The Art and Science of Composing

The first minute or so of this video sums up how I feel now: I don’t enjoy composing, I enjoy having composed. I’ve been working on an extended work for string quintet for about two months now, and it’s getting near the end. Composing it now is become quite brutal. I’m too tired to compose effectively, so I’m going to write about composing.

It’s not easy. A person can’t just sit down, uninspired, without any idea of what they’re going to write, and compose. I doubt even the most prolific of composers can just sit down and have genius pour from their pens. There needs to be a gestation period where the work is worked out in the mind; where idea’s coalesce, and the form takes shape. For example, I spent about a month mentally planning the work I’m writing now. Shostakovich was known to say he had completed a work before any of it had been written down. It was still in his head, but it was done. It is likely that while Mahler was working during the opera season, his next symphony was forming in his mind.

Composing is an art because it is a creative process. Ideas are brought together and worked out, all while expressing some aspect of the human state. Music is the most sublime of all the arts. In representational visual art (that is all painting/sculpture that depicts something) it is quite obvious what if being expressed. In poetry, while often veiled in metaphor, the meaning is still easily made out. However in music, the most limited of art forms (only 12 tones, compared to all colors, and all words), meaning is completely shrouded (In this, I refer to truly great music). Meaning can be interpreted very differently between two different people. Beethoven’s “Erioca” Symphony was a dialogue between man and woman about love for Wagner, and Allegro con Brio for Toscanini. The composer doesn’t set out to create this ambiguity, it is there in the art; it creates itself.

Composing is a science because there are so many technical aspects to it. There are the rules of counterpoint, rules of harmony, rules of form, of orchestration, of time. Of course these rules are easily broken, but the trouble comes in how to break them. They can be expanded upon, which creates music which is new and original. Beethoven pushed classical form as far as it would go in his late works, and then Bruckner and Mahler picked up where he left off, and kept stretching the traditional symphonic form for increased expressive power. These rules can also be downright broken. Listen to “Rite of Spring” (which celebrates it’s 100th birthday this year), and honestly tell me that no rules are broken. Composition is such a meticulous process, that it can only be called a science.

Great composers are either are revolutionary, or are the high point of a certain time period. Bach was the high point of Baroque music (and one could argue, all music), Gluck was a revolutionary (in his ideas about opera). Mozart was the high point of the classical era, Beethoven was a revolutionary. Most of the Romantics were revolutionaries because they broke with old forms, and either created new ones, or bent the forms to their liking, or both.

Composition is brutal, painful, and emotionally exhausting. Anyone who disagrees is not a composer. It is a calling. It’s not for everyone. I don’t even think it’s for me; I just love the work, and the end result. It is such a rewarding feeling hearing your music played.

This whole thing has been a ramble, and that is due to my current exhaustion, but I feel that I wanted to say this.

About Why must you use all the notes

So much to do, so little reason to do so much of it...
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