A while ago, I tossed out a quick sentence about putting some music “up on the wall.” I promised that I would give you a post to let you know just what that meant – and here it is!
Every composer is unique, and each has their own preferred way of working. I can’t tell you how others work, or what you “should” (or worse, “must”) do in order to bring your ideas to life. All I can tell you is what works for me. And here it is:
Yes, those scribbles mean something to me!
Pretty much every piece I write winds up tacked up onto a wall. Several times, in several versions, as a matter of fact. By laying out the entire piece on a big, blank surface, I can literally step back and take a look at the entire piece, from beginning to end, and have a much clearer idea of how it is progressing.
Usually the first thing that goes “up on the wall” is a long, blank page (or several pages, more often than not.) And across those pages, I draw a horizontal line. This marks the piece, from beginning to end. Then I put up a few vertical hash marks, so I can easily keep track of various points (usually quarters or thirds). Timing doesn’t matter just yet – the piece will keep its proportion, no matter the length. Then, I scribble. Do I think the piece should rise from beginning to end? Or rise and fall . . . and rise again? Sometimes, the piece even looks like a fish (stop laughing!) It’s never a pretty sketch. If it were, I’d be a painter, not a composer. But it’s good enough for me to understand what I’m striving to achieve.
That sketch stays up on the wall while I’m actually composing and notating. The final piece doesn’t always match the initial sketch, but having it where I can see it helps me to stay focused.
Just as important as that cheesy line sketch (at least, to me) is periodically putting the actual score up on the wall. It is far too easy for me to get caught up in a very small part of the score, whether it is hand written, or notated in a software program. Sitting at a table, or staring at a computer screen, I can only see a limited number of bars, or at best, a few pages. Anything out of my sight has to be tracked through memory, which can sometimes play tricks. I think I’ve overdone something that I could really still expand. Or I put “this” closer to “that” without realizing it.
By spreading the score out, and looking at it as a whole, I can see the ebb and flow of the score. Places that are dense and busy stand out dramatically, as do very open spaces. More often than not, the basic shape of the score mirrors the line sketch. (Yes, I know the picture contradicts that, but it’s just bits and pieces I put up for an example, not a complete piece). Then I grab the colored pencil, scribble some cryptic notes on the score that are probably incomprehensible to anyone but me, and start revising the score, adding a bit here, thinning a bit there, tossing it back up on the wall for another look.
How many times does a piece go on the wall? As many as it takes. No, I’m not trying to be snippy. Each piece has a life of its own. Some go together quickly and easily, and others are a long, hard road. More importantly, I don’t try to force a piece to fit a certain way, simply because my first sketch went “there.” Just as a sculptor chisels away at the stone until the “figure within” is revealed, music takes on a life of its own, and I do my best to follow where it leads me.