Music Composition as an Artistic Process

[This post is #8 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

Every block of stone has a stat­ue in it, and it is the task of the sculp­tor to dis­cov­er it — Michelan­g­lo

The beau­ty of an art­work is not just because of what the artist has includ­ed in the work, but also because of what the artist has exclud­ed from it. I find this to be true of most forms of cre­ative art, whether it is music or pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing or lit­er­a­ture, sculp­ture or archi­tec­ture.

In a sculp­ture, it is easy to visu­al­ize this aspect of the artis­tic process — a stat­ue is ini­tial­ly a block of stone from which the sculp­tor removes parts, and the result is the work of art — the stat­ue. We are eas­i­ly able to visu­al­ize the artist’s work in remov­ing the unnec­es­sary parts of the stone. In paint­ing, one can visu­al­ize the col­ors not used. And so on. In music, how­ev­er, it is dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate this aspect, because we are almost nev­er aware of what the com­pos­er has exclud­ed. As casu­al lis­ten­ers of music, we only respond to what we lis­ten to, what the com­pos­er has includ­ed, we do not wear the hat of a com­pos­er and think about what the com­pos­er has exclud­ed.

This aspect of music appre­ci­a­tion is cer­tain­ly not a pre­req­ui­site to appre­ci­at­ing WCM, but it does help us to appre­ci­ate Form. We have dis­cussed Form in WCM before, and it is worth­while reit­er­at­ing its key les­son:

Form is a series of strate­gies designed to find a suc­cess­ful mean between the oppo­site extremes of unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion and unre­lieved alter­ation.

The key is to find the bal­ance between the two. Which aspects of the imag­ined work has the com­pos­er exclud­ed because they were too repet­i­tive? Which aspects of the imag­ined work has the com­pos­er exclud­ed because they were stray­ing too far away from the theme? Is the music lead­ing you sub­con­scious­ly on a pre­de­ter­mined roadmap in which the com­pos­er ulti­mate­ly wants to take you through a jour­ney to his cho­sen des­ti­na­tion? When you love a piece of music, this is exact­ly what the com­pos­er achieves — take you through a won­der­ful jour­ney to a des­ti­na­tion.

There are very, very few instances where this can be stud­ied and expe­ri­enced in the field of music. If you have expe­ri­enced a musician’s com­po­si­tion process, it is an insight­ful expe­ri­ence. With WCM, the only way we can engage in the com­po­si­tion process is to go back cen­turies in time and study the notes of the com­pos­er. This is, for­tu­nate­ly, what musi­cal schol­ars have done. How­ev­er, their archived scrib­blings of musi­cal nota­tions and their explo­ration most­ly remains exclu­sive to the elit­ist schol­ar­ly domain, leav­ing us casu­al lis­ten­ers with no way to appre­ci­ate or under­stand them.

This is quite sim­i­lar to sci­ence. There are many fas­ci­nat­ing areas of sci­ence that remain beyond the reach of the main­stream, because their appre­ci­a­tion requires spe­cial­ized knowl­edge. There is a gulf between the high­er ech­e­lons of art and sci­ence and the main­stream pop­u­lace. There are very few peo­ple who attempt to bridge that gulf. I have the most pro­found respect for them, because they attempt to enlight­en us.

Carl Sagan epit­o­mized this role in Sci­ence. Leonard Bern­stein epit­o­mizes it in Music. Leonard Bern­stein is to Music what Carl Sagan was to Sci­ence.

They were them­selves a sci­en­tist and a musi­cian, but in look­ing back at their role in his­to­ry, their bridg­ing the gulf may be deemed more impor­tant than their pro­fes­sion­al careers.

With no fur­ther eulo­giz­ing, let us now learn from Leonard Bern­stein teach­ing us about the com­po­si­tion process that went behind Beethoven’s high­ly regard­ed and most loved 5th Sym­pho­ny:

Watch and lis­ten. I need not say any­thing fur­ther. This is a unique expe­ri­ence for us to learn to appre­ci­ate WCM and we should for­ev­er be grate­ful to Lenny.

P.S. The Man­del­brot set is a unique excep­tion to the rule of Form, where unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion ulti­mate­ly results in what some may say is Art.

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  • Good post, Mahen­dra, and I admire your dili­gence and com­mit­ment in con­tin­u­ing the WCM series at your blog.

    Bern­stein also deliv­ered a series of lec­tures on music in 1973 at Har­vard, in which he takes Mozart’s Sym­pho­ny no 40 in G minor as an exam­ple to explain many con­cepts. Here’s the YouTube playlist for those of your read­ers who may be inter­est­ed —

    • Thank you! Lenny’s Har­vard lec­tures are on a dif­fer­ent plane alto­geth­er. They are very pro­found, insight­ful, and explore not only the roots but the evo­lu­tion of clas­si­cal music through the ages.
      In attempt­ing to intro­duce Lenny into this series of WCM posts, I thought this was a good wel­come point. If I grow this series into a suit­able struc­ture, maybe the Har­vard lec­tures would find a spot. Lenny’s Har­vard lec­tures delve into the realm of music+ phi­los­o­phy, and I won­der if it would deter new­com­ers to this genre from the basic goal of these posts: that WCM is eas­i­ly appre­cia­ble.

      • Agreed. Ergo “… for those of your read­ers who may be inter­est­ed” (there are always some who want to dig deep­er).

        • Ah, yes 🙂 If I do have such read­ers, not only will I dig deep­er, I shall exult in joy­ful sat­is­fac­tion! 🙂 Let’s see how it goes…