What's up, people.
Miggy Torres here.
In this two-part sub-series, I want to share with you some ideas I had about default settings in the compositional process.
So basically—Well. I guess—hold on. Let me back up for a sec.
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Okay so. A few years ago, one of my best friends got really into photography, and then I started looking at photography, and watching photography videos on YouTube, and trying to learn a little bit about some of the more intricate things involved in taking photographs. And one thing I noticed, especially if you’re taking photographs on actual film vs. purely digital photography, is that right at the beginning, the photographer needs to make a fundamental artistic choice before any other choices can be made: do I shoot in black & white or do I shoot in color? And that choice is going to have a profound fundamental impact on the nature of the final work of art.
The artist is really forced into making the choice. You have to make the choice at some point before you can begin shooting. And it’s gonna be one or the other—of course, you can have varying degrees of saturation within a photograph, but at the end of the day it’s still either black & white or color—and each one says something different. It’s easy to just want to start shooting with whatever you have, or make this choice casually and say “well, I’ll just shoot everything in color” or “I’ll just shoot it all in black and white” without really considering what impact that choice will have on the final work of art and how it can best serve your initial artistic impulse.
So I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of times people will default to a certain “setting” when it comes to producing a work of art, and they might not realize that they even have a choice as far as those defaults go, even if that choice is limited. But those choices that are made—sometimes without thinking, simply because you’ve always done it that way—right at the beginning of the artistic process affect what creative avenues are open to you down the line, and have an enormous impact on the nature of the final product. So, for example, if your default setting is to always shoot in color—if you’re not even considering before you go to take a picture “I need to make a choice: color or black & white?”—then you might have some pictures come out really great in color, but there may have been others that would have been much more effective in black & white (and vice versa).
Similarly, I heard once—from somewhere, not sure where—that since software like Logic and ProTools default to Common Time in C-Major at 120BPM, most music produced on these programs is in four-four, in C-major, and is at 120BPM—while there are relatively fewer tracks in other—even closely related—keys and tempi. Again, not sure about the validity of this statement, but if you consider all the pieces being written with Logic and ProTools, and all the different levels of musicianship of the artists creating those works, it makes a certain amount of sense. Why would I waste time fiddling with default settings? I just wanna make music! I hit the button, sound comes out! I just wanna make some sound! C-Major is a great key! Four-four is a great time sig! Why change it? Let’s just create! Let’s just play! Honestly, not a bad attitude, but the result is that most of the pieces end up having the same time signature, the same tempo, and the same key.
SO as a composer—after I realized all of this—I started thinking, “what are some of the default settings that I’ve been using in my music, and how can I kind of make sure that all of those choices are intentional artistic choices?” (As opposed to just jumping into a piece with all those defaults in place, not even having considered that they can or should be changed).
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The Product-Process Duality
Before I begin to throw out some answers to this question, I wanted to really quickly give you my take on the Process-Product duality. Product and Process are like space and time, in the sense that they aren’t separate things. In cosmology, there is no separate space and time, there’s just 4-dimensional spacetime (unless you’re a string theorist, but Calabi–Yau manifolds go beyond the scope of this article). Same goes for product and process. It’s just productprocess. If this article were in German, I might call it Produktverarbeiten. It’s like how the Spectralists erase the distinction between harmony and timbre. It’s just harmonytimbre.
When you create a work of art, aspects of the process always inexorably embed themselves in the final product. A great example of this is Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. The works themselves are quite expressive (if you’re into Pollock) in their forms and lines and colors. But this style of painting—action painting—also conveys movement, gesture, process. Pollock would essentially dance on a giant canvas, and improvise dripping paint everywhere in different ways. One could argue that the primary work of art was that improvised dance. The only work of art is the act of creation; the painting is just a representation of that act. The painting is just a record of it, a shell, a casting.
It’s like when people pour molten aluminum down an anthill and dig it up after it cools. You’re left with a giant inverted aluminum tree that filled all the tunnels burrowed by the ants. The tree is beautiful, but it’s not an anthill. It’s just a casting, an imprint, a 3D detemporalized projection of the anthill. By the same token, one could argue that Pollock’s drip paintings are 3D (2D?) detemporalizations of the actions he took when painting them, and as a result are inseparable from those actions. Can you imagine trying to make a drip painting with a brush on an easel? It wouldn’t just be hard—it would be impossible: the consistency of the paint would have to be very thick to keep it from dripping down the canvas, but it would conversely need to be thinned out to prevent brush strokes from showing in the final product. It would also be extremely difficult to capture the improvisatory nature of the works.
Pollock, Jackson. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I mean, you know. You could try, but. Seems like a lost cause. In the words of Modernist poet, T.S. Eliot:
The detail of the pattern is movement.1Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909–1935. London: Faber & Faber, ltd., 1936.
Made famous in musical circles by Caroline Shaw, this mantra originates from the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets, Burnt Norton. In the opening lines,
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Eliot conceives time imagistically as a single, tenseless, deterministic projection of the infinitely stretching arms of future and past. This isotropic view of time is further emphasized by Eliot’s inclusion of the following epigram ahead of the poem:
ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή
— I. p. 89 Fr. 60.
a fragment from Heraclitus’ On Nature, which translates to
The way up and the way down is one and the same.2Wikisource, s.v. “Fragments of Heraclitus.”
The detail of the patten is movement. 😐
The debris from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—which exploded common notions of time and space only some twenty years prior to the publication of Burnt Norton—hung thick in the Modernist zeitgeist. Ezra Pound—a contemporary of Eliot — had similar views about the duality between action and object.
After the death of noted Orientalist (yikes!) Ernest Fenollosa, Pound edited and published Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. This text puts forth Pound and Fenollosa’s ideas about the Imagistic, detemporalized nature of Chinese writing. While these musings are hardly taken seriously by Chinese language scholars today—or, indeed anyone who knows Chinese—, they give us insight into some of the æsthetic ideas Pound was playing around with in his development of Imagism (even if they were based on false premises):
A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through action, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, exist in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things….
…Green is only a certain rapidity of vibration, hardness a degree of tenseness in cohering….
…No full sentence really completes a thought… The truth is that acts are successive, even continuous; one causes or passes into another. And though we may string ever so many clauses into a single compound sentence, motion leaks everywhere, like electricity from an exposed wire. All processes in nature are interrelated; and thus there could be no complete sentence (according to this definition) save one which it would take all of time to pronounce.3Fenollosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. (2008). The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition. Edited by Haun Saussy et al., Fordham University. I know you’re about to break out Sibelius and set this whole quote to music. I beat you to it though! …Ugh, I guess you can still give it a shot yourself if you want. At least finish reading the article, though! 🙏🏼
While Pound conceives of a noun-verb duality in a very abstract and general sense, it mirrors our own discussion of productprocess. The product is just a cross-section of the productprocess at one of its terminal points. The process is the set of actions that produce the final result. You can’t have one without the other, and they share—in the most extreme version of this idea—the same identity.
Realistically, slight variations in either product or process may or may not affect the other. Or what variations they do produce may be so slight as to be negligible. But it seems to me inescapable: the painting is also an ordered set of brushstrokes, the Nocturne an ordered set of fingerings. The ways in which you compose a work of music—and especially the choices you make right at the outset of creation—embed themselves into the very fabric of the work.
It’s often pretty clear: The Rite of Spring, for instance, was written at the piano. While Stravinsky was obviously thinking about orchestration while writing the work, a lot of the writing is incredibly pianistic, the chords and gestures fitting the hands naturally on the keyboard. Other works, such as Holliger’s Studie über Mehrklänge, were clearly written “at the oboe,” so to speak. By the same token, it’s often—though, admittedly, not always—easy to tell when a composer has written an orchestral work in short score first, before orchestrating it, as opposed to writing immediately to full score.
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Short-Score-First music, in my opinion, tends often to be more disembodied, more detached from the physicality of playing each instrument. Colors are lacquered over a preexisting, often pianistic, musical base-coat. Full-Score-First pieces, on the other hand, often tend to sound like large chamber works, in the sense that the music that each instrument plays is informed by its physical qualities and modes of sound production: e.g. specific fingerings, registral timbres, multiphonic capabilities, open strings, instrumental “personality.”
The astute reader will note that I seem to be arguing in favor FSF works, and to a certain extent that’s true. FSF has definitely become a very effective way of composing for me. Still, SSF certainly has its place. More than saying one mode of composition is somehow “better” than another, it’s important to consider the benefits of each and deliberately deploy whichever one you feel best serves your compositional goals. As I said, Le Sacre was composed SSF — and at the piano (sacrilege!)—, but is an incredible work that has become a foundational part of the mythos of contemporary music.
“And I put on the door, ‘It is here,’ in French, ‘It is here that I am composing Le Sacre de Printemps,’ and I signed, ‘Igor Stravinsky.’”
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All this is to say that process and product are indelibly intertwined. If a goal of mine is to create fresh choral music, I can’t expect the product to change unless the process changes. I can only think creatively about the product for so long before I realize that—to really open myself up to more creative artistic avenues—the creative process must be reflexive: it must be applied to itself.
Here is where we begin our discussion of metaprocess, i.e. the process of thinking creatively about the creative process. The questions shift from “What note comes next?” to “How should I decide what note comes next?” and “How do I decide to decide which note comes next?” It’s easy to lose oneself in the infinity-mirror of this reflexive process, and generally I recommend stopping after only one or two levels of abstraction from the work itself. But in order to answer these first and second order questions (“How do I decide?” and “How do I decide to decide?”), a good first step is to examine the decisions we’re already making by default, and to ask ourselves:
These are all questions that can only be answered by each individual artist. In Part 2 of this sub-series, however, I’ll share some default settings that I noticed in my own choral writing a while back—which I think are reasonably common in the choral world—, how I think they affect the productprocess, and what other options I’ve come up with to help me make deliberate creative choices.
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The title image features the artwork of Yves Kline, in which he would use the movements of live, paint-smeared models as living brush-strokes. While radical for their time, today these Anthropométries present the viewer with some problematic ethical-æsthetical questions, especially as they relate to artist-model power dynamics and the objectification of women’s bodies (a throughline that has persisted in Western Art since well before the Venus de Milo). For more on this, Kirstin Russel’s short article Feminism and Yves Klein’s Anthropométries offers a nice point of departure.
1 Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909–1935. London: Faber & Faber, ltd., 1936. Online version of the Four Quartets available here.
2 Wikisource, s.v. “Fragments of Heraclitus.”
3 Fenollosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. (2008). The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition. Edited by Haun Saussy et al., Fordham University. I know you’re about to break out Sibelius and set this whole quote to music. I beat you to it though! …Ugh, I guess you can still give it a shot yourself if you want. At least finish reading the article, though! 🙏🏼