ideas for a piece can be a helpful exercise to begin to formulate, document and make sense of the ideas you have for a piece and in return make it easier to then translate to a more conventional use of notation.
Here are some exercises you could test out:
Developing a (visual) motif. Pick a shape. Change it up, transform, translate, be creative. Think about how you could apply the same kind of transformation…though in the context of sound and in your composition to develop an idea.
Sketching melodic phrases. Think about the contours of melody. Stuck for a melody? Think about line and the way in which the contour of a melody could be explored and emerge…
something like this…where you’re thinking about pauses and melodic phrases that could be crafted around pauses…
could turn into this…excerpt of trumpet part from “skin, translucence” by Kezia Yap
Sure, inspiration could hit you in the head in the middle of the night at 2am….however, that’s not something to rely on. There are many different ways/places you can ‘find’ inspiration or external sources of ideas that might influence you in what you compose - whether it’s a seed of a musical idea (eg: creating a short fragment of melody that you want to develop and explode into 2mins of music) or a concept (eg: an abstract idea or concept you could explode into a musical composition). Anything from words to paintings, sculptures, abstract thoughts, colours and patterns could help you form a unique starting point for your composition and ideas. You could even start with a title for your piece - an attractive word or interesting idea that your composition emerges from.
Two examples of pieces, composers and their ideas:
Elena Kats Chernin - “Reinventions”: The entire work “reinvents” Bach’s “Two Part Inventions” for recorder and string accompaniment. In mov 1, Elena Kats Chernin derives most of the movement’s material from one single fragment of an idea ‘borrowed’ from Bach’s Two Part Invention No. 8 in F Major. Also…check out this quote from EKC re finding inspiration ;) “I like to go out and buy milk. I like to walk to the shops and come back. Then I am refreshed. That’s all I need to do for real inspiration.” Source
Damien Ricketson - “The Secret Noise” : This large scale work is an investigation and creative exploitation of “secret” forms of music - music making not available for general public consumption. Damien Ricketson organises this idea into 5 themes “legally extinguished music, some forms of ceremonial music, music for closed cliques, music with double or hidden meanings, and personalised music.” Read this article from AMC’s Resonate to find out more about this work.
Listen/check out the score to “Heaven Only Empty” from “The Secret Noise”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83REl2NLP_U
What’s something interesting I’ve been thinking about recently that maybe could translate into a really strong conceptual starting point for my composition?
What kind of (simple) musical ideas could I consider to develop in a composition? Perhaps it’s a melody? Or a particular chord progression? A rhythmic motif? Particular stylistic elements?
Is there perhaps an overall atmosphere I want to achieve in the opening of my work? Or perhaps some sort of imagery I want to evoke?
Improvising and composing for many go hand in hand. Allowing yourself to spend time at your instrument (or even an instrument you are unfamiliar can be helpful!) to generate, create, improvise - letting yourself explore your instrument and new musical ideas that might come from that process. Don’t forget to document this process - record an extended technique you’ve discovered on the viola using your phone, jot down a chord you might find interesting, keep track of a pitch set you’ve experimented with in your composition portfolio.
Composer, violinist, vocalist Caroline Shaw (P.S She’s awesome and loves the colour yellow and the sound of a janky mandolin (fact) and was the youngest human to win the Pullitzer prize for Music. yeah.) says “Every day you have to make three hours of music, just randomly improvising and that’s a great way to weed stuff out…”. So don’t worry about English Advanced study…just improvise for 3 hours every day and your Music 2 core composition is on it’s way!
If you’re stuck for ideas there are all sort of ways you can approach improvising…a few ideas could include…
- Limit an improvisation to a certain pitch set - perhaps it’s a set of two notes or maybe it’s a particular mode you like the sound of?
- Play along, make up material along with another existing piece of music. You could mimic rhythms, create you’re own solo, echo phrases and respond with your own material.
- Focus your improvisation on a unique aspect of your instrument. Eg) Play around with pizzicato on the violin and the possible material that might come about from such a focus.
- Set other parameters to explore an improvisation. Eg) Explore the lower register and sustain pedal on a piano
Considering and understanding the instruments you plan to write for can be an important first step in beginning your composition. There are many questions you can ask to assist yourself in making a decision as to what instrument/s you want to write for. It’s important to remember that the purpose of your composition is not for it to be performed by Sibelius/notation software…it’s for a human to understand and play. Putting your ‘performer hat’ on throughout the process of working on your composition can be very helpful in understanding the most effective way to communicate an idea to the performer. It can also be helpful to think about the practical implications of the instruments you write for - use musicians you know and your classmates to your advantage in understanding the instruments you want to write for. Perhaps even consider writing specifically for an instrument you know how to play or that your friends play so that you can share, get invaluable feedback, understand what works and what doesn’t and actually hear your work performed by a person….not just a computer!
So many pieces of music throughout history are a product of composer/performer relationships and collaborations. Composer Kaija Saariaho and cellist Ansi Karttunen are an example of such a relationship and have frequently collaborated on works - “Sept Papillons” for solo cello (audio + score) is a work that has come from this relationship. Watch a great video that explores the relationship between “composers” and “performers” with Kaija Saariaho and Ansi Karttunen:
If and when your heart is set on a combination of instruments there are few exercises that can assist you in opening up a few options and ways to work with the instruments you have at hand:
Sound map. Creating some sort of mind map/synthesised web of ideas in relation to the instrument ‘palettes’ you have to work with, can be a productive exercise to generate, document and make connections between ideas. Sit down with your instrument or another musician, have a focus in mind and experiment with what ideas come from this process and documenting these ideas in an interconnected way. Here is a quick example of a mind map with a focus on some of the soft sounds possible on the flute:
Table of roles. For some people, considering and defining the role of each instrument in a combination is a vital step to understanding their composition. Setting some clear ‘rules’ as to what each instrument will do at a given point of time in your piece can be an interesting task and scaffold to work with. Such a way of thinking can also be helpful when reflecting and analysing your own work to determine a way forward or merely understand what it is you are exploring in your piece. Eg) you might be writing a trio for tenor saxophone, percussion and piano…jot down a few ideas you have for the possible role you could imagine each layer will fulfil:
There are so many resources that can assist you in getting a better understanding of the instrument/s you are writing for. Here are a few starting points:
AMC repertoire navigator*: explore the AMC’s repertoire navigator where you can find works by Australian composers by their instrumentation. If you are a member, you will have access to scores for many of the works along with a sample of audio. Sometimes it’s a matter of simply exploring and finding something you find exciting, finding a score, finding a recording, listening to the work, listening to the work with the score and analysing the score and what the composer has created and how they've communicated their ideas. By digging deeper you will surely better understand the work as a whole and different approaches to writing for a specific instrument or combinations of.
Youtube tutorials: if you don’t know a shakuhachi or a kazoo player…have a search on youtube for helpful tutorials that musicians create especially for composers (you!) to better understand their instrument. For example the channel “Modern Cellist” can introduce you to a variety of techniques and possibilities:
Instrumentation guides online: there are a variety of online resources/websites that outline certain possibilities, practical considerations and restraints to consider when writing for instruments - things that are important to be aware of from the beginning. Andrew Hugill’s site provides a guide looking at the construction, range, articulations, effects, extended techniques, player’s tips and tricks and other helpful links for each instrument (not to mention embedded audio and video)…for example, check out the clarinet page. You’ll be amazed how far you can go with a google search to find other sites that are similarly helpful no matter what you’re exploring/looking/composing for!
Some potential questions to think about…
How am I going to get to know the instrument I’m writing for?
What is possible on the instrument/s I’m writing for?
What is not possible?
What qualities are unique to the instruments I’m writing for?
Is there someone I know that plays the trumpet that I can sit down with for 30mins and get them to play through/discuss some of my ideas for the brass quartet I’m hoping to write?
What combination of instruments will work to explore my idea?
7. Awareness of the world you’re composing in
As a musician you should be encouraged to develop an awareness of what music making is occurring today - engaging with music beyond the dots, getting a better understanding as to why musicians do what they do and how this impacts you and what you do. Australia’s musical landscape is diverse, exciting and dynamic - so find something that interests and challenges you…don’t just accept the piece your piano teacher has assigned you to play for your core performance as the only piece of Australian music you get to know and understand as representative of what’s currently happening. Actively opening your ears to music beyond what you know and understanding this music further can only be helpful and beneficial throughout the composition process - particularly as you begin your composition. You need to find what makes you tick - so challenge yourself as a learner and widen and deepen your knowledge of Australian Music.
There are so many resources that are easy to access that can help you in developing this awareness - content that is being made by awesome people who are passionate about sharing the stories and creativity of Australia’s artists.
Here are some of my favourite projects/podcasts/videos/etc:
ABC’s The Music Show/Nigel Westlake and Diana Doherty embrace the Spirit of the Wild: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/musicshow/nigel-westlake-and-diana-doherty/8276382
A seriously great listen - Andrew Ford’s weekly show always digs further when it comes to understanding music that’s being made now. This particular episode is interesting as it looks into the process and ideas behind Nigel Westlake’s recent oboe concerto composed for Sydney Symphony’s oboist Diana Doherty.
ABC’s New Waves/Evenings at Peggy’s: http://www.abc.net.au/classic/new-waves/evenings-at-peggys-vanessa-tomlinson/9236334
New Waves with Stephen Adams documents new music being made all around Australia. There are so many great recordings/interviews to access. Check out this episode that is a recording of a fab happening that took place in Sydney at Peggy Glanville Hicks House (a terrace house in Paddington that houses a composer each year and opens its doors for small house concerts every so often) featuring percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson. Her set explores a palette of rich, intricate and playful percussive sounds and is followed by a conversation about her music making and ideas.
Making Waves: https://makingwavesnewmusic.com/category/playlists/
Some more waves….Making Waves is a great resource that shines a spotlight on new Australian Music through a series of podcasts/interviews with the makers “Making Conversation” and curated playlists of music released monthly. Playlists are curated around certain themes, ideas, instruments, etc - ranging from “Percussive Waves” to “Space Waves”…you can always nourish your ears with something new.
What are other composers who are composing right now interested in?
What are Australian composers up to these days? Does this influence/impact you? How? Should what they do impact what I compose? Should what they do impact what I perform?
*Disclosure statement: I work at the Australian Music Centre