To Precomp or not to Precomp

One of my friends here in town, a fellow composer, made quite the case against too much precomp over the weekend. He actually dislikes a famous composer for his large amount of precomp.

Ah, for those not in the know, i should explain precomp before hand. It's the plotting of the piece before you write it. It's figuring out form, melody, motives, rhythmic ideas, energy, orchestration, pitch, harmony, etc before ever putting a note on the page.

so, my friend made a rallying cry against going too deeply into precomp. His biggest attack was the music should be spontaneous and free-flowing, an extension of the composer. The composer should use his intuition, his feelings (the Force?), to figure out passages.

And i agree with that. Music should be an organic process of creation.


When my buddy was discussing the styles of precomp he is against, they were practically everything i just did with a piece. a piece that i had "intuited" the beginning and now was thoroughly stuck. As in La Brea Tar Pits stuck.

as in Groundhog's Day stuck.

So, after having what i called an intervention, I went and analyzed what i had written. broke that puppy down, looked at the big picture, the infinitesimal picture, pitch, rhythm, groupings, phrasings, form, energy, i overlaid several astrological charts and plotted my future, even took the sketches to the top of Mt. Fuji and conferred with the dragon regarding a certain sequence which spelled out a day that the astrological charts pinpointed as his day of reentry to this world.

And now i'm unstuck (the dragon was most helpful. as was Miss The Asha).

why did i get stuck? simple. i didnt have a clear enough picture of where the piece was going, how it needed to proceed. I had some notes written down, but obviously not what i needed.

I'm all for intuiting pieces, but process definitely has a place as well. I usually do things in a bit of a jumbled order. I'll do a small amount of pre-comp, get some ideas written down that are important (instrumentation, moods, usually some doodles in the margins, basic form). afterwards, i jump write in with both feet, get some really awesome lines, usually about a minute or so of music, then flounder around, throwing out page and page after page of music. finally, after the intense shedding process, i'll sit back down and pre-comp the rest of the piece much more hardcore. then, i'll take my rules, and intuit from there

That was the biggest point my friend rallied against: the creation of artificial rules. This was the first thing a comp professor taught me. why? Because, at least for me, my music will wander. Wander near and far, from my studio apartment in KC, to Mt. Fuji, to NYC, to Rigel 7, to Earth, 2014 with the Robotech Masters invading and the SDF-2 out of commission...

Music can't be a formless, shapeless thing moving from cool sound to cool sound. I feel a piece really needs connections for it to work. and, for some people, it's hard to create and maintain those connections without something over our heads saying "DUDE, YOU CAN'T GO THERE! THAT'S WHERE THE MAN-EATING BENGAL TIGER LIVES!!!" otherwise, i'd go there, lose a foot and a lot of blood, and get stuck in the jungle again. and need Miss The Asha there to pull me out, which is kinda awkward since i'm at least 2 of her, if not 3...however, i'm positive she would tame the Man-Eating Bengal Tiger and make it a lap cat...

anyway, i digress. Point being, i see nothing wrong with doing a large amount of precomp, setting up rules, limiting oneself. in fact, some composers need that restraint. and, trust me, it's not like we don't break those rules. I quite often do...it's just a point to help me stay focused, and then i can break the rules as i go. I remember one of my earliest "successful" pieces. It started out as a 12 tone exercise. probably the first third is solidly 12 tone. Then, i stopped doing it. I ran out of places to go, so i went elsewhere. I had no problem breaking the rules. But, it was nice having them at the beginning. it definitely helped define the piece at the time

Some people are able to intuit entire pieces. other need to do a large amount of precomp. Neither style is any reason to dislike the music. if you don't like the music, you don't like the music. you don't like how it sounds so "formulaic?" then you don't like tightly formed music, nothing wrong with that. but don't hate on the process just because it's not right for you. cause, watch out, someday you'll have a student. and he'll get stuck

in a forest

with a man-eating tiger

and he'll need to come up with a plan rather than "intuit" an answer

and you won't be able to help him

and he may lose a foot, and Miss The Ash may not be in the area to save him

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