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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Artistic Reflections II: Q & A with the Composers

By Angela Wampler | December 24, 2007

Does a composition appear "complete" in your head, crying out to be recorded or written down? Or does it come to you in bits and pieces — like a puzzle you put together?

Greene: Thomas Edison once said, "Invention is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." I believe the same is true for composing. I believe God gives all of us a "spark of creation." What we do with it is up to us. The more I work on a piece, the more ideas I get. I basically start at the beginning and watch how — measure by painful measure — the piece slowly takes shape. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week (even months) may go by before the work is complete. Even then, a suggestion from a performer or fellow composer can set me revising that work. It is, indeed, like putting together a puzzle. But unlike the jigsaw puzzle which comes in the box, we don't know what that puzzle is going to look like — or sound like — until we're done. There may be a few Mozarts out there who hear entire compositions in their heads and merely need to take "dictation" from God, but not me!

Holler: No, I do not receive a composition complete in my head. Each one comes in bits and pieces. However, there is a process in which I plan an overall structure to hold the bits and pieces. As I proceed, I wonder how the piece will end, and the composition always tells me when it is ready to end. Sometimes, composing is an intellectual process; and other compositions emerge more intuitively, from improvising at the piano. Some require fitting together the pieces of the puzzle, and others come almost as though I'm tuned in to them and I only have to let the music flow.

Kopitzke: Most of the time, short themes show up in my head, often in the most annoyingly repetitive manner; once I write the theme down, my mental playback can rest or move to something else. The rest of composition is the skill, patience, and persistence to connect, extrapolate, and/or expand these themes into music that "makes sense."

McCoy: Only Mozart seemed to have a composition "complete" in his head. I usually start with a melody, or a fragment of one, a mood and the voices of the musicians in my head. I tend to write the melodies first, then other melodic voices and fill out the harmonies last. Then I go back and add an introduction, if I want one. I will then play it many, many times (my husband is a veritable saint) and also play it for my students for a week or so. Spots that need fine-tuning will jump out at me, so I make corrections for a week or so. If I am lucky enough to take it to the next composers' meeting, I get wonderful feedback from my colleagues.

If you're struck by musical inspiration while running an errand, what do you do to capture those ideas?

Greene: Ever since my childhood I have always had some kind of tune running through my head. If I was traveling somewhere, I could usually remember it until I reached my destination. As a composer, I "hear" music all the time in my head. The vast majority of it never gets written down. I remember one occasion this past year when I was driving from my parent's home in upstate New York all the way back to Bristol in one day. I had a melody running through my head for some song lyrics I had with me. I had to pull off the highway and find a practice room at a nearby college where I could complete the song. Such excursions are the exception, not the rule, but it does happen.

Holler: I sometimes get an idea while on my exercise walk. When that happens, I hum the tune until I can return home and write it down. If an idea comes at another time, I find a way to write it down.

Kopitzke: "Struck" is a wonderful word! That is often how it happens. I always carry staff paper and a pencil in my purse. If I'm driving or doing something that I can't interrupt to write it down, I sing or whistle the theme over and over, or attempt mentally to capture it and force it into my long-term memory.

McCoy: It's like cell phone etiquette and safety rules, I pull over to the side of the road — I really do! And I write down the musical thought so I can come back to it later. I keep sticky notes in my car for just such moments, and for grocery items, too. If I am at home and working outdoors, I often come in and sing my idea onto a tape recording.

Perry: If I am inspired to write ideas for music while running errands, I write notes on anything I can find within reach: grocery receipts, old envelopes or napkins, back of my checkbooks or paperbags.

How do you usually compose music? At a keyboard? Do you use a computer? Sheets of paper?

Greene: Aaron Copland once said, "There are two kinds of composers: those who compose at the piano, and those who say they don't." I do most of my composing at the piano. Before computers became available, I used to copy my music laboriously by hand, using calligraphy pens. I found the process of laying out the music on the page to be therapeutic. The resulting page of sheet music was often as beautiful to look at as it was to listen to. These days, I continue to work out my musical sketches on manuscript paper at the piano. Then I input my notes into the computer using Finale software. After that, there usually are many more revisions and refinements to make. The computer can play back what I have written, catching obvious mistakes. A piece is never truly finished until it has been performed. Then — and only then — can the composer know if what he/she wrote truly works or not.

Holler: For piano pieces, I compose at the piano, writing with a pencil on staff paper, because if I improvise at the piano or if I play music I have imagined, I can immediately write it down. When sections are complete, then I enter them into my music notation software. When I compose for a chamber group, I often work at the computer, because I can hear a synthesized playback of what I have written, as opposed to trying to play several instrumental parts at the piano.

Kopitzke: Usually I "hear" the music. Then I use pencil and paper to write down the themes. I usually check my melodies and chord progressions at a piano or keyboard. Only then do I enter the music into my computer. Computer playback is a good "reality check" on what I write down, and computer programs save hours of copying and transcribing time; but the best music happens away from mechanical playbacks.

McCoy: I do the composing in my head first, then I write at the computer using the Sibelius program. Next I print out my first draft on scrap paper and go to the piano to correct and adjust. Then back to the computer to print a second draft, back to the piano, repeat, repeat, repeat. I used to write everything out on sheets of manuscript paper, but I am left-handed and it was always messy, as well as laborious. I can now write in one day using the computer what used to take weeks writing in longhand. However, the computer can get in the way of creativity because one has to learn the program, so I try to use it only as a transcribing tool after I know what I want to write. The biggest challenge is carving out time for the creative process. Many tasks get in the way — important ones, like working and earning a living, or answering all these questions!

Perry: I usually compose music on paper first. It is helpful that I have perfect pitch to do that. I do compose at the computer as well.

Do you consider "who" will be listening to your music or who will play/perform it?

Greene: I often consider those factors, but not always. Obviously, there is little value in writing a piece that is too difficult to be performed well. On the other hand, a piece that is too trite is not desirable either. A composition must be interesting and challenging enough to inspire the performers, and hopefully their listeners. Striking this balance is but one goal of the composer. Most music is written with a specific purpose in mind. The closer that a piece meets that purpose, the greater it will be appreciated. Many of my pieces are "tailor-made" for a specific soloist, or a particular choir or ensemble. That does not mean they cannot be performed convincingly by other musicians. In fact, most composers want their music to be as accessible as possible so they can reach as wide an audience as possible.

Holler: Yes, I consider what instruments will be performing the music, because each instrument has certain capabilities and limitations. I keep in mind whether the piece is oriented toward student performers or professionals. If the music is vocal, I often have certain singers or choirs in mind. I also think about whether the music is designed for a sacred setting or a secular performance.

Kopitzke: Always. I don't write complex music for musically uninitiated audiences; and I try to write virtuoso music only for virtuoso musicians. However, gauging the abilities of performers is a skill that I haven't totally mastered. Sometimes there can be a vast difference between "simple" and "easy." I try to compensate by asking performers what works and then I do my best to follow their advice.

McCoy: Yes! I always say "consider your audience." Why write something the audience would be bored hearing?! And I try to consider the performers so they will hopefully come away from having worked on it and performed it saying it was fun for them. Again, why write something the players would be bored practicing and performing? The latter is the more challenging because each performer may feel differently.

Perry: Honestly, I have no idea who will perform my piece or who will be in the audience. I just want to put as many markings as I can to keep the piece more real to those who will play it...instead of having them at risk trying to figure out how to express this music.

For "Artistic Reflections II" were you given any limitations for your composition(s)?

Yes, I was told not to make the piece too long so that my composition, combined with others, would not make the program too lengthy.

When you have to write a piece of music based on a set of instructions, how hard is it to be inspired?

Greene: It depends on the instructions. A commission I was given several years ago by a church in Kingsport, Tenn. had many stipulations. The work had to be based on "Amazing Grace." It had to feature a virtuoso solo violin part. It had to have choral stanzas and congregational stanzas, and it had to have organ accompaniment. Yet within those constraints, I still found much inspiration. The 9-11 terrorist attacks occurred while I was in the midst of writing, and my "Amazing Grace" began to "evolve"...Composers either need limits set for them, or they need to set them themselves. Otherwise their work can become unwieldy and random. Some composers have written "chance" pieces: works where seemingly anything can happen. And yet, such pieces are usually set-up according to pre-determined guidelines, hence "composed."

The creative process is a fascinating mystery. There are nearly always some limitations, and artists of all types must work within these parameters. For instance, the visual artist makes choices about the medium for each work. The actor starts with an existing script. The dancer has choreography. Likewise, the composer makes choices, or is given instructions, about instrumentation, length, style, and harmonic language. Even for improvisatory art forms, such as jazz, there is a pre-existing framework. I do not believe the framework hampers creativity. The concept of "inspiration" emerged only in the nineteenth century, when composers approached their art more subjectively than in previous eras. Bach composed because the church or the nobility employed him, and his job was to write music. He worked within certain limits for each composition, but he created masterpieces.

McCoy: I personally think that starting with a completely blank canvas is harder than working with some set parameters. My favorite hymn has always been "Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free"...which is to say that I blossom best when I know the given parameters.

It is not a problem having instructions for composing. A picture has endless ideas for expression.


BOB GREENE JR. organist for State Street United Methodist Church in Bristol.
ANN HOLLER teaches piano and is a lecturer in music at King College in Bristol.
BETH McCOY of Abingdon, Va. directs the Mountain Empire Children's Choral Academy and is a diaconal minister in the United Methodist Church.
EVELYN PURSLEY-KOPITZKE was previously featured in "The Arts as Therapy" (August 2007) edition of A! Magazine for the Arts.
JANE PERRY teaches piano and composes music, although she has been deaf since about age two.

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