This post is in the Musical Practice category

Describing a process of composition is not an easy task at the best of times. There is much that seems to just happen. There are also a number of autistic traits at work which may alter my process, either subtly or obviously. There are a number of links in this post which lead to more detailed description of the traits or tendencies that I believe to be at work.

The compositional process I outline here is indicative of a very strong local coherence, the focus being on the instantaneous texture and short theme, rather than the Gestalt form and structure of a piece. The process is similar to the way I experience listening to music, the whole is much less important than the immediate detail. It is not that the whole is unavailable or incomprehensible, but it is not preferred – it takes effort to focus on and process – the immediate is much more personally significant.

My process of creating music takes two common paths, the studio based collaboration of producing either my own work or that of someone else, or a solitary, sound sculpting activity. I do not generally use pen and paper composition, although I do print scores for live players on occasion. My workflow is computer based, centred around an Apple Macbook Pro running ProTools and Cubase with a large collection of plugin samplers and synthesis instruments and effects, alongside more esoteric software applications including Metasynth, Reaktor, Pligue Bidule, Max/MSP, Spear and Frequency.

On this page I will concentrate on the latter, solitary, process. The piece “… in the details” is an example of that method. In many circumstances I am working to some sort of brief for theatre, film or television, so it is rare these days to have the luxury of simply writing for sound’s sake. The theatre writing process was the subject of my Master of Music research and is covered in summary in another page. Studio process comes up in a variety of places in this document, but receives significant attention in the Communications section.

In general an individual sound is the impetus, and thematic material is generated to suit the sound. It is rare that I work the other way round, with thematic or melodic material developed first and a sound chosen to suit it, as I am very interested in texture and the interaction between sounds, more than harmonic movement. I usually choose a defined sound palette to work with the piece in order to create a sense that the piece is possible. This is important to me despite the frequent use of sounds that have no physical reality and are created through synthesis or deep manipulation techniques. While I like to hear new things within a composition and enjoy the “what’s that sound?” response I am wary of the “what’s that doing there?” sense of an out of place sonic object. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own need for some internal familiarity and structure, but it is not so far removed from any acoustic composer choosing an ensemble with which to work.

In the purely musical domain of melody and rhythm, I tend to work on a horizontal plane over short sections using the sounds played from a MIDI keyboard or placed in the DAW timelines, blending melodic fragments and counterpoint, rather than being conscious of defined harmonic movement. Effectively this is a process of improvisation, within a framework of sonic and musical material.

As a musician with limited technical proficiency on instruments, but with significant aural memory and analytical skills, I often make a conscious effort to subvert habituated patterns. For example, if I place my hands on a keyboard, I quickly fall to a C major chord in the second inversion – G C E and a I IV V chord progression will result in its most comfortable inversion set. Conversely, I “solo” most comfortably in C minor with its easy, three finger patterns, C D E♭, F G A♭, B♭, and my left hand is not up to much beyond octaves and fifths!  I have in the past denounced my own lack of coordination as a specific failure, and explained it away with suggestions that in a workspace with so many talented players, why would I bother? I consider myself a composer, not a player .

To avoid these physical restraints, I often use MIDI operators to invert my keyboard or force notes into exotic scales, so that familiar physical actions produce unexpected results that serve as building blocks or trigger inspiration. Even with this method, the result is often a strongly grounded key or tonal centre rather than an exploration of modulating keys. Interestingly, in experiments addressing levels of music creativity in adolescents with high functioning autism, Wigram reports an unusually strong need for “stable structure with which they can feel secure and within which they can demonstrate their potential communicativeness and creativity” (Wigram 2006, p. 228).  On occasion I write directly into the sequencer’s score page or use step entry for complex parts that I can not physically play. This is a very different process, as I am notating elements that are preplanned. However, my focus during the writing process is always the moment – the sounds of now, I am really not interested in the form and have to force myself to deal with it – how long the piece is, the movement between sections, the narrative flow.

If the piece is created using recorded sound objects as opposed to MIDI triggered events, the process is somewhat similar. Wave regions are placed on a DAW timeline either through direct recording or editing and manipulation of elements. The sonic arrangement and mix are very much part of the composition, regardless of style, as they are integral to the compositional feedback mechanisms. Because I work largely with electronics and computer based systems, the mix is developing with the musical material – production techniques, effects, recording practice, spatial arrangement and sonic interaction are part of the composition itself.

Individual sounds within the process are the things I take most time over. A single sound must be right and I will spend very long periods tweaking and manipulating. This is also the part I enjoy most – as the sounds begin to interact I find myself lost in their complexity. I will set my DAW on loop and go over and over sections of a few seconds, or repeatedly trigger the sound from keyboard or mouse. Each sonic element has its shape and colour, its external texture and internal composition – it is soft or hard, smooth or hairy, defined or amorphous. I explore a sound without seeing it in my mind as a true synaesthete might do. I know the vision, rather than seeing it but I can not describe this experience without using visual metaphor. In the sonic sense these objects might coincide with spectromorphology or dynamic envelope, or the balance of reverb tail to early reflection. A change made to a sound producing parameter may affect any or all of these quasi-visual ways of experience. Much like the improvisory nature of placing notes, this is an exploratory process of minutiae rather than a knowledge-based, deliberate construction.  While in this compositional moment, I experience my strongest emotional connections with music – far more so than listening can evoke in me. More than anything, it is this finding and unfolding of sound that drives my process.  This emotional process is discussed in detail in a dedicated section.

While I do not claim my process to be unique, especially in this age of immediate aural feedback through technologically mediated composition, it is interesting to look at contrasting modes of composition in the literature, much of which comes from pre-computer music. Bennett (1976) discusses the creative process among composers of classical music in terms of inspiration, the “germ” of ideas, and a fairly linear process of sketch, draft, elaboration and refinement (p. 7) often with long periods of reflection and gestation. In his study, the composers are working in the written and imaginative domain over an extended period, they are translating their mental “voice” into a textual score, and his findings are in keeping with descriptions of process by western composers of the stature of Ravel (Orenstein 1967) and Mozart (Hertzmann 1957) – in all cases there is a constant shifting between utilisation of intuitive and rational musical abilities (Moore 1990). These observations are much in line with “stage theory” of creative thinking (Wallace 1926) and would appear to suit the time extended process of composition using written scores.

By contrast, the processes involved during the creation of music at a sonic level over the space of hours or days rather than weeks is somewhat less explored. Collins (Collins 2005) followed a single case study of a composer working with a MIDI workstation for his research which concluded a more complex blending of Gestalt theory with staged process. His subject was ever mindful of the final required outcomes of the piece, particularly structure, and constantly invoked a reflexive feedback analysis of the piece as a whole. In a comparative study of students with formal musical instrument training and those without, Seddon and O’Neill (2003) also observed groups of young adolescents composing with MIDI music workstations. They found that musical instrument training reduced the amount of time spent in the exploratory and improvisatory stages of composition, however no observations were made of the impact of sonic feedback as opposed to ideas of music coherence. I find it interesting that both these studies placed minimal emphasis on the relationship between the sound and the notes within the process. The MIDI workstations involved in the Seddon and O’Neil research were not fully equipped production systems, the students had access to basic instrument sounds as opposed to sounds in sonic context, i.e. spatialisation, reverberation and other mix parameters. The students had to imagine what their notes would sound like in a real performance, rather like a pen and paper composer does, albeit with a stronger set of aural clues. In a more focussed exploration of sound based composition Di Scipio (1994) describes the process of composing the sound as largely subservient to composing with sound, however he does indicate the two processes as allowing a much tighter integration between the micro and macro composition that is much more closely aligned to my own methods.

Pieces of music and reflections on the writing processes appear throughout this document, mostly focussing on specific experiences or observations.  It is important to note that these pieces come from both pre- and post-realisation of my condition.  Since diagnosis and the beginning of this research I have been extremely conscious of both the processes and the outcomes.  Two of the pieces included here, …in the details and Brain on Loop were created specifically for the research presentation, in part as illustrations. Indeed it has been somewhat difficult to write for myself without becoming embroiled in the territory of research.   Other pieces have been included that were written for theatre and other projects in the research period.  I have also included several pieces from the Pre period, as they are strongly illustrative.  These include Megara, The Rape of Lavinia and The Spiritual Axis.

A Music Room  has been provided with direct access to works of significance to this study and links to their context within the document.

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