Composers and songwriters are generally quite uninteresting when they talk about their own work. This should not be considered surprising.
The mental processes in writing music are a mix of mathematics and intuition: the mathematics of harmony and voice leading, and the intuition that some things sound more musical than other things – and exactly why that is so will remain subliminal.
There are snippets of insight from the great composers. Mozart, for example, reportedly said: “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination, nor both together, go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
This is interesting coming from someone whose output was so sublime, but the comment does little to explain why it was so sublime.
Bach’s comment that he was obliged to be industrious, and that “whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well”, is just plain wrong. No amount of work will result in a repeat of his contrapuntal genius. It is, and will remain, unsurpassed.
Beethoven’s declaration that “music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend” reveals that he was immersed in German Idealism’s obsession with a higher, transcendental knowledge. But this only tells us that he was a man of his time. It does nothing to explain how he could produce such great melodies and unmatchable contrapuntal force.
Most contemporary songwriters have very few interesting things to say about what they are doing. Many declare that their best songs come to them in a matter of minutes. This may be because much of the “work” they have done is subconscious, background effort.
One of the most famous pop songs of the 20th century, Yesterday, came to Paul McCartney in a dream. McCartney said: “I just fell out of bed, found out what key I had dreamed it in … and I played it.” The only thing left to do was work out the chords.
This is not to suggest that creating good songs is effortless and purely a matter of talent, although talent is surely involved. It is to say that much of the work is hidden, reminiscent of the aphorism, “it took me 10 years to become an overnight success”. McCartney had been playing music at a high level for years, and the harmonies for Yesterday – harmonies rarely, if ever, heard in 20th-century pop music – would have had a lot to do with the knowledge he derived from playing jazz standards and the works of Brazilian jazz genius Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The American composer Nico Muhly, who has worked in both the classical and popular fields, writes that, when he composes, he uses three clearly defined phases: the scheming and planning; the writing of actual notes; the editing. The planning process, he says, “almost entirely excludes, by design, notes and rhythms”.
Instead, he starts with a map, working out the textures and lines, the type of development, and the orchestration.
He then sets in train a kind of imaginative excursion: “Soon I find myself engaged in research about the power of relics in Buddhism, which leads to the Lacanian notion of the objet petit a, soon displaced by my delight in Obelix’s dog Dogmatix being called Idéfix in the original French, which leads to the way a single obsessive idea can dominate every aspect of a text, which leads to Gollum, which leads to Tolkien’s use of dead languages to create a set of fictional languages, which leads to old words taking on new meaning, which leads to Wendy Carlos’ interpretation of Bach, and so on.
“All these articles, pictures and fragments get printed out and digitally saved and put in folders, and the result – for me – is a magical vessel full of information and possibility. From this, the notes come quickly.”
Such free-range reflection is probably untypical of modern classical composers, but the complexity of thinking is common. Where Bach had the fugue form, and Mozart and Beethoven the sonata form, modern composers make up their own forms, journeys and maps.
Yet, no matter how inventive their structures, or even aesthetic, there is, in the end, only one question worth asking. Does it sound good? Muhly’s work, which is flawlessly executed, mostly does. But that is largely due to his natural musical intuitions, not to any capacity for self-organisation. Those intuitions remain almost impossible to describe; they are just there.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.