How Composers Work

Home from retreat, and I see Liam’s link from a few days ago on composers at work. I don’t pay close attention to how others do it. I occasionally hear stories. One published composer once told of “how we did it in college.” The example: we’re thinking of a girlfriend while noodling on a guitar. The lyrics come later (if at all) and fit the daydreaming instrumental. I suspect many of us have moved on from that stage. Music, if not girlfriending.

Many church composers I know, including me, start with the text first. Most often, it’s based on need. The Psalm for Transfiguration is coming up, and there’s a dearth of settings of the 93rd out there. (We only get it on Sunday every 5th, 6th or 11th year.) So we print out the text or borrow the Lectionary for a few hours. Text in place, the questions:

First, I asked if they compose using pencil and paper or a computer program. Predictably, they both said pencil and paper.

The basic melody and harmony ideas are bit more than a ninety-ten split with me. I have brought a laptop to the piano, but it’s usually to put more substance into the keyboard part once the songwriting stage is done.

Second, I asked if they compose at a desk or at a keyboard. As you might expect, both said at their desks.

I was surprised the blogger’s friends both said desks. I would say both. Once the songwriting is done, it’s time for arranging. I do most of it at the computer. I like to see how a new instrument part in my head fits visually with choral harmony. The one advantage of modern software is the decent sound files they provide. Flutes sound like flutes; not tinkly upper registers of the piano.

I keep a few files of interest in my church office. We have other composers in the parish who write for liturgy, so I’m involved with updating their handwritten manuscripts or their printouts from Sibelius 2. Not every file I see on ChoralWiki is as usable as offered. So I have a few projects to transcribe from public domain. Including fixing a few errors that pop up now and then.

In addition to “Other People’s Music,” I keep a folder of texts. I have about a few dozen antiphons for Taize-style music I’ve barely dented in five years. Once in awhile, I get an idea to set a text, and so I keep a words-only file. The “music in progress” file is slim. Once I get a single item going, I nearly always finish it the same day. If it’s for a liturgical need, I review it on the computer before I print. That few weeks of perspective is helpful. For my musicals in progress–and currently there are four–I keep binders. I work on those in my spare time.

Maybe that addresses Liam’s curiosity. Maybe yours. Or not.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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