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Notes from a composer, Part 8 - In the wilderness

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 16:27 UK Time, Tuesday, 8 November 2011

  • Picture of a wastepaper basket


    It had to happen, I suppose. I’ve got blocked. Things have been going too well, too smoothly. Ideas thought through; orchestration handled without too many issues
    ; plans executed more-or-less according to the schedule I set up. And now, in piece 5 out of 7 - the lightest of all the movements, the scherzo of the set, as I had it in mind - the notes do not come. Or the ones that do come seem wrong.
    What are wrong notes? Why do some seem better than others? Why will some just not do? Why did things flow before, and now everything I write appears to me inadequate? Actually, I have started the piece – I’ve got about 25 seconds to be precise. But the difficulty – and this is so often the case – is how to continue. Many still romantically think it is all about waiting for the muse, for inspiration to strike. But composing is a craft, as much as - perhaps more than - an art. And the issue is all about how to keep the initial image, the inspiration if you wish, in focus as it is extended in time. And now the notes of continuation weaken and dilute.
    Many pieces of course do not have just one image – they are narrative in one way or another, pushing and pulling across a landscape, creating a drama. The music has goals, small and large. These are places to work towards – and the notes come in relation to a larger viewpoint. Britten often used to plan out his pieces with rhythms only at first. Birtwistle likes to talk of the importance of the clarity of the big picture – and the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees.
    Part of my problem perhaps stems from the fact that I’ve moved away as a composer from big designs. Once I did plan out before, and then ‘fill in’. But this often led to a feeling of lack of control over moment-to-moment decisions as to how the music should move. Things felt like they lacked spontaneity. As a result I think my music is much better now in terms of the element of surprise, in its flexibility of form and expressive nuance. But the flip-side is that I have to be pleased with what I’m doing many, many more times while writing – and right now I’m not!
    Do I need to create some goals, some more purpose? I’ve tried – but then the music feels too relentless, too driven – the scherzo lightness is lost. Should I try all the harder to stick with the initial sounds I’ve created? These comprise a single darting line criss-crossing across the orchestra. I could, but when I’ve tried this it feels something of a cop-out. The music needs to keep that freshness but also elaborate, and move off in new directions, rhythmically and pitch-wise – otherwise something too static will set in. Perhaps I am simply not aware enough of the potential of the sounds and musical figures already written contain? Should I analyse them more? Certainly all my continuations appear to shoot off too wildly at the point I’m at. Yet I do know the sounds rather well, even if by intuition as much as labeling – and all that rather goes against my way of doing things at present.
    Another possibility is just to set the movement aside and move on to No.6? I’ve tried this too – but though I’ve started it, I am troubled by not finishing No.5. Somehow, I think the sixth will be better for having finished the fifth!

So what to do? As the meditator does, perhaps: keep replacing the object of meditation in front of the internal eyes – and the ears – and look for a renewed concentration upon it. And also, perhaps, admit once again some more conscious planning. Perhaps, on reflection, my reliance on instinct to sort things out is to rely too much on being inspired. Perhaps I do need to map out some more. From that framework, that side of compositional craft, the right notes – I hope – will again spring.


  • Find out more about Michael Zev Gordon here.
  • Read his seventh post: Still centre
  • Read his sixth post: Venice once again
  • Read his fifth post: Found Objects
  • Read his fourth post: Lost Worlds
  • Read his third post:Time Travel.
  • Read his second post: The composer's dilemma, what to call the piece?
  • Read his first post: Composing as it happens.
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