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22 October 2017

Music Composition insights: Part I – Take Your time (Aliocha Solovera)

Composition insights? An explanation of this blog post series

I wanted to share with you some of the composition insights I’ve learned throughout the years as a composer in different styles.

Contrary to what you might expect, I’m not sharing with you technical tips or a ’10 steps to make your music great’. I won’t tell you how to write a melody, how to arrange or how to EQ your mix – to be honest, I don’t even think that teaching those things is really important in the long run. You can learn all of those by yourself or by taking classes. These composition tips are drawn from other people’s life and musical experience as well as from my own. Some of these people are recognized composers, some producers and some of them, like me, aren’t really famous. Nevertheless, all of them are highly skilled craftsman in their areas of expertise, and the quality of their work is evident, even if you don’t like the particular style they do. Also, I wanted to incorporate a few insights that come from non-musical places. Being that composition is ultimately a creative activity, more than a technical one, we can learn powerful new perspectives from areas that don’t relate directly to music creation, but to human experience in a broader sense.

These insights were born out of a question I’ve had since the beginning of my journey as a composer: How do you teach composition?

When I first realized I wanted to compose music I figured out that the best way to get it done, was to go to a composer and get him or her to teach me so I could learn the craft. And I did just that: I approached a successful composer and asked him if he could teach me composition. He said: “Honestly, I can’t teach you how to compose. I can give you guidelines and comments on your work, but there’s no method for teaching composition”. This threw me off balance. As you can imagine, I ended up not taking classes from him – but his insight was very profound and became one of the first lessons I learned, for free. But… what did he mean by this?

Usually, most of the things you are taught in a music composition course are practical/technical know-how. Be it in the different pertaining areas of arrangements, orchestration, counterpoint, synthesis, or production techniques. These are skills you need to be able to compose music but, paradoxically, these skills don’t make you a composer. Why? Because composition is first and foremost a creative craft and technical proficiency is only a tool that enables it. On top of that, many of these technical skills usually apply to particular styles of music and aren’t always directly transferable.

The creative part of composition is harder to teach, as many variables need to be considered when writing a piece of music, many of them even a the same time, whatever the style may be. A possible definition of composition then could be: “To combine technical music knowledge or skills in new, creative and engaging ways, in order to design complex pieces of work.” Compositions are complex because in any given music, there are hundreds of elements (sounds, styles, cultural references, and movement metaphors) that the listener synthesizes into a subjective experience. Added to the fact that musical pieces are complex, the listeners themselves are far from homogeneous sources of musical appreciation. All of them hear different things when listening to the same piece of music. All these elements make music a highly complex and constantly changing experience. For this reason, summing up this complexity of composition in rules that can be taught is impossible. That’s why the composer told me -“I can’t teach you how to compose”-.

So, given that, I think that the best way to learn how to compose is just to actually compose music, and then get feedback from experienced people you share a taste with. Surprisingly, at least for me, this feedback usually come in the form of small comments on very particular aspects of the piece or song that, insulated, won’t change much my workflow or perception of the art. But here’s what I think is the trick: Learning how to compose is putting all of these pieces of feedback you’ve got over the years together, and then incorporating them in your creative process. This accumulation creates these insights I talk about, some of which I’ll share with you now.

Part 1: Take your time – Aliocha Solovera

AliochaAliocha Solovera was one of my first composition teachers. He’s well respected amongst his peers in the world of contemporary classical music. I’ve met many musicians in my life, some of them good, some of them excellent, others brilliant. Being a traditional composer that kept himself musically insulated from the mainstream in many ways, Aliocha developed one brilliant talent that I’ve never seen in any another musician to that degree: his capacity for internal audition.

Aliocha would glance at a score and have a vivid echoic image of what the score sounded like. Even though he used to laugh at movies like ‘Amadeus’, where Salieri would look at Mozart’s score and listen to the music in his head like it came directly out of speakers, I have no doubt that Aliocha had a very accurate idea of what a score was about simply by reading it, and could point out things that even the students who had written the music couldn’t see. He always said this ability to represent musical ideas internally came from experience.

For him, all knowledge of composition came from experience, and it is through this accumulative process that the most important characteristic of an experienced composer was developed: time management (“manejo del tiempo”). Apart from a composer, he is a conductor as well, and probably through having looked at thousands of scores through out his career, he developed an ability to represent musical time and progress very accurately in his mind.

Time management in music doesn’t relate to tempo or rhythm necessarily. I would define it as the natural life cycle of musical elements. Allowing the ideas to live and die the precise amount of time. This means not overusing the musical material and at the same time not killing it before it says what it has to say.

Amongst his recurrent comments were: -“Avoid trying to make one second sound as an eternity, take your time.”- He would do this comment when a section in the music was way too packed with elements. Extending on this he would say: -“A second and a minute are very short time spans for musical perception, especially in live performances. At the end the audience only retains a vague image of the music they heard”-. This is a very important thing to consider if you want to have a powerful effect in the audience. Another way of reading this comment is, don’t saturate your music and let change come gradually, out of the necessities of the music itself. Even though we might live in a time where short attention spans are the norm and we might be tempted to place a lot of information in a short period of time, it’s also true that it’s quite difficult to say anything of substance or transmit a meaningful message in 120 characters or 1 minute of low quality video.

As a conclusion, “Take your time” means letting ideas develop naturally. Killing a musical idea before its climax or full potential can be a frustrating listening experience and, as a result, the vague musical image the audience retains of your music will be affected. Taking your time is giving your music the time it needs to exist naturally, no more, no less. It not only applies to the music itself, but to the creative process. Take your time to create quality work and be respectful of the time people have given you to listen to your creations, as no one has an urgency to listen to mediocre music.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this insight and that it’s useful for your music composition journey. Soon I’ll publish a new post with more insights. Leave comments and please subscribe to my newsletter.

Francisco Rafart

Check out Aliocha’s music

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