While I’m sure I’ve had similar experiences dozens of times before, I’ve been reflecting lately on certain related aspects of my work on two recent pieces: a large-ensemble piece and a small piano lullaby written for someone I know.

Early in the conception of the large-ensemble piece, I sketched down some ideas for dynamics in different sections. Subsequent to this, I drew up a plan regarding instrumentation: the music would disintegrate into smaller and smaller subgroups of the large ensemble over the course of the entire piece.

As I put the piece into Sibelius, I came not to yearn for the dynamics I was going to input later. The timbral contrast was adequate to sustain interest. So I decided to leave the dynamic at a steady forte throughout the piece.

But then something else worried me.

The instrumentation became too thin, too quickly. The piece was in danger of sounding small, in spite of the loud dynamic. I rethought the instrumentation and created larger subgroups of the ensemble. In order to do this, of course, different subgroups had to have more instruments in common. As a result, the timbral contrast decreased.

Playing the score over again, I began to need dynamics again. So in went the dynamics – more or less along the lines I had conceived months earlier. The lost contrast needed compensating for, and the music improved.

I had a similar experience in the lullaby – even though this was a casual piece I wrote in only an hour and a half.

As I looked over the work, a small crescendo I had written seemed oddly lifeless, despite the music’s ascending contour. The crescendo needed a push, some gentle impetus to announce “something different” was about to happen.

Comparing the crescendo’s initiating harmony with the two preceding it, I noticed the harmony beginning the crescendo was more consonant than the previous two. With a little futzing around, I came up with a more dissonant sonority that fit into the texture and disrupted the surface of the music to the right amount.  Playing the piece over again, I found the crescendo now made much more sense:  it was an unfolding of the tension created by the new harmony.

The ability to balance sensitively different parameters of composition – like instrumentation, dynamics, and harmony – is a lifelong task for all composers. Naturally, to balance parameters sensitively also means the ability to throw music off balance once in a while. But these recent experiences have made me more alert to an “invisible hand” behind the process of composition – one that has forced me, unexpectedly, to go back to music I’ve written and made adjustments.

I’m wondering how many of you think about composition in similar ways.

4 Responses to “The Invisible Hand of Composition”
  1. I think the issues you raise tend to be important mostly in larger ensembles, as you note. A bigger problem is often the acoustics of the place where the performance takes place. It isn’t often that new music gets played in an ideal acoustic environment where all the nuances you worked so hard to polish can be clearly heard. I play in an orchestra that rehearses in a fairly dry environment, and we perform in a space with all sorts of reverb. So the brass, for example, have to play one dynmaic down from whatever we had rehearsed. You wonder what all this does to undermine the composers’ original intentions.

    I find that in writing for smaller groups, and subsequentially playing in uncertain acoustical environments, that the contours of the piece have to be supported more by harmonic development than dynamics.

  2. Brian Vlasak says:

    While I think that using notation software for issues like working out relationships between dynamics and harmonies (for example), I don’t quite know about dynamics. The wonderful thing about being one of those “old, dead white guys” is the fact that they actually got to play around with a real, live orchestra. Now, the “young, living composerly people” are forced to work with crude approximations … and that’s just too bad.

    I know that when I have strayed from my original intentions to comform with what I then believe something WILL sound like based off of computer playback, I have been unhappy with the results in the end. Be wary, I suppose?

    That being said, I know that we are all looking forward to hearing your work! :-)

  3. David Preiser says:

    Your comment about that crescendo makes me wonder why you wrote that section the way you did in the first place. Perhaps you expected something more to happen than was actually there, which then made you notice something “lacking” in the chord progression? Then you gave the crescendo something to work with.

    Interesting lesson there.

  4. James Combs says:


    Very well thought out description of your composing process and how problems arise when trying to modify a work or when moving in another direction from one point. It’s a puzzle, the perfect puzzle is it not? It is very true, you give something here and it is taken away at another spot. Instant karma :)