Be a Composer In Three Easy Steps
This is a paper I wrote at some point during my Master's work. I think I had to do it because I kept forgetting to go to class, but I don't remember putting this much effort into it. It does a decent job of describing how it felt to finally break through various mental blocks about songwriting and composition.
[most emphasis is non-essential]
The compositional process has always been a difficult subject for me to adequately understand. For a long time I put forth a lot of effort to make my style of writing fit into a particular mold, only to be disappointed with the results. For an equally long time I had an idea of the kind of music I wanted to write, but I couldn't find the right method or approach to create this sound I heard.
This diatribe is a way for me to document the various discoveries I made as I began to develop my writing. Some of these things are really "well, duh..." kind of discoveries, but for me they are a way of simplifying important concepts that I find easy to forget.
Although I've written music, in a way, as long as I've played any instrument, it has always been under the guise of improvisational jamming. In this sense, I was writing a piece every time I played any given song; perhaps this is why it was a long time before I ever really wrote a completely original piece of music. As far as I was concerned, the songs were just platforms for (preferably) group improvisation. Even after I began writing, and to a certain extent even now, I always wrote with the intention of leaving space for improvisation.
I soon realized how difficult this can be. Writing in such a manner is kind of risky—not that I'm risk-averse, but you have to accept that when you're taking a risk musically, in real time, sometimes it's just not going to work. Sometimes, you're going to play shit, and there's nothing you can really do about it.
Furthermore, I knew there was other approaches that I wanted to explore. I have long had an interest in electronic music, but had never really considered creating it. This changed when I discovered Apple Soundtrack, and more specifically, the extensive loop library that came with it.
As an aside, I have to acknowledge the role that software piracy played in my development. Due to my history of computational dorkery, I had access to a wealth of audio applications that I certainly could not have afforded at the time. As my professional experience grows, I'm slowly replacing oft-used software with legitimate copies, but I never could have scratched the surface of what's possible electronically without the access I had to this software.
At any rate, working with loops in Apple Soundtrack let me explore a variety of musical contexts without spending a lot of time building the fundamental components. I learned early on to disregard the pitch of the loops I was choosing, which led me to realize Phil's Compositional Discovery #1:
It's Good to Forget Everything You've Learned
I had been struggling with repetition for some time. Even now it's easy for me to really get into a particular groove (or rut) with particular concepts/sounds/patterns. For a long time I would try to use the various theoretical tools at my disposal to try to invent a chord progression, or melody. This would sometimes work, but the result didn't seem very interesting. Every now and then, although I didn't realize it at the time, I would have success inletting my ears find the chords, and the result was satisfying.
Working in prefabricated loops let me practice my arranging skills, and explore things that would take too long to try before. I also had the opportunity to really hear how it would sound if I juxtaposed some rootsy funk against an electro beat, or played soothing piano melodies over abstract atmospheres.
I soon outgrew Soundtrack, and moved onto Ableton Live, and then my personal favorite, Reason. This software really allowed me to perform Rapid Composition Development, but this in itself started to concern me. It seemed so easy to grab assorted material and mash it all together, I felt there had to be a catch. I didn't believe I could really call what I was doing composition.
Of course, months later, I had had the pleasure of composing some really bad music, and it became clear that there was some skill involved. I still attempt to avoid using any particular sample or preset in it's unaltered form, but this did help me understand a phrase I read in Frank Zappa's autobiography:
If It Sounds Good To You, Then It's Bitchen
Another facet of songwriting I have recently been practicing is the complex art of lyric-writing. I'm not a stranger to the written word, but I have a complex relationship with poetry, which seemed to me to be an analog to the lyrics I was trying to write. These complexities are basically due to the fact that most of the poetry I've written in my lifetime has been utterly secret, or shamefully angsty.
This seemed to be reflected in my lyrics, at least in the fact that every song I've ever written with lyrics, at least until recently, were always about the women (or girls, at the time) that were causing me such turmoil.
I didn't want to write the kind of self-indulgent tripe that I heard on the Top 40 stations. These tunes weren't terrible, but I still felt there was something that I didn't like about them. More recently, I thought some more on this matter, and decided that the primary thing that bothers me is overuse of the first person. This is the foundation of another pseudo-discovery:
"I" is a Dangerously Powerful Lyrical Tool
The writer's "I" is something that needs to be used very delicately, especially as a songwriter. Lyrics seem to have a powerful pressure on us as listeners, and the first person really has the ability to put the listener in a serious place.
This idea has an associated concept, and that's the idea of literal word choice in songs. I would find myself struggling to express in song a particular situation that had happened, and I was being far too literal about everything. "Well, I can't use the word 'boardwalk' because it didn't happen there!" The realization that I could choose words that weren't literally significant while still retaining the initial thought was just one more simple idea I had overlooked.
These ideas have recently all come together for me in a more tangible way, as I've begun developing a style of writing that I'm quite fond of. I've been trying for some time to combine my groove-oriented interests with the electronic world that I've been experimenting in. I am definitely a fan of bizarre electronic noise pieces, but I have always felt a desire to write things that a person less familiar with that style might understand.
The beginnings of this combination came to light while I was working on what was meant to be a reggae/ska version of Dizzy Gillespie's Night In Tunisia. This track, which I unfortunately could not resist calling I-and-I In Tunisia, was intended to be a sort of dub piece, but I was experiencing problems in establishing the drum track. Without a real drummer at my disposal, I had resorted to my old standby of assorted drum loops culled from a variety of royalty-free collections.
In my attempts to rectify the situation, I began experimenting with Reason through ReWire. I tried some various electronic beats, and as my exploration deepened, I started seeing how far out I could get and still finish the tune normally—I was hoping to maintain the jazz 'head tune' format, and still end with a couple of choruses.
Although I never really acknowledge a piece as being finished, I was pretty happy with the results of I-and-I In Tunisia. I continued to explore these concepts in a subsequent piece, interlude, which also features a preliminary set of lyrics.
This was one of the first songs with lyrics that I've written in some time, but during the writing process I noticed myself using some lyrical tools I'd gleaned from the hip-hop acts I've been getting into lately. Although I certainly don't pretend to have the wordplay skills of the Digable Planets, or A Tribe Called Quest, I definitely attempted to employ simpler constructs like alliteration and assonance, as well as inner and partial rhymes.
I may not have succeeded completely at this task, but it was an important development that I was consciously thinking about these things while I was writing. I remember once telling someone that as far as I was concerned, lyrics happened by magic. I didn't have any real understanding of them, I just wrote them down as I thought up ways to finish a rhyme, and I was glad to get anything.
Additionally, interlude features one of the more successful electronic breakdowns that I have attempted in a piece, as it transitions into the outro guitar solo. Unlike in I-and-I In Tunisia, I disregard the original groove completely, except for a couple of bars of drums lead-into the original groove.
I'm less than thrilled with the current version of the guitar work in this piece, but I try not to get too hung up with that particular element. I find it difficult to produce quality improvised guitar lines without a live band. This in itself may be a hang-up, but my intent is for this piece to grow with a live band (which will be happening soon), so that element is not too high on my priority list yet.
This was also the first piece I've completed (or nearly completed, as the case may be) on my new Mac G5, which has already freed me of a lot of confines on its own. Like Soundtrack and Reason, a good recording rig allows a composer to explore so much more, and the results even thus far have been well worth the cost. However, I have to say the process of learning various audio tools on a lesser system instilled in me a certain level of efficiency that will allow me to put my rig to its best use.
The personal progress I've made over the last few years is really profound for me to look back on. Particularly when I first arrived at graduate school, I spent a huge amount of time justifying my existence as a writer. Since my application process was so long, taking essentially three tries to be accepted to the program, by the time I finally got in I had developed a real self-flaggelation complex. I really felt a need to prove to myself that I really could call myself a composer.
This was certainly daunting emotionally, but it developed into a real work ethic that I hadn't experienced before. The individual discoveries were made more significant because I had spent so much time trying to find them. I had wanted to be able to write music for a long time, and by the time I realized I could, I'd been already been writing for years.
I think the best way for me to end this rambling piece of personal pseudo-analysis is with another quote from one of my greatest influences, Frank Zappa:
The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting, literally; for other arts, figuratively—because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?