Saturday, October 27, 2007


I'm pondering an odd project for this blog in November: composing a small piece each day and putting the scores online here. My idea is to compose a set of what might be called 30 Exercises in Style & Possible Solutions to Assorted Musical Problems, otherwise entering into the project without predetermined ideas about the resources required, methods invoked, connections between individual pieces. Each piece should be complete, self-sufficient, and with a duration of at least the better part of a minute but without an upper limit. Scores may be in a tradition notation or not, and some may be more practical and others more conceptual in nature.

(I'm interested in this project because of a commitment to having a repertoire of really new music scores as an online presence, without the mediation of traditional publishing institutions. But the idea of a piece each day is a good one for any of you who might be stuck. Lou Harrison shared this advice for "blocked' composers from Virgil Thomson: "Simply compose one short piece a day. It must be a complete composition each day. It is like 'kindling' ~ one day along will come a more important idea that will require extensive work ~ the flame is thus lit & away you go! It is important, he says to keep regular appointments with the muse ~ if she doesn't arrive then it's not your fault, at least You are there!")

I've tried, if not always successfully, to keep a certain distance between this blog and my own compositional activity, trying to use the blog more to open up some conversation about matters musical and beyond rather than as a promotional instrument, so I have some reservations about this. So, if anyone has any objections, and you'd prefer that I hold forth on Mandarin swearing in Firefly or such, please let me know, and I'll just figure out another way to agitate.

Update: Doing daily composition is already part of my routine, and this blog has been basically an extension of the little journal entries I write while doing that composing. My concern here was whether or not putting these pieces on line would be out-of-line with the spirit of this blog.


Anonymous said...

No objections -- on the contrary, it will be interesting to see what you come up with, and to read what you have to write about the experiment afterwards.

David Ocker said...

I say "whatever turns you on, Daniel." Writing a large number of short pieces can be a very good thing - something I've learned directly from my own experience.

In my opinion, however, your plan is already lumbered with a forest of precomposition. Why do you have to decide ahead of time to write "one piece per day for a month"? Why not two pieces on average per week until, I don't know, you tire of the formula or think of a better one?

And (also in my opinion) your pre-chosen title is overly pedagogical. I don't know who is having these "assorted musical problems" of which you speak, but they also could be writing a passel of short pieces.

My suggestion to you (which of course is worth less than the paper it isn't written on) would be "write a short piece in the next day or two. If you enjoy doing that, write another one pretty soon afterwards. Repeat."

The quote from Lou (or is it from Virgil) seems right to me depending on the exact meaning of regular appointments. I would prefer to base them on social periodicities rather than astronomical ones.

When you've finished a "bunch" of pieces, you might review them as a group. Maybe you'll notice similarities which you wish to avoid in future short pieces. Or maybe those very similarities will inspire you to some new intensity of composition.

Trying to create an exhaustive compendium of styles or solutions is going to make writing the last piece of your "book of etudes" excruciatingly difficult. I would suggest approaching each new piece with the same open mind and blank paper. Or with both blank mind and paper.

Creating an online library of new pieces unmediated by "traditional publishing institutions" seems like a fine idea. Good luck getting the people to browse the stacks.

Having written a half dozen paragraphs for your blog, maybe I should plunder them as filler for for my own. My own little bits of composing time have been drained by a 25 minute five movement behemoth. When I finally am happy with the sound of that beast ("real soon now") I fully intend to return to writing short pieces. They're easy and fun. And no one ever need know about the failures.

Unknown said...

Welcome to my world ... sort of. :)

Good luck! And write about your state of mind, please.


Alex Shapiro said...

A composer composes. Any etude-like excursions are great! They keep the mind and, more importantly, the heart and its first impressions nimble and open. Plus, without the paralyzing onus of "I Have to Write a Significant and Important Piece," a composer can relax and enjoy a stream of consciousness. Either we end up with short works that are terrific on their own, or we get a bunch of raw ideas, quite a few of which might be terrific fodder for that Significant and Important Piece. Win-win, no matter what.

petemaskreplica said...

I've done a similar thing myself in the past (in fact, that's how my own blog began). I think once you rid yourself of the idea that you've got to write something polished, or significant, or even any good, and just get on and "bloody well compose" (as Elisabeth Lutyens said) it's wonderfully liberating. :)

Anonymous said...

All you're really talking about is journaling, which lots of people do. A journal in music – I did that every day for the year 1999. The only significant difference is that I did not commit myself to making "finished" works. So, your "journal" is already intended for publication, like professional writers who already knows the private work will be published as soon as they die, sometimes sooner. A journal, musical or otherwise, is already different, I would suggest when the fact, or expectation, of publication is a given.

Nothing wrong with that.

My own experiment in musical journaling opened up a lot of creative territory, was truly fun, produced a lot of finished polished works, and also a lot of raw material that I am still finding places for in current pieces. It also took on an identity as a composition in itself, leading to a certain amount of planning that developed within the piece, not in anticipation of it. A specific example:

The journal entry No. 127 was a "Rosicrucian Prelude", for piano. I had such fun with that that I wrote a second prelude the following day. Then it occurred to me that I should write two more, placed symmetrically, the same distance from the end as the first are from the beginning, imposing a shape on the journal as a whole. That meant I had several months to anticipate those two days in which I would be writing the next preludes.

Some people would eschew that kind of thinking or planning. But that's my idea of a good time, another thing to try as a compositional approach.

David Ocker seems to suggest that the amount of precomposition you have already done is a "burden". I would suggest that pre-composition is just part of the whole process of creating any piece of music, and plays a greater or lesser role depending on the composer and the piece. But where does "pre-composition" end and "composition proper" begin?

Lucky Mosko's widow, flutist and composer Dorothy Stone, recently found 200 pages of pre-composition working notes for one of his pieces. That's how he worked, and why his music is not mine, or Ocker's.

So, this is just my long way of saying your specific parameters and plans for an extended set of short pieces is just one variation on a quite interesting and much-tried theme. I suspect you will have a great deal of fun with it, and learn a lot from the experience. You may even write some decent music! (No dig intended).

By the way – just one last aside – only today I was reading about a Residents album all the pieces of which are one minute long. Those arbitrarily chosen restrictions seem to be getting increasingly popular. Guy Livingston has been soliciting piano pieces one minute or less, and there are "miniaturist ensembles" in both New York and Vancouver. I remember the I.C.A. presenting a concert of 19 very short orchestra pieces in the 1980s.

So, write on! Arbitrary restrictions "can" lead to some very inspired and unforeseen work.

David Ocker said...

Art said: "David Ocker seems to suggest that the amount of precomposition you have already done is a "burden". I would suggest that pre-composition is just part of the whole process of creating any piece of music, and plays a greater or lesser role depending on the composer and the piece. But where does "pre-composition" end and "composition proper" begin?"

Well, I'm no fan of pre-composition even though my teachers tried to teach it to me. I sucked as a Pre-Composer.

But I can't say I don't precompose because just about anything not conceived of in the moment and written down immediately might be considered pre-composed. If I have an idea to start a piano piece today but don't write the first note until tomorrow, that's arguably precomposition. Just like Mozart deciding ahead of time whether the movement will be sonata or rondo form.

But I think we all realize that the term precomposition is considerably more specific in our day and age. It involves planning of details and/or structure in advance usually followed by a mechanical assembly of the schematic. It's often associated with some sort of process.

I'm of the opinion that both precomposition and process have not served music well and they ought to be quickly relegated to the history of music.

Of course I know that mine is the minority view on this issue. I don't know whether Daniel uses either in his music on a regular basis. I might get a hint if he starts posting pieces tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Residents album Art mentions is called The Commercial Album. I invested in a copy when someone mentioned it to me around the time I was beginning to think of my own short pieces as "30 Second Spots".

The Commercial Album is really awful. Art, you can have my copy if I can find it and you promise not to give it back.

The ICA concert Art refers to allotted each composer two entire minutes. A huge amount. But, as I remember, the motivation was not aesthetic - it was an attempt to allow as many local composers as possible a chance to have their work performed on the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. More of a political, share the wealth thing. I remember that there were 21 pieces - but my memory isn't what it used to be.

I remember that concert co-incides with someones wedding date. Is that right?