I often think of melodic shape, articulation and color as foreground. Background is harmonic structure and pacing. Everything else is middleground.
When I’m thinking this way, I will usually compose the background first – establish the pacing – and the foreground next. Once I’ve got those in place, I’ll pull together appropriate inner voices, rhythms, etc. – middleground.
Why compose the background first? Because formal pacing is a difficult thing to adjust once you have composed a lot of the surface detail. It’s easier to change your articulations or surface shapes to suit the undercurrents you’ve established than vice versa.
But when I compose the background first, I don’t just come up with some rationally defensible mechanism or structure that will dictate the musical flow. I actually listen to the music in my head as though through the wrong end of a telescope – letting all the details go by in a blur while focusing on the larger shapes of the music.
I first started this approach almost 25 years ago, after taking a wonderful conducting class with Roger Nierenberg. Roger suggested we study the Beethoven symphonies by listening to LPs at 78 RPM, rather than the usual 33. For those of you who have never used a record player, that meant that the music zipped by at more than twice the speed, and distorted the treble pitches into the stratosphere. In other words, the foreground of the music was unintelligible. What you could hear with complete clarity, though, was the background – the form, the phrasing, the harmonic rhythm – and the dramatic pacing.
That experience has had a huge influence on my relationship to form and consequently on my approach to composing. I heard how well-balanced Beethoven’s forms were – not balanced in a rationalized, equational way, but in a way that was always organic and compelling.
Of course, as I noted before, there are many ways to think of foreground, middleground and background. Sometimes I think of it as what the music says, what it does, and what it is thinking. But that’s a topic to tackle in another post.