As I Hear It

Photo of Michael Isaacson
At the request of Dr. Richard Braun, pater familias of the Jewish Music Commission and the fledgling Max Helfman Institute, I’ve been given the daunting but rewarding mission of crystallizing observations made during the composing workshop aspect of our monthly meetings and offering these as general reference notes to the MHI Fellows on the Helfman 2010 website. Because composers are often too close to their embryonic work to assess it dispassionately, it is hoped that these objective comments might be of some help to all the composers in the group in thinking more analytically about the musical material before them. I accept this assignment knowing full well that I am addressing my peers who are both accomplished and highly skilled as composers and that while I focus on generic compositional skills needed in making well-crafted music of all sorts, these observations are meant to facilitate the making of good Jewish music; the ultimate mission of the Helfman Institute. At our last meeting three composers presented and the following three principles evident in their works in progress came to our attention. 1. Opening up and enlarging an initial idea. After the exposition of an embryonic musical idea, we face the task of using that musical DNA to grow it into a full sized work. Some incorrectly rely on repetition to double the size of a fragment rather than spending the time to analyze the germ within that musical idea that demands elucidation and enlargement. The germ may be melodic, harmonic, rhythmic or textual but every musical idea has at least two or three units of energy that are waiting to be revealed and be used to develop into the larger work. The simple technique is to identify these early in the game. You might ask, “What is the compelling attraction of this idea?” “Where did it come from and where can it go to?” and “How can we know it better at the conclusion of this piece than we knew it when it was initially introduced?” Before beginning development of a work, these seminal questions will provide a roadmap to facilitate the best possible compositional solutions. 2. Being true to the musical fabric and one’s personal compositional style. It is only human to try to emulate others who we admire or think know more than we do about musical creativity. After all, we spend much of our time in music school doing what the teacher suggests. This is expedient at the earliest levels of learning to compose or arrange, but it does little to reveal that Godly spark that has been gifted to each of us to create an individual expression of integrity and musical worth. The answer is to believe that what each of us brings to the table is valuable on its own merits. Certainly, craft can hone all individual expression as long as it is focused upon that personal expression and not aping or mimicking what we feel others would do to receive the proper approbation. Questions to ask might include: “Is this what I believe in musically or is it a mere reflection of other’s interpretations?” “Am I settling for a clichéd idiom or does the text and my personal sense of music dictate the non-clichéd choices that I’m making?” and finally, “How can I trim away the fat (unnecessary gestures) so that what is left is the essence of what I am committed to and fearlessly believe in?” 3. Allowing a text the proper tempo and duration to reveal its fullest import. In Los Angeles, time is money and in our frantic commercial careers we often pat ourselves on the back by getting the job done quickly (and too often more cheaply than we or the music is worth). While producers might applaud this facility, the best compositions often demand their own sense of time and we, in good faith, must acknowledge this and allow the music to unfold at the pace inherently suggested by the text. This sense of time includes enabling proper, unhurried emphasis of textual ideas as well a sense of a proper emotional tempo to delineate the general affect of the music as well. While no one wants to bore with needless slowness or over-emphasis of textual elements, rushing over these points is equally frustrating for the listener as well. Our best composers give us information in one or two phrases and then allow the music to settle in for a bar or two before going onto the next idea. This also helps the listener to input the initial musical idea’s identity and message and use this newly acquired information in understanding subsequent developmental ideas. We often lose sight of this by living with musical ideas for a prolonged time during its incubation. However, always remember that the listener is given, at best, one hearing to get all the meanings that we wish them to receive. As yourself these questions: “Am I taking enough time to make a musical idea clearly understood without short-changing its message?” “Is varied repetition or sequential development useful devices in allowing the listener to ‘catch up’?” “Is my overall tempo slow enough to do the job?” “Is an idea worthy enough to be luxuriated over for an extra bar or two?” There is probably some wisdom in the saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Take your time and appreciate that music is not fast food. Thanks for considering these principles and their remedies that we all face and hope to conquer in our best musical works.