Stream-of-Consciousness Composition

I recall the final question posed to me in my Graduate Oral Exam: “Where do you see yourself as a composer in the long history of composers before you?” (Or, something to that effect.)

Honestly, I hated the question. At that point in my life, I’d been composing music professionally for fifteen years, and — though I was indeed still trying to figure that out — I ultimately didn’t care about finding an answer. I was (and still am) a proponent of such ideas as this one, expressed by Andy Warhol:

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Now, having been a bonafide Friendly Neighborhood Composer for twenty-four years, I still don’t know how to categorize myself! And I actually consider that a good thing overall.

Lately, though, I have noticed a trend in my writing habits. I have decided to dub it “Stream-of-Consciousness Composition.”

So, what do I mean by this pompous-sounding title?

On the one hand, I’ve always had a thing for using modern, mechanical or mathematical structures to construct my music — and the more complicated and obscure, the better! One of my favorite examples of this is found in my violin trio, “Counterpoint Invariable.”

This is when composing gets fun! It’s like being a kid again, putting together a puzzle, piece by piece…!

“Counterpoint Invariable,” written in 2012, was a grand game for my brain. All three movements use the same structure of A, B, C, and (what I termed as) Ostinato phrases (I used fun colors to work out my single map), and only vary by the material of the phrases themselves; the phrases’ material is based on very different scales, too, depending on each movement’s character. Thus, an obvious back-and-forth of material is reiterated in the same format in each movement — and is therefore predictable, to some extent — but with unique sounding results.

But take a look at, say, my 2016 work for flute/piccolo, Bb clarinet, violin, cello, and piano — “The Oracle.”

In composing “The Oracle,” I started with a series of randomly drawn tarot cards and inserted this bit of aleatorism into a pre-made structure of instruments and ranges of pitch:

“To start this project, I spent 2 days constructing a detailed legend of sorts, equating tarot suits, numbers, and major-vs-minor arcana with specific instruments, intervals, ranges, etc… The minor arcana each represent one of the melodic instruments: Fire=violin, Water=cello, Air=Flute, Earth=clarinet. Each of the major arcana represent a pre-determined range of notes on the piano, depending on where a certain card falls on the Cabalistic Tree of Life. And, having a basic understanding of each card’s open-ended meaning and character allows me to frame the instruments’ musical attitudes in any given section of the work. It’s an unfolding, musical story!”

Because there is a fair amount of freedom of interpretation within this aleatoric structure, I was able to create a free-flowing story from the symbolism I saw in the cards.

And, here’s where I started making the connection to my M.O. as a composer.

  • I always use some sort of underlying principle to gird my structure
  • I tend to employ a framework of themes that is NOT obvious to the ear. Rather, I prefer to guide the listener through an unfolding story; one theme leading smoothly to the next.
  • That’s not to say that my themes are unrelated. Au contraire! There are, in fact, multiple connecting elements that subtly thread various portions of the work together. It’s just that some connections are more hidden within the texture than others.

Listening to “The Oracle,” the most obvious connections are the return of themes that are specifically represented in cards that recur. (Watch for these recurring images in the video!) Other recurrences are less obvious and are less explicit in their connections with the surrounding material.

Compare, for example, this section in the clarinet part:

…with this one:

The clarinet in both excerpts is representing the element of Earth and restates its original theme at Q but in a different context. How very like it is with us in our own lives! How we adapt to our surroundings…

Now, this tiny example on its own demonstrates the concept of “cellular” writing — of which, you can guess, I am a huge proponent! But, when a composer takes a “cellular” form of writing and stretches it out across greater landscapes of time and distance, this then becomes more of a “Stream-of Consciousness” kind of musical exposition.

Well, this is certainly a broad description of my thinking on the concept. I hope to elaborate and explore more with you in future posts!

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