Minding your own business

I’m a musician. My priorities have always been to get to the gig on time, give it my best shot and, hopefully, get booked again. Similarly, my compositions and arrangements have frequently had to conform to set criteria: music must fit the dance steps, conform to time slots and be playable by musicians possessing anticipated levels of competence etc. etc. Since I’m a classically trained artist as well, I have an additional reason to think in philosophical terms about the meaning of it all, when I get time.

Others have different specializations. This is why I’m inviting comments on areas outside my own field of expertise.

A common question for an artist in any field is to ask ‘what is the ideal balance between construction and creation’. Even after a lifetime’s involvement in the arts I still wonder about these matters. Some believe wholeheartedly in the spiritual plane and that creativity cannot be reduced to determinism. They see an artist as being a helpless slave to inspiration, whatever that means. Others believe that, ultimately, every aspect of reality must succumb to analysis. There have been many attempts to achieve a mathematical basis for the arts, most notably by Joseph Schillinger.

Classical physics, which now includes Relativity, tells us that, if we know the behaviour of a particle now, we can predict exactly what its state will be many years from now, if we had the necessary equations and the colossal computing power required. The fact that we don’t, as yet, doesn’t affect the principle. The idea is used as a way of denying the existence of free will. I don’t buy this, somehow. I might claim that, if I sit around all day, I’ll achieve nothing, it’s as simple as that, but others would say that the very fact of whether I sit around all day is itself part of the same inevitability, as is the fact that I’m now sitting in my office writing this. Perhaps Richard Feynman’s ideas might bring back a reason to begin each day with the determination to achieve something. He played the bongos so he was OK.

Similarly, it might actually be possible to arrive at a mathematical basis for the arts if we were able to define and quantify every nuance and subtlety and devise a language to express them. But would there be any point in doing this if traditional methods were quicker? The question of whether or not it is possible would then miss the point.

My method has always been to use a balance of construction and creation, a method that has served me well. Nevertheless, when I leave my composing chair for a while, I usually find snippets of ideas popping into my head, seemingly from nowhere. The problem is, as stated in the book, that if we rely purely on our store of half-remembered influences we will condemn ourselves to mediocrity. There’s no doubt about that. Just as writing a melody to a preconceived chord sequence often leads to a degree of freshness that otherwise might not have occurred, we can also stimulate the evolvement of a rich source of material by the conscious manipulation of the various components of music, its architecture. I’ve been doing it for years so I know it works and works well.

Anyone who paid attention during music lessons will know that such devices as inverted, retrograde and retrograde-inverted forms were a stock-in-trade for contrapuntalists, especially when writing fugues. Arguably, their use reached a peak in serial and twelve-tone music. Using such devices is about as cerebral as it gets. They can be used, of course, for evolving brief motifs as well as for whole passages and it’s very satisfying to hear how well they fulfil their purpose.

Lately, my compositions have often used unorthodox tonalities; the Fibonacci series and the various seven note scales that are hardly ever used. Conventional wisdom doesn’t always help much because of the lack of traditional hierarchies so that conscious efforts to organise the music are required whether I like it or not. I’m often amazed by the way music falls into place so perfectly, as it emerges from the materials used, as if there’s an inner logic in force. I find myself sitting at the keyboard and thinking ‘I wonder what music we’ll find in here today’. It’s definitely better than thinking ‘I hope I get inspired today’, especially when working to a deadline.

I’m currently working on a saxophone section feature for the highly acclaimed Walsall Jazz Orchestra which, as well as being staffed by so many talented players, also has a true rhythm section, rather than four individuals with their heads buried in the parts. I’m using number XIV of the 36 seven unit scales listed in the book which has a diminished 7th chord as its tonic chord. The chord on the dominant is a minor chord with natural 7th. The chord on the 7th degree of the scale is an augmented chord with natural 7th that isn’t found in the family of six chords normally used in jazz and popular music. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge!

For the theoretically inclined reader, the compound structure (13) has a diminished 7th chord with a major triad above it. (On a C root a Cdim7 and Db major.)

These considerations cue nicely into another problem. Is there really such a thing as ‘absolute’ music? Melody has two dimensions, pitch and time, giving it kinetic properties. We also feel the effects of inertia. The layered effects of balance in orchestration emulate tonal recession in painting, giving us the third dimension. Together, musical resource has created a kind of programmatic sense of space, whatever our intention might have been.

Centrifugal forms projected in time possess characteristics and associations that imply the discharge of energy. Simple melodic forms resembling a sine wave impart a feeling if tranquillity. High brass suggest aggression, whether intended or not and a soft flute solo sounds to us as a small object a long way away. In the interests of brevity, let’s agree that there are many ways in which melody and other aspects of music emulate the world around us and thereby affect us in similar ways.

The first question that springs to mind, and this topic has already been touched upon in these blogs, is ‘do these physical characteristics affect people all over the world in the same way?’. The most obvious source of doubt is the differing way the minor scale affects people in different cultures.

When people say that music is an international language they don’t mean to imply that we all like the same music. That’s obviously untrue. Perhaps they mean that music of one kind or another has the same tendency to pacify, unite and give pleasure. At the height of the Cold War Russian orchestras were always welcome in London. Music is also used for healing purposes nowadays.

Having said that, the ‘higher’ (for lack of a better word) we move in musical circles the less we encounter stylistic cults. It’s rare to hear someone say ‘Oh, you’re into Beethoven, are you. I’m a Mozart man myself’. This is why I recently claimed that the failure of music to fall in line with my pet theory about music emulating nature is due to cultural superficialities rather than truly musical forces.

I can already hear one objection to all this: ‘What about serial and twelve tone forms, then?’

I must admit it’s difficult to decide if these forms lend themselves to programmatic interpretations or that the resulting music echoes nature in ways discussed above. But then, I’ve always regarded them as being so far out on a limb that they’re intended for and written by composers whose music will only appeal to the cognoscenti. Personally, I only use these forms as part of an otherwise ‘orthodox’ composition. This doesn’t necessarily mean tonal in the conventional sense, but I won’t go further into that here.

A composition I wrote a few years ago for brass band (and yet to be performed in public) used a brief, free form fuguetta as a way of taking the evolving chaos one step further. This passage, in 6/4 time, using intense dissonance, was sight-read perfectly by the young musicians in the Staffordshire Band who test-flew the piece for me, as was the rest of this fairly difficult work. There are some amazing young players around! I always test-fly my compositions before publication, no matter how carefully the score is checked through. There will always be a gremlin in there somewhere.

The above mentioned sax section feature uses a twelve-tone lead-in to the sax ad lib solo. The zany effect is ideal in context and any other solution would have seemed lack-lustre.

Comments and replies to this blog are invited.


6 thoughts on “Minding your own business

  1. People who rely on inspiration alone lack craft. People who rely on craft alone lack inspiration. If you want something to actually get done, go to the person with a heavy mastery of craft.

    A smile in one culture is an expression of happiness. In another culture a smile implies that one is about to attack. So music is not universal in that a particular piece of music will affect people of different cultures in the same way since certain motifs can take on very specific ingrained meanings.

    The rest, I’m afraid, is a bit over my head. I dabble with simple functional composition.


    1. Thanks for that Jim. In practice, the proportion of craft to ‘inspiration’ will fluctuate a little either side of the divide. The latest piece I’m working on, as mentioned in the blog, has taken me into fairly unfamiliar territory so that I’ve had to think a lot to find my way out and yet there are no more theoretical constraints than in a traditional harmony book. The problem is that there are no well-beaten tracks to follow.

      The ingrained meanings you refer to are part of what I referred to as superficialities but, before you respond, can I assure you that I’m expecting to be shot down over this claim. There are some musicologists on here who might be able to help.

      Thanks again, JM.


  2. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts! I have long thought that the best music (or film, literature, painting, etc.) engages both the heart and the mind, i.e. is both inspired and crafted. J.S. Bach is usually my go-to example. His counterpoint is rigorous (or perhaps you’d prefer rigourous?), but each line sings and moves me. Someone like Milton Babbitt, on the other hand, produced music that strikes me as being almost purely craft—he solves the puzzle—but his music doesn’t speak to me. As a theorist, I am fascinated by his mastery of the pitch-logic, but as a musician I’m left feeling a bit cold—rather like reading a technical manual. I’d rather stimulate both halves of my brain.


    1. Thanks for that Enoch. ‘Rigorous’ is correct over here too, by the way. I suppose JS Bach is the ultimate example as far as the ‘old masters’ are concerned and info I’ve received recently indicates he was even more cerebral than I thought. As I said in the blog, when we’re in unfamiliar territory there’s little alternative to thinking things through because we lack the inherited wisdom and familiar experiences we grow up with. But then, that’s progress, I suppose. One final point: I’ve found that however much I try to construct music I always make choices – to do it this way or that – so I never lose the personal touch.


  3. I guess my method of composition is a combination of numerous concepts. Sometimes I gain inspiration from concrete moments in time. Other times I sit down and start playing around and discover interesting and unique melodic progressions and harmonic progressions. Due to my ethnomusicological training, I intend at times to directly emulate a specific culture’s music, thus I draw “inspiration” from the various rules that govern said music. There are points where all I have is a set of instruments to work with, and I see a fog, yet slowly but surely find my bearings.

    Really from my perspective on the “construction vs. creation” topic is that it all depends on the situation (in that it can be spontaneous or systematic) or the subconscious/conscious decisions or intentions made by the artist. Since you follow my blog, you may notice how eclectic it is. I think that best defines my approach to music, or really any creative endeavor. If one remains open to possibilities, both inspiration and science can be guiding lights.


    1. Thanks for that and, by the way, I’ve just read through your post on mathematics in music which predated my membership of this site. Most interesting. In my book, mathematics is only used to expedite the process of arranging/composing, for example in predicting the number of bars after which two or more schemes in interference will ‘come out even’.

      I’d hoped to attract attention to the part of my blog presently discussed that dealt with the oft-repeated claim that music is ‘universal’. This conflicts, in a way, with my claim that the control of musical forces will, by emulating physical experiences, affect people universally. (I’ve cut this for the sake of brevity but you know what I mean.) Your own specialization as an ethnomusicologist would be particularly useful here (if you get the chance!). Although, as my book reveals, I have a philosophical bent I am, at the end of the day, just a ‘jobbing’ musician and the approaching deadline has always constrained to a greater or lesser degree the amount of time I could give to these matters.

      I particularly agree with your inference that an eclectic attitude is the way to go, especially in an increasingly global culture where the flames of evolution are fanned by the winds of change in communications. (Did I really just say that?) But then, if we’re extolling the virtues of being eclectic we can’t, at the same time, turn around and say that being ‘universal’ is the way to go.

      Thanks again, JM.


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