Writing words, tools for composing

IMG_1266I write words as part of my composing process. Some one asked me recently how the two disciplines of writing and composing combine in my practise, so I’ve had a go at listing what goes on in my notebook…

  1. An initial spark for an idea.

I write down any inspiration or a thought about a new idea so that the first moment of a new piece is captured – so that I don’t forget it, primarily, and also so that I can track back to that very first moment when I am further on in the piece and might need to return to the original stimulus (which can sometimes get forgotten or lost in the mix).

2. Verbalising a problem.

If I get stuck and feel I don’t know what I should do next, I write to help determine what the next step should be. I write down what it is I have done so far, and what I perceive the problem to be. Then through this process of examining what is there, usually the next step emerges. This process is extremely helpful. At the beginning, I will be feeling confused, frustrated and at a loss as to what I should do. Through writing the situation down, the wall I have hit tends to disappear, just evaporate, focussing on thinking about what one thing I can do next to move forward. If I can’t find anything specific I encourage myself to take some time to relax, rest and move away from the problem for a little while. Sometimes a whole list of things emerges, which can be a bit overwhelming. When that happens, I look at the list and decide which of these things should be done first, and aim to do that.

3. Celebrating an achievement.

When things have gone well I like to document my feelings. This can be very reassuring when I hit the next sticky patch. I like to reread my notebooks occasionally, and finding an entry celebrating a high reminds me that there is a cycle: of hard work, not knowing, seeking solutions, more hard work and eventually some reward. Sometimes the rewards are unexpected, and often they come a very long time (…decades!) after the initial work was done.

4. Speaking the truth to myself.

When I am really struggling emotionally I write down what I am thinking and feeling physically. Tuning in to my body in detail and noting how it is reacting has been a helpful thing to do, to honour and express what is going on physically. This is a more recent way of using writing that I have developed, inspired by listening to Tara Brach’s talks on RAIN – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture. It is very personal and helps me to dig deeper down into myself. It helps me acknowledge what is there and helps me understand myself in a different way. It has helped to unlock things. It has helped me to give uncomfortable feelings a voice.

5. Noting something cool.

If I read, see, hear, learn about some amazing thing I like to write it down, either just a title or name, which is enough, or my thoughts about it as well. Sometimes I write in detail so I can relive the experience more vividly in the future. Sometimes I might find a new word or phrase to incorporate into my work somehow. I like to copy out significant bits (lines, paragraphs) from books I read. When I revisit them I have often forgotten all about it and am delighted to rediscover them.

6. Creating poetic texts.

Sometimes I find it useful to work words into a poem form. The poems are not necessarily very sophisticated, but for some reason it helps me to do this, I find it entertaining. And occasionally a good idea comes out of it that will either become a poem or a song or something else. No pressure.

7. Seeking the reflected image.

Since 1999 I have deliberately sought out reflections of my intended goal, rather than diving straight for it. This is inspired by the approach of Italo Calvino in his fascinating book about writing: Six Memos for the Next Millennium. One of the ways of seeking out reflections as a composer is to use another form of creating, e.g. writing, drawing, movement, colour, daydreaming. All of which I savour.

So what happens to all these words? Sometimes I share them when talking about the gestation and creation of a piece of music, sometimes I keep my words private. 

I find it reassuring to have my notebooks as a catalogue of the ups and downs of being a composer. Especially as every time I start a new big project I wonder how I ever created anything before.



What am I? Composer? Comuser?

I don’t like the word composer. Recently I’ve been using the world ‘COMUSER’ as a more inspiring and appropriate word to describe what I do – it seems more open, and more interactive than the traditional term. It links with the words ‘muse’ and ‘music’, a co-muser – someone who muses, musically, in a co-operative or in a communicative way with others.

‘Composer’ seems to imply an impression of more didactic and definitive outcomes. Playfulness and imagination are not at the forefront of the word. I remember when I started composing full time that I felt unsure about using this word to describe what I was doing. It took some guts to tell people I was ‘a composer’.

Lots of people I have met also seem to have a problem with the word ‘composer’ – it has a lot loaded onto it on one hand, but very little is known about it on the other. No-one really seems to know what it means, unless they have done it themselves – and not many have.

People seem frightened of the idea of composing, or being called a composer. I often ask people I meet if they compose. They usually laugh, as if it is a strange thing to ask, for someone ‘normal’ to do. I have met musicians who will not use the term in reference to themselves, even though they compose their own music. They ‘write their own stuff’, but they do not ‘compose’. A group of GCSE music students would only admit to ‘making stuff up’ – they could not equate their own musical creativity with ‘composing’.

Do poets and artists, writers, sculptors, dancers and other creators have the same problems with the words that describe their craft?

Two of the common myths about composers are that the music descends from on high, from somewhere ‘else’, and that once written down the ‘score’ takes on some hallowed state, not to be tampered with. In my experience this is not how things happen. The music is built up from nothing, it forms itself in layers through experimentation and play. The writing down is part of the making process, and the score should be treated as a prototype, not necessarily the finished article.

When I am working with solo performers in the creation of new works we are constantly tailoring the fit. Also I like my pieces to have several manifestations, to rework an idea in different ways, to reinvent things. And I like the idea of the musicians feeling free to adjust things to suit their own style, taking more liberties, making decisions.

I have started incorporating elements of improvisation into several works, encouraging the performer to ‘co-muse’ with me. This expands the nature of the finished music in different ways. The player can choose to play things that I could never write down, or the things that are unique to their technique – accessing sounds that otherwise might not be heard.

Just to clarify, the kind of improvisation I am talking about has nothing to do with jazz. I know nothing about jazz, and do not know anything about jazz improvisation. But I do know about the joy of finding freedom through making sounds in an improvisatory way. There is much more to be said about this… and about the reactions of classically trained musicians to being asked to make music in this way.

For now, though, I’d like to present this new word to the world and see if it helps encourage more individuals to make their own music, to compose – and to comuse.