The Art of Composing

The Art of Composing

James Danly May 30, 2015

Scherzetto is the Italian word for little joke, and it’s the title of one of my symphonic works. The composition is a series of episodes that are alternately playful and lush, and this excerpt is from one of the contrasting sections.

Play Scherzetto – cue 1. Time elapsed: 1’ 00”

I want to tell you about my own idiomatic method of composing. We have a number of composers in the audience, and they may do things quite differently.

I start with the seed of an idea. It can be anything from a purely abstract musical thought to something with extra-musical associations, but once I have that seed I explore its possibilities. I create, then edit, then create some more and edit that, and so on, until I have a completed work.

For example, on one of my visits to the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery I was struck by the number of pink-robed, golden-winged angels on display that day. The yearning for the divine that those lovely medieval images evoked stayed with me until I got back to my flat and started composing, and eventually that turned into the third movement of my Serenade for Strings, which I think is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I’ve ever written.

When I first started composing I had trouble with the creative episodes because I thought I had to consciously control every note I wrote down. But then my sister Mimi, who is also a composer, said to me, “Let your music sing.” And that was the key I needed, a dawning realization that I should let my subconscious mind do a good part of the heavy lifting.

It turns out that our conscious minds process some 40-60 bits per second, but our entire mental apparatus runs at 11.2 million bits per second. Ten million of that is for vision, but that still leaves a lot of processing power. It just makes sense take advantage of it.

My most satisfying creative sessions are those that involve intense concentration and a particular mixture of conscious and unconscious thought, a phenomenon psychologists call flow. The hours slip by unnoticed, and when I eventually emerge and return to the world around me I feel mentally and emotionally rejuvenated.

Here’s another strange thing. When I’m working on a composition the draft is never far from my conscious mind, sort of like a companion that travels with me everywhere. And as long as the composition is a work-in-progress it never transposes. If the piece is in E-flat it stays in E-flat, and even though I do not have perfect pitch I can refer to my companion and readily call up that E-flat. All of which makes me wonder if my subconscious mind is working on the composition even when I’m not.

Editing is a much more conscious process, and here I have a checklist to help me evaluate what I’ve done

  • Is it trite, saccharine, banal, monotonous?
  • Or is it fresh? And this is most important: does it tell a story?

My usual practice is to separate the acts of creating and editing. If I compose late at night I will edit the next morning. If I spend the morning composing I’ll take a look at it after lunch.

Of course, what I’ve just described is not as cut and dried as all that. For one thing, form is an integral part of the process. Also, editing can itself trigger a creative episode. And there are many blind alleys, and some creative episodes where I scrap the whole lot. Finally, there’s a lot of minor tinkering at the end until I “get it right,” as Ernst Gombrich used to say. Eventually, though, the work makes a satisfying whole and I know I’m done.

Here’s the last minute of Scherzetto. Listen for the reference to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the last three bars. Stravinsky’s work ends in a shriek. Mine ends in a whisper. That’s the “little joke.”

Play Scherzetto – cue 2. Time elapsed: 1’03”