On the Art of Composition, and on Teaching Composition

In my series of online books (on counterpointorchestration, and harmony), I discuss musical composition mainly from an artisan’s point of view. I have also written “Musical Composition: Craft and Art” published by Yale University Press. I believe that it makes little sense to discuss art before craft. However at a certain level, craft aspires to art; the advanced student naturally turns more and more to artistic problems.
Any artist defines his own criteria: What will he demand of himself? This involves examining what moves him in work he loves and respects by others, and objectively questioning what succeeds – and what does not – in his own work.
Unlike my other online writings, this essay will focus directly on artistic matters. As a result, it will be more personal than the others. This is not an aesthetic treatise, but just one composer’s aesthetic viewpoint. However, while I will express myself categorically, I do so knowing that another artist would likely put forth different goals. Some criteria here are not of my invention. However, each artist must rediscover first principles in his own way, and this is my attempt to articulate what I have found.
Finally, although my art is music, many of these observations apply to the other arts as well.
Musical composition aims at the creation of an imaginary world in sound, coherent, intriguing, seductive, and satisfying. As such it is set apart from everyday life, although of course elements from the latter may enter into it.
The main differences from everyday life are:

  • Music can be composed as a coherent whole from beginning to end; life cannot.
  • Composition involves the selection of material for maximum effect, rather than just accepting whatever comes easily to hand.
  • Music can stimulate the mind to range widely and freely, through directed imaginative experience. In the words of the writer Adele Wiseman: “art enlarges us”. A work of art is like a map that allows us to visit imaginary places outside our ordinary experience, and, at its best, to return seeing the world in a new light.

When I listen, the first thing I listen for is a professional technique. The mature artist needs a very concrete knowledge of the general principles of his art. Such principles arise either from the practical limitations of performers and instruments, or else from the limits of human perception and memory. (One important purpose of this series is to explain musical disciplines in terms of such principles, going beyond any one style.)
Artistic technique is not a collection of rigid rules based on any particular historical practice. While such rules may have a place in elementary training, they are not useful guides to a creative artist, who is by definition an explorer of new terrain.
The main weakness in works that I find technically imperfect is feebleness or confusion of artistic intent. The composer seems unclear about what he is trying to communicate: Resources are used half-heartedly; character is weakened by contradictory gestures and distractions. A useful goal for an artist’s technique is: Learn what attracts the listener’s attention, and why, and what character it creates. Avoid distracting the listener with things that take away from the desired result. Only when resources are used to the full, in a coordinated way, to express definite character, do we enter the realm where real artistic power is possible.
In fact, in the best work, details always contribute meaningfully to the effect of the larger gestures and do not seem contradictory or arbitrary. (This is an important reason why aleatoric processes do not interest me. While they may stimulate new ideas during composition, unless these ideas are subsequently filtered and refined, they usually sound unrelated to each other, and to the larger musical shape; they distract from the work’s main lines.)
To me, this notion of the relation between details and the whole is a useful way of thinking about artistic unity. While I do not believe (as say, Schoenberg does) that every element in a musical work must be derived from some UR-idea, I do believe in economy of means. Limitation of material makes memory’s job easier, and thus makes predictability and coherence stronger. Focus contributes powerfully to forceful, memorable effects.
Although there is no need to repeat here what I have written in the first volume of this series about musical form, I will briefly recapitulate a few essential points:

  • The music must flow naturally, and connections between ideas must be convincing.
  • The music must hold the listener’s interest from start to finish. This is what various great teachers mean by their insistence on the importance of the “long line”.
  • Accents must be appropriate and not distracting.
  • The music must breathe with a natural ebb and flow.
  • The music’s intensity must gradually accumulate, as the listener builds up a coherent web of musical associations and expectations.

If the composer has done his job well, the result is a work where I can lose myself while still feeling that there is order. I want to feel that even though the joints and the construction may be concealed, the work is still coherent, balanced and, finally, harmonious. The music I like most creates rich webs of associations and expectations, making possible various degrees of satisfaction, and/or surprise. This is an important area where the deepest originality appears: each work traces its own path, and its evolution over time provides a map for a unique experience, growing out of the character of the ideas and the way in which the music evolves.
I am especially partial to composers with a large emotional range. In a large work I expect a substantial and varied world of musical characters.
In addition to emotional variety, I also look for depth: multiple layers, mystery, subtlety. I use these terms quite literally; for example “multiple layers” refers to music in which counterpoint and orchestration provide several things happening at a time, at different levels of prominence. “Mystery” comes from one or more such layers which are indistinct, but intriguing. “Subtlety” is a result of the interplay of layers and musical connections in ways that are not overly obvious. Music with these elements makes me want to listen more than once.
Of course whether or not the I like the emotional world of a particular work is a matter of personal preference. It can happen that a work is completely professionally composed and yet fails to please; the emotional world may be unsympathetic to me. This is of course very personal, and no two people’s preferences are alike. For example, although Schoenberg’s music is invariably superbly crafted, I have always found its unrelieved emotional darkness unappealing. I can listen to it appreciatively, learning from its technical mastery, but it has never been music I love.
Finally, I look for memorable musical ideas with strong, clear profiles. Usually such profiles are the result of internal contrast (for definition) and at least some repetition (for easy recognition). I am not attracted to works whose ideas are just atmospheric. I look for ideas which exhibit a personal face. Such a personal face results from the composer’s preferences: for certain harmonic turns, orchestral combinations, textures, or perhaps ways of connecting material. It has little to do with surface novelty (which frequently passes for originanlity), which too often does not lead to meaningful emotional experience. In short, I am interested in the richness of the voyage, and not the strangeness of its presentation.

In the light of what I have written above, here are a few observations about teaching musical composition:

  • The teacher’s main job is to show the student what to demand of himself, first on a purely technical level, and, later, in terms of expressive and emotional range.
  • Apart from certain practical matters (usually problems involving playability), it is usually better to discuss the student’s problems in terms of the general principles involved than it is to just suggest one solution. If a specific suggestion is needed, it is better to suggest several, so the student can choose, or invent another.
  • It is fruitless to discuss questions of style. Better encourage the student to write only what he really loves, and, if necessary, point out individual passages that are overly derivative of specific works, since they distract from the student’s own voice. Thus, “your style is too tonal” is inhibiting (not to mention narrow-minded!), whereas “this passage is too close to the theme of X’s work ‘Y’; try to find something more personal”, is much more constructive. In any case, until the student has a solid technique, and has written a fair body of work, nothing much can be deduced about his musical preferences – my personal definition of “style”.
  • It is important to separate the first phase of composing, where the critical sense must be temporarily suspended, from the later stages, where it must be just as rigorously applied. Entering the critical mode too early is paralyzing. Once large tracts of the work are sketched out, craftsmanship and self-criticism come increasingly into play.
  • The teacher has the psychologically delicate task of balancing encouragement and criticism. Some students easily become arrogant, or intolerant of other styles. Since these attitudes close off learning, they need to be discouraged. Other students are insecure, and need encouragement to follow their personal musical tastes, even when they lead in unexpected directions.