Thoughts on composing

A student at CSU, where the Concert Choir performed my piece "it may not always be so" in 2013, recently wrote to me to ask several pointed and insightful questions about my composing life. With her permission, I'm putting up some of the replies here in hopes that they may be useful to others, especially those like me who are choral specialists and/or "hobbyists" with no academic gig and with a non-musical main career.

On choosing texts to set
I almost always start the composing process with a text I want to set. For me tone-painting great words is one of the highest and most distinctive pleasures in writing choral music, and it usually results in more compelling music than when I start with a musical idea and try to fit texts to it. I know other composers for whom it's the reverse, though, so your mileage may vary.

In any case, for me the progression usually goes: 
1. having a text in mind
2. having an overarching idea of the style in which I want to set the text
3. coming up with one or two musical ideas/motifs connected to important parts of the text, e.g. a melody for a particularly significant line of the poem
4. filling out the rest of the piece.

Recently I happened to find a text where the rhythms came clearly to me before any of the notes did, which is proving to be an interesting and challenging variation.

As to what makes a good text to set, for me there are three considerations. First, the text should be deeply personally moving. If I don't feel strong emotions on reading the poem, if I don't admire the beauty with which it expresses its sentiments, it's much harder for me to write music that will move a choir and an audience. This doesn't mean that a poem must *immediately* strike you with a strong emotional response, though: you can look at a poem you find interesting or well composed, live with it in your head for awhile (even years), and it may come to evoke deeper feeling for you. I find it helpful for this to memorize poems and recite them aloud repeatedly in a variety of different rhythms and moods.

Second, the more direct a text is in expression, the easier it will be to set well. I am indebted to David Conte for guidance on this. Directness means both terseness and straightforwardness. To give examples at opposite ends of the spectrum, Sara Teasdale's poems are extremely straightforward and short, while a lot of Wordsworth is both very gnarled in sentence structure and epically long. That doesn't mean a cleverly chosen excerpt from Wordsworth couldn't lend itself to a great choral setting, but the task is much much harder than when you have a clear idea expressed simply in a shortish chunk of text. As another example, while Shakespeare's sonnets are short enough in length and exquisite in quality, many of them express their ideas in a roundabout way that makes tone-painting very difficult.

Third, for publishing or performing your pieces, especially if money is involved, you need to make sure copyright is cleared. Stephen Paulus's essay on this is canonical:

The short summary is that basically anything first published in 1923 or later is copyright-protected in the US and probably will remain so for our lifetimes due to political dynamics I'd best refrain from ranting about here. So people usually either set texts published before then or texts by living people they know well who like them and will freely grant permission. You can sometimes get permission from famous dead authors' estates for post-1923 poems but don't count on it.

A few tidbits from my own experience with negotiating copyrights:
-- When I wrote "it may not always be so; and i say" I was ignorant of the need for copyright permissions for texts. I got lucky: it's an early cummings poem published in 1917 and so is public domain. I've since been able to get permission from Liveright, which holds cummings's copyrights, to set a later text. As Paulus says, Liveright basically insists on three things: that you set the whole text of a poem without change or deletion; that you give them proper credit; and that you split revenues from copy sales or paid performance with them according to a simple formula.

-- Copyright terms in many other countries are not (yet, subject to change due to terrible "trade" agreements, oops I promised not to rant...) as long as those in the US. This can mean that some non-US authors' copyright holders have relinquished them to the public domain. One example is Rudyard Kipling, who published plenty of stuff post 1923 but who died in 1936, so is out of copyright in the UK, and his copyrights are held by the UK National Trust which considers his poetry freely usable anywhere as public domain. I had to confirm this by writing to the National Trust.

-- If you like modernism but don't like copyright troubles, seek out avant-garde poets of the 1900-1920 period. Besides the early cummings stuff, I like Edna St. Vincent Millay a lot, and I'm sure there's much more I don't have off the top of my head right now.

-- Sacred texts are generally public domain but this is not true of some modern translations of the Bible, so do check publication date if you want to use one of these. I have used words from one of Robert Alter's recent translations simply by writing to him personally for permission.

Now, how to find a good text? Again your mileage may vary, but a few routes have worked for me. First, hang out (virtually or in person) with literary-minded people who tell you about poems they love. Second, sing a lot of choral music and listen to a lot more, and when you find a piece you love that sets a particular poem, read other poems by that author. Third, even if you don't like reading poetry by itself (I don't), read the sort of other material-- novels, essays, blogs-- that talk about poetry. I found "it may not always be so; and i say" because a co-worker posted it to a poetry mailing list at work. Other texts were forwarded to me by friends who knew I was on the hunt for texts to set. I found Sara Teasdale because a character in a novel mentioned her.

Also, consider texts in other languages not usually found in choral music. If you want to write sacred music, I think Biblical Hebrew is an underappreciated language for choral settings. It is not hard to pronounce, it has a rough beauty and an exceptional terseness of expression, and there are lots of scholarly resources to help you interpret it.

One other thing to remember about texts is that almost any text that is at all well known will already have been set for choir, usually several times. Don't let that deter you. There's always room for a fresh perspective!

On being an independent choral composer
Finding time is really difficult. When I started, I would take time on evenings and weekends to write-- never formally scheduled, but most evenings and most weekend afternoons when I didn't have other plans I would at least take an hour or so to work on a piece, or on some theory exercises if I didn't have a piece in mind. Then I became a parent and the demands on my time and energy changed completely. Basically the only time I could compose was when my son was sleeping, which meant weekend naptimes and evenings after his bedtime. At first this worked ok, but as his naps became more irregular and bedtimes later, I found I was often too tired to write while he slept. I was very fortunate to be able to negotiate a four-day-a-week schedule with my employer while continuing to send my son off to day care five days a week, so now my Fridays are my main time to compose, and I also take lessons on Fridays which has helped me considerably with more difficult techniques. Occasionally I still have a bit of quiet late evening time when I feel like doing something musical, but it's more often playing through some chord sequences or piano sightreading exercises than actually working on a piece.

I do find that I often get ideas for pieces outside regular composition time, and the best thing for this is to have some quiet meditative time, not focused on music but also removed from everyday concerns. Going to a museum works for this purpose, as does riding my bike sometimes, and occasionally actual meditation. When the ordinary planning and processing mind is quiet, and yet you have enough to immediately engage you that you don't feel pressure to produce inspiration, then inspiration can come on its own.

A few general tips for making it work:
First and most important, keep singing. Wherever you live, join as good a local choir as you can. This isn't easy after college, but in most major urban centers you nowadays have some good options. For those of us lucky enough to have long choral experience, that experience is a key advantage over more academically trained composers who may not have been singing as long: we know, as they often do not, how different parts really sound in different portions of their range and what is realistic to expect them to sing easily, and what our fellow singers will really like singing. I've been very lucky to find, in IOCSF, a choir that has higher aspirations for musicianship and repertoire than the typical community choir; that emphasizes new music; and that has several other composers in its ranks, who provide great camaraderie and feedback. 

Second, cultivate people who will read and give feedback on your pieces. This can be a composing teacher if you can find one and make time for lessons; or it can be fellow local composers to whom you show draft pieces; or it can be singers who like singing through new stuff. I learned a lot from having a few choir friends of mine sing through early versions of "it may not always be so". It's very hard to tell in advance just what a piece will sound like with a full choir singing it. The choir in your head, the piano, and the artificial choir sounds produced by notation programs all give differently distorted impressions, and in time you may develop an ability to sort of triangulate among these to get a good idea of how a real choir will sound, but this takes awhile and I'm still not as good at it as I would like. Don't worry that getting advice from others will compromise your independence as a composer: it isn't cheating to have someone else look over your piece and find notes that could be improved, any more than it's cheating for a novelist to have an editor or a software engineer a code reviewer.

Third, it's good to have competitions and calls for scores and so forth as prods to finish pieces by deadlines, even though, just like a new writer, you should expect to get a lot of rejections for every acceptance. ChoralNet is a good place to look for announcements of new places to which you can send your scores, and also for interesting discussions on various aspects of making choral music.

Fourth, keep learning theory to the extent you can. Again, this can be from a teacher but doesn't have to be. My first big technical break came from a friend-of-a-friend recommending to me Paul Hindemith's terse and clear Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony, whose exercises I found invaluable for self-study. You may find other books work better for you, or just playing through scores by Bach or some other masters on the piano, but do something to keep up the process of learning technique.

Last, resist impostor syndrome. If you look around the world of new music you'll see-- perhaps as winners of competitions you submit scores to-- plenty of emerging composers your age and (before too long) younger who have impressive academic pedigrees and long lists of awards won and ensembles who have performed their works. They have had, and will continue to have, much more time in their lives to compose and to study technique than most of us, myself included, can hope for. You may not think your work is worthy to stand with theirs. Be assured that it can be, as long as it is of a quality that you and your peers genuinely enjoy, and learn from, singing and hearing sung. There is opportunity yet for many different sorts of people to add to the store of beauty in the world.