Why You Should Compose

Musical ideas sound so spectacular in my head. I can vividly hear this perfect constellation of notes — but whenever I try to score it, the brilliance fades. Recently I came across a comforting bit of insight from Mendelssohn, who said to a composer friend that ‘if we only wanted to accept the ideas that agreed perfectly with our desires, then we accomplish nothing at all or at most very little … If it [a composition] does not become a work of art in the highest sense, at least it is an exercise in forming and portraying ideas.’ I agree with this wholeheartedly. Composing isn’t necessarily something you work towards, but also something you use to become a better musician. We should compose music for the same reason we write: to collect our thoughts and form them into something permanent, to see what you know and what you believe.

I have composed from the first time I held an instrument in my hands; once I’d memorised a few chord charts, I was off. And the stuff I composed, aged about 8 or 9, was undeniably absurd. I would simply pick chords at random — say, D7 to G to E minor to A to F#7 — and didn’t particular like to repeat anything, because that would be boring, I thought. It was almost like tone rows: I wouldn’t repeat a chord until I had exhausted all the others.

When I learnt to read notation, which wasn’t until the somewhat late age of 14 or 15, I had all these ideas but no clue what to do with all of them. I gather this is a common problem. I’d just write these ideas in linear, unrepeating succession and call it a piece. I had pieces that went on for 20 minutes like this. Of course, I also got rhythms and notes wrong because scores were still very unfamiliar territory, and I couldn’t do even the most basic sight-reading. Only recently, by which I mean in the last several months, have I begun to learn how to manipulate musical themes, how to understand harmony, how to properly read a score, and so on.

Below is one such piece I wrote. According to my computer it was last modified in 2012, and I suspect I wrote it a year before, at which point I would have been 15, maybe 16. That’s three years before I listened to any classical music and back when my musical diet was exclusively rock and metal. At this stage, I was a bit less of a haphazard composer. But this piece still sounds to me like unrelated ideas slapped together in an inartful way. (I do still like that 13/8 outro though.) Here’s the midi recording:

The very last thing I composed, before a near total hiatus from music for a year or so, was an extreme metal EP that I recorded and a year later actually released. I made a whopping $2 from it (before tax…), and got two — not one, but two! — reviews. Extreme metal reviews are amusingly ridiculous. My little EP was given this flattering (I think) description: ‘The force of the pounding beats is enough to convert skyscrapers into craters and the discordant guitar excretions, grinding bass tones, and surrounding shroud of distortion are eerie enough to suggest an alien presence behind the decimation.’

By that point I was composing as a means of discovery. I didn’t really find any of the music I was listening to satisfying, and was trying to write the music I wanted to hear. When this failed, I resigned myself to the fact that music was a dead end. The discovery of classical music thankfully saved me from this horrible conclusion.

Therefore, until a couple of weeks ago I had barely composed anything since 2014. Having stupidly broken my ring finger nail, my ability to practise guitar has been limited, so I started writing music instead of playing it. The first thing I attempted was to try and squeeze as much as I could out of the simplest motif. I used to always opt for the most complex idea possible, which is sheer folly. You generally end up with a piece that never coheres. This exercise was an attempt to overcome that impulse. Apologies about Sibelius’s poor midi impersonation of a guitar:

As you can see, I didn’t quite succeed… And the music isn’t particularly inspired — in fact, it’s pretty insipid. But I think it’s a more logical piece than those I’ve written before. So, that’s some progress at least.

For comparison, here’s one of the few pieces I’ve written in the last few years, probably early 2016. It’s a short piece for two pianos, and essentially consists of three sections piled on top of each other. It doesn’t cohere at all. However, the ideas in it are way better than in the guitar study above. Saying that, I’ve no idea how playable the first idea actually is:

This week I started working on setting the Stabat Mater. Ambitious, I know, but I don’t expect it to be particularly good. I chose it because I know I’ll stick to it. Among the pieces I most love, several settings of the Stabat Mater make the cut. From Szymanowski’s colourful and sumptuous Polish version to Haydn’s underrated masterpiece; from Palestrina’s gorgeous, perfect setting to James MacMillan’s aggressively sublime work that premiered last year; and from Vivaldi’s lyrical Stabat Mater to Arvo Part’s plainly beautiful one. I may not yet believe, but when I’m listening to these works, I am certain, at least, of the transcendent.

My modest little Stabat Mater is for lute and soprano. (The score is currently written with a guitar in mind, but I plan to move it up a minor third, which is roughly the pitch of a lute, if I ever finish it.) I thought it would be interesting to break up the Stabat Mater into two sections and put a toccata between them. The idea being that there is a period of reflection after the poem describes Mary witnessing Jesus’ death. Now, I’m still not exactly sure what a toccata is, but I’ve interpreted it to mean a half-improvised, typically virtuosic piece. The Sibelius recording/score below lasts from the toccata until the ‘Sancta Mater’ stanza, which is as far as I’ve got, with most of it fully scored. (There’s also some sketches for the section before that, but they’re not included in the recording.) The one glaring problem this attempted composition has brought up is that I have no idea how to write for voice. But that’s why one should compose, to help build a bridge between your imagination and your actual ability. Anyway, here it is (with Sibelius’s equally poor impersonation of a lute):

I’ve noticed that I really struggle to compose without a guitar to hand. I can just about manage it by humming each line, but my ability to imagine music accurately is severely under-trained. There is, I understand, a prejudice in favour of composing without any instrument to hand. I would love to get to a point where I could read an orchestral score, say, and realise it fully in my imagination, but at the moment that seems impossible. I mean, just imagine being able to hear an entire orchestra in your head, over which you have full control? It would surely feel like a superpower. And I suspect the only way to acquire it is by practising composition.