The art of composition

Bela Bartok

The composer Bartok believed that composition could not be taught.  And yet despite this the majority of composers today, myself included, will have studied composition at some level during their career, most likely at University.  Now far be it from me to suggest that composition classes are irrelevant or have no value.  In fact I believe quite the opposite. There is always much to be learnt and much that can be taught from those with more experience than oneself.

In my opinion what Bartok was getting at was that you cannot teach someone to be creative, i.e. come up with the music. Studying composition will teach technique and inspire us to be creative but true composition must come from within.  As a composer one of the hardest things to do is be faced with a blank sheet of manuscript or an empty project on the computer in Sibelius or Logic or any other similar such software you favour.  It’s sometimes a bit like writing a blog post or anything where you start with a blank canvas.  I prefer to let the ideas come to me first and then note them down. That way, when I am in my studio I generally don’t start from scratch, there are always a few ideas to work from.

Whether this technique works for anyone else, who knows.  Music can have so many meanings its almost impossible to say what inspires composers to write in the ways they do.  Take 20th century music for example. There was such a diverse range of music written in the last century it cannot realistically just be defined just as twentieth century music in my opinion.  On the one hand you have the Second Viennese school of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils and then alongside this there is Elgar, Stanford and Parry. Of course you cannot say one is better or worse than the other, personally I don’t feel the two groups are comparable.  Each has many unique qualities to offer but as with any music it ultimately comes down to a matter of personal taste.

I don’t mind publicly admitting that I find John Rutter a great influence and I like his music.  Does this mean all my compositions sound similar to Rutter? No, well I don’t think so. I believe that all composers ultimately find their own style regardless of whether they are influenced by others, but its good to have something to aspire to.  I sometimes liken music to photography.  I am a keen amateur photographer and for many years went out looking for photographs, trying to capture the perfect image according to theories I had read in various books. However, I then discovered that some of my best pictures were the ones which were spontaneous and just showed what I was looking at, at the time.  Will they win awards, no most certainly not, but they have captured something that was a part of life.  Music can be the same. It takes a bit longer to compose a piece of music but often our surroundings can be the inspiration for a theme or harmonic structure.  For me, that is the biggest influence of all and means the music from within is bought out by whats outside.