Composing a Theory

Contemporary Music Theory and Composition: Composing a Theory
presented at University of Ottawa, January 25, 2002
Association of Women Composers Conference


What is the relationship of music theory to composition? And how does my understanding of contemporary music theory affect my work as a composer?

The difficulty I had in thinking about these questions was this: I generally have the sense that theory is what others think up about the work that artists create; that, in fact, theory comes after the work, not before. So I was troubled at the outset.

I decided to took into how music theory is defined by theorists and musicologists. What is it that is meant by ‘music theory”?

Judy Lochhead quotes Ian Bent: “Analysis can be said to answer the question “How does it work?”(1) Allen Forte described music theory as the “explanation of and speculation about musical structures”(2). Arnold Whittall writes that theory’s purpose is “to identify the various materials of a composition and to define the way they function.(3)” Rosemary Killiam says that ” Music is patterned sound, and theory the method which seeks to determine the pattern”(4). And Patrick McCreless has said ” Music Theory…has produced a way of knowing.” (5)

But each of these definitions imply that theory happens after the fact. Theory is born of the intention to explain something which already exists.

Perhaps, then, I ought to distinguish between theory – the explanation of how a piece works – and method, that is, how the composer works.

But then I’m still left with the question of how theory affects the act of composition. How does theory come into play before the fact?

The first thing I’ve realized is that, in order to speak about theory, I have to acknowledge it in the broadest of terms. I have to acknowledge the plurality of theories that exist. And while I can’t speak of ‘theory’ as something I apply directly in a conscious way to my work, because I really don’t, I’m starting to consider the possibility of describing theory as a shadowy presence, as a background to my creativity, something that is there behind me when I’m working.

What is this background of theories? And which theories are contained there?

– There is certainly a background of harmonic theory – not necessarily the theory of functional harmony, but theory regarding the perception of harmonic relations through the harmonic series – a sense that pitches are heard in relation to each other, and that we can differentiate these subtle and ambiguous relationships.

– A partner to this would be theories about the nature of melody – the ideas of klangfarbenmelodie for instance – melodies made up of timbres – you can hear this in parts of my piece Ribbon performed last night – what the composer Jo Kondo might call a ‘melodic prism’. Christian Wolff says that “no matter what we do, it ends up being melodic”.

– There are theories that have to do with systems – set theory, canons, processes – anything to do with a systematic ordering of material. While I don’t work systematically – I don’t work with pitch sets, for instance, or systematic processes – I’m sure that the understanding of these systems is resident in the background, perhaps as an intuitive sense of pattern.

– The theory of evolution – the understanding of evolution not as progress towards a goal, but as an adaptation to a changing environment. I think of my works as having an overall sense of transformation – they evolve.

– Feminist theory – aspects of non-hierarchical forms, the understanding that works don’t have to build to a climax, nor do they have to have important moments. The sense that the mundane has as much to tell us as the extraordinary.

– Japanese theories of musical time. Takemitsu, for instance has written: “Whereas the modern Western concept of time is linear in nature,…in Japan, time is perceived as a circulating and repeating entity.” I am interested in disconnecting the linear order of time, of allowing a sense of ambiguous unfolding.

– Related to this, Jo Kondo, one of my teachers, talked about the essence of pulse in Gagaku music – that if one thought of each pulse as the completion of a circle, you could understand the rhythmic nature of Gagaku: each circle completes a pulse, but the size of each circle is different. I think this idea is present in my work, even in the piece last night (Ribbon), where the meter changes in nearly every bar.

– The theories or practices of John Cage – especially the profound concept of non-intention, the idea that the work is not about expressing oneself. Letting the sounds be themselves, as Feldman would say. These ideas allow me an overall sense of detachment from material.

– Aspects of literary theory, non-developmental, non-narrative writing. “The book makes its own rules, and for itself alone.” the writer Robbes-Grillet has said.

– Aspects of theory around abstract painting, where the subject is the surface, the interaction of colour and light. “Never put anything on the canvas that gets in the way of the painting,” writes painter Nancy Kembry.

– Phenomenology – the philosophy which bases the understanding of the world in our perceptions and experiences…I think of a work of music not so much as a product, but as an experience. I’m interested in the experiential nature of it.


These ideas – these theories – are hovering somewhere in the background when I work. They form an atmosphere surrounding my thoughts.

I don’t plan my works. I don’t analyse a work before it is written – that would be like analysing a life before it’s been lived. I don’t prescribe the work. Some religions hold that all is foreseen, all is fore-ordained. But in my music, it is not. There really is a blank page. I have great respect for the blank.

I think what I’m getting at might be called a theory of the intuitive. What I know beforehand is that the work will start and it will end. It will have predetermined instruments. It will have a duration. And that’s really all I have when I begin. What is brought to the working process, besides that elaborate and obscure background of theories I’ve described, are perhaps an orchestrational image, or maybe a sense of harmonic tone, and a few underlying principles. Otherwise – blank.

By underlying principles, I mean things like: transformation, symmetry/asymmetry, variation, juxtaposition. The underlying principle I feel closest to is the principle of variation. Not necessarily variation form in the classical sense, but variation as developed by Schoenberg, and later by Feldman – what can be called continuous variation – the continuous investigation of possibilities. This allows for what I think of as an intimacy with material.

The musicologist Donna Zapf introduced me to this passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. It is eloquent about variation. Speaking of the symphony as an epic, he writes:

“We might compare it (the symphony) to a journey leading through the boundless reaches of the external world, on and on, farther and farther. Variations also constitute a journey, but not through the external world. You recall Pascal’s pensée about how man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the infinitely small. The journey of the variation form leads to that second infinity, the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things.”

That’s the line that struck home: “the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things”…

A little further along he writes: “The variation form is the form of maximum concentration. It enables the composer to limit himself to the matter at hand, to go straight to the heart of it.”

My way of thinking about the matter at hand is to observe the material, listen to it and discover it’s inherent possibilities, to explore it’s ‘infinite internal variety’, “discerning the mystery of each thing through it’s own intrinsic life,” as the artist Hans Hoffman has put it. Somewhere along the line I learned that music didn’t have to come from anywhere but the material itself. I observe, I listen, I wait. It has to do with not having something in mind beforehand that needs expressing, but of responding to the material that presents itself – even just a few notes – and exploring the possibilities. I look for a sense of rightness, but this sense is not backed up by any methodologies or systems. It’s more like instinct… instinct which is honed by experience, by the knowledge each work gives me for the next. I create the technique(s) I need for each piece, each one demanding its own tools. It’s a process infused with intuition. Intuition is knowing without knowing. Maybe this could be a theory of the intuitive. Of instinct. As Debussy says: “It is instinct only – as old as the world – which can save you.”

I’m at a place now where my discussion is at the border where theory and method meet – how the piece works and how the composer works could both be described by continuous variation. Maybe this fine line is as close as I can come to the application of theory to the process of making a work. But I’m not completely comfortable with the idea. It doesn’t quite get at the true picture.

You see, if theory is a way of knowing, then I have to reject it at the outset. Because I want to work towards the ‘not-knowing’. There is no plan in advance, there are no dots to connect, there is no structure to fill out. I’m not talking about improvisation (that’s a different art form). I’m not saying that “anything goes”, and I’m not talking about quick-decision making. I’m talking about highly considered selectivity, thoughtful deliberation, questioning, and a honing of focus. And all this with the intention of getting myself into foreign territory.

Henri Matisse said: “Truth and reality in art begin only at the point where the artist ceases to understand what he is doing and what he is capable of doing, and yet he feels in himself a force that becomes stronger and more concentrated.”

If not-knowing is the door, concentration is the key. Steeped in the possibilities of the material, I make choices. I try to lose myself, and I try to forget what I know. I know things and I don’t know them.

Stephan Wolpe said: “It is good to know how not to know how much one is knowing.”

And Hélène Cixous would say: “knowing how not to understand, while never being on the side of ignorance.”

I have a theory. My theory is: When I don’t know what the piece is, I know I’m on the right track.

When I work, I want to let go of all that I know, and focus on the blank. I want the experience of music to be a wonder. I want, as Debussy says, to “Listen to chords without knowing their names.” I want my knowledge to be unnameable. I want my music to be unexplainable.

I work from the position of not-knowing. All that I’ve learned, the theories, the knowledge, the experiences, are a background of readiness, like knowing how to swim before plunging into deep water. The instinct is there. But the piece of music itself is discovered in the dark reaches, swimming in the unknown.


Music theorist sources:

1) Ian Bent, in Analysis (New York: Norton & Co., 1980), cited by Judith Lochhead, in “Retooling the Technique” in Music Theory Online, volume 4, #2.

2) Allen Forte, in his response to Joseph Dubiel’s paper, “Analysis, Description, and What Really Happens”, Music Theory Online, volume 6, # 3.

3) Arnold Whittall, originally from “Analysis, New Oxford Companion to Music, cited by Kofi Agawu, in ” Analysing Music under the New Musicological Regime”, Music Theory Online, volume 2, #4.

4) Rosemary Killiam, “Cognitive Dissonance: Should Twentieth-century Women Composers be grouped with Foucault’s Mad Criminals?”, Music Theory Online, volume 3, #2.

5) Patrick McCreless, “Contemporary Music Theory and the New Musicology: An Introduction”, Music Theory Online, volume 2, #2.