How does that go again?

In some ways, composing music is a funny pursuit. Assuming a composer (me, let's say) is using fairly traditional compositional techniques, it's a fairly safe bet that all of the notes, chords and harmonic progressions have been used before. Many times. So it's my job as the composer to use these notes, chords and harmonic progressions to create a new and interesting composition. How exactly do I do that? (This question may or may not be rhetorical, depending on the day I ask it, and the progress of the composition at hand.)

I'm lucky to have a specific group of musicians in mind when I write - my big band, the Toronto Jazz Orchestra. When inspiration strikes, and I get ideas onto paper, I can therefore start crafting those ideas with the knowledge of how each musician can best contribute to the end result. How high can I write the lead trumpet part? (Fairly high.) How fast can the trombones play? (Fairly fast.) Can the saxophonists play oboe? (No, and I'm fine with that. No offence.)

The actual process of composing and arranging, for me, is at times painfully slow. And, usually, as my wife can confirm, not particularly enjoyable to hear. (Thus, headphones.) It's a lot of trial and error, playing things back on the computer, and trying again, until the right combination of notes is found. There are a few key pieces of advice I keep in mind:

- Always write so that each instrument sounds its best. What are the ranges in which each instrument truly resonates?
- Give the musicians as much information as possible on the page. Do I want each note long or short? Loud or soft? Do I really want to use a buzz-wow mute?
- It's better to get something on the page and work with it than to have nothing on the page at all.

Once the composition is done, and the parts are printed, the real magic happens. The piece cannot speak on its own; it takes the 17 musicians in the band to bring the piece to life. For me, that's one of the most exciting parts: the euphoria of getting the piece written is one thing; actually hearing it performed is another altogether. At that point, it ceases to be "mine", and it becomes "ours". And almost 100% of the time, the musicians greatly enhance the composition. If I've done my job as a composer, the musicians will understand how to interpret my scribblings. The drummer will understand what I mean by "Play something soul-y" and lay down an awesome groove; the lead trumpet player will hold that last note for just the write length; and the soloists will provide just the right spark.

Usually, all goes well. But every once in a while, something doesn't work. I had a great conversation with a couple of other musicians and expressed my dismay at the occasional compositional dud. Their response was a bit unexpected: for them, it is the fine tuning after the piece is completed and first performed which represents the real art of composing. I thought that was very interesting, and have since revived a piece on which I had given up - with very satisfactory results.

And what about the audience? When I compose, am I thinking about them? Well, kind of, but not really. I'm not thinking about the audience in terms of whether or not they will like this particular chord or that particular melody. What I'm aiming for is a final product which satisfies me, and which accurately represents the ideas which first popped into my head after a long night of drinking I mean a good night's sleep. However, I am keeping in mind what I like to hear as an audience member. What grooves feel good? What chords sound good? If I stay true to those fundamentals, more often than not I find the end result resonates beyond the composer and the musicians on stage.

For me, composing music is an exciting, somewhat mysterious process. It takes me a looong time; the thought of a major project and an impending deadline is both exhilarating and terrifying. But I'm looking forward to the end result - to the first rehearsal, to the last note of the performance.

You'll be able to hear my composition (if all goes according to plan) as well as compositions from some of Toronto's best writers during the Big Band Series at this year's TD Toronto Jazz Festival, everyday (June 22-28) at 12:30 pm on the Mainstage at Nathan Phillips Square.


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