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What Do You Use to Compose, and Where?

I am working on an unusual composer of the month article and am preparing to ask the composer some questions.  This is a composer outside of the normal realm for our community who I think has a lot to offer us and certainly will have an unusual perspective.   I need to know a little more about you to make my questions more valuable to you.  
What do you physically use to compose?  Pencil and paper? Sibelius? Finale? Do you sequence your music without a print version?  What software?  This does not have to be Choral composition per se. Any film composers here want to comment? I believe it can be a very different process than more classical Choral music.  
Where do you compose?  Do you have a studio?  What's in it?  Do you sit at a piano?  What do the people you live with do while you are composing?  Do you leave the house and go to another location?  
Does your character change while you work?  Are you impatient, driven, focused..?  I heard Beethoven described as wrestling with the devil when he composed at the piano.  Do you appear that way to others?
Please answer the first question then pick and choose any others that you would like to share.
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on July 22, 2012 2:54pm
Hi, Jack!
I use Sibelius, no matter which kind of music I am composing.
No studio; just wherever in the house I put my laptop. If there's noise from anyone else in the house or other sound sources, I just move to a quieter room where I can close a door and wear earplugs. No piano necessary; in fact, I think it is limiting because it makes me compose pianistically.
I love to write late at night when everyone else is asleep.
One of my most productive composing sessions, coincidentally, was on a four-hour Amtrak train journey. It was quiet, easy to concentrate, and the train noise makes you feel as if you are in a separate world.
Composing for me is no different than any other endeavor that requires creativity and concentration (e.g. writing, which is what I do for a living). Regarding the Beethoven anecdote: there don't seem to be any devils around with which to wrestle (though I could happily do with helpful angels).
Looking forward to reading your interview in due course!
Melinda Bargreen
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on July 22, 2012 3:32pm
Hello Jack -
I sit at the piano, primarily, to compose. When I'm there, I use pencil and paper to at least sketch things out. I use Finale for final copies but I sometimes write directly to it, especially if I'm writing something that includes an instrument - flute obligato with chorus, for example - so that I can hear the timbres and how the lines interact. I recently, finally, got an electronic keyboard with a MIDI connection so I'm anxious to begin working with that, to see if I can input my playing directly to Finale.
The piano is in a room at home that we don't use for much else except music and jigsaw puzzles :) My wife will generally be listening at least vaguely from another room and will come in to comment on a passage that she likes or to express sympathy when it's clearly a struggle to find something that works. She is not a professional musician but I value her opinions greatly. Since I teach at a college, I also have classrooms and practice rooms available where I can work at times.
Jim Davis
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on July 22, 2012 4:29pm
What do I physically use to compose? A MacBook Pro laptop equipped with Finale, a smallish (42-key) M-Audio midi keyboard that I use as an input device, and an inkjet printer. I use the same process for anything I compose, although I compose only for chorus or solo voice these days.

I have everything set up in my study, and that's where I work. I also have notation apps on my iPad and iPhone, so I can jot down ideas just about anywhere, but I do all my heavy-duty composing in the study. I live alone, so I only have to deal with my cats, who are NOT allowed in the study at all.

When I compose, I often lose track of time, so I usually have to set an alarm to remind me to take a break and eat. If I'm working on a particular project, I usually start around 8:00am and work until 6:00 or 7:00pm. If I'm just playing with some ideas for pieces, I may quit a little earlier 4:00 or 5:00pm). "Impatient, driven"? More like "oblivious." "Focused"? Oh, yes.

Lana Mountford
Bellingham, WA

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on July 22, 2012 5:36pm
I use Finale. But I like to start with pencil and staff paper. If the piece includes piano, I use the piano. Improvising is often part of my starting process. Ideas also come to me often when I am walking outside, driving, or sometimes on planes. White background noise can be OK, but other noise interruptions make me crazy. My office at school is not soundproof, so I never compose at work - try to organize my time so that I do all my composing at home. I now have the luxury of a cozy home studio with a rebuilt 1904 Baldwin grand in an old house, lots of green outside, very quiet. I love the quiet of the middle of the night, but that schedule does not work for me, so second-best is very early morning, starting at about 5 am. I feel good when composing - very balanced. When I get stuck, I go do something else - clean the house, bike, swim - and usually after that I can find the solution. It's when I am not composing due to other obligations, and when my schedule is too hectic for quiet walks in the woods, where I can hear my music best, that I "fight the devil."
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on July 22, 2012 9:49pm
What do you physically use to compose?  
What I use depends on what I'm writing.  I always keep a Molskine book with staff paper in my purse for jotting down ideas wherever I happen to be.  For traditional perform-from-the-score work, I use Finale for my scores.  For electronic and/or pre-recorded film, dance or theatre music where a score is less important than the recording, I use Logic Pro on my MacBook Pro.
Where do you compose?  
As I said, I jot down ideas whenever and wherever they come to me.  But when it's time to get down to work, I sequester myself in my studio where I have an electronic keyboard, a midi controller, and a whole zoo of instruments.  I also have a USB mic so that I can play and record other instruments/voices directly into Logic Pro.  I do have a piano and I use it sometimes, but that's pretty rare.
What do the people you live with do while you are composing?  
I work at home.  There is only one other person in my household -- my partner -- a writer working away on his computer in his studio while I work away on the computer in mine.  If I get too noisy, he'll shut his door or I'll put on headphones.
Does your character change while you work? Are you impatient, driven, focused..?   
I cannot honestly say that I enjoy composing, though it's something I'm good at.  Like many creative people, I tend to be something of a perfectionist and so I probably put way more time into a project than it may actually require; this also means getting really irritated with myself whenever I work so many hours that I get tired and make stupid mistakes (see the bit about being a perfectionist; it's a vicious cycle!).  I'm a nightowl by nature and my creative juices seem to wake up around 11 pm, so my sleep patterns get really out of whack when I've got a big project going.  I'm typcially a pretty outgoing, social sort of person; but when I've got a big project, I become very isolated and reclusive, which is probalby why I don't enjoy it very much.  What I DO enjoy is when a project is finished and I hear it and think, "Wow, did I do that?"
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on July 22, 2012 11:43pm
For planning, form, text -- usually the text or "concept" comes first -- I sit in a comfortable chair in a cheery room with pencil and paper.  Then I'll improvise some ideas at the piano or a synth keyboard, or sing to myself.  Once there are ideas in my head and creative juices flowing, I sit down at my Mac with Finale.  I try to have templates ready to go, not to lose momentum with file set-up.  There's a synth keyboard connected to facilitate input of notes.  These days when I want playback, I use Finale and Garritan sounds.  Before that, it was a sequencer and outside synths.  And before that, it was my playing on a piano from a printout.  So we've come a long way!
If someone else is home, I work quietly or with headphones if they are near by office/studio.  I don't struggle but am obsessive, putting off eating etc.  Definitely focused and avoiding interruption, outside contact.  I'm in a good mood when composing, but I hope that's not a change from other times!
Usually best is starting with the dawn on a Saturday or day off from my day job.  I remember writing much of my music; but the best parts seem to come when I'm in a zone; a couple hours later, I clear my head and look at it and say "where did that come from?"  After than comes a process of rigorous musical editing, then fine-tuning layout (which still takes TOO LONG) and then organizing and cleaning up demo sound files, rehearsal parts, web-posting.  That administrative side takes a while too, and works best for late afternoon or mid-evening when I'm not as alert.  98% perspiration and 2% inspiration still seems about right.  So after the original ideas/improvising, I'm glued to the computer.
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on July 23, 2012 7:51am
I find that in reality, I compose wherever and whenever I can find myself unburdened by the other demands and responsibilities in my life. Usually that's at home, late at night. However, some locales of late were: a school practice room, in the car during road trips, and as I mow the lawn. I do most of my creating in my head at first, then write down with pencil and paper anything that seems worthy of pursuit. I try to get a lot of fragments together at first before sitting down and putting them in Finale. I also try to wait as long as possible to get to the computer because I often feel that if I go to Finale too soon, then my original ideas become 'polluted' by what I'm hearing from the program, if that makes sense. I find that I'm doing my computer work when I have time to myself, usually late at night, in my basement home office, with headphones, while my family is sleeping and the phone doesn't ring. I have only a keyboard here at home, but it is in my son's room. I usually find a piano at work (school) when I need to plunk something out.
However, in an IDEAL compositional universe, (aka 'fantasy land'), I would love to undertake the composer's retreat approach, completely stepping outside my everyday life and immersing myself in composition for a week or two. I picture a small, remote, woodsy cabin with a piano...and a laptop. And indoor plumbing.
I don't think I have any distinct character changes while I work, except for being grumpy when I choose a poor time to do it and get interrupted a lot. I love being 'in the zone.' I enjoy it when I realize hours have passed without my noticing, because that means I was fully engaged in the creative act. Like others who have commented here, I see myself as a perfectionist, for better or for worse, and don't enjoy the formatting/publishing/marketing aspects of these endeavors much at all. The sweet euphoria of accomplishment after all is done makes up for the distaste of the mundane aspects of creation, in my opinion. Also, I find I work best when I have a deadline to meet. Perhaps it's just a psychological trick, because having a deadline suggests that someone out there may actually be interested in what I'm slaving over.
Brad Burrill
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on July 23, 2012 9:22pm
Melinda, as funny as it sounds, I actually composed the majority of my work "Autumn" on an Amtrak ride!  It may have been one of the best composing experiences that I've had yet.
When I'm composing choral music, I often start compiling ideas and writing out sketches at the piano/keyboard with pencil and manuscript paper.  Once I have a few ideas, I jump on to the computer and being entering them into Finale.  I then go back and forth between pencil/paper and Finale to expand on my ideas, add new material, subtract what I don't like, etc.  I then add the finishing touches and clean up the score on Finale.  I do the majority of this in my bedroom, as I live in a small 3 bedroom apartment with two of my brothers (who leave me alone, for the most part, when I'm composing).  If I'm traveling and know I'll have downtime to work on composing, I'll lug my laptop around and work on Finale.  There is no real specific time that I set out to compose...I usually just write when I feel inspired or have some ideas flowing through me.  That often turns into hours of writing, as one idea leads to then next.
When I write rock/pop music, I just write out lyrics and internalize the guitar parts that I come up with.  Audio recordings are usually the only record of these works.  Since I'm the one performing the music, this works just fine.
I look forward to a day when I can dedicate more time to composing, and can find a quiet and simple environment in which to do it.  If only that day would come soon :)
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on July 23, 2012 10:29pm
Dustin, great minds run in the same ... train track! 
Cheers, Melinda
on July 24, 2012 1:26am
Be assured that it won't for a VEEEEEERRRY long time.
In fact it gets considerably worse. I snatch literally minutes of time with a really out-of-tune piano [I like it that way] every few days. Moments on my piano are sandwiched between the ruins of juvenile renditions of the latest masterpiece by Béyonce or One Direction, or pieces with names like "Attack of the Elephants - a fantasy for 2 small, destructive hands". I also use any excuse not to compose, so usually play video games simultaneously with writing, or do my email. When inspiration does come I usually run off and jump in the Irish sea, as this consolidates it in my brain for some odd reason. However, I don't actually like composing, like Chris above. My suggestion is to write as much as you can now.
And I use Finale, just for the record - but mainly I scribble on bits of paper that end up with pictures of whales on them. Across the notes. In purple.
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on July 25, 2012 9:41pm
Play video games? I have to ask, what do you play.  Have you tried the fairly new indie game Minecraft.  I get to claim I'm doing research as I prepare for my choir's new video.  It is an amazing creative tool like legos on steroids.
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on July 26, 2012 7:57pm
The process really starts in my head. I do lot of mental sketching. Then, for music to be performed, I hand write everything - pages of messy sketches that I edit repeatedly. (It takes me a long while, if ever, to be totally satisified) I have numerous sketch books and try to bring one with me wherever I go. I use a large Roland synthesizer to assist at home. My college composition professor taught me to sing everything I write, which is part of the process. Once the sketches near completion, I begin entering them into Finale on an iMac, which I have been using since I was an undergrad some 15 years ago (!) The editing process continues as long as it needs to. I write whenever I get the urge - from my lunch hour at my "real world" job to sometimes in the middle of the night. Most writing is done in a small office/studio in my home.
For things that require something other than live performance (film music, video games, sound effects, et al.) I go back and forth between GarageBand and Digital Performer. Sometimes I will sketch on paper, usually if I don't have a chance to get to the computer. For music that will be linked with video, I get the timing of the video down first so I know how much I will have to write for each "section."
I try to write at times when distractions will be at a minimum. I have been stricken with the worst case of lack-of-focus imaginable, so it's important that I separate from everything else that is going on as much as possible.
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on July 28, 2012 6:49pm
Like others I use a variety of tools when I am composing. I try to do as much as possible in my head so I use pencil and manuscript paper a lot. I keep some with me at all times. I am a melody person, usually start with a melody, figure out what kind of piece it sounds like (choral, children's choir, solo voice), then work from there. Writing the text after the melody is always a challenge.... At some point, fairly early on, I start to put it in Finale and work out the harmonic progressions, part writing and the rest.
The closest thing I have to a studio is a computer room, shared with my husband. If I'm in the throes of serious work I put on my earphone and shut the door... sometimes ask ever-so-nicely for others in the house to please keep the noise down! (we have 2 kids still at home). They tend to try to help me out and not interrupt -- nice family! Occasionally I will leave the house to get away from all distractions, plus it sometimes helps to have a change of scenary. If I'm really needing to "get into" a piece, I frequently leave.
Character change? If things are going well I get excited and hyper-focused. If they aren't going so well I tend to get distracted and frustrated. And if things absolutely WILL NOT COME, I get depressed and tend to think I'll never finish the piece, and that I'll never write another decent note. When I am not working on anything at all I feel incomplete.
I love reading what others do and experience. Makes me feel not so abnormal! :-)
on August 2, 2012 2:31pm
What a fascinating discussion!  The first thing to say is I tend to be very self-conscious about composing if anyone else is around.  So this becomes a very good excuse for procrastinating if my wife is home (which is most of the time). Even composing on an electric keyboard with headphones on can generate a reaction from my nearest and dearest, so I tend to choose a time and place when no-one else is around.  This week should have been an ideal opportunity, as I am holidaying alone at a nice timeshare resort in Spain, and have a number of projects I was intending to get ahead on.  But I have failed miserably.  This may be partly because of the various diversions and distractions on offer here, but I've come to realise that I really need a piano, or a good keyboard, to generate and work on ideas.  Although Sibelius is a godsend (and long may it continue to be so, despite what Avid are trying to do to it), I don't usually get my main ideas in front of a computer. I've brought my laptop and a small (2-octave) controller keyboard with me, but seem to have achieved very little over the week.
Let me add that I'm more of a 'hobbly composer' than someone who relies on composing and arranging to earn a living, so I'm afraid I haven't cultivated any proper working habits - like a daily routine.  I tend to respond to deadlines and specific projects and requests, rather than just working to a routine.  I find Sibelius particularly useful when orchestrating something, and at this stage working at the computer can generate some new ideas. Of course reading poetry can provide a stimulus for choral composition, and I often search for suitable lyrics via the computer.
I  do occasionally get ideas away from the piano, for example when walking or at the swimming baths, but I generally have to try these out later at the keyboard.
One of the real strengths of programs like Sibelius is their ability to give an approximation of how an orchestral score is going to sound, so that one can refine and improve it as one goes along.  This isn't quite so useful with choral writing, as the sounds are much less realistic.
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on August 3, 2012 11:27am
I am LOVING this discussion!! Composing can be a very isolating activity. Reading about others' methods and struggles I absolutely LOVE composing and yet I fight with it and resent it's hold on my time and headspace. I have 2 young children home for the summer so this inward battle has been raging on :-)
What do I use?
The best and most easily composed musical ideas for me have started while driving, waiting in line somewhere or in the shower. My tools then become by cell phone recording device and/ or a pencil with which to jot down solfege syllables on a napkin or spare envelope. It then often travels to the piano and/ or Finale. My set up is in the main room of the house and I am self conscious about the process so I usually wait until my kids are in quiet time, and often I use headphones. From Finale I sometimes take it into SONAR to work out some details---recording with my own voice at times.
The most rewarding moments for me are when I can sit on the couch with staff paper and a pencil (and GOOD eraser) and write out an entire arrangement or piece without an instrument-- entering it later into Finale and hearing the end result. Somehow I sometimes think more clearly without the distraction of being able to listen to each section over and over while working through it.
Sometimes I remember every note because it was carefully thought through. Other times I can barely keep up with the process in my own head and then I can't truly remember writing it. Some pieces take months, others only hours.
My character changes negatively when I put too much pressure on myself to be productive and when I can't physically keep up with what my mind wants to hear happen. I have to constantly remind myself that I find joy in the process and that finished pieces, if finished too soon, are not going to be as good as the ones that simmer for a while longer.
Oh this could go on forever. I'm learning to make it less about personal worth as an artist, and more about the enjoyment of the creative process. Baby steps.
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