This piece is an extension of the essay on Discovering, Cultivating, and Using Your Own Voice.

Principles for Learning to Compose with Sound and Light

Ron Pellegrino, May 16, 1999

Composition studies should help you discover and cultivate your personal creative voice. Without stylistic limitations students should compose for themselves, their friends, and their peer group with the idea of getting fast feedback on their work both in the context of the group and in public performance. Composition studies should be conducted on a broad front in private (alone and with supervision), in a supportive group environment, and in public performance (the ultimate field test). Based on varying combinations of experience, talent, vision, intelligence, desire, and hard work, a natural floating hierarchy in a group will always evolve without the need for forced competition. Learn to be comfortable in the presence of those who are more and of those who are less advanced than you.

The richest learning environment for dynamic media is built on the foundation of a performance-multimedia band that serves as a target for composition projects as well as a vehicle for public performances. Composition studies should include an experimental and integrative approach to sonic and visual music, psychophysics of hearing and seeing, and performance-multimedia.

The work should happen in the context of a shared studio facility designed with the sort of affordable emerging technology that students can use as a model for their own studios. The space should be sufficiently large to accommodate the equipment as well as all the students for group meetings. To develop a sense of responsibility to fellow composition students the space should only be accessible to students working with the group.

The primary function of a composition teacher is to compose a rich supportive creative environment to energize and challenge students and to encourage the development of their creative potential. The composition group should be viewed as an experimental social system that provides the framework for balancing and tuning the deep and unfettered creative, intellectual and psychic growth of individual students with that of others in the group and the group as a whole.

Listen to and observe all expressions of dynamic media without limiting yourself to your preferences. Whenever possible hear through the ears and see through the eyes of creative artists of all stripes; seriously consider and play with their ideas and tools that attract you but don´t copy, imitate, appropriate, or become identified with them.

Begin composing wherever you find yourself. Compose for the instruments/tools you own and play. With both sound and light think musically out loud (compose in real-time) with your instrument(s). Record your real-time compositional exercises; then listen to/observe them over a period of days with the purpose of keeping and developing the best ideas and jettisoning the weaker material. Edit, develop, and refine your real-time musings into linked sets or suites of short pieces that work well together. Such exercises will help to cultivate your personal brand of critical awareness and thinking.

Consider everything you do a composition exercise. View all your daily living processes in light of the generic sense of composition - integrating parts and elements into a whole. Observe yourself and others in that light to get a sense of what contributes to and what detracts from desirable aesthetic forms and experiences.

At the same time you begin your composition studies, start your studies in psychophysics (the physical nature of sound and light and the nature of human perception and response to sound and light).

Avoid getting bogged down in what is traditionally called music and art theory (what's normally taught is actually history). Instead focus on fundamental theoretical principles that are applicable to the dynamic arts of sound and light of any time and any place. Focus your theoretical studies on the nature of sound and light, the nature of human hearing and seeing, the nature of the instruments/tools of sound and light, the technological and social vehicles for the communication of sound and light, and the nature of forms that evolve in time.

Observe closely, imitate, and play with natural dynamic events that seem to have a special resonance for you. Reflect on the reasons for your choices. As your powers of observation and your imitative skills grow notice how the quality of your attention, play, and preferences change.

Learning compositional techniques and craft should just be a point of departure, never an end in itself.

Beware of formulas, routines, and generative systems that do the work for you; study, experiment, and play with them but don´t be seduced by them. Always assume full aesthetic responsibility for your end product.

Beware of pressure to immerse yourself completely in compositional mechanics, notation, and craft. Learning environments that unduly emphasize those approaches to the exclusion of an individual´s creative development tend to be academic, grim, and lifeless. They also tend to steer people away from the joyful aspects of simply playing with the dynamic media of sound and light; it´s the joyful aspects that generate the fuel for a lifetime of compositional work.

Concentrate on compositional activities that build the foundation for a lifetime of involvement with dynamic media. Focus on experimental play both alone and with other artists of dynamic media such as sound, light, imagery, dance, poetry, and other inventive dynamic games.

The most fruitful exercises for promoting creative flow are "thinking out loud" in a conversational style, continuous variations, and theme and variations.

Don´t take as gospel the words of professional critics, academics, and theorists. With rare exceptions they´re only interested in what they can label, describe verbally, compare, file away, or use as publishing stock in trade.

Make the generic study of tuning and balance compositional imperatives.

Never stop searching for sources of inspiration in nature, art, philosophy, visionary thought, and religion.


For related pieces see the page of links called Compositional Thinking



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