Learning to Transcribe One’s Own Music

The dramatic rise of recording technology in the 20th century had an enormous impact on the world of contemporary composition – presenting composers not only with the means to create sounds that were previously unattainable or unimaginable, but with the ability to document their intentions in a sonic medium as opposed to a literary, symbolistic medium like notation. While this new form of documentation raises interesting questions regarding the work concept and greatly obscures the definition of the term “composer”, I prefer to discuss how recording technology, especially in the wake of the desktop (or maybe now it’s laptop) revolution, has changed the way I, as a composer, think about and approach composition.  (For a discussion of the former issues – you can always take a look at my under-rendered but well-intentioned entry on the subject – The Role of Documentation in Defining Musical Composition)

My work process in the past 6 months or so has undergone a massive shift, and thusly has begun to produce dramatically different sonic results. For a time, I was purely desk-bound, scribbling away and doing my best to communicate what I was hearing internally on the page. Ultimately, though obviously composers greater than yours truly have succeeding in producing staggering works in this way for hundreds of years, I found that I wasn’t satisfied with the music I was writing. It felt boxy, unimaginative, and distinctly alien from the music that I produced when I was functioning on a purely aural level. I felt that I was a slave to notation, and began to contemplate how the page was controlling my music – Was I limiting myself to ideas that had already been expressed by others in notation? Was there some very subtle subconscious effect to beginning on a system that contained 10 evenly-spaced blank measures? These were bothersome considerations indeed.

Then I got a commission to write a piece for solo electric guitar. This was very lucky – not only was this an instrument that I actually played and could more freely access and experiment with in a hands-on fashion, but it was an instrument for whom the book (in this case being standard extended techniques and notational practices) had yet to be written, especially in the context of contemporary chamber music where the guitar has been underused and underestimated to a shameful degree (but this is a whole other discussion). Instead of following my normal process of conceptualizing and hearing and notating a piece of music, I simply began improvising. I found myself creating sounds that were exciting and original and for which (at least as far as I was able to find) there was no precedent for notation. So I had my techniques, and I had my new palette of sounds, but when it came time to sit and write quietly I found everything that I produced to be wholly lacking and far removed from the fruitful sessions of improvisation that I’d been having. So I went back to improvising, this time recording each performance on my iPhone and listening back afterwards to hear what I liked and what I didn’t like. Overtime, ideas cemented themselves, gestures gained greater definition and variety, and form emerged from the ether into a almost-completely consistent and fully realized piece of music. Then, once I felt that I had achieved an excellent and fully realized performance of the piece, I simply transcribed it from the recording. This is easy to say, but was no small feat. Figuring out how to notate the damn thing took me much longer to conceptualize and then perfect than did the act of aurally composing it. All the same, I ended up with a descriptive score that was essentially transcription of my best performance of my own work, with a recording to go along with it as a sort of aural catalogue for the performer to follow.

I was thrilled with the results of this new process, and felt that I was finally communicating my own unique musical voice in a way that was repeatable and fixed, but with room for others to contribute to the musical discourse. Not only that, but I was being actively inventive in my use of musical notation and using it as the tool that it is as opposed to allowing myself and my ideas to be limited to what I already knew how to communicate. Without the simple act of recording and re-recording (and re-re-re-re-re-recording) my own murky improvisations, I would never have arrived at this concrete and fully-realized idea. Many of my composerly colleagues, in one way or another, gravitate toward this process that is more based on recorded, aural composition and transcription than conceiving-of and realizing a musical idea purely on paper. In this way, I think modern recording technology (with special emphasis on convenience and ease of transport) is doing much to shape composition in the 21st century.

Naturally, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the subject of recording technology and composition. This is a subject I hope to continue to approach frequently in the future, so please accept my pardon if this seems like a painfully self-centered or myopic discussion of a gigantic issue.


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