Inside the Head of a Composer

Inside the Head of a Composer

Lifting the Curtain On the Composition Process

Published on March 30, 2016

Last Tuesday, I found myself standing in the elevator with a raincoat-clad Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the most prominent composers in the world. In that moment, he looked like any other person battered by a New York City rainstorm.

An encounter like that spurred my imagination: Did John Corigliano once trip on a stair as he walked up to his composition class? Is the professor occupying Béla Bartók’s former office aware of the Hungarian folk tunes that were written out into compositions on their desk? These world-famous musicians both once called Columbia home.

Humming down College Walk, writing music and lyrics for the Varsity Show, and tripping over the same pesky stair in Dodge Hall that refuses to hold in place, generations of Columbia composers began their perpetual search for a musical voice.

Peter Lerman got his introduction to large-scale music theater writing while at Columbia. Lerman, who graduated from Columbia College in 2005, is now a musical theater composer based in New York City. As the composer for the 109th Varsity Show, Lerman was able to learn and practice the type of music writing that has come to define his professional career.

“For preprofessional experience, [composing] the Varsity Show was actually very close to the experience of writing a show off Broadway. They’re not that different,” Lerman says. “There are the same sort of deadlines, there is the same sort of pressure, and there is the same sort of creative goal, which is to put on a show and then put it out for the audience.”

Netherlands Carillon by Peter Lerman

He remembers his time composing for the Varsity Show fondly, but he is not one to rest upon what he has done in the past: As a musical theater composer, Lerman continues write new music.

“One of the really nice things about being a composer is that you can finish a project and consider it done and move on to the next thing,” Lerman says. “You can really constantly branch out into new things.”

But this creative effort can be difficult to embrace, given the lonely nature of composition.

The daunting process of creating music from a blank page makes composers vulnerable—fear and doubt cloud their minds. However, Lerman knows how composers can counteract the anxiety: Just start writing.

“It’s a lonely page and you’re there with your mind,” Lerman explains. “The moment that you actually break the ice and start to get words down or a fragment of the music down, that’s when it comes to life and that’s when I forget about all the other anxieties.”

Thanks to collaborations with other musicians, Lerman avoids being stuck in solitude. “You have people [collaborators] who really do breathe life in different ways. Choreographers change the way you think about a song, or the director can have a varied take on how you know the way a song should operate dramatically,” Lerman observes. “It merges all creative concepts, and that sort of keeps it fresh and alive.”

Ultimately, all of these processes—workshopping, getting those first ideas down on paper, having his works performed at Columbia and off Broadway—have given Lerman the chance to get to know himself better.

“I have learned a lot about generosity—it’s really important to be generous with your fellow artists,” Lerman acknowledges. “In my experience, you get so much back from the people you work with.”

Washington to New York by Peter Lerman

Lerman hopes to assuage the concerns of composers who believe their compositions will have to be drastically different once they leave Columbia.

“The line between being a composer at Columbia and being a composer in New York is very, very thin. There’s really no difference,” Lerman says. “It’s not like you do something successful at school and you are to go out into the world and be overwhelmed, I think you can sort of find your unique voice.”

“I think music has its own language, and its own life, and its own parameters,” Joan Tower says.

Tower, who received a master’s degree in music composition in 1964 and a doctorate of musical arts in 1978 from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, is one of the pioneering female composers in the world of classical music—a typically male-dominated field.

Tower is a self-proclaimed purist. While she’s tried to accept other media, she can’t abandon the language of pure, instrumental music. Vocals are a distraction for her because she finds a discontinuity between the meaning of the text and the meaning of the music.

Big Sky by Joan Tower

Her high regard for pure music–solely instrumental–has led her works to be in high demand by orchestras. She ranked as the third highest played living composer from 2010 to 2011.

Because her works are played so often, Tower has had the unique experience of listening to her past compositions performed live. Such an opportunity is rare, when most modern classical works are played once or twice and then rarely heard again.

Tower’s success can also be attributed to her editing process. She urges that any revisions done after the performance of a work should be completed within a few weeks. She notes that if a student were to revise 20 years later, they would be in a completely different place than they were earlier.

She sees a composer’s growth as entangled with their development of a voice that identifies them. “How do you get closer to that voice and make it really stand out? That’s probably the hardest thing for a composer,” Tower says. “Getting a voice, having a voice.”

The process of soul-searching, though, pays off in the long run. Tower can identify any major composer from four chords, thanks to their distinct voice. While Lerman sees voice as something developed over time when a composer is out in the world, Tower thinks voice is something that can be developed by a specific process.

But being experimental—going into unchartered territory—is a good place to start.

“You [have to] take a risk, which could be many things: It could be a longer note, or it could be a louder passage,” Towers explains. “When you start doing that, you start finding out more about who you are, about where your voice lies. It’s not easy.”

While listening to her past works, Tower likes to label them into three groups of children based on their merit: boring, delinquent—those that perform really well sometimes and really embarrassingly at others—and stars, “the [children] who get picked up and played all the time,” she says.

Her delinquent children sometimes make her shudder. “My music is played quite frequently and there are certain delinquent works that I can’t accept them. Every time they get played, during the same passages I cringe–I go, ‘Oh, here it comes!’”

Thankfully, the opposite happens when Tower hears her stars. “I just sit there and smile and think, ‘Wow, I made good choices.’ Both happen.”

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 by Joan Tower

She warns composers, though, against getting infatuated with their children, no matter how tempting it is to overlook a work’s negative feedback. “[Composers] want their ‘child’ to be a star, to be strong, and to be saying something powerful,” she says. But even though it is much tougher, it is much more rewarding to confront what’s not working in a piece.

“Otherwise, you don’t grow as a composer and you also don’t look at the reality of what you’ve done before. It’s tough, it’s tough, you have to be unilaterally honest with what you are hearing.”

After having their children performed for the first time, Tower recommends that her students hold that same honest standard with themselves. Most, though, tend to be hesitant.

“Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t want to do that! I don’t want to do that to that piece!’ They want it to go far, but it’s painful.”

Katherine Cartusciello, a senior composer at the School of General Studies, describes herself as flighty, fluttery, and bouncy. Her energized demeanor might be a byproduct of the genre in which she has spent most of her musical efforts: musical theater.

Columbia has allowed Cartusciello to bring her dynamism to pursuing new genres. Since coming here, she has written for classical chamber groups, guided by lessons from the same raincoat-clad man I met in the elevator, Georg Friedrich Haas.

When considering what she wants to write in a piece, Cartusciello thinks about the emotional states she wishes to portray in her piece as her primary goal. Her lofty goal can make revisiting a past work—and embracing that same honesty Tower asks of her students—an embarrassing experience.

Excerpt from Witching Hour by Katherine Cartusciello

“There’s a little bit of a cringe when I look back at old pieces, because I just know so much more than I did back then,” Cartusciello admits. “I didn’t have access to musicians, so a lot of my stuff was done on MIDI,” she says, describing Musical Instrument Digital Interface—a computer software that plays music with generated versions of instruments instead of live ones.

Armed with more experience, Cartusciello sees her recent work as more substantial and stripped of the over-the-top angst and drama it once had.

“Back then, my pieces were very surfacey. … It wasn’t exactly like representing that emotion itself, it was my idea of it,” Cartusciello reflects. “Now I have a better idea of what that emotion or what that feeling is, so I feel I’m better able to represent it musically.”

Since Cartusciello’s music is guided by personal emotional experiences, the compositional process becomes extremely tiring, albeit rewarding, for her.

“Every single piece I write takes a piece of my soul with it. Mainly because I usually put it off until the last minute and that piece of my soul comes from just sleep deprivation,” she says jokingly.

But on a more serious note, she remarks a hollowness after finishing a piece. “I sit there and I’m like, ‘Holy crap, I’m done!’ But then I kind of feel empty,” she describes. After putting so much into a piece, she doesn’t know where to go once it is completed.

Cartusciello’s decision to write music portraying emotions may have something to do with a specific traumatic event in her life. When she was in high school, a friend of hers passed away from Ewing’s sarcoma. The night her friend died, Cartusciello sat down and wrote a song called “City Sky.”

“It took me like two hours and then it was just done, and it was kind of my tribute to her,” Cartusciello remembers. Before that song, her music had been completely different. Cartusciello describes it as having been very dramatic and over the top, complete with full orchestrations. “City Sky” changed her musical approach, though.

Strain by Katherine Cartusciello

“[It] was just a guitar and a voice, and the whole idea was about the lyrics because they were about transcending,” she says.

The tragedy left her needing to write music because she couldn’t keep her emotions bottled up inside of herself anymore. The experience of writing something emotional from a bare, vulnerable state, profoundly affected Cartusciello’s compositional development.

“Once I did, my music started to take on more a mature turn … because I focused on just the fundamentals and only the information that needed to be conveyed,” Cartusciello says. “It was very minimalistic, but to this day I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.”

What Charles Wuorinen cares most about is the pursuit of the art itself. He believes that composers should always aspire to uphold the worth of the work as most sacred, as most valuable, while writing.

Wuorinen, who graduated from Columbia College in 1961 and received a master’s degree in music from the Graduate School of Arts and Science in 1963, is a highly respected composer fluent in writing for orchestra, chamber music, choir, and opera.

Flute Variations I by Charles Wuorinen

“Art can serve a social purpose, it can serve a political purpose. But that’s not the reason to do it,” he states. “Why in the world would you want to go through all the trouble of writing a big complicated piece of music in order to present a political message? It’s much easier to paint posters and go out and demonstrate.”

Wuorinen recalls a time when he was asked to vote on granting tenure to a professor who painted nude self-portraits in an attempt to critique the male stereotype of female beauty. He said he could not grant her tenure. He did not find the work to be good.

“Social smocial.” Wuorinen says, in a mocking tone. “If the work is worthless, it’s worthless. As Stravinsky always said, I’m not interested in the sincerity of the paper, I’m interested in its worth.”

In the pursuit of worthy art, Wuorinen moves from one project to the next at a rapid pace, not doting on what he has composed in the past. But that doesn’t mean he is rejecting his previous pieces.

“When I come across in performance, or in some circumstance pieces that I’ve written many years ago, I’m often happy with the result,” he says.

Wuorinen considers reflection on past works to be futile. Instead of reflecting, a composer should keep on composing in pursuit of an unforeseeable goal.

“I don’t ever look back at the past and say I wish I could go back to that period, or I wish I could go back and write that kind of music again,” Wuorinen states. “If [a composer] is worth anything as an artist, one’s always—as cliché to say it—engaged in a kind of search.”

Although the compositional search caused shifts in his musical output, Wuorinen has noticed a constant element in all of his music.

Stanzas Before Time by Charles Wuorinen

“I will say one thing that I think is a constant thread in my music since the beginning is a desire for a narrative–a narrative thread.”

Nowadays, he believes composers do not know how to pursue the worth of music, how to compose with good taste. He credits their inadequate treatment of composing to the change in the teaching of composition.

In the past, music professors would assign students technical assignments, such as writing a minuet for a string quartet. The process allowed composers to find their own voice within preestablished musical forms. But without following any sort of structure, modern-day student composers—to Wuorinen’s displeasure—follow only their whims.

“Start by imitation,” he advises young composers. “And inevitably you find your own path.”

Some may argue that imitation limits creativity as well as self expression. Wuorinen does not. He believes that the voice is inextricably tied to a composer’s works, even if they are emulating others’ work for inspiration.

“It’s not a question of self expression–that’s completely bogus. You have a self and you’re stuck with it; there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not something you go looking for, it’s there and the way it is expressed is through the action of producing the work, period,” Wuorinen declares. “Self-expression is usually just a cover for self-indulgence.”

Wuorinen believes music composition demands intensive study in order for composers to develop. In that way, music is similar to any other discipline. Just as biology students learn from the textbooks and from their lab reports, compositional students should commit to an exhaustive and complete study of the standard literature.

“The same thing is true of any art, of any science. All these things can be subsumed under get familiar with the literature,” Wuorinen says. “Study the scores of the past and present.”

Jeremy Corren is a junior at Columbia College majoring in music with an extensive background in improvisation and jazz piano. His studies have allowed him to write for new music chamber music groups like the “TAK” Ensemble and the Counter)Induction ensemble.

Despite Wuorinen’s claim that modern student composers compose without any processes or detailed forms—in a “cloud of vagueness” he bemoans—Corren uses a very detailed compositional process when writing. He begins by considering the instrumentation he has and those instruments’ unique capabilities.

“I spend a good amount of time just hashing out some of the musical ideas of the piece, thinking about my constraints, my sonic constraints, what kind of ensemble I am working with for the first couple of weeks,” Corren explains, “just to get the idea of what kind of a world I’ll be creating for the piece.”

Excerpt of Half-Air Half-Snow by Jeremy Corren

Corren is currently writing an upcoming piece for three string players, a clarinetist, and pianist. As he is composing, he considers the unique sound palette available much like artists assess the paint they have on hand before working on their canvas.

“I like to say OK, I have this group of instruments, they’re all playing different instruments, and each of these instruments has different acoustic personalities,” Corren says.

He then looks for where the unique sonic properties of the instruments he has might intersect.

“I make a map and say OK, here are all these possibilities of all these kind of weird, kind of funny, fuzzy pitches that those that lie within the Western harmonic system.”

Corren takes his sonic maps and compares the results to see where they might overlap. His orderly approach takes out the mysticism surrounding composition. It also allows him to avoid repetition. Prior to developing his process, he would sit down at a piano, begin to improvise, and then write down his results. He warns against going about composing this way.

“The trouble is that you end up mostly sort of revisiting these same things you are regularly thinking of,” he says.

Some may argue that his detailed system limits his creativity or imagination. However, Corren believes that it lets him express his imaginations more clearly. Before, his musings on the piano were all that he wrote into his music, without thinking long and hard about the ideas his wished to express in his music.

Corren sees another hidden advantage to working the way he does. He has been able to create a secret repository of information that he can draw from—both for his current compositions and for his future ones.

After detailing his process, Corren points out that the art of composition is not found in the actual writing down of notes on a music sheet.

“If you are sitting down and writing down notes on the page as the music comes to you, I mean, that can’t be the best way to do it, right?” Corren remarks. “You’re trying to come up with something and simultaneously translate it into something that instrumentalists can interpret into sound at the same time, and that’s a very arduous process.”

Since Corren focuses much of his process on abstract ideas, he recognizes that it is easy to get lost in the abstract thinking—neglecting the end goal of a living musical sound. However, there is a remedy.

Knell by Jeremy Corren

He explains that avoiding getting lost in the abstract entails “always saying, ‘Can my ideas be executed by instrumentalists?’”

Corren’s compositional process was not developed overnight. Rather, he sees compositional development as a wandering search, moving toward an invisible goal.

“That’s what allows you to sort of discovering your view that you actually care about,” Corren remarks. It is through the wandering search that Corren is able to get closer to the unique, personal voice Tower describes.

Corren sees his musical efforts as the pursuit of an ultimate goal. Though he doesn’t believe composers can ever completely reach it, they’ll still evolve along the way.

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