Young composition students nowadays do not have the love for music and consequently the patience and the humility to wait to mature a personal style of composition. This may take years and it is unlikely that a student in our times may develop a personal style whilst he is still at the Conservatorio or University because of the enormous quantity of information accumulated through the centuries that he has to learn and assimilate, compared to a student of, for example, two hundred years ago who would have been considered a fully-fledged composer at a young age and wouldn’t have had to work at all costs for a Diploma, a piece of paper. Some students may seem quick at learning, or better still, copying, but the rumination and assimilation processes take longer than they think. Very intelligent composition students are common but very musically gifted composition students are rare and seem to be getting rarer all the time. Strangely enough, too much intelligence, too much rational comprehension, may often obscure one’s capacities for a deeper and intuitive understanding of composition, that is, Musical, in the original sense of the word. It is not sufficient to have studied styles and techniques of composers, particularly contemporary, at the Conservatorio or University to think of oneself as a composer. A young student of two hundred years ago would have already assimilated all musical styles and techniques of his times even before having started studying them so this would have allowed him to actually “create” during his studies and, at best, Artistically. Obviously, the least musical student would just copy. There are in fact no real musical prodigies left amongst composers but only amongst performers and often only technically. In our times one graduates with a lot of knowledge but without having had the time to experience it, to assimilate it, but above all, FORGET ALL ABOUT IT. One ends up only by imitating composers from Bach to Berio without any personal and Artistic touch.
Perfection does not exist. At a certain point, you have to become satisfied and then continue, become satisfied, and so on. We all have shortcomings, frailties, and ignorance. We must try to fill them in as much as possible and, in order not to become frantic and unhappy, we must become satisfied. There are never answers which are certain. You have to find in yourself the strength and courage to continue your life and your choices as much as you can without having worries and illusions, otherwise, these turn into sadness and disappointment. You have to understand which composition teacher you need by listening to his music on the internet, but first, you have to decide what course of your life you want, and in the end what precedence to give, whether to an instrument or to Composition. Furthermore, there is no Master of Life for everyone, but only a master who teaches well the various components of Composition. It is rare to find a Master at extraordinary levels that change your life. You have to learn to organize your daily life, not get lost in useless thoughts and live it with as much pleasure as possible. You have to listen to a lot of music from all eras and from the great masters, assimilate it and welcome it in your mind and heart. Finding a hobby can also help you detach and rest your mind. Mine is gardening. I also read Literature and about Art and go to see it as much as I can. You have to have confidence in your abilities, whatever they are, and continue to cultivate them, improving them day by day. You should not seek praise and recognition because, if they do not come, it can only bring you depression. You must avoid depression like the plague and, if anything, also take anti-depressants in a controlled way, as I do from a very young age, to balance mood and sleep well. You must continue to work and grow and never look at the top of the mountain you are climbing but keep walking with your head down with a slow and sure step. Only in this way will you be able to reach your very own peak, and not an unattainable one for you. You have to be satisfied and in this way, you can find peace, happiness, and satisfaction in what you do.
You don’t have to search for your voice, it just comes by itself …or it doesn’t. The one thing that is sure is that it takes a long, long time…years of musical and personal maturity. One must have a lot of patience and faith….but this is not a problem if one loves composing, notwithstanding the ups and downs.
Try to think of musical ideas free from the act of composing. Don’t be too preoccupied with techniques. Most people construct their ideas whilst they should be more spontaneous and less rational (the rational part and the techniques which one has studied a lifetime should be left to the subconscious and not to the conscious part of the brain). Even the most rational composers such as Beethoven and Strawinsky have done this, though obviously less than others such as those of the Romantic period. The only thing to do is to listen to a lot of so-called “great” music and try and understand why it is great, apart from its technical, orchestrational qualities…what is the “drive” that makes the musical ideas so great.
Strength, courage, and resilience. Think of some beautiful musical ideas free of preconceptions and you will see that the orchestration will come naturally on its own with it. Always point towards the beautiful and emotional but not sentimental or vacuous.
There is no need to compose away from the piano, since, due to its harmonic completeness and the immediacy of the full musical idea when composing, this medium can help some composers get inspired more easily and also improvise. That is, the piano helps bypass the more rational part of Composition, above all if the composer doesn’t have an excellent internal ear or if his music is too harmonically complex. Strawinsky used the piano because of the complexity which would have slowed down the pace of composing and thus hindered the excellence of his musical ideas. However, Mozart didn’t need it and Beethoven didn’t musically need it either, though it was a psychological, physical comfort and like a confirmation that he could still hear. Actually, the placement of his hands on the piano made him listen internally to the harmonies he couldn’t hear. I am of the Strawinskian type because of the complexity of my harmony.
Reply to a student:
I realize that it is difficult to manage every aspect of music contemporarily. Essential musical ideas are difficult to create and carry on without getting lost. Furthermore, these ideas should be contrasting, and the second or even third idea should also be derived from the first, so as not to completely interrupt the discourse. The form must always keep the listener in a state of logical yet natural uninterrupted attention. However, ideas and form are inseparable. Everything is inseparable but has to be composed contemporarily. It is necessary to know how to create ideas in a natural yet calibrated way, to know how to carry them on with musical interest and balance and to understand how to finish the piece maybe even beforehand. Music must also be seen from afar. One way is to take the score during its composition and, especially at the end, scroll through it in the mind to understand if all its components are essential and consecutive.
Composers whose compositions are devoid of rhythmic interest need to think more about the thematic contrasts of Beethoven, the clearest harmony (there is absolutely no need to be atonal or pseudo atonal all the time just to seem more modern ). ALL parts of Music must be functional and beautiful. However, without beautiful harmony beautiful even secondary connecting passages. However, without beautiful harmony beautiful Music with a capital M cannot be created because it is mainly harmony that arouses emotions. The thematic ideas (contrasting but deriving from each other) must be very clear and incisive, even if there are parts that are not very strongly rhythmical. But the rhythm is important because it defines the phrase and distinguishes it from another. Obviously, it is Harmony that suggests and unites everything. In reality, everything is indivisible and must be created together, simultaneously, both mentally and/or improvising at the piano. If one improvises at the piano, I suggest one tries to create a very specific theme with a very precise and incisive rhythm and then go on to vary it or develop it until the moment that requires another conflicting idea. However, this must be derived from the first one because this is the only way that one can, on the contrary, avoid writing too much contrasting music that doesn’t fit together, sounds bad and becomes boring or even annoying.
Since the form in improvisation is the most difficult thing to create, one must contain oneself with the thematic fragments and not add them one after the other, otherwise one cannot follow a logical thought throughout the work. The form will improve by itself if one contains the ideas and only develop the main ones. Particularly, when young, one should improvise every day as I have always done since I was a child. In the midst of my first pieces, there were countless improvisations which then helped me to compose better, but I forgot them. Instead, since I wasn’t able to graphically write down the notes, I had to learn the pieces all by heart while I was composing. So I alternated improvisations that wandered more and those that I more consciously constructed and memorized. When one learns how to write, then everything can be kept more under control.
18th September 2016
Reply to an ex-student:
Yes, teaching is a passion that becomes fun. For me, it has always been so, and I have always done my best. The affection and gratitude of my students repay me very much for all the oppression of 33 years in Milan. Even those two years I taught in Vicenza were not easy because another teacher wanted my place and the director backed him and was quite nasty. But the last one in Brescia before I came to Milan was a very good and satisfying year. If you don’t find much time to compose with all your teaching commitments, why don’t you write a series of small miniatures for an instrument and piano. You have fantasy. Wait to write a large work until you have some financial security, and you settle down. The first few years after having concluded your studies at the Conservatorio are always heavy going and depressing. You need to be patient, but you will see that things will get better and Covid will not last forever. You feel you don’t belong anywhere and have no form of protection but in those moments you have to be strong. I wrote some seemingly large works at the beginning after my Diploma, but I composed them as separate movements of short duration with the same organic. They were complete in themselves and could be performed separately but I made sure that they were consequential so that when the movements were performed together, I was able to present fully defined works such as Nittemero Symphony, Suite Grotesque, the Miniatures and also Favole (first three, then six and finally seven). Slowly I found myself with a few but substantial largish works. Then my style also slowly evolved. Try to jot down a piece even for one instrument only, like my Akron which, however, is not that great but helps you to evolve. I have wasted a lot of time in my life and I have also been very lazy, and my quantity of works compared to some other composers is perhaps scarce. That’s why I’m telling you right away, so you don’t waste time.
15th February 2021
Summary of some Compositional Criteria repeated to many of my former students:
You wander too much. It is not easy to keep the reins of just one or two themes to be developed coherently without inventing too many and continuing to compose aimlessly. Improvising can be fun and also enjoyable for the listener, but then the listener can lose himself if the ideas are not well-defined and incisive and the discourse is not very coherent. The themes must be created within their context and not just be conducted freely. Every little part of a work must be of the same quality, even those passages that seem secondary. There is never anything secondary in a work. One must aim as much as possible at the balance between the various components of the music. Asymmetrical components must be coherent also. Always search for Beauty.
All my comments are meant to be constructive. I have a slightly more Beethovenian attitude with clearly structured and developed ideas. Some composers are more of the romantic type who dream and wander, but my advice is to be careful not to get lost …
15th October 2021
There should be thematic contrasts within a theme itself, but they must have a meaning, a definition. Often, however, there is too much rhythmic diversity within the same work. The ear cannot define and memorize too many things at once and then the result ends up being understood as a sea of rhythms and notes without a real definition which the ear/mind cannot remember.
Try not to exaggerate with the creation of themes. You need to synthesise, and develop well-defined content, and beautiful. Furthermore, you wander too much. It is not easy to hold on to one or two themes. One tends to go on and on, which can be beautiful because your music is undoubtedly beautiful, but then the listener can get lost. You haven’t yet learned how to define a theme well. The rhythm and the pace need to be more incisive. Themes must assert themselves and have a logical consequence, not just freely roam.
In the past some students have told me “I want to compose” and then they have looked at me with an expression of expectancy as though I should find them an easy recipe to resolve their problem. If a young musician poses such a question, he really has a problem: that of not having inside him that creative musical intuition that drives him, whatever the situation, to compose even with confused and disorganized ideas. A teacher of Composition serves only to clear up pre-existing musical ideas. At best he can channel them in particular directions, improve them technically or even stylistically, he can indicate a certain form or aesthetics, but a teacher can be of help only to a real composer when he has real musical ideas and not merely the knowledge of techniques learned in institutions like harmony, counterpoint, orchestration of the classic or contemporary type nor serialism, avant-garde techniques, minimalism, etc. These are only the mere means to express musical ideas that must naturally and subconsciously arise in the true composer. A technique is a means not an end in itself. A teacher cannot and MUST NOT instill in a pupil his own compositional ideas. This is artistic conditioning and thus immoral.
Suggestion for enhancing creativity: The only suggestion I can give is to study Harmony, Counterpoint, Forms, Orchestration, and Masterpieces. Once one has reached high standards of technique and musical knowledge, one will have all the instruments to express oneself. For all the rest it is impossible to give advice. One just has something personal to say, or one doesn’t. Assimilate subconsciously. If you search madly for your style you end up being artificial.
Advice to the Young Incompetent Composer
You always have to keep in mind that you are not the only one in this world and that there is enormous competition in all fields of music. Life is made up of a series of coincidences, good and bad. Things sometimes come and go by chance and sometimes they can be programmed. You have to be ready for whatever might happen. You shouldn’t remain idle and wait until someone will help. You should search and ask for help to help yourself, always keeping in mind that you shouldn’t inflict your personal problems and musical anxieties on others. You shouldn’t bother people uselessly or continuously with silly requests or superfluous, infantile, badly directed questions. Everyone is always short of time, above all those persons with important positions or jobs. You should direct your requests intelligently when you are more or less sure that there is a probability of reaching your aim. Otherwise, it is better to have patience and wait for a propitious moment. You should always have patience and constancy in all the aspects of your musical and personal life. It is useless “to put the cart before the horse”. The road towards professionalism may have many stages but the goal is always far away, maybe unreachable, but this does not authorize you to stop walking, one step after another, with a precise sense of your limits. If the desired person is unapproachable, you should try and reach him through the introduction of another person in a different or inferior position. You should be careful that this introduction will have positive consequences; that this person is agreeable to the other and vice versa. You should be diplomatic. You should not think of yourself but of the person with whom you are dealing. You should always react with the maximum attention so as not to offend. You should get used to thinking about things in advance. You should try to understand the psychology of each person and adapt yourself from one to another. You should try to communicate with persons making your personality emerge naturally and not in a forced manner. Sometimes only a look or a nod of understanding or a smile is sufficient. There is an Italian saying that is always valid above all in our times when appearances are more important than ever: “The word is silver, but silence is gold.” It is better to be silent than to make a blunder. If you say something wrong, it is difficult to go back even when you have been in good faith but absent-minded. You can only do this with the passing of time if the circumstances are favourable and if the person is well-disposed with his spirit as well as with his time, which is very rare. In general, a person judges you on the first impression that you give and is not always ready to change an idea because this requires more time to give to an unknown person to whom he owes nothing, in fact, he is in credit for the time already granted. You should always be musically and psychologically well prepared at a first meeting for this could be the only particular occasion you have to make yourself known and appreciated. You should always be ready with your questions and requests that must be concise and precise without dwelling on superfluous details, on subjects that aren’t to the point, or stories that are too personal and egocentric. Don’t make anyone lose his time. Remember that you are not the only one to request the time of a person and that you are not the centre of the world. However, you should give the impression of being sure of yourself without seeming presumptuous, arrogant, or ill-mannered. Try to face the world with a nice smile even if you have death in your heart. The physical act of smiling helps you feel better, makes you more agreeable to others, and helps you to communicate. Never show envy or rancour neither towards precise persons nor towards your fate. You shouldn’t give the impression of being too ambitious or careerist nor to run after success or money at all costs but neither to be too modest nor a self-denigrator or a renouncer. You should always fight against injustice and bad luck but in an intelligent and sensible way. If life has not given you all you have desired, you should face your fate with serenity and continue to love music as always. However, you should always program your musical life from a young age, since the early years of your studies. You should study as much as you can but in an intelligent and not in an obtuse way, however alternating study with entertainment and with the acquaintance of people and of the world. It is superfluous to study too many essays and criticisms about masterworks. “First the monuments, then the documents.” It is also useless to collect degrees and diplomas without having a real vocation for a precise branch of music unless you want to exclusively become a teacher. During the scholastic years, general culture is fundamental but at a certain age, you should make a precise choice, unless you have such astounding and multidirectional qualities like Bernstein, Maazel, or Barenboim. You should have clear ideas on what you want to do in life and always point towards that direction, but you should also be sure not to have made the wrong choice or to have blindly deceived yourself about your capabilities. Sometimes you shall have to be capable of small compromises, yet always try to return on your first choice if possible. You should be elastic in your way of thinking and behaving, above all when young. You should not stick obstinately, stupidly, proudly, or presumptuously in the wrong direction or on a principle or on a choice that could be modified, maybe even to your own advantage. You should always ask advice from various persons with confirmed experience and make your own overall idea of the problem to solve or the decision to take. It is pointless to decide to become a composer from one day to another if you don’t have an innate vocation and if you don’t really feel naturally talented. The real composer doesn’t decide from one day to the other. The real composer finds himself to be so from the start with a great passion and hardly without understanding why. Foremost, it is pointless to be a musician if you don’t love music with abnegation and if you don’t always rejoice in making music even during difficult moments full of sadness or delusion. The only moment a musician may feel unrest or even anger is when he is unable to solve a musical problem. Hopefully, he will solve it the next day. Otherwise, the real musician makes music continuously and with joy at any artistic level and is happy to be a musician till the end of his days. In Art, the driving force must be the free fantasy born from pure and natural invention and free from doctrines and dogmas. It must not be mere cerebral speculation without an emotional interior drive and without spiritual motivation. However, these must always be recognizable not only by the ear but by the soul.
Reply to a student:
I have seen many people who, despite not having a large curriculum, were good teachers, each of their kind, and published educational works or collections. There is always a need to update texts for children and if you ever need a cover letter for someone Gilberto and I are always ready to write it. Think about what could be useful in improving music education in schools and in this ever-changing world. Maybe even write some music of your own for this purpose. Be positive and always smile. My father told me that the mere act of smiling, moving the muscles of the face, makes you feel better and I can personally tell you that it is true. Another thing he always told me was to look at your feet while climbing a mountain because if you look at the top it seems unreachable and it becomes harder. A little focused work on a project every day helps you feel more satisfied. Create small projects, not big ones. Over time they grow big on their own.
16th February 2016
Reply to a student:
If you tell me that Sounds are originally pure, then I agree, but Harmonies in music are born in the head of Humans as they form pre-established orders by them. So, if in the universe there are sounds, I agree, but it is only Humans who decide in what order to put them when they listen. For sure there are “small spaces” in the universe “where harmonies can be born on an almost metaphysical musical level in the form of matrices of pure energy” but then they also exist as spaces of senseless dissonant harmonies because even dissonances are pure energy. But in this case, we are talking about sounds that, yes, combine at random with each other, sometimes in a harmonious way and sometimes in a disharmonic way. Instead, if there are people who like to compose and/or listen to music that for others is ugly and annoying for the ear, well, it’s always a Human choice and we can’t do anything about it till Time/History does not change the situation.
Letter to an ex-student:
I have not wanted to give private lessons for a long time and that is why I do not ask for less than €100 as a deterrent. I prefer to see someone informally. A few days ago a certain young composer came to see me for two hours who is somewhat gifted and who liked my music. I didn’t charge him anything, but maybe he’ll take some lessons for €100. Come and have tea and bring me those delicious pastries that your shop nearby makes, bring me your music and between one pastry and another I hope I can be of help. What you ask me is the hardest thing you can ask a Composition teacher, namely how to carry on a discourse, how to artistically create, beyond composing with techniques that everyone can learn.
A thought that, however, could be marginal to your request: There are those who have good artistic ideas but do not know how to develop them and therefore end up writing a different kind of music, but there is no person who knows how to develop artistically without excellent ideas. It is the quality of the primary idea that allows you to carry on a musical discourse in an artistic way without boring the listener. This also concerns those who seem better at developing than creating artistic ideas, because the transformation of the primary idea through development means that that idea, which initially seemed not very strong, acquires precisely that artistic quality that seemed to be lacking. As my Composition teacher, Bruno Bettinelli, used to say: “keep the idea simple, so you can then develop it.”
Who knows if I can help you! Let me know when you bring me the pastries.
It is not only the lack of ideas that don’t allow one to write, but it is also the style one chooses. Nowadays, if one chooses total Atonality, one lacks a foothold, a pivot that acts as a bond between the Form and the emotional expression of the Content that can only be created through Tonality. If one chooses the repetition of the Minimalists, despite being tonal music, the bond is too strong and does not allow the freedom of the ideas and therefore the unpredictability of the artistic flair.