How Music Is Made

The making of music, like many other highly skilled professional occupations, often appears awesome and mysterious to the layman. Just as the doctor who diagnoses your case as "chronic idiopathic hypertension" is bound to make a much greater impression than the one who merely says you have high blood pressure, so the composer who describes his latest brain child as a "sonata in passacaglia form, in the Mixolydian mode, allegro con fuoco, followed by a crab canon in double counterpoint andante and a basso ostinato in ternary form, with the theme in augmentation and diminution" seems far more impressive than the fellow who simply says he's written a new piece.

Every profession has its own particular air of secrecy and wonder, but composing has retained this much longer than most others. Ever since prehistoric times when music was a part of magic rituals and the musician and magician were one and the same person, the tradition has remained that the act of composition is mysterious and uncanny. Like the primitive wizard or the prophets of old, the composer has been pictured as a highly keyed-up, unstable, unworldly person, likely to be seized by the divine fever at any moment and fall into a raptus or trance in which the outside world completely ceases to exist. When picture magazines do a feature story on the composer he is almost invariably shown working at midnight, his hair mussed up, collar askew, a whisky bottle or a big pot of black coffee on the piano, a slightly drugged look in his eye, and bits of scrawled, ink-blotted manuscripts littering the floor.

Now I hate to give away trade secrets but quite a number of composers I know are perfectly sane, hard-working, normal people who get up by an alarmclock every morning, prefer soft drinks to hard, and keep their hair reasonably neat. Some are even married and remain in love with their own wives. Most of them hate to work at midnight and never wait for trance or ecstasy before beginning to compose. They work regular hours and just as much and as often as they get a chance. And they are, in my humble opinion, among the most distinguished creative talents in America today.

What is true of today's composers was probably equally true of most of the great musicians of the past. We know that many of them toiled and struggled, often sweated blood over their music. We have only to look at Beethoven's sketch-books to see how he chiseled and hammered away, wrote and rewrote most of his greatest compositions, before he got them right. Bach, asked what was the secret of his art, responded, "I have worked hard." There is no question that he and all the great masters labored constantly and with intense application-they had to, in order to get all that work done.

Even Wagner, whose autobiography tends to give the impression that his life was one endless series of adventures, intrigues, love affairs, and his music the product of the famous raptus, must have spent years and years sitting stock-still at his desk or piano. The sheer labor of setting down the hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of notes contained in the orchestral scores of the Ring alone is appalling, and could never have been achieved without the months and years of patient, systematic work old Richard put in.

Besides the capacity for hard work, of course, a man must have talent. Without it, years of drudgery and the most profound technical knowledge in the world can never produce one bar of real music. Musicians know the type of ambitious composer who fancies himself the modern Beethoven; he spends fourteen hours a day at his piano or desk, turns out three huge symphonic works and six intricately written string quartets every year--only it is all about as exciting as last month's newspaper, and we would willingly swap it all for one decent Tin Pan Alley tune.
But to get back to the question: How is music made? I have already mentioned the hard work and the talent. Besides that, there's an immense amount of skill involved. Perhaps this makes the whole process seem too formidable. Really it's not essentially mysterious or even unfamiliar in a way to the average person.

Have you ever felt exceptionally good when getting up in the morning and found yourself humming while taking a shower or shave? Or did you ever burst into a kind of spontaneous singing while walking down a country road on a lovely spring morning? Nine times out of ten you were probably humming or singing something you had heard somewhere--but the tenth time you may have been humming one of those fragmentary bits of melody that people often make up themselves quite unconsciously. My father, who was completely untrained in music, used to hum such meandering, wayward melodies with great zest while playing chess, and I knew he was laying a particularly nasty trap for me by the way his voice would spiral up into a jubilant, satisfied rhythm. Today I often hear my three-year-old daughter vocalising-passionately off-key!--while drawing pictures on our newly painted woodwork.

This sort of rhapsodic, spontaneous singing or humming is in essence the first step in all composing. It is basically the way most composers begin when they have to write a piece--except that instead of vocalising or humming, some play about with tones, rhythms, and pitches on a piano keyboard; and others, with mental images of these in their minds. In some cases, this habit of mental improvisation becomes so strong that a composer can indulge in it under the strangest circumstances. I have watched a very gifted composer friend of mine who works as editorial consultant in a Broadway publishing house carry on a business conversation, ask and answer questions, talk on the telephone--all the while working out musical passages in his mind and writing them into an orchestral score he had before him. I personally find the subway quite conducive to thinking up new ideas--the purring, rumbling noise furnishes a sort of neutral sound curtain against which melodies can stand out in bold relief. Shostakovich is said to be able to continue composing in a room full of people, with his children clambering on to his lap.

Let us admit then that the first step in composition is this more or less conscious sort of random improvising. What then? If almost anyone can do this, what is the distinctive mark of the composer? It is this: shaping the material thus discovered. The layman or amateur musician improvises as a rule quite aimlessly. One idea may follow another in quick succession, forming a series of more or less unconnected melodic fragments. This may be fun for the maker, but is generally deadly for anyone who may happen to be listening.

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