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    Adam Greene     composer

Autocritical composition: an emerging method (2007)


Proceedings of the International Conference « Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophie »
Montréal (Québec) Canada, 28 février – 3 mars 2007


This is an essay about the process of composing. More specifically it is about my process in my own work. I make this clarification not as a means of asserting ownership but rather to circumscribe the peculiar and particular universe of data and experience that informs the topic in question. This is a speculative enterprise; the data set is small and the research is anecdotal. While I am aware of and am indebted to many individuals whose work has influenced my own, my approach towards explicating my process will be directly oriented toward the work itself, rather than referencing possible precursors. Nevertheless, as I describe my work I shall endeavor to offer potential avenues of extensibility so that my inquiry might radiate some meaning for those who take a general interest in composition and the creative method.

I should like to move quite quickly into the practical matters that are the central focus of this paper; however, there is a philosophical apparatus animating these machinations that suggests a rationale for the technical discussion to follow. Composition, for me, is a metaphor for self-realization.1 The majority of my compositions are instrumental works that can be characterized as dramatic insofar as the expressive language I employ is dependent on a degree of conflict. The nature of drama, idiosyncratically explicated in abstract music is, I submit, a broad topic of inquiry in itself that I cannot explore here. However, if we accept that conflict is a central property of this music then it is only natural to ask questions about how to ensure that the sort of conflict one employs might serve to intensify the dramatic engagement.

My compositions are marked by a considerable amount of internal contrast. In constructing and deploying materials through time I have adjusted my focus from sectional contrast (or juxtaposition) to stratified contrast (polyphony) as a means of both inciting energetic responses from adjacent ideas and abrading their apparent identities through competition. What is the perceptual result of this interaction? How much discontinuity can a work withstand and still function as a unified whole? These are questions and issues of great importance to me, and they continue to demand considerable attention as Imove forward in my work.

Assessing the relative merits of one’s work necessitates a critical distance (to risk being axiomatic). A few years ago I posited that for my work to continue to grow, I should place more emphasis on the editorial stage of composing as a means of stimulating an unexpected creative response. Composers exhibit a fascinating range of orientations and experiences with respect to the editorial process. In the most general sense, one enters into a dialogue with the material regardless of one’s ultimate intent.2 Let us imagine that a common step in the editorial process is to survey a passage in order to identify emergent features (a line, theme, rhythm, color, or other idea). One composer may choose to enhance the profile of these features, another may act to subvert them. In each case, the composer uses critical faculties to make intermediate assessments.

Editorial processes
The editorial process holds the potential to energize the work through an asserted critical engagement. Criticism is fundamental challenge and reorientation, and it is adversarial.3 Thus, the most important development of my approach has been to build critical mechanisms into the editorial process that interrupt, intervene, and subvert linear, developmental tendencies while introducing a broad range of unpredictable compositional choices. In order to make the editorial phase more robust I have sought to formalize the process with procedures that are principled but not necessarily systematic.4 Before venturing further, note that the editorial procedures I employ are applied to fully composed music; thus I produce an intermediate score that is transformed as it passes through a gauntlet of obstacles in order to arrive at the final score.

Consider the following four editorial procedures:
          I.  Continuity: continuation without transformation; extension via the same methods that produced material initially.
          II.  Fragmentation: marked by disturbance and interference – a disruption of behaviors. Can be applied in multiple passes, with
             the following subcategories:
                     a.  Pitch removal: where rests replace sounding elements in a horizontal stream, or when pitches are removed from a verticality
                    (either to be eliminated entirely or displaced in time).5
                     b.  Dyadic grouping: extant elements are grouped in grace-note couplets and removed from larger continuities.
          III.  Convolution: folded in on itself; a two-part process where first the material is segmented, then segments are used imitatively (i.e. ← or →, varying
               degrees of stretching).
           IV.  Limitation:6 a registral process, consisting of the following approaches:
                     a.  Centrifuge: displaces materials to outward extremes
                     b.  Waveform or band pass filter: shapes are overlaid on notated material, “revealing” what will be used, eliminating the rest.

The ordering of these processes is taken from my recent piano solo entitled for nothing (2005), where they were first attempted. When employed discretely and sequentially, one can pattern the processes in order to produce formal implications. The inclusion, here, of continuity is akin to an identity operation in mathematics or a placebo control in medicine. It simply seems reasonable to develop a means of preservation along with transformational methods. Like continuity, convolution is intended to extend material. In the case of the latter, one transforms a germinal material through recursive stretching. It is, quite literally, more of the same; however, by segmenting and reordering the source material, one avoids the problem of direct repetition. First, one surveys the passage of music, dividing it into, say, three unequal lengths, labeled a, b, and c. A convoluted permutation may simply reorder the segments, but usually one or more segments will be duplicated as a means of extending the passage in time. Thus, a-b-c could become a-b-b-b-a-c. Additionally, any of the segments may be recomposed in retrograde. For the sake of economy, I will turn my attention to the processes of fragmentation and limitation, each of which has a disruptive impact on the material with which it interacts.

Fragmentation is, perhaps, the central, most iconic process of the editorial procedures I employ. If the initial creative impulse for the development of these processes was to challenge continuity, fragmentation accommodates the general principle by removing materials from complete phrases. The impact on figuration is immediate and palpable, with a significant emphasis on rhythmic profile.

In the following example from the sketch score of the piano solo for nothing, a musical passage characterized by slowly moving polyphonic material is subjected to both types of fragmentation. Squares indicate pitch removal while circles indicate dyadic grouping.

Example 1
Example 1. for nothing for piano solo (2005): sketch

Each of these processes was enacted in a separate pass. Items targeted for removal were done so in very short order, the intention being to abrade the phrase without destroying its identity.7 In the final score one begins to see impact of these procedures.

Example 2
Example 2. for nothing score: p. 7, mm. 53-57. The second measure in this example corresponds to the top system in Example 1.

Connections between adjacent members of a polyphonic thread have been, largely, severed. In the case of dyadic couplets the effect is to suggest distant harmonic allies, as opposed to simultaneously moving voices. In other words what was horizontal has become vertical.

It stands to reason that an editorial procedure will have a more marked impact when its guiding principles are distinct from those of the material it affects. When those principles are more closely allied, the degree of impact is lessened. In the examples just presented, where the materials are marked by continuity and sustain, the fragmentation progress makes a jarring impression. I have referred to the strong rhythmic impact of the fragmentation process, but what happens when the material it affects already manifests an assertive rhythmic character?

The following examples illustrates the results of this interaction:

Example 3
Example 3. for nothing: sketch. Occasionally, arrows accompany circled dyads, indicating the order is to be reversed when
the figure is “converted” to a grace note couplet.

This is dense, figurative music that features pointed rhythmic accents (such as the B-C# dyad in the left hand). Fragmentation enhances this feature by removing notes from an otherwise consistent stream of attacks.

Example 4
Example 4. for nothing score: p. 9, mm. 68-72. The third measure of this example corresponds to the material in Example 3.

The appearance of grace note dyads suggests a momentary release from the intense engagement inherent to the passage. The interruption of continuity is one factor, here, but the lightness of touch required to execute the grace notes is distinct from the surrounding activity.8 The intermittency of dense figuration, appearing as emblems of the original sketch, suggests forgetfulness, which is in accordance with the overall expressive intent of this passage.

The procedures under the category of limitation address issues of register, either by displacing material into unfamiliar registral territory or by filtering out (i.e. limiting) materials. The latter uses concepts from the electronic studio as metaphorical guiding principles. The following example shows a material subjected to a band-pass filtration approach. Notes that intersect with the superimposed line will be heard, the rest are excised.

Example 5
Example 5. for nothing: sketch

Registral displacement can be applied in a selective fashion (perhaps obliquely related to the dyadic couplet procedure in fragmentation). This takes certain notes out of context, disturbing continuity. For displacement to be a perceptible phenomenon the source material must have a normative tessitura; in other words there must be a context to disturb. In the case of the following example, the materials span multiple registers, but the normative approach is to weave them as if these layers exist in steady streams.

Example 6
Example 6. for nothing score: p. 11, mm. 80-81

The registral displacement shown in measure 80 of for nothing is intensified by the use of dynamic accents and by the physically disruptive practice of hand crossing, punctuating the prevailing texture and perforating the otherwise smooth alternation of polyphonic threads.

Limitation schemes can affect entire passages, as well. The following example uses as a guiding principle the idea of a centrifuge:

Example 7
Example 7a
Example 7. for nothing score: p. 12-13, m. 89-91

Here, there is a significant outward registral expansion beyond the usual disposition of these materials. The centrifuge effect opens a broad gap between the left and right hands – an evacuated register. This registral void is quite unique in the piece, thus its appearance is intended to be noticed quickly by the listener.

One might prescribe degrees of intensity to limitation, just as one might approach granularity in fragmentation. As a practical matter, I have kept the “dials” relatively low in these initial explorations. In my recent piece for solo violin entitled Shoji (2006) I employed editorial procedures with slightly different intent.9 In this work I attempted an approach to polyphony in which playing methods are separated into distinct streams of activity. I produced an intermediate score that ranged from two to four staves of competing behaviors. In the sketch, each line was composed independently – the intention being to ensure the integrity of discrete polyphonic layers. In effect, each layer is obstinately unaware of the other. The score produced during this intermediate stage was then surveyed to identify ways in which the hard-won integrity of separate lines might continue while accommodating the performance difficulty inherent to the design. Editorial procedures provided a means of filtering out extremely dense areas, guiding my own interpretive pass through the materials in order to offer the performer a more practical means of representing this complex scenario. Significant challenges still remain for the performer to negotiate conflicting materials, but the nature of the engagement is focused, and is thus made plausible.

Example 8
Example 8. Shoji, for violin solo (2006): intermediate sketch. Competing materials are placed on separate lines of the grand staff.
Boxes and circles indicate materials selected for modification via editorial procedures. The top system lower staff shows material
that has been convoluted in a prior pass. What had been a single, slow arpeggio (in an earlier sketch) has become more intense
as it extends over a period of three measures.

Following similar procedures as in for nothing, I circled materials using different colored pencils to indicate fragmentation procedures of pitch removal and grace-note groupings, respectively. The final score collapses the grand staff onto a single staff, using the convention of separate stem directions to indicate discrete polyphonic layers.

Example 9
Example 9. Shoji score: p. 3, mm. 43-46. The materials at the beginning of Example 8 correspond with measure 44 above.

The editorial process removed some material that might have suffered otherwise a fatal collision. Some interaction between separate streams are even linked by a smooth transition (such as the appearance of the artificial harmonic on d at measure 45) momentarily connecting distinct ideas into a more unified phrase behavior. This gives the performer a point of access as a means of comparing recurrent instantiations of these materials, particularly when those occurrences exhibit greater turbulence.

As the work expands to include four staves editorial procedures become all the more vital.

Example 10
Example 10. Shoji: intermediate sketch

The final score is by no means straightforward. However, the dramatic implications of this particular passage are strengthened by alternately profiling each layer of activity. Enough material has been removed in order to expose these components, however briefly.

Example 11
Example 11. Shoji score: p. 6, mm. 93-94

As the example of Shoji suggests, editorial procedures such as those described here have a markedly different impact when they affect separate layers than when applied to an entire texture, as in the piano work for nothing. Indeed, the result is paradoxical: while material may be removed or transformed in an individual layer, thereby degrading that thread’s continuity as originally presented, the process accommodates the sounding of multiple elements together. Aside from the obvious (no continuity could have been expressed at all if the work were unplayable) the fragmentation, limitation, etc. of these materials concentrates them into potent forces. Thus, by intensifying these materials they have the capacity to communicate more forcefully despite being heard less frequently.

One can scarcely invoke formalized compositional methods and procedures without stirring up controversy in today’s climate, particularly in the United States, where many composers remain in recoil from the situation of the 1960’s when, in some circles, serialism was enforced as a standard by which one was to be taken seriously. Formalized approaches to composing, however, do not need to be doctrinaire. Indeed, the degree to which one personalizes the terms of engagement of a particular process is vital in reaching a valuable outcome. As a means of adding context, I am reminded of the polemic offered by Stravinsky (Harvard University Press, 1947), whose idiosyncratic approach to serial techniques managed to preserve his individual sound profile.

My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.

I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit. (63-65)

The examples I have offered, while not comprehensive, represent the basic terrain of my work. Like any technique, it will develop and sharpen through repeated use. From my perspective I have much to learn as this process continues in the works to come. Some of the questions I need to answer have to do with streamlining the compositional process. Should certain aspects of editorial procedures become more systematic? Should I automate aspects of the generative stages?

It is important to remember that the editorial procedures I have developed offer guiding principles in transforming a given material into the desired result. Although I have an intuitive manner of employing the processes with respect to the note-to-note activity, the overall engagement is quite formal. Just as the juxtaposition of contrasting materials is part of a formal scheme, so too is the cycling of editorial procedures. In other words, I decide in advance which editorial device will apply to a particular section of music. There is a recurrent theme, here, where certain aspects of the creative engagement are automated (or at least decided in advance) – removing the composer from some decisions while focusing his attention towards the challenge of reconciling the information that results. The value in subjecting one’s creative desires to various constraints is in the potential for intensifying the interaction with musical materials. I would never advocate an approach where a procedure (however automated) delivers a result that is blindly accepted and inserted into the score. No system is infallible, yet I am suspicious of the products of personal invention – ergo the critical distance I attempt to achieve.

Acknowledgments. I am indebted Roger Reynolds for his guidance as I developed my compositional practice and for the remarkable example of his book Form and Method (Routledge, 2002), which describes the intersection between music, art, science, and language in the imagination of a leading composer while laying bare his technical procedures. Thanks also to Juan Campoverde of DePaul University for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Finally, thanks to Shannon Wettstein, pianist, who was a vital collaborator in the composition of the work for nothing.

Reynolds, Roger. Form and Method: Composing Music [The Rothschild Essays]. Ed. Stephen McAdams.
     New York: Routledge Publishers, 2002.
----. A Searcher’s Path: A Composer’s Ways. New York: Institute for Studies in American Music,
      Brooklyn College of CUNY, 1987.
Stravinsky, Igor. Poetics of Music. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947.
Xenakis, Iannis. Formalized Music. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1971.

1It is tempting to evoke, parenthetically, the specter of Hegel here; but I submit that as I explore my own consciousness through art so too do many others explore theirs. The complex picture that emerges when all this art is made is a fair representation of the potential for human expression – thus, my work is but a small piece of the larger puzzle.

2 When I use the term “material” I refer to multidimensional musical artifacts, consisting of pitches, rhythms, registral disposition, and instrumental technique (or timbre). This composite unit has a bounded identity.

3I refer to a criticism that views the work through its component properties, as opposed to an external assessment of expressive effectiveness or social relevancy.

4 I do not wish to suggest a criticism of systematic approaches, per se; my own inclination is to attempt a generalized approach until I understand its possibilities, then I develop systematic controls for future usage.

5 Thus far, there has been no attempt to formalize the level of granularity in this process, but this is an area that suggests particularly rich possibilities.

6 Waveform approaches are effective in situations where the source material is extremely dense through a wide registral range. I have found the centrifuge approach most effective when setting a number of limits throughout the range (such as including a bass filter and treble filter, high or low pass) that effectively thins out local densities while preserving the overall ambitus.

7 In making these decisions swiftly one avoids laboring over which detail in the sketch one adores too much to lose; if one allows oneself to fetish-ize one’s materials critical distance cannot be achieved.

8Note the subtle distinction between a fragmented texture and a pointillist texture; one requires a continuity for fragmentation to have a noticeable impact. Consider the distinction between a recording of spoken text in which all vowel sounds have been erased versus an arrangement of consonants that have been individually recorded. I submit the former will sound more meaningful, more like language, even if the precise meaning is obscured.

9 Shoji are the moveable rice paper screens from Japan. I was attracted to the implications of a culturally accepted means of arbitrarily redefining personal space simply by moving a semi-transparent screen – not the sort of barrier westerners are used to honoring.