Reading Mai-Mai Sze’s Tao of Painting, I couldn’t help but be struck by this; it’s from the first part of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, written by Wang Kai in 1679:

Among those who study painting some strive for an elaborate effect and others prefer the simple. Neither complexity in itself nor simplicity is enough. Some aim to be deft, others to be laboriously careful. Neither dexterity nor conscientiousness is enough. Some set great value on method; others pride themselves on dispensing with method. To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse.

You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method. …If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.

Now, I’m no “observe, Grasshopper…” kind of guy; but 325 years later, in a very different culture and artistic discipline, it still seems to me perfect advice to young composers.

24 Responses to “Tidbit”
  1. That does seem rather right on.

    I certainly find that good complex music is often good because it has a certain simple clarity — In Ligeti, for instance, every note counts, and the form is deliberate no matter how surprising. Bad complex music hides behind its complexity, relying on complexity to obscure sloppiness.

    Simple music has the same sort of divide. Anybody can do the same thing over and over, but it takes a complex understanding of the material — what the options are, how the notes relate to each other, what they imply, how their repetition will work psychoacoustically — to do the _right_ thing over and over. Steve Reich is, for me, the best example of a composer who knows how to pick exactly the right handful of notes.

  2. Chris Becker says:

    I read this as more of a parable than an a textbook. It shows the paradox of artistic creation is that often when we are stuck, we often have to let go instead of clinging. If we want to dazzle someone a lot of sounds, sometimes silence can play in our favor. Ying and Yang, right? It’s an old story.
    Trying to figure out what notes will work psychoacoustically to “do the right thing” is – in my experience – missing the point. What is the right thing? The right thing is often something we composers are incapable of planning for in advance. “Composers makes plans…God laughs…” isn’t that a Feldman quote…?
    By the way, if anyone has any information about the incredible composer of the music for the TV series “Kung Fu” I would be very grateful if you could forward it to me. His name was Jim Helms. And I’ve been unable to find out any biographical information about him. Thanks.

  3. I think this is a little sophomoric but also quite a bit on point. The end of all method is to seem to have no method – would be better expressed (and maybe this is just the translation) The end of all method is to forget about the method. And this is only possible with the complete mastery of the method.

    For me, directness of expression, and finding perfection of form and material are experiential processes – that is I find them reflectively by listening over and over again while editing. To find a novel solution to a problem or to stumble across something incredible within your formal/material constraints requires great technique and technique that is not thought-based – but intuitive, direct and without questioning. Otherwise one gets bogged down in ‘thinking’; the decision-making process returns and one is left outside of the inner musical experience that should drive the composition.

    Music can never be about thinking, IMO. It is an artform that in its perfection is singularly beyond thought. That is one of my biggest critiques about most new music, it often fails to produce this immersive experience where the listener is allowed to open up to it intuitively as purely musical phenomena (and that’s another topic).

    I then step back and begin questioning everything again… but not by thinking and reflecting, but by experiencing.

    Sorry, if that sounds all high-falutin’ ;)

  4. Chris says: “Trying to figure out what notes will work psychoacoustically to “do the right thing” is – in my experience – missing the point. What is the right thing? The right thing is often something we composers are incapable of planning for in advance.”

    With the caveat that I’m talking about technique and my personal aesthetic preferences rather than about basic aesthetic philisophy, some notes are better than other. Take “Piano Phase” — a 12 note phrase, made of just 5 pitches. Suppose it were a straight arpeggio, all on chord tones — way less interesting, because you lose the little constantly shifting inner melodies. Reich uses a bunch of stragetically placed half steps such that the top and bottom of the cell separate out into two separate things — the whole thing goes 451235421532 (4 and 5 are below 1 2 and 3); the top ends up as ..123..21.32 and the bottom ends up as 45…54..5.. Notice how the top part doesn’t resolve to 1 until the beginning of the next cycle, propelling us forward. Notice also that since the 4 and 5 are at the bottom of the chord we’re always somewhere in the neighborhood of a suspended V7 chord, so we’re constantly feeling that unresolved tension, which makes the harmonic stasis during the phasing process feel anticipatory rather than merely settled — we spend the whole piece waiting for I. I could go on and on.

    And while your point about “the right thing” being often unplanned is valid, Piano Phase provides a great example of a composer choosing the right notes so that the unplanned good stuff is better than other unplanned good stuff, and better contextualized. Piano Phase is all about letting the process find interesting things, but the rules that Reich establishes are what makes his process more interesting to listen to that other processes.

    Jeff — You sound low-falutin’ if anything :) I of course mean that in the best sense.

  5. Chris Sahar says:

    Lovely quote and I offer just a little commentary and some illustration.

    Mozart and Reich — Mozart’s D major Sonata K 576 which opens with a 3rd inversion I chord offers a case wherein Mozart uses his mastery of canon to show at a primordial level potentials that Reich would explore fully nearly 200 years later. To refresh, Mozart has the canon start so rhythmically close that the harmonic and melodic relationships seem to have this stillness beneath the apparent movement for a very brief moment before he returns back to familiar ground. Another piece where Mozart explores this a little further is the the little Gigue he wrote late in his life. These examples make me wonder if his Musical Jokes were not always “jokes” but an serious exploration of breaking the rules.

    One tiny comment I will give is I feel the quote really urges the artist to reach the state of creation wherein the unconscious becomes conscious and, through conscious effort, and corporeal.

  6. Evan Johnson says:

    This is quite off topic, but that Mozart Gigue is an amazing little piece. Almost Webernesque – rhythmically, harmonically, melodically…

    That piece for me is the main reason why the what-if-Mozart-had-lived-fifty-more-years game is at all interesting, not the Jupiter Symphony, not the late quintets.

  7. Chris Becker says:


    I hear you and appreciate your post. But your rules aren’t my rules. Who’s rules should I follow anyway?

    And is the author of the quote talking about specific rules? The author says “observe” – not “follow” or “master.” Not get an “A” on your theory exam and make your professor pleased. He’s talking about observing what is perhaps a pervasive technique and being strong enough to perhaps go in an opposite direction. Or acknowledge that that direction is there (always there – and maybe as equally as interesting) – even if one choses not to go there.

    Jim Helms info would be great…if it’s out there.

  8. Steve Layton says:

    I did find this in a newsgroup post by Adrian Mongeli, a drummer living in L.A.:

    Back in 1990, music producer/arranger/composer Jim Helms who wrote all the Kung Fu TV and movie soundtracks, produced my band “Brio”. A month after we finished mixing, Jim passed away and we never did anything with these songs.

    And I found one other reference to him as “the late” Jim Helms. Adrian Mongeli appears traceable online, and if contacted might have more info. Helms appeared quite active in L.A. in the late 60s through the mid-70s, with numerous TV/film scores, arrangements for others’ records & such. So somebody who was also working then might have some recall, if anyone has some friends out that way.

  9. Chris Becker says:

    Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it! Seth actually beat you to the punch with the same info. You guys had better luck than I when I searched for information about Helms online. I don’t think he’s gotten his due as a composer – the music he did for Kung Fu is pretty amazing.

  10. Chris — I completely agree with you about the rules business. I would think a reasonable application of the guy’s suggestions would be to pick what ever set of rules tends to be used by the people doing stuff like you’re trying to do. Maybe that’s 19th century harmony, maybe it’s species counterpoint, maybe it’s serialism, maybe it’s the rules of top 40 pop music. And then, as you say, once you have a good understanding of the rules, do what ever you think is smart.

  11. The point about “rules” to understand is that they were never meant to be arbitrary ideological “rules” in the first place, but that they represent stylistic choices.

  12. The concept of a ‘decision tree’ I think is pretty useful in this regard. Given a set of materials, and an evolving notion of the form (at least that’s how I do it – let the form evolve through constant rearrangement and looking for drama) a decision tree presents a set of weighted choices that can direct where the material is left to evolve next. Having that decision tree be inherently part of one’s compositional method would then be what is ‘forgotten’ or ‘assumed’.

  13. Steve Layton says:

    While I wouldn’t think of it as schematic or rigid as a data-flowchart, I think you’re idea of a “decision tree” at work is useful, Jeff. We’re all of us imprinted with preferences that cause us to select certain sounds (using that word in the most inclusive sense) over others in our work. Sometimes apparent but often unnoticed, it’s what defines our voice and style. And I’m not thinking just about the higher surface, like say your own “Bayou-funk-meets-Beethoven-riffing-on-the-counterpoint-of-minimalism”… It’s in the more fundamental details of how note follows note: this sonority, this interval, this proportion, this way. Someone like Cage may have gone to eleaborate lengths to take this out of the compositional process; but even there it couldn’t help but show up, since his own personal decision tree was at work creating the “artificial” decision tree that was supposed to take him out of the picture.

  14. JLZ says:

    Mozart Gigue:

    He’s also got a high-chromatic Minuet that really leans on the chromatic “leaning” tones — to such an extent that they at times permanently displace the principal tones to which we think they apply.

    Sort of like the differing tempo streams of non-harmonic tones
    (chromatic and diatonic) that populate inner voices in the Bach chorales — generating ‘spurious’ constructs (whose Roman numeral labels tell nothing about how such contrapuntal constructs actually arose, and how they truly function).

    ~ Sometimes a received ‘method’, or well-established style frame, enables the most outrageous experimentation to be communally appreciated — because everyone’s listening according to the expected frame.

  15. Could you guys post Koechel numbers for these Mozart pieces?

  16. You might even say that a certain kind of outrageousness is only possible on the basis of very established idioms. But I would reserve the word “experiment” for something very different really. In a sense, in Cage, nothing can be outrageous because everything can have its place – even the dominant seventh chord is welcome should it decide to make an appearance, as Cage said. But the experiment is to have this idea where everything is welcome. Which is not really an outrageous idea, unless you happen to think that a style where everything is welcome is outrageous, of course.

  17. Doug Palmer says:

    Only by becoming an atheist can you know God.

  18. Evan Johnson says:


    I don’t know the Minuet, but you can see the Gigue K. 574 here

  19. Thanks Evan… interesting piece! Now what minuet? ;)

  20. Cary Boyce says:

    RE: the study method to achieve no method approach: It’s a (very ancient) Buddhist concept adopted by Bruce Lee (who was originally considered for the Kung Fu series before the excellent David Carradine was selected) in his own martial discipline. I suppose it transcends the arts.

  21. Chris Sahar says:

    Off topic again, but the Minuet is KV 355 or 576b. You can find all these pieces in Henle Urtext edition – Mozart Klavierstucke. It is a pianist’s treasure trove — in particular the late pieces and two Rondos (look at the a minor one — the harmonic movement and voicing gets Brahmsian at times). It is a minor musicological treasure as it has Mozart’s juvenilia, late works, sketches and a fun, facile set of dances — sort of “pop” music of his time.

    One thing about the Gigue — I would pay attention to the canonic treatment of articulations. The harmonies implied are not too far away from the Classical language but it is the melodic contours and cross articulations which skewer all that in this piece. Somewhat relevant to the most recent post about timbral music as Mozart explores on a small scale at the piano underutilized potentials (Note: Hadyn does this too at times in his early 1770 sonatas and his 1790′s London sonatas but I don’t think the result is as startling as it is NOT the focus of these pieces as in the small Mozart pieces).

    I like the idea of a decision tree. I’d use it to define anything which is animated has a decision tree “built in”. The degree of animation of a thing can be assessed by the “plasticity” of that tree. I think that is why attaining consciousness of what is unconscious is vital to composition — although never fully attainable.

  22. Steve Layton says:

    Chris wrote: Off topic again, but the Minuet is KV 355 or 576b. You can find all these pieces in Henle Urtext edition…

    By happy coincidence the Mozarteum Stiftung in Salzburg has also just finished opening up their online collection of the complete scores of Mozart, here:

    You can search by Köchel number, key, tempo indication, titles and even names of parts.

  23. Rama says:

    it’s the drunken master!

  24. T.D. Lake says:

    If I were to give advice to young composers, I’d say a few things:

    1. As the moderator said, you have to learn the rules. However, this can be an ongoing process. I am very confident of my ability in chamber music, but I’ve never orchestrated a large scale work. I intend on learning how to do that, and I grow with every piece I write.
    2. Listen to music as often as you can stand to, and make sure it’s good music. “Good music” sounds judgmental and it is, but you really need to stick to music of the style that you’ll be writing. Having a hot toddy (listening to some garbage) every once in a while is ok, but you need to focus on what you want to compose, which I would judge from this site is art music.
    3. Don’t be afraid to mess up. I started trying to write four part harmony at 16, and due to a lot of those life circumstances you don’t need to know about, didn’t succeed until 27. I wrote a lot of real garbage in the interim.
    4. Accept criticism. Look, there are two variables here: one is that there is going to be a group of people in your life that wants you to give up. Jazz people call that “paying your dues.” But there will also be people in your life that rather forthrightly tell you what you are doing wrong, and you need to be open to that.
    5. Play your music for people with untrained ears. If your sister can’t stand your composition and she likes other art music, then you’re probably going to make your audience a little nauseous.
    6. Try simple. An dominant seventh chord has the same tonal function as a dominant thirteenth chord, and it’s a whole lot easier to score.
    7. Build on your successes. If a piece works, write another one with the same general idea and alter it as you learn.
    8. Be serious about being a composer. Finish pieces. Play them. Work on it.
    9. If you’re serious, then don’t give up, even if you have to do data entry to pay the rent.