This blog is my train of thought on over- and underthinking musical ideas. This question is urgent for me today, because I am studying a new form, as taught in ‘Form the silent language’ by Hugo Norden. I am thinking a lot about form and the beauty of structures, energy-curves and frame-works in music in order to design ‘music that makes emotions’. But I noticed this week, that some composers that sound very well educated, end up with music that makes ‘rationalizations’ rather than ’emotions’.
At 20-09-2019 I was listening to an organ concert at the Nieuwe Kerk Delft. I live there, so I was thrilled to hear our huge organ in our newly renovated church. Students of Codarts were presenting work from various composers, amongst others J. Guillou.
For me, the work of Guillo sounds like a very confusing mix of random notes. I do not perceive this as music, because this music doesn’t give me an emotion. This music makes me think a lot, trying to follow any trail of crumbs the composer laid out for me, to find the path through his musical landscape. I am completely lost in this musical space, nobody takes me by the hand to make me feel safe.
When I listen to this music, I feel stupid, because I don’t understand it. My brain shuts off because of lack of memorable phrases, it can’t play any fun memory game. It felt like a huge waste of my time.
So, how did the composer get this result? What can I do to prevent myself from writing this kind of music?
As a composer, you have to think about everything, but how much should you think about everything? Is the music I heard in church the result of overthinking? Does that lead to too complicated forms, too large contrasts, too thick orchestrations? Does overthinking lead ton music that makes ‘rationalizations’ instead of ’emotions’?
Is music we recognize as ‘intellectual’ a result of overthinking?
Over-thinking a whole composition
I think that composers who overthink compositions and are too long ‘in their zone’ and get out of touch with ‘what my mam would like to hum walking home’ audiences.
When you write music, you get used to your own composition. Even when it is a random set of notes. So, the music a composer writes will never sound strange to his ears, but it might to ours because we don’t share that memory of the new music with him yet. When we heard it a few times, we share the memories of the composer and experience the music the same way as the composer. It will sound less strange to our ears because we remember.
Eric Whitacre wrote ‘When David heard‘. He confined himself for a long time to his workspace and worked on the composition for a long time. It was written for a conductor who lost his child. Eric Whitacre often writes from a certain emotion, this must have been a very difficult emotion to write from and sit in for such a long time.
Now compare ‘David heard’ with the ‘Seal lullaby’, a composition he wrote for a film-company over a short time. This song has a whole different emotional quality and many people like to sing and play this.
My personal experience is that sitting in an emotion for a long time, writing something extremely personal doesn’t give me the longed for result. Overthinking form, structure, orchestration makes a composition complicated, fragmented and/or thickly orchestrated.
Too long alone in a confined space, overthinking a composition might not be the best workflow to make ‘music that makes the emotion’.
Since writing music is the art of consciously knowing what not to write, the composer might also overthink omitting notes: The composer might have consciously omitted notes that we need to follow the music. The composer still hears them in his head, but we will never hear them and might get lost in the music.
There was a research on making pottery. Two groups were asked to make the best pottery. The first group was asked to go for high quality, to design the perfect pot. The second group was asked to just make as much pottery as they could. It turned out that the second group also made the perfect pot. They had the knowledge and the experience to make it. This research shows us that focussing on production rather than quality ends with a better result.
Under-thinking a whole composition
I feel very sorry for Mahler. We are currently practicing Mahler 3 and I think that Mahler never really found his ‘form’, his structure. It’s all perfect pearls, but the necklace, it’s a two hour long chaotic intertwined set of strings with wild colored pearls. He did not take the time to find some structure and to present us with a lead. He ended up just producing this dazzling amount of musical ideas, took a hot glue gun and sticked them together.
His music is therefor very difficult to play. He needed to prescribe everything in detail, because there is no natural feel for dynamics in the composition and the orchestration doesn’t help out. So, his lack of thinking about form, unity of musical ideas, orchestration (just take all the instruments and make it BIG, must have been his motto here…) made him think about writing all those instructions in his score. So, no time saved at all, for that matter.
There is a lot of modern classical music, instruments are often required to play in extreme ranges, making it impossible for the musician to ‘shine’ with their instruments. This might be caused by over-thinking orchestration or under-thinking instrumentation.
When an orchestra sounds ‘torn apart’, with a lot of abrupt changes in sound-color, the composer might have had to cover up a boring repetitive musical idea or he might have been working on the composition too long and being bored by the original music, so he added this strange extreme orchestration to make the boring feeling up for himself. Both are cases of overthinking orchestration.
Everybody is trying to make the piano sound like the music Debussy heard in his head while writing, but you can’t, because he heard probably music and nature and wind and birds and flutes and piano and wind and violins and voices all at the same time.
Debussy did not orchestrate these works, but must have heard an orchestration in his head other than just piano. His works aren’t piano-pieces, you hear their longing for an orchestration that the piano cannot give us. Debussy did not take the time to finish these compositions, he was underthinking orchestration and now pianists are working hard to make up for that.
I don’t think Debussy only heard the piano when he was playing his piano music.
Composers are often under-thinking instrumentation, because they mostly work with professional musicians. They can play miracles on their instrument, so the composer never experiences the natural comfortable limits of the instruments he write for. Especially composers who play piano, but no other instruments, are prone to this pitfall.
Try to play all instruments, you will respect the musicians even more.
Over-thinking contrast: black-white music
This summer I was at a concert where they played a new classical composition for symphonic orchestra. In the audience was a girl and when there was a sudden explosion she cried out loud and walked away sobbing over the extreme contrast. The contrast was too much to handle, and she was right, I hated it too. This was clearly an overthought contrast without any warning or building up to it.
Limiting possibilities is great for creativity, but too constraint musical ideas give a lot of strange by-effects.
When composers think of contrast, they think things like ‘there is only tension and release’, consonances and dissonances. The result is a black and white composition that lacks nuances. Only writing contrasts tends to get boring. The composers hits the boundaries of limiting himself to get creative. The limitation confines beautiful musical colorful stories to a simple black and white drawing.
You see, I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across – not to just depict life – or criticize it – but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me, you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful.E. Hemingway
Humans are not black and white, they are complicated and layered. Music should comprise of emotions like: being content, homesickness, fear of drowning, jumping up and down with excitement, enjoying flowers in a field, feeling the warm last sunshine on your skin on the last day of summer. These are the emotions that the music should make, these are the emotions that make us human.