Writer’s block is one thing, but starting a new piece can be daunting. Obviously, it must be unique, and something never done before. It must be emotional, exciting and engaging. Breaking new ground, and connecting with an audience that prefers solid ground, can be as challenging as building a house on a cliff.
Here’s the dilemma:
Classical music has very well-established styles, traditions and no-no’s. It was classical that established the rules of western music that all pop musicians make a living with. There isn’t much in pop that doesn’t conform to a 12-note key signature. Atonal dissonance just doesn’t sell Taylor Swift tracks. Therefore, playing by the rules DOES pay. (We’ll talk about rap and Gangnam another time.)
Yet many classical cliches have developed that some audiences expect and demand, while others may find tiring or old-fashioned. So, how does one create something NEW, in an older style? How do you dare use the word classical to define your music, if you don’t sound like a Mozart or Tchaikovsky? If your venue is symphony hall, and your instrument is an orchestra, how do you connect with an audience that paid good money to hear something impeccable, yet familiar?
IF an orchestra is bold enough to premier a contemporary piece, it will likely be on a program with classics that have survived centuries. So, whether it’s the show starter, or the encore, it can be like a first grader telling the President what’s great about the country. How does a modern composer step into those enormous shoes?
In order to be contemporary classical, and not pop (or for that matter, jazz, blues etc.), there is usually an absence of a standard drum set. While artists like Andre Rieu and Yanni have very successfully incorporated rhythm kits into their orchestras, their music may sometimes be classified as new age, or crossover. (See also: What IS Contemporary Classical Music??)
So, what’s the solution?
First of all, know your audience. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because classical concertgoers range from musicians (young and old), to devoted spouses, to introverts and socialites. Classical music is so GOOD, it touches many generations! But, unless people are there just to see Lang Lang or Joshua Bell, you have to assume that there is something about traditional classical music that has touched their lives. They have connected to it in some emotional or sentimental way… a memory of family (Nutcracker Suite), an unforgettable melody that mended a broken heart (Grieg Piano Cencerto, 2nd Mov’t), or perhaps the emotional excitement of a wildly dynamic orchestra (Beethoven’s Ninth).
Second, build on the current structure. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, and present it to an audience of wheel makers. Music evolves. From Bach, who essentially became the father of music theory, to Mozart, who fiddled with the established styles just enough to piss off the aristocracy. From Beethoven, who added a slew of instruments to the orchestra, to Tchaikovsky who used each and every instrument to its greatest emotional effect. From Rachmaninoff and Debussy, who added color and chords with 9ths and 12ths, to Copland, who mastered the art of unison. There is much to draw on here for inspiration. There is a lot that has NOT been done. There is common ground that has not been traveled.
Third, give them something new. A new sound, a new technique, an unexpected chord progression, is a composer’s contribution to the evolution of music. A truly classical piece is often a journey, or a story. It has a beginning, middle and end. It plays to your heart, and often takes one on a wild ride of emotion, excitement and relief. This may be the toughest hurdle for a composer. It has to “make sense.” It has to be intuitive, and not just random. You can’t just have an orchestra screech an obnoxious sound, and say “well, that’s never been done before.”
Fourth, find inspiration from something you’re familiar with. Don’t try to write your own version of Romeo and Juliet if you’ve never experienced anything like it in your lifetime. Draw on your own trials and tribulations, struggles and victories. You can exaggerate them, that’s okay! But, inspiration should be real, if you want your music to be emotional. However, if you’re after a musical experiment, using new tools, like adding electronic elements, don’t let the technology become un-musical. If you’re on a docket with Mozart, they’re not gonna leave the concert hall humming YOUR melody.
The demands on an orchestral composer today, are much different from those who compose for smaller ensembles, with a greater variety of venues and audiences to choose from. It’s not like you can call the orchestra “my band.” As money remains tight with professional orchestras, risk-taking remains restricted as well. University orchestras may be less constrained, but biased toward student compositions. It’s a delicate balance between new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, new ground and solid ground. Compose with caution, not abandon!