Ewan Mackay

What it means to be a Composer

What it means to be a composer (image)

This is an age-old question; What does it mean to be a composer? I’ll try to answer this question as openly as possible, being aware that every composer you would speak to would give you a different answer formed in their understanding of music, the world around them, and their experiences with the music they create.

For me, the answer to what it means to be a composer – at least from my perspective, can be broken down into 3 areas. 1) To create music that (hopefully) enriching and interesting. 2) To seek to find a connection between the music I compose and the spaces and place which surrounds me, 3) To be an inspiration to those younger composers and artists who are just at the beginning of their creative journeys. Composition is exactly that, a journey in music. I like to think of it as a journey without end, or with no destination, where I can look at myself as a creative person and always see room for improvement. I believe it was Mendelssohn who once said, ‘A composer writes his next piece because he was not satisfied with the one he wrote last.’ I believe this statement to be the truth. In all honesty, I am never satisfied with the music I compose, but I live knowing that it was true to what or how I felt about what I wanted to express at the time of writing it.

Creating enriching music

This is the great challenge for every composer. In the current musical climate, there is already such a strong body of work and of composers who write wonderful music – some of them aim to please their audiences, while others aim to be uncompromising and want to challenge them – with new and interesting sounds, or ways of using traditional instruments. For me being a composer is focused around both of these elements. I always aim to write music that can please my audience, but which will – in all likelihood, sound different to what they may have heard before. Just to give a little context here, my work is very often built upon single motifs or ideas which become less recognisable as the piece continues, but it is very much rooted in tonality and modality, giving it a more recognisable and approachable sound than challenging atonal work for example. That being said, all I ask of my listeners is that they use their ears, and try to listen to the music as openly as possible. Creating music in a Neo-impressionist sound world – think of a modern Debussy, or Toru Takemitsu for comparison, gives the audience, and myself as the composer a great degree of flexibility and freedom to picture what the music means, says or shows. As a composer, I am very keen on the idea of the audience members having their interpretations of the music I compose. I prefer to look at it this way; if 100 people hear one of my pieces, I would hope to have 100 differing opinions on what the music meant. I believe that a composer should write the music they want to hear first. With a world as big as ours, and the now countless ways in which we can distribute our music to people who will want to hear it, we have the freedom to write music that is enriching and interesting to us, which will also know will have the same effect on many others. I say take inspiration from other artists – unless you want to be a true original maverick! Listen to as much music as you can and write as much as you can too. Find composers whose musical voices appeal to you and study them. Through all of the study, writing, listening, and seeking your musical self on your own journey a voice will begin to emerge which is hopefully inspired yet original; inspired by those composers who are like your musical soulmates, yet has its own sound, unique to you. I have personally been told that to be a ‘good composer’, you need to be original. I fundamentally disagree with this statement. Of course, I’m not saying this gives you the right to steal from another artist at your own will, picking the best of their work and passing it off as your own, but I believe that to learn anything in life you must learn by example and from those who have come before you and who have done or are doing what you want to do for yourself – that’s how you learn to speak, write or play an instrument. The great choral composer John Rutter similarly discusses this idea in his blog article ‘Where do you get your ideas from‘ he disuses taking inspiration from other artists as ‘standing on each other’s shoulders.’ Personally, I think it’s high time that younger composers get out of the originality ghetto and write the music that appeals to them.

Finding Inspiration

I’ve just discussed drawing on the inspiration of other artists, but what about taking inspiration from other places? Living on the North-east coast of Scotland brings so much non-musical inspiration to my work. When I am out walking in nature, I am thinking about music, and when I am composing music, I am thinking about music. Scotland’s landscape(s) are so varied; from the Lowlands to the hills and glens of the Highlands, to the cliffs and seascapes of the of East and West coasts and the gorgeous white sandy beaches and clear blue waters of Western-isles, there is so much to explore and so much inspiration to bring back to my music. For me, I need near silence to compose with little distraction, but others such as George Crumb, need noise and the hustle and bustle of life before they can write a bar. I find that it is in that silence that my best ideas come. For me, I can hear fragments of pieces in my mind, and it’s like a game of musical Tetris in making each bar, line, and section fit as neatly as I can. For me living in a small coastal village with access to very quiet areas where I can dream up new music is a huge inspiration for the music I compose. I have long been aware that musically, my work is sparse, still and quiet often making use of a small amount of musical material with which I build a whole piece – which might last for 5 minutes – or in the case of my Orchestral work In a Mystic Garden, 25 minutes in duration. I like to think that composition is like hunting for that golden brick upon which you build upon in the manner which I described earlier on. As composers, we are all different and there is no one way to find inspiration. We will all have our own processes, tips and tricks, but, unlike Ravel who once said, ‘I’ll be at my desk, if inspiration wants me she knows where to find me‘, I believe we must go out there and find it. So much of what I love about being a composer is finding inspiration in new ways, all of which feeds back into my music, and which I hope goes a long way to help create that enriching and challenging music we should all strive to write.

Being an Inspiration

Finally on to perhaps the most personal element of what I believe it means to be a composer – being an inspiration to others. I wrote a little earlier about standing on the shoulders of others, and perhaps that should be the ultimate hope for any composer, that one day, the younger generation will stand upon our shoulders, but being an inspiration should not be such a grand gesture right out of the gate. Being an inspiration in its simplest form – which I hope can be achieved with these articles and resources, is to encourage anyone – regardless of their age or ability, to get some manuscript paper and pick up a pen, or even download a free notation program such as Musescore and just start writing and experimenting and having fun! We will continue to dive into what I believe makes a better composer and explore topics such as theory and creativity as I progress, but the most important is that you just start. Don’t have big goals or visions, just write to better your understanding of music and creativity in general, then, with lots of patience, practice, and exploration, you can begin to write music which is hopefully interesting and which people will want to listen to. Just keep working and keep pushing yourself to write better music.

The beauty of composition and music, in general, is that you never stop learning, you are always a student with more to learn and explore. It is a wonderful journey that is deeply personal and unique to each of us. I hope that you take something from my thoughts. If you are already composing, ask yourself how can I be better and who can I inspire to start, and if you are considering taking up composition as a hobby, just remember that to begin with, it might seem difficult and you might get frustrated, but, once you build your confidence and begin to understand the process of how you compose, you will soon realise it is one of the most rewarding journey’s you can take; just enjoy it, take risks and have fun.

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