Close this search box.

November 1994 The Creative World, By W. Francis McBeth

The world of creativity is one of fantasy, and fantasy is one of life’s greatest states, which so few choose to enjoy. All children live in a world of fantasy, but unfortunately most grow out of it.
   Fantasy is a magnificent vehicle that transports one out of time and to a place without danger or fear. Fantasy allows a person to be all he wishes to be even if just for a moment, but it is these moments away from reality that bring such comfort and pleasure to existence. Without these flights, this earthly travail is deprived of the beauty that makes the heart soar. It is the soaring of the heart that gives the greatest pleasure and joy.
   Why does a person desire the experience of hearing a great piece of music? Many don’t, but of those who do, why is it such an experience? What do we derive from it? Wagner said, “Music allows us to gaze into the innermost essence of ourselves.” I can give a list of other quotes, but they are all as hard to comprehend as the original question is to answer. I have asked many people what they receive from great art, and the usual answer is happiness or joy. I am not sure.
   I experience happiness and joy in many ways, especially from my children, but this is a different emotion than I receive from the Shostakovich Tenth or Andrew Wyeth’s Helga paintings. It is different from just happiness or joy; it is a feeling that I know no words that can accurately describe it. David Whitwell states in his book, Aesthetics of Music in Ancient Civilizations, that “Philosophers since the ancient Greeks have been aware that there is another dimension to man than the whole of what we call Reason. However since language is the language of Reason, it fails when attempting to explain that which is outside its domain.” With our limited human vocabulary, I suppose that the word exhilaration may come the closest.
   When I experience great art, it seems to expand my lungs and change the chemistry in my physical body. It releases the ultimate sensation of contentment coupled with exhilaration. There is nothing in our lives outside of religion that quite equals this mental and physical state.
   If this is true, and it is in my case, why do the majority of people not seek it out? The answer is one that I will never discover. It will always be one of life’s greatest mysteries, so I will not pursue it further.
   If to experience this gift of art is so grand, to create the experience is a state that is even more beyond description. If the passive recipient of art is so affected, just triple, quadruple, quintuple it for the active participant in its creation. In music the performer is exalted to a higher plane, the conductor to an even higher, and the composer to the highest. The creation of art may be the highest level of personal satisfaction that is achievable. I have never found any other endeavor that supersedes it.
   The act of creation is not in itself a particularly grand experience. That comes after the fact. The act itself is very hard and frustrating work. Many first year composition students struggling with this frustration have said to me, “This is not as much fun as I thought it would be.” I reply that hard frustrating work is never fun. The pleasure comes after the work is finished. Everyone wishes to be able to play, but only a few will practice. Everyone wishes to have written, but few want to write. Creative work is difficult, frustrating, and laborious.
   In all the creative arts the process of composing music is the least understood. The basic process of writing plays, of painting, of sculpture is comprehended by most of the public; but the ability to put sounds on paper that creates music is a mystery to most people. To write a simple song is more or less understandable, but composition beyond that is considered magical to the layman. To put colors on a white surface has been done by almost all people; to write words on paper, the same; but to organize sound in a logical manner is very foreign to the general population.
   Julius Portnoy in his book, Music in the Life of Man, states, “The composer and poet were once one and the same person. Music and poetry were a unified art — not separated as they are today. Music has retained the powers of a language with a grammar and syntax of its own and has become a complex art which can express several different ideas simultaneously, but poetry, her ‘blessed sister’ can only express one idea at a time.” David Whitwell also states in his book, “Unlike painting and acting, for example, which are representations of something else, music is not a representation, nor a symbol, nor a metaphor of anything else. It is more accurately a language, a special non-rational language of the right hemisphere of our brain, through which we communicate the experiential side of our nature.” It is for this reason that composition seems so mystical.
   Honegger said, “To put black dots on white paper that no one wants to hear is a gentle form of madness.” If that is so, what is the impetus for this gentle form of madness? Most say the impetus is the same for all of the creative arts: self-expression. Why a person is so attracted to self-expression I don’t know, but it manifests itself in a myriad of forms in all people. I think that it is more than just self-expression because this does not completely cover the desire to create, and the desire to create is inherent in most all of us. It also doesn’t address a creation that is intended to be outside of one’s self, but then I don’t wish to pursue the philosophy but to speak of the process.
   Having taught music composition almost daily to college students for almost forty years, I think that I can speak of the process. The layman always assumes that it is a matter of putting beautiful sounds together over a predetermined amount of time. This, of course, is not the concept of art music. There is a place for any manifestation in art, even the ugly, but then most people do not understand music in the artistic sense. Most people do not understand music without words. Sound alone means nothing for so many.
   Many beginning composition students want to rewrite or re-compose instead of compose. The desire to rewrite, in the impressionist style or whatever, is usually nourished by the desire for immediate acceptance as much as anything. I don’t care where a beginning student begins because of his personal taste; it is a teacher’s responsibility to guide students to true creativity through their imagination and away from what has already been done. Imagination is the ingredient that cannot be taught. Imagination is the separating factor that will divide those who can or cannot do it. Many times I have looked at the first eleven measures of a student’s work only to be told, “I don’t know where to go from here.” When I hear this I have an urge, which I always repress, to say, “Well, have you thought about accounting, a work that is done with given facts and where imagination would be frowned on and may even be prosecuted?”
   The secret of composing is three-fold. A composer must form a plot (plan of events), choose the notes, and then rewrite to tighten it up. The plot, scenario, or direction of a work must come before any notes. Notes are not the problem; there are only twelve of them. Student composers tend to go after notes before they have decided what they plan to do with them. Many young composers try to just scotch tape measures together before deciding what to do within the entire piece. It is very difficult to start a work if you don’t know how it will end. I always decide the endings before writing the beginnings. If I don’t know the destination, it is impossible to plan the trip, much less the point of embarkation. Whether the journey is successful, the trip still must be decided upon before departure. Without this there is a wandering, as if lost in a labyrinth, and disappointment. The simplest choices in the first step are those of medium, length, and attitude; will the composition be for choir, orchestra, band, or chamber group? If an orchestra is chosen, will it be a full symphony or a short opener; will the attitude be bravura, an elegy, or a combination of these? These choices seem so obvious, but many students begin without making these basic decisions.
   The next, and more difficult choices, are the inner plot and direction the composition will take, or the development of the materials that will be chosen later. This is the reverse of the procedure most people perceive; they assume that the materials are chosen before deciding on the course of development. If the materials are chosen before the course of development, the composer is put in the situation of laying brick before plans for the house are drawn.
   Choosing the notes is the most laborious process in the act of composing, but again the medium, plot, and attitude dictate many of the choices. The worst possible method is to write “piano music” and force it into another medium. In a composition for orchestra a note is never written without knowing which instrument will play it; consequently, orchestration plays a large part in note choice. Composers never orchestrate music after it is written; they compose it orchestrated. Students orchestrate, composers don’t. To go one step further, a good instrumental composer also knows all the fingerings. If fingerings, slide, and hand positions are not considered, the composer will write much more technically difficult music than is necessary, causing his work to be played less and diminishing the pleasures of the performers. There is no reason to build a racetrack with potholes and then criticize the drivers’ ability. The better the track, the faster the race.
   On a birthday broadcast from Boston, Walter Piston recounted how one of his students would not take his advice on writing for the instruments. He told the student what could and could not be done, and the student replied, “but it’s the Boston Symphony” (during one of only two years that the Boston Symphony read through student works). At the reading the orchestra struggled through the first fifteen pages of the work and finally the conductor slammed the score to the floor, telling the orchestra that this work was unplayable. Piston said the student composer was just thrilled that he had written a piece the Boston Symphony could not play!
   Students are always asking me which instruments to give a particular line or note. This is composing backwards. In one of my most performed works there is a trumpet ostinato that sounds extremely difficult, but it is performed by a series of only open and first valve fingerings. Move it up or down a step and it couldn’t be played. This does not occur by accident. A composer can get trapped into a situation by a tonality or tessitura where a complex fingering must be used, but this is to be avoided whenever possible. A composer also writes with inherent characteristics of each instrument in mind. Uncharacteristic writing can sometimes be effective, but these are special cases. Each instrument has special qualities that should be exploited.
   When choosing the pitches, the hardest task is in choosing the dissonant ones. Choosing consonants is quite easy, choosing correct dissonance is very difficult. A composer speaks in many ways, using many tools, but volume variants and dissonance may be the most important and expressive tools of all. The use of dissonance and its control may be the most important element of compositional craft. The use of dissonance is the major ingredient in music direction with tessitura and rhythm next. From Palestrina to Bach to Shostakovich, it is the controlled use of dissonance that set these works apart from lesser composers. In his works with text, Bach’s use of dissonance falls more in the realm of text painting than its form usage. He reserves his dissonance for words such as pain, blood, suffering, or death without much concern as to where it occurs in the structure. His chorale O Sacred Head Now Wounded is a good example of how the text causes the dissonance to occur primarily in the first two measures, where his dissonance in his music without text will increase as he builds to a point of maximum intensity before the ultimate release.
   Contemporary composers lean more to this method to increase the effectiveness of final release or resolution. Without dissonance there cannot be the full enjoyment of consonance. Music that is all consonance or all dissonance leaves listeners frustrated or bored by the lack of direction or movement. Someone who weeps all the time or who laughs all the time is abnormal. It takes a mixture of both for normality in life. So it must be a mixture of consonance and dissonance for art music.
   It is in the use of dissonance that has caused the rub for the listener in the 20th century. The history of music since the 16th century is a chronicle of the evolution of harmony, not rhythm or melody. Harmony has been an ever changing or growing syntax of the vertical sonority and counterpoint. Rhythm remains static with almost no change of complexity until the mixed and asymmetric usage of the 20th century. Melody is the least changed of the three elements. There are 20th-century melodies that could be Scarlatti or Brahms by even the most dissonant of the 20th-century writers. It is harmony, not rhythm or melody, that has created the rejection of many listeners and some musicians today.
   This rejection, some warranted but most not, is a result of the lack of understanding of the history of harmony coupled with a distrust of change and a desire for the familiar. The harmonic usage of the 16th and 17th centuries was the tertian triad with a minor use of dissonant counterpoint. In the 18th century the seventh was added as a chord member, but it was still considered a dissonance and required preparation and resolution. From then to the 20th century came the addition of the ninth and eleventh with increased dissonance in counterpoint. The 20th century brought the end of tonality and the addition of vertical sonorities that were not tertian. The non-tertial sonorities include quintal (quartal) secundal and the tertian usage included polychords, added note chords, and a free use of the twelve tones. This is a very simplistic overview, but it demonstrates that the harmonic history was not a revolution, as many think, but an evolution.
   Why must there be continued evolution in art when most all listeners prefer what evolved before their birth and little after? The answer is very simple. Creativity is exactly what the word means. Redoing anything of the past is not creating. No inventor is working to create a light bulb, and no one will get a ticker tape parade for flying the Atlantic alone in a single engine plane. Irving Allen McHose could write a Bach or Mendelssohn fugue as well as many that they wrote. McHose is not a famous fugue writer because this has already been done in that style. No person with a desire to create willfully produces works that lack creativity. Many lay people believe that just the act of producing is creative; this is not so. The production must have creativity to be creative. I know that this is a simple-sounding statement, but it is a simple concept. Brittle must have peanuts in it to be peanut brittle. Music must have creativity to be art music. New music can be produced without art just as brittle can be produced without the peanuts, but it is not the same.
   At a recent clinic a speaker lamented the fact that a major percentage of the band compositions (easy music of grade 3 and below) being produced were written in the keys of F, Bb, and Eb major. I wanted to say to him that I agreed with his point, but why did he refer to these works as compositions when no composer has written in the major keys for almost a century? These works that are produced each year, primarily for training young players to play in tonal keys, fall in a different category. There may be a utilitarian need for these works, but we should not confuse them with art. On this issue of whether art music can be written for a grade two ensemble and whether it should be written, I respond yes on both counts; but this is extremely difficult to do and is of no interest to most composers. When art music at this level does emerge, it is usually rejected by the teachers and students. An example of this is “Dedication” by Bartok, a simple beginning piano piece that I played as a youth but which is rarely or never heard on a child’s recital. Teachers don’t use it because children don’t like it. Should we change what they like? Can we change what people like? I don’t know. I loved Schumann as a child and the average person on the street does not. Is it a matter of education? I think not; I was just a child.
   How do we detect creativity in art? Many people confuse creativity with difference. Difference and originality can be synonymous, but not in the creative sense. Something can be so original that it is chaotic. Creativity must contain originality, but should have its roots in tradition. Creativity is branches that are grafted into the trunk of tradition. If this is not the case, we are cut adrift or wander in formless confusion.
   In detecting creativity or deciding what is art music, we must have standards, but beware of standard bearers. Most so-called standard bearers only want to impose their personal taste on others, not a standard.
   The creative world offers a lifetime of pleasures, moments of high exhilaration, and ultimate contentment. What it affords the creator is beyond price. I asked before why there is a desire to create. We create primarily for ourselves, though most people would think it is for others. I truly believe that Beethoven would not have cared if his scores had been placed in his casket. A true creator never considers posterity. Posterity is a 19th-century concept derived by consumers. When a creator is gone and his works remain, all the better, but it is not why they were produced.
   The creative world is a sacred place where we all pilgrimage for refreshment. The creative world is a fountain that provides us with the contentment, joy, excitement, fulfillment, and beauty that gives life quality and meaning.   

   W. Francis McBeth is professor of music, chairman of the theory/composition department, and resident composer at Ouachita University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He is also president of the American Bandmasters Association. His education was received from Hardin-Simmons University, The University of Texas, and the Eastman School of Music.