This piece, by composer Steve Hicken, originally appeared in Burning Ambulance #3 (available physically and digitally from Lulu.com). The percussion concerto he discusses had its premiere this past week—the ensemble is pictured above—so it felt like the right time to present the essay online.
Facing a Blank
by Steve Hicken
When the editor of Burning Ambulance asked me to write a piece about how “classical” music is written, I was very interested and a bit taken aback. The reasoning was that the readers of Burning Ambulance probably have a good idea of how a popular song or a jazz chart is put together, but generally may not know how a composer of concert music (I don’t use the term “classical music,” because in the profession it denotes a specific era and place, namely from about 1775 to about 1825 in Vienna) goes about his or her business.
There are differences in how popular music, jazz, and concert music are composed, performed and recorded, to be sure, but I don’t want to focus on them. These differences may or may not get at the essential differences between the art forms—I’m not convinced that there are essential differences between these types of music outside how they are distributed. I’m qualified only to discuss the processes I go through when I write my own music, not that of other composers of concert music, or of the creators of jazz and popular music.
The making of art consists in a series of decisions—thousands of them, most of them unconscious or even “automatic.” These automatic decisions, the things we do in our art that are consistent or habitual, may add up to an individual artist’s style, an artistic DNA. But those decisions are not the ones that make each piece unique, even if they result in the markers that (to a great extent) identify a given work as that of a particular artist. It’s the conscious, deliberate decisions that make each new work distinctive, and they are what I want to talk about.
Sometimes the initial idea or motivation for a piece will be external. Someone will ask you to write something for them to play, or you’ll get one of the dozens of commissions you apply for, et cetera. Usually these situations will come with some requirements—most often in terms of instrumentation, but sometimes the music will be for a particular occasion, and sometimes the length of the piece will be a consideration. Often, of course, these factors combine, as when someone wants a three-minute fanfare for brass and percussion, to be played at the opening of a new concert hall.
Once the instruments/voices are set, other considerations come into play. One of the most important of these is the personality of the performer or performers you are going to write for. Performers have their distinct musical personalities and one of the joys of composition is exploring that in the context of your own musical personality. Both composer and performer are artistically stretched and take their work to new places in this kind of collaboration. This kind of collaboration informed the process I went through to compose my Percussion Concerto (2010), and I’ll refer to that process for my examples in the rest of this article.