Post Post-Graduate Composing

An observation into my personal approach to composition after my post-graduate degree

For the last couple of years I've been heavily into composing music at the behest of my professors in the pursuit of a Masters in Music, Composition. Many of the projects I was involved with were specifically focused toward a particular style or ensemble at the university. As such, these compositions were educational, but few have any lasting value in terms of adding to my body of works. After graduation, I felt the need to write something I could honestly say was from my heart and not for a project or grade --something I could put in my "list of compositions."

I'd met a conductor and his phenomenal piano playing wife while at university. While he's studying conducting, he is also the conductor for a community orchestra. In April prior to graduation, I suggested the idea of a piano concerto, something he could conduct with his wife as the soloist. They jumped at the chance and the project had begun. There were still a number of other compositions, papers and a sundry of other items I had to complete before graduation, so I didn't actually get started thinking about it until after graduation. The month after graduation was filled with trying to get a job, deciding where I was going to land and fulfilling other obligations - so, the piano concerto continued to remain on the back burner. Although I did start talking ideas with the conductor and pianist. Many of these ideas still fell into the realm of concepts I'd been working on as a "student" --things like extended techniques, pitch class sets and obfuscating the beat.

It wasn't until August that I began to work on the ideas in earnest. I'd been reviewing the music I'd written as a "student" deciding much of it wasn't worth keeping in my portfolio. This pushed me to rebel against the concepts I'd been writing and venture into something more akin to what I wrote pre-post-graduate studies. My Violin Concerto and Trumpet Concerto are pieces I am rather proud of and are indicative of "my voice" as a composer. So, I returned to these pieces to explore what it is to be "Chip Michael." I also started to explore other piano concertos I enjoy: those of Chopin, Liszt, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. The end result was a conscious decision to avoid anything I'd specifically studied and/or worked on during post-graduate studies.

September rolled around and I earnestly started to put notes into Sibelius (the notation software I currently use).  My love of rhythm and melody combined to create the opening two themes.  This moves into a development section following the basic Sonata-Allegro form.  I created a series of potential variations of each theme and then did a pick and choose of my favorite ones.  What I consider the recapitulation section was first one idea, then another --both ended up in the development section as variations.  Eventually what I ended up with wasn't exactly a recap.  It sort of starts with the first theme, but not in the home key, the second theme isn't is the home key but actually just a modular shift from its original.  It'll be interesting to see what musicologists have to say about this in years to come.

The coda had a problem.  I liked how it was building, but I couldn't figure a way to end it --so I played.  This "playing" technique is ostensibly improvising on the music already composed to come up with something new. It isn't very craft oriented, but strikes closer to the "listening to one's heart" style of music composition and definitely holds to the spirit of Jazz improvisation.  When I finally found something, the notes just fell into place.  I haven't gone back through both vertical harmonies and horizontal lines to clean up spots to make sure the flow is really what I want (a technique I learned in Graduate studies), but for the most part it's done --without any real use of my very expensive post-graduate education.

Next, I will go back though and do "clean up," checking all the harmonies and lines to make sure they move the way they should.  This is a time consuming process, but something that takes a piece from "nice" to "strong."  Again, this is a technique I learned in graduate school.  So, while the music is basically a thumbing my nose at my Master's degree, I fully intend to then go back and utilize my education to make sure it's as strong as it can be musically.

Not sure what the next piece will be in relation to my graduate studies education.  I rather like the avoidance of the "technical" aspects of my studies in the initial creation of the music.  Does any of it seep in through my subconscious?  I'm sure it must.  Still, the freedom of following music in a more passionate, less intellectual way feels better to me as a composer.

I've love to hear your comments on the music or the writing...


Susan Scheid said…
I'm enjoying what I'm hearing, not to mention your writing on your creative process. Good luck with this piece--I think you're right to go where your own creative spirit leads you, unbound from academe.
Jess Albertine said…
I'm assuming that's Travis and Kristen. I hope they'll perform that here! She's really amazing, especially with new music. Very expressive, with a huge range of power levels. Travis just tonight conducted the overture to Strauss' Die Fledermaus, and did a great job. The violins were messy on their runs, but everyone else did very well.

I think we all feel the pull between academic boundaries and a more free creative process. To me, you're doing exactly what you should be doing- using what you learned not as a set of walls to work within, but as an expanded toolbox. The tools are there when you want to use them, but no artist uses one particular tool all the time. I'm sure you, as all composers do, will go through different stages of wanting to use different techniques, whether more free or technical and academic. And who wouldn't want to take a break from the academic world right after finishing an extremely demanding degree?
Chip Michael said…
Thanks Susan...

Yes, Jess, it is T&K, but probably not at Lamont. There is some question whether it will get done with the other orchestra either, but I'll continue to write. I have a few other pianists who are interested in premiering it, should the current plan fall through.

I'm glad you like it!
Unknown said…
I love your description of the process of freeing yourself from the collegiate atmosphere of composing. It inspires me to continue to plug along at my own craft.

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