Geof Bradfield

Five things people tried to tell me about writing music (that I stubbornly insisted on learning the hard way)


“Writing is, for the most part, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to take occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come by, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge.”
—William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style

For Christmas a few years ago, I gave my wife a new edition of The Elements of Style, the classic text on writing in plain English. This probably seems a strange gift, but she is a writer and art historian, and the new edition couples playful, insightful advice from William Strunk and E.B. White with equally charming illustrations by Maira Kalman. I picked it up recently to distract myself from a commission with a rapidly looming deadline and realized that much of the advice Strunk and White offer applies to composers of music as aptly as it does to composers of essays. In Chapter V, the authors lay out 21 “suggestions and cautionary hints” for the young writer attempting to bag that partridge. I’ve narrowed them down to a handful that especially resonated, in some cases combining rules that, from a musical standpoint, speak to the same issues.

1. Write in a way that comes naturally.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “What other way could I write?” I would venture, though, that most of us have some difficulty achieving this goal. Writing is indeed often “laborious and slow.” Ideally, this allows the composer to discover the music he or she truly hears. That same slow process, however, allows other voices to intrude. These voices can be external: teachers, idols, peers, and critics all may exert some influence, positive or negative. Or they may be internal, the voices of insecurity and other demons fed by the desire to write something hip, create a masterpiece, impress those outer voices, and so on. In its surety and persistence, this chorus often threatens to drown the composer’s true artistic voice.

My approach to this problem in my own work is to begin with simple materials which I hear clearly in my mind’s ear and can therefore manipulate fluidly. These ideas might be drawn from my personal musical language, acquired over years of writing and playing, or they might be relatively new, borrowed from various sources of inspiration and tossed around until they feel like my own. If I truly hear the building blocks of the piece I’m working on, I should be able to sing the melodies (all of them, not just the principal melody, but also the bass melody and inner lines), stomp and clap the rhythms, and vividly imagine the colors of the instruments. This is more difficult than it sounds and painfully revealing of one’s limitations—try it with a song you think you know well. How much of it do you really hear in your mind, and how clearly? 

As a composition develops, it usually moves beyond what I was hearing initially and takes on some life of its own. If I begin from materials I know intimately, I can grow with the piece and develop ideas in a way that I hope still reflects my voice as a composer when I get to the end of the work. If I start with ideas that I’m barely able to grasp, much less use in some expressive fashion, the final product will suffer and any personal voice is likely to be a casualty along the way. For more on this idea, check out The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, a video interview in which he addresses a similar concern about young improvisers.

2. Work from a suitable design.

When I first began composing in my late teens, my process was simple: sit down at the piano, open my notebook, and wait for inspiration to strike. I rarely, if ever, had any design in mind, and I wrote in an invariably linear fashion from beginning to end. This isn’t a terrible method for generating raw material in a brainstorming session, but it has some serious flaws as a guiding compositional process. The pieces I wrote this way often had a nice flow initially, but lacked unity and tended to be quite short, as they soon collapsed in on themselves due to lack of a strong structural foundation. They also were mostly sectional in nature, comprised of several short ideas that did not necessarily connect with each other meaningfully. 

Now, my writing often begins the same way, but I only use that stage to generate a few cells—a rhythm, a couple chords that speak to me in some way, or a short melodic idea. Once I have some viable material to work with, I map out some sort of formal scheme. This form might be very specific, such as the harmonic plan of an existing piece, or it might be more general, just a rough map of the development and intensity over a certain span of time.  Since I’m primarily a jazz composer, my plan usually includes some space for improvisation. Thinking about the relationship between improvisation and composition often helps to determine the overarching structure. I might want improvisations based on different sections of the composed material, allowing different musicians to develop distinct aspects of the piece. Sometimes the improvisation can unfold as the composition unfolds, weaving in and out of written material. In other instances, improvisation serves to introduce a piece, or to link together sections of a larger work. I use all of these approaches in my most recent extended work, "African Flowers."

The form may evolve as I compose, but having a sketch of the whole can help to determine the number of themes, relationships between themes, rough length of phrases, location of important cadences, and other issues of tension and release as well as unity.  As a young composer this degree of planning would have struck me as restrictive at best and cheating at worst, but I’ve come to realize that I produce better work under some restrictions, even if they are self-imposed. Composers as diverse as Bartok, Bach, and Ellington thrived under similar or more particular stylistic and formal restrictions. As for the idea that using existing designs might constitute cheating, skip to the end of this article to see what T.S. Elliott and Igor Stravinsky have to say.

3. Avoid fancy words / Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

Is that fancy poly-chord really a better choice than a triad? Is elaborate counterpoint inherently superior to simple unisons? Why are you setting that melody in 13/32—is there a compelling musical reason to do so, or do you just want to sit with the cool kids in the cafeteria? Like many composers, I went through a sophomoric period in which I wasn’t satisfied with a new piece unless I (and everyone else involved) had to struggle to play it. There is of course a positive side to this mindset; by exploring concepts that are at the edge of or beyond your current abilities, you push yourself to develop new skills and expand your palette. Eventually, though, I feel that technique must serve music, not vice-versa. Note that this isn’t some manifesto against challenging music—I write in mixed meters and use fairly complex harmony routinely.  I don’t, however, set out to compose something insanely difficult. Rather, I spend a good deal of time trying to simplify my ideas and make them as clear and playable as possible without losing their character. Which brings us to the next point:

4. Revise and rewrite.

Like working from a suitable design, this is something that was completely alien to my practice when I began writing music. If I couldn’t write a piece in one sitting, or perhaps two or three days at the most, I dropped it and moved on. I relied entirely on inspiration, and had no idea what to do when it either didn’t show up or fizzled out in the middle of a phrase. As a result, I left many potentially good ideas on the cutting room floor. Also, I performed many pieces that really needed some touching up, accepting the little flaws and awkward transitions I noticed and hoping that a strong performance would compensate for the imperfections in the material. Again, it’s fine for music to be challenging, but it shouldn’t be challenging because the composer didn’t take the time to solve some problem inherent in the writing. This is poor craft, not creativity or innovation. 

Revision is time-consuming and difficult and requires seemingly endless patience, but you do get better at it over time. I compose in spiral notebooks that I often refer back to not only for earlier ideas, but also to see the process by which I developed those ideas into finished pieces. Saving ideas and versions of a composition on Sibelius or Finale achieves the same end. I might still struggle for several days with a few measures, but I now more quickly spot the problem areas and have a broader array of tools with which to tackle them. The benefits of developing these skills are manifest: better and more varied compositions, superior performances, and a higher percentage of ideas making the journey from your mind to the listener’s ear. 

5. Do not overwrite / Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.

In the initial stages of the rewriting/revising process, I am generally focused on the minutia: tweaking a voicing or melodic contour, expanding or contracting a recalcitrant idea to dovetail it with another theme, composing or revising counterpoint or accompaniment in a small section of a larger work. While this process is essential, it has at least one common pitfall. Because I’m concentrating on the details, the central thrust of the work may become obscured, buried in clever (it seems at the time) ornaments that actually detract from the whole. 

Conscious of this, I try to regularly step back from the canvas and imagine how the first-time listener might hear the music, comparing that imagined perception to my intent. Will she feel the visceral force of a passage, or be distracted by that brilliant, tricky accompaniment figure I spent the last several hours laboring over?  The listener’s ear must be quickly drawn to the primary purpose of any given passage. If there is no single dominant voice, but rather a democracy of voices, or perhaps an important timbre or texture at a given point in the composition, this should be equally apparent to any committed audience. It can be hard to give up some bit of writing that you poured craft and time into, but if it diminishes the impact of the composition as a whole that writing belongs on the same cutting room floor you’ve been scraping your good abandoned ideas off of.

Earlier I mentioned Elliott and Stravinsky when stressing the importance of working from a suitable design. I’ll leave you with their insightful, revealing comments on artistic inspiration and influence:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

–T.S.Elliot, 1921, The Sacred Wood

“Good composers borrow; great composers steal.”
–Igor Stravinsky (somewhat later, most likely)

Geof Bradfield is a saxophonist who settled in Chicago in 2004 after several years in New York and Los Angeles. He has worked alongside many jazz luminaries throughout the U.S., Europe, Russia, Africa, and the Middle East and is featured on many recordings, including three critically acclaimed albums as a leader and two as a co-leader. His 2011 Origin Records release African Flowers, a suite for sextet blending African music and modern jazz, has received numerous accolades, including a laudatory article in Downbeat magazine and selection as a top 10 CD of 2010 by the Los Angeles Times. As a composer, Mr. Bradfield was awarded the prestigious New Jazz Works commission by Chamber Music America and Doris Duke in 2008 and 2011. He has also received awards from CCAP, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. He has been on the faculty of Columbia College Chicago since 2004.

Written in Winter 2011/12.

Published by CAR_Laura on Fri, 03/30/2012 - 10:15am
Updated on Mon, 04/02/2012 - 8:51am