Creating any artistic work normally starts with a blank piece of paper, canvas or empty screen. Having some sort of loose idea of what the final work will be, a framework, template or structure to work in can help creativity. Once there is a shape to the work in progress, some of the hows? what ifs? and where cans? can be put to the back of the mind as ideas can be explored within defined boundaries. Some visual ideas of this can be found on the search page of Google with their commemorative designs for specific days or for musical examples listen to your favourite song, more than likely it is based on one of a few commonly used structures (and often uses a common harmonic sequence as well).
In the commercial music world composers and producers often mimic or copy successful formats (success in this respect is selling many copies) as a means of replicating the success with their song. This practice has influenced periods of chart music for many years with a noticeable similarity of songs, sounds and styles performed by various artists seeking the number one spot. As this part of the music industry becomes more and more interested in sales rather than music I cannot see radical changes happening in the future.
Music in the media has also started to follow this trend. The soundtrack of a bed of synthetic sounds with a subtle pulse from some instrument (rarely drums or percussion) behind simple and repetitive melodic piano riffs assails my ears regularly during television dramas or when I sit in a café. It must be the sound of the late 2000s and early 2010s that will evolve into something similar (probably replacing the piano with a different instrument) in the near future.
The constraints in the last examples are usually dictated by the director, producer or client to create an appealing, recognisable and inoffensive product that will not fail in the ratings. The consumers (and the charts or ‘likes’ they influence) have become the artistic controllers of what is produced rather than allowing an artist to produce a work that will challenge the audience.
The last century was very different in this manner with the encouragement of experimentation in theories, methods and concepts. Many creative artists concluded that the methods of the past had reached their conclusion and the search was on for a new way. This gave rise to a number of artistic movements that promoted their theories as the path to follow. In some of these theories the rules or constraints were so precise that they limited the output of the artist whereas others were so free that they became individual events or chaotic in their methods (almost like having another blank sheet of paper).
Some artists from this period recognised that boundaries were needed so that they could create with certainty rather than continually looking for an answer in a sea of choices (or freedoms). Reflecting on his composition methods Stravinsky said; “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution”. During discussions about methods of composing I have had with electro-acoustic composers, their search for the one sound that can then be treated and developed into a composition shows how the constraint is the amount of sound material they can work. There may be many processes and treatments of the sound during the work that could make it unrecognisable to the audience but the initial concept has stringent boundaries.
During the composition of Deranged Drums on Digital Vistas there were many months of noting ideas without any concept of how they were going to be used. It took many months to formulate the final methodology and structure to the work that allowed for a certain amount of chance in the music and also the defined linear progression that a score on manuscript would dictate. The final work has two scores running alongside each other, in practical terms it may need two conductors as well, with interactions between the two ideas unfolding throughout the performance.
Once the process had been defined I worked far more effectively, any ideas that arrived had somewhere to go and could be considered for either part of the composition. This search for a procedure to work in was the most difficult, yet important, part of my development as a composer. I could have used the ideas in ways that were familiar (or compose within the constraints that I have used before) but now is the time to fully explore the concepts of chance and formal composition that I have experimented with during my career and I knew a different process was needed.
The composition is now progressing well, some of the scoring is complete and the order of ideas has a template to work to, I hope to be able to organise a performance of the first version soon.