Music Composers Unite!
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One of great composers (Xenakis if I remember well) said: Two things I require from a composer. He (she) should a) invent and b) astonish me. Most great composers do invent and astonish listeners. The question is who are the listeners and what they get with the astonishment.
They may get a philosophical enlightening, a political motivation or de-motivation, beautiful fairy-tale images, empty-mindness of dull rhythms or song words, joy and desire to dance and sing, beautiful nature images, strong and painful emotions etc. A composer, just like a writer, reflects his (her) own world and feelings of this kind.
So I think a composer should:
a) Well understand what is the thing he (she) is inventing. This can be a new harmony, a writing technique, new instrument combination, new form etc, no matter what is the level of education.
b) Be astonished (inspired and affected) by his (her) own music.
In this case there is a chance to feel oneself a composer and to attract the listeners.
Possibly the term “composer” broadly applies to anyone who attempts to communicate through the medium of music. The term composer applies equally well to the creator of an ephemeral singular improvisation and the creator of a tightly crafted work that is painstakingly reduced to writing.
Composing, as opposed to unimproved improvisation, to a greater or lesser degree takes into cognizants some organizational principles that have the sole objective of increasing the chance that whoever is listening to the music will have the musical, psychological, emotional and visceral experience the composer intended .
Simple short pieces may require less complex organizational structure but the structure is there none-the-less. Schubert’s “little songs” endure not only because the melodic shapes force us to respond, but because the organizational structure is as hard as granite.
As to confidence in your own music, I would suggest that when you are writing you know perfectly well which parts of the composition are the essence of what you are trying to communicate and which parts are less than inspired or even competent. Perhaps these passages are sonic connective tissue to get you from point A to point B. How hard do you work to make that connective tissue viable and consistent with the rest of the piece?
Most composers are indeed terrified at having others, particularly musicians, listen to their new opus for fear that the integrity of the piece be found suspect; the weakness of which the conscientious composer is well aware. I think that composers who view their work-product with any degree of objectivity are always fearful that the seams show and that keen ears and minds will discern exactly how much of the new work is crafted inspiration and how much is blue smoke and mirrors. If memory serves, I believe it was Tchaikovsky who commented that when he heard his own music all he heard were the compositional flaws.
Suppose you develop an interesting and useful melody, or harmonic structure or rhythmic pulse. How hard do you work at revising it, pruning it, shaping it so that it is really what you want it to be? Look at the 45 pages of sketches for the main theme of LVBs 5th symphony 2nd movement.. 45 pages of editing, changing, trimming, and perfecting for one melody- and this was no small talent, this was Beethoven. If Beethoven had to work that hard to craft a single musical line, how much harder would we have to work to produce anything even moderatly interesting?
But when you figuratively or actually put pen to manuscript paper or improvise on your instrument, you are a composer. The question is, are you a good one? That question can be objectively answered by asking another question: Do people honestly respond to your music as you intended?
BTW I believe it was Diagilev who said to Ravel “Astonish me.” I find it interesting that Xenaxis made astonishment an essential ingredient in music and newness the other. I’m not sure I would fully agree. For example, Bach’s music is always astonishing; it creates the dictionary elements of astonishment, i.e., wonder, amazement and surprise. But how he produces those effects is not dependant on “new” compositional techniques. Indeed much of his music relies on harmonic, melodic and rhythmic devices that were already a century old during his lifetime so it is hardly “new” in the sense Xenaxis may have meant it.
Astonishment is an interesting word.. and not chosen lightly. The attributes are almost purely emotional, not intellectual. But the curious fact is that without the intellectual undergirding that supports the musical structure, the emotional content is unfocused and the entire piece in danger of collapse under the weight of its own inconsistencies.
Almost no one can do this on a continuing basis, which is perhaps why Hindemith commented that anyone who claimed to be a composer is boasting.