How to begin?
No matter what our profession, we all have the same dilemma at one point or another: how do we begin? Whether it’s an artist staring at a blank canvas, a programmer staring at an empty coding screen, or a writer with a blank notepad.
I’m also sure that it’s a question many other people get asked – but as a composer, when I discuss my work with others I am often asked “How do you start composing a piece?” or “Where do you get your inspiration?”.
This all ties into the research I did for my Masters thesis, looking at the topic of auralisation (mental music imagery) and how it is used within the younger, ‘Sibelius generation’ of composers. One of the key areas I explored was how auralisation was used within different stages of the compositional process, alongside other compositional methods. One question I asked was how respondents begin compositions (multiple answers could be selected!), with answers including listening to music, improvising, working at manuscript, working with notation software etc. The top four responses, separated from the others from some distance, were listening to music, working at the piano, auralising (mentally imagining music) and improvising – in that order.
For me, three of those are relevant. If I’m intending to start a new work, listening to other music isn’t a route I go down – in fact, sometimes I actively avoid it in order to ensure my thoughts aren’t swayed in one particular direction. Conversely, auralisation seems to be a tool I use extensively during the early stages of a composition – but differently, depending on what I’m working on.
One piece I’ve recently started is a large scale choral work. The very basics of the piece- some of the very vague concepts and structure – had been something I’d been wanting to write for a while, and was present on my long term ‘to do’ list. However, I’d never really had the time, or the stroke of inspiration to start the compositional process until a couple of months ago. While driving to one of my schools, a melodic fragment popped into my head – which I soon realised would be a perfect setting for the text of this choral work. As soon as I reached my destination, I jotted it down, and carried on on my way. Throughout the next few days, this fragment developed into a sizeable piece. The same thing happened to two other sections of the work – one just as I was falling asleep, and a second as I was walking past St Pauls in the centre of London.
Auralisation isn’t the sole compositional tool in play for the beginnings of this work, however. Another section will be based upon a chord sequence that I stumbled across while improvising – that I originally earmarked for another use, but abandoned when it wasn’t effective. However, this fragment just appeared in my head while working on the structure, as if my mind was sifting through potential material while I was concentrating on other things.
Another way I use auralisation when starting composition is as a form of improvisation. This is precisely how I used it for a second piece, that I’ve just completed – Quintuple for brass quintet. This time, rather than an idea popping into my head, I already had the ensemble in place, and was searching for an idea for them, rather than any odd idea. I worked around the concept of using a less regular time signature, and chose five four – at which point I began playing with ideas in my head. I’m not sure how many rhythmic ideas I cycled through, but I quickly mentally improvised the right one, which then became the foundation of the piece, from which the rest grew. In the same piece of research, I asked participants which methods they would use to continue a composition – with the working at the piano, auralisation and working with notation software respectively being the most popular. Again, I personally use auralisation the most – mainly because once I have an idea in my head, it keeps circling round and round, and changing and developing as it does. I often then take it to the piano, which gives me yet more ideas to work off of, mentally.
Interestingly, I’ve realised that all of the above ideas came to me whilst travelling – the first choral idea whilst in a car, the second while walking, and the third while on a tube train! I wonder if there’s a sign in there somewhere…
I’d be interested to hear how other composers pick up their ideas. Yes, I did the research – but the questions for those areas consisted of multiple tick boxes, so I didn’t get much information. How do you come up with your initial ideas? Then, how do you develop them further? I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has snippets of compositions swirling about inside my head most of the time..!