I tweeted about this a few weeks ago. I decided that for the month of June, I would write SOMETHING on a staff every day.
The idea behind it was the idea behind my early attempts at photography (I’m colorblind, so there’s that) : if I take 30 photographs of this one thing/person/place/event, and then another 30 from a different angle, etc., there’s BOUND to be a good (or even usable) one in the bunch. Cast a wide net.
Some days I only got two bars of the treble staff on the piano done, and poorly. Other days, I managed to get down fifteen or twenty bars of really quite usable music (in my opinion; someone said a good composer doesn’t like his own work, so I shouldn’t say I like it I guess, but I was pleasantly pleased with the result in a few cases).
It’s nothing to be proud of at this point, and the only thing I feel accomplished about is that I stuck to my plan and got some results. At this point, the goal was quantity, not quality. And not even really quantity, just consistency. I tried different things and when they clearly didn’t work, I tried to hash out why, and fix them, or make adjustments, or learn what adjustments could be made. It was a fantastic learning process.
I’ve talked before about my thoughts on different people’s ideas of composing: how Tchaikovsky was such a lyricist but had issues with the concept of a symphony, how Beethoven was a master of developing such small motifs, how Shostakovich claimed that composing should be done and completed as a mental process before setting pen to paper, but how Ravel described it as “75% an intellectual activity.”
So… Taking that all into consideration, at least from my position as an aspiring amateur,
it tells me that composing, like anything else, can certainly be a gift, but also like anything else, is something that one can improve at with that practice and determination. While, to my current experience, I do not have any gift or propensity for composing, I would be eager with study and practice to improve and continue to learn.
It’s something I’m interested in enough that I think I could be self motivated to make up for a few decades of lost time and a lack of talent. If it is in fact, 75% an intellectual activity (adhering scientifically to Ravel’s obviously unscientific figure), then only a quartet is talent or “gift” or inspiration, and if I can get that 75% right, it’s at least a passing grade.
That being said, 25 years of piano lessons and a degree in music certainly would have helped, but there’s not a lot I can do about that now.
The first project was to write for a month, and that’s done. While some of those attempts were arguable failures at best, I knew that out of shotgunning for a month, something workable would come of it, and I am eager to work with those ideas, even take them in multiple directions and keep saving each iteration as I go to see what develops.
I learned a lot, but then life got in the way.
My goal after that point is/was to develop these little seedlings I’d scribbled down and saved and see what can come of them. One little idea may turn into a string quartet, another a sonata. Who knows? I’m in no rush.
I think of cooking…. Baking is such a precise process; it’s truly a science, and I don’t care much for it because of that. Cooking however, is fantastic. It’s far less rigid, less demanding, and as long as you’re not worried about wasting whatever product you’re working with (or having nothing to feed the guests on their way to your house), you can try anything you want. As Julia Child says, “you’ve got to have a ‘what the hell’ attitude.” I am learning that about music. I have read advice composers gave to those aspiring to write music, and something I’ve seen multiple times was the suggestion to take everything you’d learned in university and forget it, because if you try to play by all the rules you learned, while it may be “good,” you’ll never write interesting music.
As for the ‘what the hell’ attitude, I also tried to do different things. Much of the first few efforts were in 4/4 time, in a pretty whitebread key like G or A, and were filled with lots of quarter notes and consonances. Just as important to me as learning what was right was, as I said earlier, learning what was ‘wrong’ and why. So I tried all sorts of chords, weird rhythms, pulled stuff out of everywhere and made up things as I went. As a result, some of the stuff I didn’t overthink became the material that I felt worked the best.
But I still want to know the rules. That’s kind of a basic part of the process. I’m working through all the basics, but I’ve always been one for hands-on experience, and that’s the only way I’m going to get anywhere since I don’t foresee myself taking music theory classes at a university any time soon. I may enjoy the process more than the outcome. At this point, it’s like trying to write a speech in a language I don’t understand. It’s overwhelming, but it will be a lot of fun.