The Body in the Compositional Mind

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My undergraduate education, especially as a composer, was firmly within a Modernist aesthetic, and one of its tenets was that you should learn to compose direct from your mind’s ear to paper, rather than at the piano. The reason given for this was that your pianistic habits would lead you into familiar musical gestures and thus become an obstacle to creating new, hitherto unimagined musical ideas.

(Note, by the way, the assumption that all musicians should be good keyboard players. Nobody ever warned you off composing though noodling on the guitar or oboe.)

Now, there’s something to this. Every so often I’ll see a novice arranger produce a chord for an a cappella group that tells me that they’re a pianist and we have to have a conversation about voicings that will work better for a vocal ensemble.

And of course being able to do stuff in your head frees you to work anywhere. I do a lot of arranging in the shower. And there’s a certain passage in ‘More’ that will always take me back to baggage reclaim in Schipol Airport, where the wait for my suitcase was long enough to sort out all the voicings as I slowly paced the perimeter of the room.

But the advice is also open to critique. It is predicated on the idea that mind and body are separate, and that the mind is inherently superior and should therefore be in control. And it results in making a virtue out of making life difficult for performers. The abstract concept takes precedence over what might be intuitive or even merely playable on that particular instrument. The composer is cast as the epitome of the Idea, and performers as their subservient/obedient subordinates, there to do whatever implausible bidding the composer may require.

This may sound like a caricature of the position, but you did get mid-20th-century writers on music saying this kind of stuff, and people who read them did take it seriously. I can recall how affronted a fellow student composer was when I said I had finally worked out the patterns underlying a fast and unrelenting passage of a piece of his I was preparing to perform. ‘The patterns aren’t supposed to be discernible,’ he grumped. How on earth did he suppose I was going to be able to play that quickly without some kind of guiding gestalt? I wondered. He seemed to regard his performers as mere transmission devices, a bit like a clavinova, but able to transport ourselves between rehearsal and performance venues.

So, I would critique my musical upbringing on two grounds. Philosophically, the idea that thought can occur without an underpinning of lived experienced critiqued since the later parts of the last century, not least by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, whose theories of embodied metaphor have strongly informed my research, especially my second book. Today’s title is explicit homage to Johnson.

But even if you can’t be bothered to go an read the texts I’ve linked to in the previous paragraph, from a pragmatic musical point of view, you get more satisfactory performances when you write music that allow a player or singer to operate as their best musical self, with a heart and a brain fully invested in the process. This doesn’t mean don’t be challenging or innovative, but it does mean make your challenges and innovations ones that will light up your performer and allow them to do wonderful things. Their instrument and their musical imagination are inherently intertwined, so engage both.

And so is the composer’s imagination inherently interlinked with their practical experience. As my colleague Natasha Loges points out, the idea of a ‘composer’ as a separate entity from ‘performer’ and/or ‘teacher’ is a relatively recent construct as a concept, and even then only describes a minority of actual musicians. And not, as she rather pointedly adds, the best ones. You can no more be an effective composer without first being a practical musician than you can be a practical musician without being a creative thinker.

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