On the relationship between composition & analysis – and how to teach analysis to composers

Cage said to never compose and analyze at the same time. But how do we interpret this? Is it a simple matter of not doing stuff at exactly the same time, like trying to juggle and ride a bike at the same time? Or is it even just impossible, like trying to juggle while keeping the balls in hand at the same time? Because in that case, it would be a more or less trivial matter.

But what if we took a vaguer, more general approach and looked at the question in a very general way? What if we only looked at the exact nature of the role both creativity and analysis play in the process of the composition?

Many times I’ve been asked to write a quasi-philosophical text where I gave my opinion on some matter. The process in that case would go as follows:

1. Write whatever you believe at that moment, right there and then, write it all at once, as much as possible, without thinking about it.

2. Leave.

3. Come back to it the next day and realize that what you’ve written is completely wrong. Write down every reason why you believe it to be wrong – once again, try to pen down everything you think of. Write as comprehensively as possible.

4. Repeat step 2 & 3.

5. When the deadline is near, stop, revise and finish the text. 

What I see in this process is a kind of feedback loop between writing and analyzing. Writing uninhibitedly, waiting and then analyzing ruthlessly, then using that analysis to feed more uninhibited writing. I agree that while I’m writing, I’m not analyzing – however, if I never analyzed, I would get stuck after step 1. Therefore I believe that analysis should at some point be invoked in the composition process.

I think most people who write – words or music – understand this. It is evidenced by the fact that we write down not just finished pieces, but also drafts and sketches. Why would we write these down, if not to analyze them later so we have some fodder for more creative writing, eventually being able to finish the pieces? In fact, the practice of putting pre-written materials together – without generating new material – itself inescapably invokes analysis. How else would we ever decide which position to assign to which materials?

Once we’ve established that analysis plays some role in the composition process, we can talk about another matter. How do we teach students to analyze?

Most analysis is taught from a third-person perspective. We analyze Mozart based on the way someone who isn’t Mozart (for example, Schenker) would interpret his music. Neither do we use our own methods – most of the time, only pre-established methods of analysis are taught. Only in analysis of contemporary music, for which either there are no pre-existing methods yet or they haven’t been developed to their fullest extent, are students sometimes allowed to analyze on their own terms – a sort of second-person perspective.

But when students write their own music, they have a first-person perspective. How then can they be taught to analyze their own works by doing nothing but second- or third-person analyses of other people’s works?

Important to remember is that all 3 perspectives are important. A first- and second-person perspective will help you develop your own compositional style. Putting on a third-person perspective – to try and interpret your work through someone else’s eyes – will help you evolve your method and gain a deeper perspective. 

You can’t do a first-person analysis of someone else’s work. The definition of ‘first-person’ prohibits it. Therefore, first-person analysis must come through composition tutorials – making a student analyze their own work from their own perspective. In analysis classes, a healthy mixture of second- and third-person analysis is key, which means we should be especially careful not to sweep second-person analysis under the rug. Students must have the opportunity to develop their own method of analysis. And even in a third-person analysis, the students must have some say in which pre-established methods of analysis they find fruitful. Allowing creativity in analysis is key for ingraining analysis in the creative process.

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