On Serendipity and Inventing Music

According to a Facebook post I wrote on December 9, 2012, the composer John Eaton once said, "Some composers write what they hear. Some composers write in order to hear." (I didn't cite it, and a quick Google search tuned up 0 results.)

I noticed a pattern early in my master's program that sometimes things would happen in performances of my music that I wasn't expecting but that were ten times better than I imagined. I'd been working with some really good performers who had brought things to my music pleasantly surprised me. I asked a professor something like, "Do good composers ever have happy accidents?" or "Can a composer rely on serendipity?" The answer was a swift "no." I was taken aback at the swiftness of the response because my own music had definitely surprised me.

I've thought about that exchange probably weekly for more than ten years. I don't think my professor understood what I was asking, and I don't think I really did either. Of course, as a composition teacher, you don't want your students to think they can fake their way through composing. And you don't want to give the impression that great composers didn't know exactly what they were doing. But I was thinking along the lines of chance music--music that the composer can't anticipate or hear, at least not with great detail, before the performance. I was asking if it were possible to cultivate a style of composition that would foster as many of these moments of serendipity as possible. I think it is, and I'm still in the middle of figuring it out.

I've always felt uncomfortable with the label "composer" because original music doesn't usually flow spontaneously through my mind as is the common perception. (Likewise, I've noticed when my wife and I talk about decorating a room in our house, that she seems to be able to see in her mind what everything will look like, while I have no idea.)  I like building and design metaphors because I need to prototype a thing before I can comprehend it. So much of my music is an experiment of some kind--not that it aspires to be highly original necessarily, but that it tests a concept to see if it would work. (Maybe inventive is better than experimental since inventors seem more fundamentally creative than experimenters, though also more flighty...) For example, most pieces I write are modeled on visual art, text, a mathematical function, or some other process that I find interesting and wonder what it would sound like. So, as Eaton said, I write in order to hear some soundless phenomenon.

And I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels overly burdened by the 19-century idea of the composer-genius, a conduit of the divine, and really just wants to tinker with sounds.

I was thinking about Legos this morning. You can make some cool stuff with Legos (though nothing cooler than the Millennium Falcon), but ultimately the play impulse seems to be keep seeing what else you can build--the process of discovery and building. That was my impulse in my first semester of music theory. When I realized there were component building blocks to the Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy that I loved to play, my instinct was to play with those block to build something myself. I've been tinkering around with sounds for most of my life now, and it still feels like play. And it still feels like serendipity whenever I hear my compositions.

Geryoneïs Outline

I. Geryon (tutti)
Forceful introduction of what I think of as Geryon's theme. Influenced by my perception of the color red--angry. This theme is cut short and replaced by a static kind of texture that will come back a few times. It represents stability.

II., III., IV., and V. overlapping
II. Meanwhile He Came (bassoon)
The beginning of the red thematic idea. Long notes broken up by jagged rhythms.

III. Geryon’s Parents (clarinet and saxophone)
A static duet representing what I think of as the parent gesture. Unchanging and stubborn.

IV. Geryon’s Death Begins (bass clarinet) I need some recommendations for multi phonics.
The second step in the evolution of red.

V. Geryon’s Reversible Destiny (English Horn)
The parent gesture inverted.

VI. Meanwhile in Heaven (tutti)
Heaven is open fifths. G's and D's fading in and out... glistening?

VII. Geryon’s Weekend (tutti)
Another take on the stability texture from the first module. Everything's fine.

VIII., IX., and X. overlapping
VIII. Geryon’s Father (bass clarinet and bassoon)
Single parent, but two instruments. One is used as a drone or to simulate reverb, then their roles change. The opening motive is a quote from "Everything in Its Right Place" by Radiohead.

IX. Geryon’s War Record (saxophone)
The third step in the evolution of red. Becoming angrier, desperate, more dangerous.

X. Schooling (clarinet)
This one actually enters briefly before IX. A kind of false entrance. It's the parent texture again--stubbornness still prevailing over all the red flags.

XI. Right (oboe and clarinet)
I think of this as an interlude. "Everything in Its Right Place" is quotes pretty extensively, though in fragments. I wasn't thinking of the name of this module when I decided to quote, but rather was thinking about how all these modules need to fit together--each one in its right place. There's also Morse code in this module--text from the poem. The clarinet asks, "Are there many little boys who think they are a monster?" The oboe replies, "But in my case I am right."

XII., XIII., and XIV. overlap. They are nearly identical--all red--but played at points of imitation, creating a building wall of noise. 
XII. Wings (saxophone)
XIII. Herakles’ Killing Club (bassoon)
XIV. Herakles’ Arrow (bass clarinet)

XV. Total Things Known About Geryon (tutti)
The order of entrances is prescribed. Each instrument plays a short asynchronous loop, independent with regard to tempo, fading in and out, moving to the next module, etc.

XVI. Geryon’s End (tutti)
A reprise of VI., but different voicing--Geryon in heaven. Nothing is coordinated. The piece is over when everyone has stopped.

Geryoneïs (The Song of Geryon) - Overview

I've been working on a new piece for about a month for reed quintet, and I decided to model it on the fragments of poetry about the mythical monster Geryon upon which Anne Carson's novel Autobiography of Red is based. Carson translated these bits of ancient Greek poetry by Stesichoros which survive only in fragments. Her novel is an altogether different thing, but I kept finding myself being drawn back to these sixteen fragments and trying to fill in the missing pieces. And in some loose way, I felt a kinship between my recent method of composing in modules and these modular pieces of a story.

Initially, I considered composing sixteen solos--one for each fragment. Any chamber group of three to five players could divide the solos among themselves and play them simultaneously without any coordination. I also considered making available two transpositions of each solo, allowing each player to choose which "key" to play each solo in, in order to diversify the harmony. 

Ultimately, I found myself unable to let go of the overall plan of the piece. Much like what I did in Sunken Monadnock and Aubade, I sketched a few modules, and now that I have enough material to popular the entire piece, I have planned for certain specific relationship and intersection. Aside from those particular instances, however, within the modules there will still be a high degree of individuality (i.e., non-coordination between players).



The material is very loosely based on the text. I began to see certain gestures relating with certain ideas in the text. I used the recurrences of these ideas as the basis for when to reprise the associated musical gestures and textures.

There are four ideas that occur at least twice, which I tentatively call red, parents, club, and heaven. Red is discordant, harsh, violent, and ragged--torn was a key word in the text. Parents is harmonically more consonant with tertian chords in a kind of stunted or broken pandiatonicism. Club is sweet and texturally static. (I might have used the word friend except that I liked how club might mean the bar where the friends drink and/or the club that Hercules wields. It doesn't really matter--I'm just talking to myself in these notes anyway.) Heaven is crystaline, transparent--open fifths that glisten.


Sketches of red stage 1 in Meanwhile He Came and stage 2 in Geryon's Death Begins. In the former it is improvised and in the latter it is notated specifically.

Red  at the beginning, orchestrated. 

Red at the beginning, orchestrated. 

Sketch of the  parent  texture. Cells are labeled by letters, which are used as shorthand. Another line (usually up a 3rd) will be added.

Sketch of the parent texture. Cells are labeled by letters, which are used as shorthand. Another line (usually up a 3rd) will be added.


Here's a sketch of the formal plan for the piece.

Click for larger image.

The fixed media component

I was almost done with the fixed media component a few hours ago. I thought that it just needed something small but textural. One of the pianos in my office is currently tuned to Ben Johnston's scale from his Suite for Microtonal Piano, and I had sketched two little four-dyad motives a while back (this can be seen below in the Soundcloud link, though partially obscured). I thought I'd record myself playing those and work them into the texture somehow.

To see what this would sound like with the rest of the mix, I added two tracks to my Logic session and looped each file. I had recorded the second line twice, so I added a third track and looped both recordings of the second line, which were not synchronized. I put a little flanger and compression on them and found that this texture held my interest for five for six minutes. Probably self-indulgent, but I hate to use something that I like for a shorter time or a less central role than the material deserves. So now the dilemma is this. Does this piano bit complement what I already have? Or does it overwhelm what I'm trying to do? Tonally it works with the other audio (all of which are bird songs). Let me think about it.


Got down to making some firm decisions on a new work I'm composing for wind ensemble.  To avoid rewriting a summary, here's an email I just sent the conductor of the ensemble planning to premiere it next spring.

The form and generative/governing concepts are fairly clear to me now.  It is all inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the folk music traditions of the southern Appalachians. . . .  I have transcribed a recording of "Wayfaring Stranger" made in Beech Mountain by Horton Barker, as exactly as possible.  The oddities of that recording (asymmetrical meters, accidental/incidental microtonality) will generate some of the music.  I also plan on using that transcription later in the piece.

I also want to incorporate some abstractions on Appalachian instrumental music, especially variations on traditional banjo and fiddle conventions.  I want to emphasize, however, that I do not want to compose a "bluegrass" piece for band, just abstracting and reworking some hallmarks of that music--like fiddle portamentos and clawhammer banjo rhythmic gestures.

These ideas are perhaps tangential, however, to the main thrust of the piece.  I am fascinated with the timbral possibilities of the wind ensemble and plan to exploit timbre and texture, sometimes to the obscuring of melody and rhythm.  I am planning to include a fair amount of improvisation in order to achieve the kind of intricate textures and independent playing that I want (3 to 5 notes in a box, or melodic fragments played independently of the tempo, etc.).  The harmonic interest will come from a conflict between E min. pentatonic and the octatonic scale C, Db, Eb, etc.  At the end, I plan on using timbre and wide separation in pitch space to help these two harmonic worlds merge naturally.

To help bring together all these inspirations floating around in my head, I got a sketch pad and went to work.  I sketched a few shapes intuitively, with no thought of any concrete ideas.  The top portion of the sketch, which I decided to make my guide for percussion timbres, textural density and volume, is clearly mountainous.  The right side, especially, reminds me of the Blue Ridge Mountains with ribbons of fog below and stars above.

I've sketched out pieces before, but this is more graphic than I usually do.  There are, of course, some words and, on the left, some notes on staves, but it's mostly visual.  There is also a lot of empty space.  I kind of know what's going to come there, and didn't feel the need to fill up all the available space.  I found this very useful to me (I'm a visual person) to organize my ideas.  It makes perfect sense to me--the visual representing the aural.  I realize it doesn't for many people, but I've always found it very easy to compose a sculpture or a painting...  makes me wonder why I don't do it more often.

Of course, the visual doesn't mean the same aural for everyone (and vice versa).  I've often thought it would be a good exercise to give several composers the same sketch and have them write a piece from it.. just to see all the different outcomes.


After sketching, I notated a more detailed version of the first minute.  It's convenient that the first minute is so sparse.  Of course there will be a lot of details to work out for the final version, but it will come faster than the more dense textures that come later--and fast is good right now (I want to do a string quartet as soon as this piece is finished).  As the initial sparse clusters/tectonically-slow melody give way to a churning rhythmic section that begins the buildup to the climax, there needs to be a bridge or a transitional section.  For now, I have several 3-5 note motives that can be rhythmicized in many different ways.  These will be building blocks that I could use as improvisatory cells or work out and notate exactly.  They will begin in isolation, then combined into duets and trios, etc.  Either way, it's too much for today.  I thought about going on to the rhythmic section that will come next, but I want it to evolve organically from the transition, so I need to do that first.  I might start working on the chorale, though, later this evening.

©2017 Joshua Harris