What next?

For the past seven years I’ve been composing, searching for my ‘own voice’ (or compositional language, whatever it is called) has been an ongoing aspiration. I have, however, never sincerely considered how to achieve a ‘voice’ as such. I thought that as long as I kept myself open to exploring new techniques and a variety of musics, I would eventually muster sufficient ‘essence’ (or experience) to forge a unique identify in my own pieces. At this point of writing, I still agree there is truth in a thought as such, but with the awareness that the extent of my ‘openness’ (the size and shape of my ‘fishing net’) is influenced by my aesthetic predilections.

There is nothing objectively wrong with predilections. (Is there ever any, in the realm of musical subjectivity?) They are very much reflections of one’s personal background (familial upbringing, living conditions, etc.), musical training, listening habits, … One’s self, really. What is crucial, I realised, is that one (especially a composer) not only consciously acknowledges predilections, but seeks to broaden their scopes beyond one’s comfort. In other words, it is possible for one to constantly grow to discover new likings, particularly those significantly different from previous likings. It might seem contrived to force oneself to like things that one evidently doesn’t. Yes, it feels all the more ironic when we view our musicking as a way and source of enjoyment and fulfilment (again, whatever those mean). Yet if one sees things through the perspective of time, and considers one’s non-likings as indicators in the mere present, then one has to confront the possibility of changes to one’s predilections in the future. This is a helpful mental corrective at times when I feel ‘enslaved’ to my predilections in an a priori manner: “I don’t know if I’d come to like this thing I don’t like. I might, eventually. So why not confront it and try liking it now?”

In retrospect, I realise that this acknowledging and confronting of predilections has been the implicit process which kept my mind open to influences (withholding pre-judgements), and developed a curiosity (or inquisitiveness) in my musical consciousness. I am solidifying this thought process into words now as (what I hope to be) a strong antidote to a recent bout of falling back to well-learned patterns in my compositions. More plainly, I became conscious that I was repeating myself from one piece to the next, despite each being written for different ensembles, and set in different contexts. Very likely, this resulted from the level of intensity at which I worked in Autumn term; I had continued to work (albeit at a slower pace) over the two-week Christmas break. I think I was juggling up to eight composition projects; it was difficult to avoid the impulsive mindset of getting each one done and over with. Yes, I was enjoying myself composing away (relative to my essay-writing undergrad life at Cambridge). But working at such a level of intensity (in a short span of three months) entailed getting used to be able to write on cue, and finding a technique that could generate pieces which (1) I am satisfied with and (2) could be completed quickly. This also meant that I was developing a certain way of writing I was very comfortable with, to which I could default when faced with possibilities for which I wasn’t prepared (you know, the forked road ahead).

I think I have been somewhat (moderately) conscious that I was getting comfortable with using certain patterns since November 2017. The tipping point was, ironically, my first piece of this year (2018), Season. So much for a new beginning. The piece is a setting of my friend (Dylan Lim’s) eponymous poem, for (undecided) voice and piano. As per how I usually approach text—copying the poem out, internalising it, analysing and dissecting its form—I considered my setting to be a re-imagination of the poetic narrative, one which went from blissful, dancing joy, to callous indifference. I finished the piece (a short one, ca. 3’40) in a week, over the new year weekend. But as I was writing it, I kept catching myself taking ‘the easy way out’ in particular situations.

The most obvious ones are the transitory passages, I think. Like this one from bb. 30-37:

Season (2018), bb. 28-40

I have used a continuous deceleration in the piano part to transit from a fast-moving texture (and rhythmic activity) to a moment where the singer gets some ‘aria-tic’ freedom to deliver the next line of text with disillusioned languor. Now I catch myself doing the same thing in my harpsichord writing in my previous piece, repose I (2017), for baroque flute, viol da gamba, and harpsichord:

repose I (2017), bb. 64-73

Although, yes, the form in which the deceleration happens in the harpsichord part seems slightly more complex (with the added dimension of a registral contraction) compared to the piano part in Season. Maybe I am being unfairly harsh to myself. But maybe I should? Couldn’t I have done things differently? This deceleration pattern (I call it a ‘slinky’) has become an easy solution to my working out of a transition or linking material—it has turned into a kind of musical ‘filler’. If I can’t think of anything to do (honestly it’s more like, before even thinking of anything else), I’d turn to this slinky. It’s kind of like a compositional ‘failsafe’, I realised.

My line-writing has fallen into default patterns as well. Look at these bars from Season

Season (2018), bb. 25-29 (vocal part)
Season (2018), bb. 60-65 (vocal part)

… and compare them with my instrumental writing for Excitations (2017), a piece-in-progress started in October last year:

Excitations (2017), bb. 1-4 (flute part)
Excitations (2017), bb. 17-19 (guitar solo)

It is this same leap-fall-leap / fall-leap-fall approach to line contour, and subsequently dropping down by sevenths (and then going into the ‘slinky’). Same thing over and over again. I wouldn’t call this a ‘style’; it seems more like a tic, or an annoying pet phrase. I know it seems weird writing an essay to bash myself (and whine in some sort of self-pity), but I am using this as a way to come to terms with my repetitive habits, and to try to depart from them. Why? Predilections. Staying open—in fact, as open as possible, because I know that my ‘fishing net’ would inevitably get smaller and smaller with age, especially after leaving school. I’d become more and more ‘stubborn’ (whether I can help it or not) and insistent on certain ways twenty, thirty years from now (that is, if I don’t die before that). If I begin closing my ‘net’ now, am I not short-changing myself of unexplored compositional possibilities? I ought to have multiple routes (or options) to each situation, and each of these junctures should give pause to my compositional process. I wish to distance myself from this Pavlovian leaping for the ‘slinky’.

Last Thursday, I raised my concern to Jono during my principal study lesson, who tried to summarise his take on the ‘concern’ I was having—he said he’d call it a kind of ‘harmonic and rhythmic fluidity’ in my writing. When he said that, I was reminded of where all these could have started. I think it was my first lesson with Richard Causton (in my third year at Cambridge), during which he was encouraging me to explore a kind of ‘floating’ rhythmic writing by tying over barlines, and using quint-/sex-/septuplets to lend a quality of suppleness to my lines:

Assignment set by Richard (his writing)

Back then, it was a necessary ‘spark plug’ to spur me on from writing solo vocal lines like these, which (more rightfully) belong to a choral context:

‘String-Theory’ from …-ing a sound-… (2016), bb. 15-17 (mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, and bass parts)

Since then, I have constantly been trying to ‘free’ my line-writing, not only from the boundaries of rhythm, but also ‘conventional’ pitch restrictions. I became more adventurous with leaps of increasingly larger intervals—thus far I am brave enough to do ninths; any larger, I need intermediate ‘stepping stones’. So this way of handling lines, I realise, has been quietly developing in my compositional habits, into its present form, which has in turn become a default.

Jono also suggested that I try physically cutting up my scores and rearranging the fragments with my eyes closed, as a way of taking my material out of context, which could possibly help me identify and isolate the patterns to which I feel I keep defaulting. So I went back and tried this on Season:

Score of Season (2018) in fragments

I realised that the cutting itself matters; what I chose to include (and thus exclude) in each fragment greatly affects the result; the smaller the fragment, the further I distance myself from their original contexts, and hence the ‘freer’ the fragment became. Initially I was still relatively ‘conservative’ with my cutting, allowing entire phrases to remain intact, but I gradually realised that for this exercise to be effective, I had to get on with brutal dissections. I did not include all the bars from the entire piece. As shown in the photo, I ended up with many re-combinations; looking and thinking through some of them made me confront compositional situations that would not have occurred naturally to me, such as:

Sharp discontinuities in rhythm and texture
Dynamic interruptions in a continuous layer

And of course, looking at the slips of paper made me aware of my ‘default patterns’—I could tell just by the sheer number of times they recurred. However, as I was using only materials from one piece, I felt that the pool of fragments available for reconsideration was still relatively limited, so I decided to mix in fragments from repose I (2017). Also, while shuffling the slips of paper, for practical reasons I had to open my eyes at times to check if the slips were facing up (also to feel for a slip), but the moment I set my eyes on the slips, my mind would immediately start making sense of them. I decided to ask my friends from college for help with the shuffling process, so as to reduce the element of my involvement. More interesting re-combinations (some longer ones) came out of the process. Note that some staffs are flipped, but they are still helpful in indicating a rough shape of the line writing.

Extended line writing (I often break off too soon, before the line develops, I think)
Following through a contour (this one, specifically, isn’t feasible for voice)
Progressing through discontinuity in texture and rhythm
Elaboration of a descending arch shape (note the ‘slinky’ at the end, still)

Certainly, not all the re-combined fragments make sense—things should still be taken with a pinch of salt, in light of the stochastic processes at play. But these particular combinations I have picked out demand serious confrontation; these are compositional situations I would usually avoid. Now the next step, I think, is to devise a list of ideas that I can systematically try to explore in new pieces:

  • Alternative ways to composing / thinking in phrases, especially arch shapes (maybe aim for extreme discontinuity?)
  • Try writing chords (in a ‘chorale’ sense) as a corrective to an obsession with lines
  • For keyboard writing, learn how to keep a continuous, homogenous layer without involving arch contours
  • Try experimenting with sudden outbursts, rather than shying away from them
  • My music seems to be too clean and refined. Try messing around a bit.

These are pretty much notes to self. I have been contemplating these ideas over the past few days. On this point, I should mention that along with carrying out this cutting exercise, I have consciously ‘abstained’ from composing—as I write this, it has been a week since. I did so, in order to stop myself from rushing to complete pieces, which I felt was another big factor in my development of ‘defaults’. I did not do any composing work—really zero (fine, I did write this essay, but it doesn’t count as composing). But the break has allowed me time to reflect, and rendered significant clarity for me to recognise these ‘easy solutions’ I have been using. In fact, much of the insights discussed in this essay has been formed from this week of self-reflection. This very act of writing my thoughts down helps me greatly in solidifying my present aesthetic convictions, besides serving as a document of a period of blockade in my composing life, to which I could refer in future.

As I have shared with several friends, this non-composing week has been kind of a ‘detox’, during which I allowed certain impulses to fade with time, and fill my ears (and listening memory) with music beyond my predilections. I have been listening carefully to Berio’s Sequenza VI (1967) for solo viola, and Voci (Folk Songs II) (1984), for solo viola and two groups of instruments. There are elements in Berio’s writing—presently still foreign to me—which I hope to internalise and acquire. I am also aware that once I grow comfortable with these elements, they could eventually become the new ‘defaults’. But I think as long as I possess an awareness as such—good thing all these are happening now, while I am still studying—I should be sufficiently sensitive when complacency sets in again. Presently, then, I feel that I have a much clearer direction forward (in the sense that I know what I want to avoid doing), and a certain assuredness that I am not composing for the sake of producing many pieces to show (for lessons and College projects), but rather really as a way of learning to explore sounds, so I feel well-poised and confident to start writing again.

2 thoughts on “What next?

  1. This is fascinating stuff! You’ve gained a new reader – even one with a non-aversive attitude towards puns… If nothing else, you’ve given me some new impulse to finally finish my blog on a somewhat different subject.
    I don’t personally think there’s a problem with your slinky. It makes for a nice flow and contributes to your music’s fineness and refinedness, which I also like. Obviously, you’ll try different styles as well, which I look forward to hearing once produced.
    Anyway, will shut up now and let you get on with composing :P


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