How do writers work? A composer corresponds with an author of fiction

Writing musicNiks Freimanis / CC BY-NC 2.0

January 26, 2017

Writing music. Writing fiction. As I've been working on a novel in which a composer figures prominently, I began wondering how a composer's creative process compares with mine as a writer. Conrad Winslow, a young composer who lives in Brooklyn, and who studied with John Corigliano, agreed to an e-mail conversation about creative process.

Conrad Winslow is a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra's Composer Institute, an annual weeklong conference for selected young composers to study with the orchestra's musicians and music business leaders. His work, The Old Motion Parade, is one of seven to be featured in the Minnesota Orchestra's Future Classics concert on Friday, Feb. 3.

As a fiction writer, I'm asked fairly often: where do you get your ideas? Do people give you ideas? Most of the time, ideas emerge out of whatever I happen to be doing, or interesting ideas I've filed away in memory. As a composer, where do you get your ideas? Has anyone given you an idea for a musical composition?

I've gotten several ideas from plays. One relentlessly inventive playwright in particular, Caryl Churchill, prompted a big piece I wrote called The Perfect Nothing Catalog which unfurls a large arc from dozens of miniatures that are obsessively grouped by type — tunes, textures, rhythmic devices, phrases about control. And I love all those stories about getting ideas in the bath or whatever.

Vladimir Nabokov, in one of my favorite writer interviews, in Playboy, 1964, said: "I get this urge to collect bits of straw and fluff, and to eat pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it." I guess I do something like that at the beginning, just put down scraps of sounds that I want to hear, mark out structural things that might be interesting, allusions to images, places, writing.

My writing tools are the letters of the English language that form the words representing specific ideas or images I want to use in telling a story. What are your primary composing tools? Do you use them to tell stories or something else?

I always think that music works through ever-shifting metaphors. You try to hang an explicit story on a tone poem, but the music is always wriggling away when you listen closely. Mixed metaphors are native lands to music. Put another way: I tend to think of my favorite pieces as being suspended from several points of the universe: quivering in place while tautly pulled in all directions.

I've played with the notion of structuring a short story like a sonata or a novel like a symphony, and Perceval's Secret is full of music described through words. Metaphor comes in handy when describing musicnin words. The metaphor connects an image, or something sensual, to the sound, making it somehow more concrete. But the sound will always be a little different with each performance. Do you think music in notation on paper truly captures the sound you're after? Are there limits to notation as there are limits to words?

Well, I would refer again to playwriting: nobody thinks the script is the play. The play happens on stage; it evolves, strengthens and weakens, through its various productions. Just like a piece of music evolves through the various incarnations of its performances. I mean in extreme cases composers really have only the impulse behind the work, the sort of experience they want, something to do with the form — the succession of sounds and repetitions and changes that maybe articulates the Thing they're after. The score is both sacred and a fairly basic laundry list, but it's certainly not "The Piece." Interpretation is great! The liminal zone between interpretation and authorship is hazardous and thrilling.

When I speak, my voice creates sounds from the letters that form words. Those sounds are music. So when I tell a story out loud, that story already has a music accompaniment. I'm curious about music without words. How do you create music without words?

Right: so music and words exist on opposite sides of a pane of glass, and they cannot cross over. You can try to make words like music and you can try to make music like words but they always operate separately, even when closely synchronized, even when they appear inseparable. Music is like a language, but it just isn't one.

To answer your question, though, a composer can — must — consciously manipulate musical syntax and emotional semantics. For instance, you could frame the same awful explosion as either a psychotic outburst or as normal construction noise — the sound itself doesn't mean anything. It depends on the way the music is put together, and it really depends on what the listener brings to it.

When I was writing my novel, Perceval's Secret, I wrote with classical music in the background. Now I prefer to write with silence as the background. I find that I'm better able to listen to the characters in my mind that way. What kind of a background do you prefer when you are creating? What kind of environment do you have that's conducive to opening the imagination?

Everything has to be calm, as quiet as possible. Have you heard this nonsense about how people actually work better in coffee shops with ambient noise? This is completely opposite of my experience — but maybe I'm recoiling from a noisy upbringing with three younger siblings and lots of pets, including a parrot. I've got to have big blocks of time to get in and out of the world of a piece. I'm super jealous of composers who hop on an airplane and toss off passages with pretzels and diet coke in hand.

I'm writing all the time, even when I'm doing something else. I've learned that if I pose a question to myself about a writing problem before I go to sleep at night, my mind will work on it while I'm asleep.n Often, I'll have a solution when I wake. Have you used your mind's power in this way also? How do you solve composing problems?

Yes, totally: the unconscious! I think it's all about perspective. Your interaction with a sleepy cashier at Walgreens balances against trying to get your sister to visit your parents for Christmas balances against your piano piece that you think will be a watershed for your creative life balancing against the wrong chord in the 48th bar of that piece. Walk away, sleep, return, and it's completely plain that that chord should be higher, that the rhythm must be simpler, that this section must be twice as long. Keeping perspective solves a lot of problems.

Sometimes, writers develop rituals to put themselves into the proper mood or mind set for writing. I used to read poetry out loud to open up my mind to my imagination. I've also used music, Nature, taking showers, and housecleaning to open my mind. Do you have any rituals or activities that you use to put yourself in a receptive mind?

All those physical chores you mentioned are key. Our digital lives hinge on the same thumb-centric behavior for all sorts of intentions — you tap your screen in tenderness, in violence, in ecstasy. I can see why moving your body in other ways would change your thinking, so that your senses are more dimensional. I water my plants, cook, do yoga, and play Beethoven.

At my desk, I write best in the morning. Do you have a time of day when you compose the best?

I come from Minnesotan farming stock and have a deeply engrained desire to be up and at 'em with the sun — but nothing happens in the morning for me. My days begin in fog and end in clarion night visions. I generally compose from the afternoon into the evening.

I write using my laptop or pen and paper. There are computer programs out there designed to help writers with structure, character development, etc. I prefer not to use them. What do you use while composing?

Whatever works best for the project. Sketching on paper is useful in early stages. When I'm fishing for material, grappling with the tone of the work, I'll use big sheets of manuscript paper. Then I'll switch to the computer for precise tempi and rhythms and editing. I'm totally fine with computer playback, and I also play through stuff on piano, and I also sit in silence and imagine orchestration. Some people insist on composing start to finish on paper, but that would prevent the kinds of editing experiments that have inspired me lately. Switching among different methods of creating music has helped me sort my creative priorities within a piece.

The medium that you choose authorizes the techniques that are available to you. Good artists exploit that intersection to powerful ends, and beginners don't quite see it. Of course technology is more deeply woven into the history of music than the history of literature, so I'm speaking from a different place than a writer's desk, but to some extent this is true in literature, too. The choice of method should ideally afford greater opportunities. You can begin with an idea, then pick the approach that provides best access to the techniques you need.

My parents read to me a lot before I learned to read and write. What was your first experience with music? When did you learn that music can be written by anyone?

I was raised in a log cabin in the woods of south central Alaska, son of a salmon fisherman, pretty far from centers of cultural production. I credit my mother for getting a piano when I was five, for playing old records of Hans Christian Anderson stories with musical accompaniment, and my grandfather who gave me recordings of Peter and the Wolf, and the Tchaikovsky and Grieg piano concertos. I started making things up immediately, but it took until college — college! — for me to realize that I could put notated music in the fingers of other people, that there existed people who actually made careers playing music written for them.

Cinda Yager writes essays, fiction, and two blogs in Minnesota. She loves classical music and has just published an e-book novel set in the classical music world, Perceval's Secret.