Musical Essence

As I write this, I'm sitting in a courtyard of my university that has a strong vibe to it. It's a place that for me as a particular feel. The way the leaves fall, the smell, the kinds of people who walk through. When I experience places like this, I want to write music about them.

At the center of my intent as a composer is essence—what is the essence of a piece? This word is inherently a nebulous word; it refers to the “world” a piece creates. An essence is simultaneously one thing and multiple things at once. Think about any world or place and time—what are its elements? There are the five physical senses that can describe the details of the place, and a depth of emotional senses that can complement those physical sensations. Your backyard screened-in porch, an autumn evening, a smoky jazz club, the interior of an alien spaceship, an imaginary landscape on foreign planets, a bombed-out abandoned neighborhood, a desert, a boardwalk in the woods, the hospital room where a loved one died, a new city, a construction sight, a busy restaurant, a club in downtown Miami, etc. There are smells, feelings, colors, and sights—imaginary or real—and the mood you feel while entering or leaving this place. They are all disparate elements but they combine to form a unified whole that is “the place.” It’s often informed by one’s memory of that place or time – one remembers that essential feeling over lots of the specific details.

As a composer, my intent is to create this thing—this essence, or mood—in every piece. Like a good painting, film, or picture that captures the feeling of a place - much more than is contained within its frame. This should be immensely different for every piece I compose. I don’t want to end up repeating myself in all my pieces—that could create a static music and a static career. The essence—especially in music—is so abstract; it’s hard to define. But all the elements in the music work together to create it. One way to figure out exactly what an “essence” consists of is to listen to good music that does has it throughout history and genres. An exercise might be to write down, in so many words, what the “essences” are for your favorite pieces. This could either be a single word, or many words, or even a whole paragraph. Beethoven 3 has an essence. Sweeney Todd has an essence. Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra has an essence. Kind of Blue. Red Garland. etc. Thinking of a corollary in the “real world,”—a memory or place it might remind you of—could in a sense represent this nebulous thing. But it could just as much be a purely musical description.

For me, taste is the ability to perceive an essence that moves you and appeals to you personally. Some elements of the essence include mood, colors, timbres, rhythms, forms, nature of the melody, style, influences,—all combine to create a single whole picture—one feeling overall that is a combination of small, medium and large elements. Every piece will have a different set of challenges and elements that combine to form this essence, which is what makes composition so hard and so varied—it’s hard to pin down exactly how to be a good composer in a book, because every piece has different demands based on the interests of the composer in creating the “vibe” of that specific piece.

It is also difficult to think of pieces as “one thing,” and most great works are not one single thing—but even in the busiest, most diverse, and longest greatest works throughout history, a single state of feeling or ideas can be boiled down in the entirety of the piece for the listener is there, whether it be a sense of monumentality, emotional profundity, quiet observation, understated grace, busy conversation, or dark exploration—the possibilities for said descriptions are endless, often quite subjective and personal, and differ from person to person even on the same piece. Ask yourself, what do you remember about a piece? Of course, there are tunes you might be humming or grooves you might be feeling, but outside of that, the feeling and impression a piece gives you can stick in the mind longer because of its lack of specificity. Sometimes this memory is hard to put into words. But every listener knows that that feeling is there when they are moved by music. I personally find that two words—an emotion, idea, place or state, modified by an adjective or some kind—a qualifier—is a good way to boil down these essences. Sure, the piece may be sad, but what kind of sad is it? Is it bittersweet? Is it a contemplative sadness, or an intensely cold sadness? Is it angry, or frustrated? Is it gently kind, or manipulatively kind? Of course, pieces go though much more complicated narratives and changes, such that it might be difficult to define one state. These are purely emotional terms, but I think these descriptions can go far beyond that into simple descriptions, from colors to natural phenomenon.

For me, craft is a composer’s ability to achieve their intent – to write down what’s in their head – and my intent is to create this essence, a different sense of essence for a different piece. Craft is how much a composer has over their musical language in creating the mood. For me, pieces without that sense of essence can be muddled and boring. Pieces without essence can be intensely crafted, but still be empty in content and not be fulfilling musical experiences. The potential in a lot of young composers (including myself) is that they have a sense of taste, and it’s clear that they are aiming towards the sense of “essence.” However, they might not possess the craft to achieve it quite yet. This distinction creates a strong difference, at least for me, between music that’s simply bad (muddled and without essence) and music that’s good but is lacking in craft. Music that’s good (aiming for essence) but lacking in craft is often intensely interesting music—in the sense that essence is there in fleeting moments, but doesn’t add up to a total picture or isn’t paced exactly right. It creates a quirky interest in and of itself that is often an essence, in a strange way. Some of the music of my colleagues is like that—pleasantly imperfect.

The difficulty of craft is that it never ends up being just one thing—it’s never just one set of demands. Sure, orchestration and instrumentation (and understanding the human voice, too!), counterpoint, analysis, playing an instrument, pacing/compositional critiques, and repertoire familiarity all help with understanding the music and getting better at craft. BUT these don’t create any kind of objective single standard for beauty, given the multitude of kinds of music-making around the world. There is not, and has never been, some kind of real Grecian standard for objective beauty, especially now in music history. Craft depends immensely on the specific nature of the piece one is working on, complete with its changing variables and stylistic constraints and terms.

For me, this side of craft (the craft of achieving essence) more comes from reading, traveling, looking at art, film and theater, talking to different kinds of people, developing friendships and relationships, being open-minded to influences, having interesting conversations, and listening to lots and lots of music with an open ear. It’s the “life part” of being a composer that helps create the sense of world and essence in each work. This is why individual composers have such interesting, idiosyncratic music. It’s because their own life is informing the way they construct essence.

Music doesn’t create as much of a literal “story” as it does an essence. Stories themselves have essences, which is why music works so well with story. Music fills in the depths of an essence of the story—its world, its characters; its visual and textual elements. I am drawn to film music, opera, and musical theater for this reason—music becomes a supporter and often-equal contributor in a way that is totally clear to the audience—most audiences and listeners understand emotion, drama, and character more than they do musical narrative and structure. The power of collaboration in general is finding essence and working on one’s individual craft to achieve that common goal, contributing to a final product that shares that inner glow.

I usually like to document my own life and the essences in it in my music—the feeling of being in a particular place. I want to attach that music to the memory that can come with it from that time and the place I was in. So, it’s finding the unique memories and traits of that place and injecting it in the music in someway. How do I translate what I’m personally feeling into a musical essence that I then can execute using my compositional craft? That is my current goal as a budding artist.