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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


The Fabulous Brain

(You Can Have Any Colour You Want -- As Long as It's Gray):

Words for Young Composers About Musical Ideas

by Gary Barwin


     For me, how ideas come barging in my door or whispering to me from around a corner is one of the most exciting things about creating music.

     It's an amazing thing to me that we even have ideas. I mean what an fantastic thing -- to be able think up something new. (I don't think squirrels do this. "An acorn? Wow. Hey, lets eat it now, or store it to eat during that big cold thing! Yes, what an idea! Now I think I'll run up a tree. I can't wait to find out what tomorrow will bring...")

MAKING A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLECULE (or, SOME GREAT IDEAS START OUT AS IDEALETTES)

     Some ideas do arrive fully formed. But sometimes you catch just the slightest scent of the idea -- a couple of notes heard in a song, a sense of a shape or just a barely discernible feeling inside you.

     Then you set about exploring, playing around with things, coaxing the idea to become more than just a wisp.

     Sometimes you have a big lump of clay to work with, sometimes you've just got a only little piece, and you keeping rolling it around and gradually adding more clay to it.

MIDDLE C AND D-SHARP, YOU HAVE THREE WISHES

     Sometimes I listen to a fragment of music that I hear (a couple of notes or so). I think something like "if I were these two notes, where would I want to go? What notes would I like around me? What kind of piece would I like to be in?" And I go from there. Architect/Travel agent/Interior designer/Tour Guide/Casting Agent to the musical scale, asking questions to please my "clients."

MAYBE READING THE CEREAL BOX WILL HELP YOU MORE THAN THAT THEORY TEXTBOOK

     I think that one can keep making up different ways to make music. Different questions to ask. Different ways to imagine a piece.

     Is a piece a record of a thought process (going along logically, then getting distracted, excited, forgetful, intensely focussed, starting again from the beginning to review the facts, exaggerating, etc)?

     Is a piece a musical telling of a story? Could the story be told from different points of view? Could a piece tell two stories at once? could the piece be a 'shaggy dog' story -- leading you one way, only to trick you at the end? could a piece be like a soap opera or adventure book and have 'cliffhangers'?

     Can a piece describe a process? Maybe the movements and behaviours of people walking into a cafeteria to get food? What about the process of a kettle boiling? How about an imaginary process -- perhaps the process of people who, as they walk into a cafeteria to get food, begin to turn to steam? What happens if you make up these crazy scenarios and then try and imagine the music that would go along with it. (Once you've generated some music, then you could forget the process or story, and just work with the music that you've created). What if a piece described driving from your school downtown? Maybe the flute line would be you in a car and everything else would be the street, traffic,buildings, people, etc?

     Could you imagine what kind of music your dog would like to listen to? Or an alien that doesn't understand anything that doesn't come in twos -- or one-and-a- halfs?

     What if you made up a scale, or a new set of theory rules? What would happen if you generated a whole lot of notes and composed (decomposed?) only by erasing some of those notes and not by ading any others. Of course you could cheat if you wanted to (I won't tell...)

WAS BEETHOVEN'S NINTH SYMPHONY LUMPY CRUD TO LUDWIG?

     Sometimes when I think that I'm going to create a masterful sculpture, I end up with lumpy mishapen crud. Of course, many times, if I stop thinking about what I was planning to make, and just go with how the material seems to be forming, that lumpy mishapen crud is much more interesting than my initial idea.

     I am a great believer in trusting the process. I often have some kind of notion of what I am trying to create, but when I start composing, something else suggests itself, and so I go with that. I try and not have too many preconceptions. I've found that the process, my listening to the material, results in much richer music than what my initial ideas would have suggested.

     If I make a mistake (for example, mistransposing something, or playing a wrong note) I often notice that it has resulted in something more striking that what I had intended. (Of course sometimes, it just sounds like a mistake.)

I CAN FEEL IT IN MY BONES, TEETH, AND LEFT KNEE

     For me, sometimes I feel a kind of time-feel in my body. I imagine a sense of lines moving, some kind of feeling about the shape and the kind of things that the notes are likely to do. This is often where I begin.

     Sometimes I have an idea based on something I've listened to, or thought about. Last night I had the idea to record my son (age 7) learning to play piano ('Home on the Range') and playing with that wonderful straining time-sense of a beginner. I thought about transcribing those rhythms. Then I thought, maybe I'll take the notes from a Beethoven Piano Sonata and play them using my son's beginning rhythms and see what results. Then I can play around with the material that I've formed.

     In that case, I listened to something that I found interesting. I felt it in my body, but I also liked the 'idea' of it. Then I had another 'idea' -- a 'what would happen if?' -- this time a concept that I thought was cool (use Beethoven's notes). I'm going to use these two things to create something more to listen to (Beethoven played in the rhythms of my son's practising). Then maybe I'll have some other ideas, and certain will feel different things in my body that I will want to respond to.

THE COW MOOD AND I SENSED A SONATA COMING ON

     Sometimes I feel a mood, or feel a sense of texture -- something I can almost touch. Often this comes along with some idea of what kind of musical material would create that feel, but sometimes I don't have any specific musical ideas. Then I have to find out what kind of material will evoke that texture or mood. Sometimes I get lost along the way. I stumble on something else interesting -- some music that doesn't evoke what I was looking for, but that is interesting to me anyway.

STEALING (HOME) BASS

     Sometimes, especially when I was beginning to compose, I would try to imitate music that I liked. I would start writing, and discover soon enough that what I was writing didn't really sound like what I was trying to imitate. It did often sound interesting, and I did want to explore where it would lead me. The piece I was imitating served to get me started, to get me outside of myself and into some musical material. To get me to listen, to attend to the sounds. And that I think is my BIG CONCLUSION, my MORAL OF THE STORY about writing music.

MORAL OF THE STORY

     Never trust that wolf. And be kind to your parents. Oh sorry. Wrong moral. The MORAL OF THE STORY is that you should listen to the music you are writing and see where it seems to want to go, what it wants to become when it grows up. You can make some suggestions, and tell it who's boss, yell at it even. But then I think you should listen again to what you've written and see if your music has any ideas of its own.