Form in Music Essay | Questionnaire Answers

To read Jocelyn Morlock’s essay A Compendium of Ideas About Form in Music, click here.

 

Below you can read the composers’ unmediated responses to the questions on form.  Composers who answered these questions were:

Michel van der Aa   |   Louis Andriessen   |   Zosha Di Castri   |   Michael Finnissy   |   Aaron Gervais   |   Osvaldo Golijov   |   Gary Kulesha   |   David Lang   |   Hugo Morales Murguía   |   Nico Muhly   |   Kaija Saariaho   |   Caroline Shaw   |   Ana Sokolovic   |   Andrew Staniland   |   Dan Visconti

 


Michel van der Aa

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

I think a lot about the form first. Often make drawings of the skeleton of the piece before even writing down the first note. Sometimes the form/skeleton changes midway if I feel the piece benefits from it. Its not a fixed, rigid thing.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

For me the form is a plot line, a film script of the piece. Drawings and text on a timeline.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

Don’t really have any method for contrast or repetition, it just happens intuitively.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

No – I want the listener to feel the form unconsciously. It’s not about the shape of the route but the fact that it brings you to places you haven’t been before.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

 It changes (and should change) for each new work.

 

 


Louis Andriessen

 

I’ve no specific ideas about ‘form’ in music. For me form only means the framework of a composition. It is independent from the content. This is enough for now as far as general theory is concerned.

Much more is there to learn from studying one specific subject in detail. In the attachment you will find two scans of the ‘form’ of my opera Writing to Vermeer. Peter Greenaway wrote a script consisting of six imaginary letters by three women to the painter Johannes Vermeer. These six letters are divided over all the six scenes. There is not any specific dramatic development. This made me decide to write the opera in six scenes. Which made me think of a beautiful early piece of John Cage which I had heard several times: Six melodies for violin and piano. (See first diagram below.)

Diagram 1: Louis Andriessen Writing To Vermeer
Diagram 1: Louis Andriessen Writing To Vermeer

Then I decided to use the durations of Cage’s Six Melodies to multiply with 9 in order to reach a average film length of 100 minutes. I shortened the last scene for a simple reason: the protagonists were drowning in a flood. More then several 1000’s of litres of water were coming down from the ceiling.

Andriessen Diagram Writing to Vermeer 2Diagram 2: Louis Andriessen Writing To Vermeer

(See second diagram above.) ‘Form’ of scene 3 and 4. Scene 3 and 4 are the central parts of the opera. Right in the middle in between 3 and 4 you find an imaginary mirror: scene 4 is the retrogade of scene 3. Together they form 16 short pieces of 2 minutes each. This is the ‘form’ of another piece of John Cage: 16 Dances.

I respected more or less the duration of the parts in John Cage. The mirror counts for the whole opera too. It does not work like the Krebs-technique of Webern but more like short memories. The real reason that I thought of using John Cage has simply to do with the fact that the Greenaway script has no dramatic development. This is also a typical characteristic of the works of John Cage from the late 40’s and early 50’s.

 

 


 Zosha Di Castri

 

Form is a loaded concept, one that is difficult to define, but which must be mastered in order to create a convincing work of art. Some choose to focus on the static framework lying beneath form, while others break down compositions into ever-smaller segments to see what lies at its core. I however, see form more dynamically: form results when musical material is imbued with a clear sense of purpose. It is not merely structure, but rather an energetic interaction between the perceived shape, direction, and pacing of a composition. It’s the backbone of any time-based work, and is essential to holding a piece together.

I tend to gravitate towards music that creates an overarching sense of momentum – a dynamic interplay between repetition, contrast, and variation, both on a local and global level, thus engaging the listener in a game of memory and association. Having material return is very important in my music. I fundamentally feel that we need these moments of “sameness” in order to process and appreciate the new or unfamiliar.

When facing the unknown of writing a new piece, I usually begin with formal sketches, rough roadmaps that at once guide the composition, yet remain flexible to change. I used to think of form quite rigidly. My formal plans were like wax moulds – calibrated, distinct sections were carefully spaced using fixed proportions, into which I would then pour (with stubborn fidelity) musical material. I no longer work this way; the resulting music was far too hermetic and cold. I now rely much more on my ear to organically fine-tune the timing and transitions between sections as a work develops. I constantly push myself to be more flexible in my thinking: maybe this beginning is actually the end? Or, how might a listener perceive this passage if I were to bring it back here in a completely different context? One must constantly listen to where the material wants to go and what it wants to do.

I hope that my conception of form will affect listeners even if they are not able to articulate a piece’s structure in any schematic sense. I believe that even an untrained ear can detect when a form works, and when it does not. I know I have succeeded if a listener can detect a clear trajectory in the music, journey through it with the musicians, and retain a memory of specific, unique sections in relation to one another when discussing the work after a performance.

The most challenging aspect of form is remembering that a composer’s perception of time, while writing, is vastly different from that of someone listening to the work for the first time. I try to remind myself to be more patient with my material, to not bore so quickly. Time passes much faster, in fact, than the process of conscious decision.

 

 


Michael Finnissy

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

‘Form’ is something I do: I form something, meaning I allow something to happen, and I shape it by following what happens, eye and ear conjoined. Of course ‘shaping’ might seem ‘intuitive’, but that really implies additional input from memory, accident and mistake: brain-shadows. Bidden or unbidden. I have only occasionally mapped-out a structure before seriously starting to put sounds onto paper, and then to envisage an ‘ideal’ set of proportions – more as a guideline than as a template to adhere to (and mostly at times of crisis or acute lack of self-confidence). I like to think my everyday experiences shape my sense of structure. But I have, in addition, been very influenced by film: Stan Brakhage, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard, Gregory Markopoulos, Pier Paolo Pasolini – all directors who have also philosophised their practice. I do not like rhetorical beginnings or endings, and continue to research ways of avoiding them. The pieces evolve as I write them, but as they are written down I am also tempted to edit and alter them.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

No, not even if I am using existing texts. The historical ‘formal structures’ that you mention are also processes, ways of presenting, or articulating, materials – and they are symbolic of their historical period, and a particular set of codes, a particular understanding of the universe. The ‘form-ing’ of a piece is uniquely integral to it, imposing another structure, from ‘outside’, would not be truthful to the experience. I might make allusions, conversational/programme-note reference to paintings, or films, to get friends or audience into an appropriate aesthetic ‘frame’ or mind-set, but this is for their benefit – I can only really create from the ‘inside’, and I cannot know the inside of anyone else’s work.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

Well, we know from scientific research about the human need for contrast and repetition, particularly with reference to the intelligibility of structure (or form-in-action). When you hear something a second time, your previous experience actually colours the second hearing, already rendering it different (therefore contrasting); and even without the more literal kinds of repetition the likelihood would be that the ear and brain would begin to generalise shapes and gestures, assembling them into recognisable sets and sub-sets, whether you provided “signposts” for assistance or not. To some extent I believe that time-structures need to ‘breathe’, and that they therefore rely on contrasts of tension and release – repetition is a kind of release, familiarity before unfamiliarity.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

At some levels ‘yes’, I would prefer the listener to be ACTIVELY involved. But I do not think you can, or should, generalise ‘the listener’ – they are a hypothesis.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

 Of course I have. When I started writing – between the ages of four and five – I knew what an average (if hyper-active and over-imaginative!) child of that age knows. I did not study composition in a conventionally disciplined way until I was eighteen, and by that time I was very stubborn and opinionated about what I was writing. Homosexuality was only just LEGAL. There was no Internet. The skies in England tend to be grey ten months in every year. Work it out for yourself: I am not super-humanly detached from my music, I am right IN there. Why change? Because no man is an island, we should try and share our thoughts and experiences. How change? Lots and lots of hard, bloody work.

 

 


 Aaron Gervais

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

 Form is both the logical structure of the materials and how they impact us psychologically: the interpretations our brains project on material we are hearing and have heard. The inability to appreciate the difference between those two aspects of form is where most pieces crash and burn.

I plan form before I write, but I never stick to what I planned, I’m always revising as I learn more about the piece. I try not to get too hung up on any one element. Humans are terrible forecasters (though we like to think otherwise), and I’m not any better than anyone else. You have to be naive or narcissistic to think you’re going to have the perfect conception of your piece before you’ve written it. You probably won’t really know what the form is until a couple of months after the piece is premiered, if ever, if you care. It’s not like it matters once you’ve written the piece anyway — the right form can only be discovered through the process of composing the piece.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

I don’t know who “we” is in this question, but I always use prefabricated forms, musical or extramusical, traditional or invented. Having a reason to do things one way instead of another is what leads you to creativity, even if that reason is arbitrary. The blank canvas is not liberating, it just blinds you to the fact that you’re mired in your own habits and clichés. You need to create restrictions in order to find real creativity and real art. That’s the reason traditional forms were invented in the first place.

I’ve only ever met one musician, Craig Taborn, who can truly work with blank canvas and not just end up repeating himself. He goes through incredible mental gymnastics to distract himself from his own thoughts, it’s a very taoist (and exhausting) approach.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

Humans are pattern recognizers, that’s what led us out of the jungles and into civilization. We even project patterns into random noise because we crave them so much. As long as the listeners believe they’ve found a pattern, the question of repetition or contrast doesn’t matter, it’s just a reflection of personal taste. So yes, as long as you work within the broad bounds of human cognition, you don’t need, say, 5% contrast and 4.2% repetition every 2.4 minutes or whatever. And by “working within the bounds”, I don’t necessarily mean the bounds of musical cognition. You can create extramusical patterns through program notes, by having people talk you up ahead of the concert, through peer pressure, pyrotechnics, by being famous — anything will do as long as people are motivated to associate a pattern to your music.

In my own work, I find myself using a lot of repeating structures, but not for ideological reasons. Sometimes I write through-composed music with no overt repetition, sometimes the repetition is the core of the musical development. I’m just trying to make the piece interesting to me, and I try not to analyze it too much. That thing you thought was a formal signpost might turn out not to be, and if you get wrapped up in placing it throughout the piece you’re likely to undercut more important elements. Just listen to your music, that’s all you need to determine the right balance of repetition and contrast.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

I don’t care what people hear in my music. I do care if they feel something about the experience, but other than that, it’s not really any of my business what they perceive or don’t perceive. You get leather and tannins, maybe I taste tobacco and spice notes, but in the end we both enjoyed the bottle of wine.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

Hasn’t everyone changed their ideas about form over time? My ideas about most aspects of music are constantly shifting as I have new experiences and work with materials in new ways. Whenever I’d thought I figured out some fundamental truth about music, karma has quickly found a way to make me look like an idiot. The only basics that I accept are those stemming from human physiology, which is why increasingly I turn to evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and anthropology as inspirations.

 

 


Osvaldo Golijov

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

In my mind different musical ideas and materials are predisposed towards different kinds of forms, and finding the most appropriate formal expression for each idea (or, conversely, the most appropriate musical material when “form” itself is the idea) is a fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) part of the compositional process.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

Yes, I do: I have used all of the inspirations you mention as guiding principles for form (or journey) in several works. But, to my mind, the three “formal structures” that you mention are “shaping principles” rather than “structures”, and as such they will never go out of fashion because, at the risk of sounding naive, I believe that all three ideas (Sonata, Rondo, Variations) are the (ever evolving) result of deep ways of unfolding a narrative, of an anthropological and timeless nature, rather than simply cultural products belonging to a specific era. Of course using them today as Haydn did in his day would be irrelevant, but the ideas beneath Sonata, Rondo and Variations will always be a fertile soil for music. To them I would add new archetypes that were born after those three, with daring composers that searched and found new archetypal ways of organizing human thought without taking refuge in “prefabricated” forms (Chopin, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, the minimalists, et cetera)

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

Wow, that is a hard question to answer… There is a wonderful (and rather long and dense) book by Deleuze called “Difference and Repetition” that deals with that as the question deserves to be answered (in a book!). In any case, some pretty crazy detours were taken in music when “repetition” was dissed by Schoenberg and then officially banished by Boulez for “serious” composers, and when it was rediscovered with fresh ears and minds by the minimalists, we were reminded that repetition is in its many disguises) an essential part of life: it exists in nature and in all folk narratives. If we dig deep enough in any piece we will sooner or later find repetition at some layer of its geology. And how do we define contrast? At what scale level? Within a Mozart theme there is always contrast. In Beethoven usually between themes and then between sections of his woks, whereas in the minimalists the aural image at the end of a long, seemingly “repetitive” piece, stands in contrast to what we heard at the beginning…

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

No. But I think that form (or rather, formal processes) can have a great physiological impact in the listener. I think of the great Beethovenian structures, of the exhilarating formally “compressive” structure of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of Florence” (I am referring to its first movement), or to the joyous journey with ever evolving “bird-flock” geometries in Terry Riley’s “In C“…et cetera. There are many examples in my view of how form can affect the listener, even if unconsciously, deeper than what we call the “material”.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

Of course, all the time. I feel like García Lorca, when he said that he could tell you the “truth of art”, except he changed his mind on that every five minutes. For years I was fascinated by process rather than a pre-existing formal structure, and thought that repetition or return were things of the past…but more and more I am in awe at how the simplest forms can sometimes have such emotional power: the return of a chorus in a song like Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”. Or the short silence before the last “Da Capo” repeat in a “formally simple” aria like Bach’s “Schlummert Ein… (Fall asleep, you weary eyes).” Our planet’s rotation skips a beat at those moments!

 

 


Gary Kulesha

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

Form and structure remain the most important aspects of any musical work. Even when “form” is taken as loosely as possible, say, in the work of Morton Feldman, it is still a central concern. Feldman’s four-hour “forms” still require a composer’s judgement about where and when things change, even if only slightly. In a sense, “form” really means “timing”. And as such, it is central to my work. I typically have a general idea about the form before I begin, but often, the work generates itself. I have worked in forms as strict as sonata allegro and as loose as stream of consciousness. Sometimes I will get into a work with a clear plan, and the plan evaporates as the work progresses. Sometimes I have no idea of what I will do, and a simple ternary form emerges as feeling most “natural”. Sometimes I set out to work in a very strict form, and stick to it closely.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

I have by no means given up on traditional formal structures. I have in recent years started working with very old-fashioned sonata allegros. Why? Because they work. Most of my music is still driven by the notion of “discourse”, ideas being presented and then developed. I have written several works which do not do this, for example, “Syllables of Unknown Meaning,” for Vancouver New Music in 2000, which has no analyzable form. But in recent years, I seem to have a renewed taste for traditional formal procedures. I have also often embraced arithmetic process– Fibonacci numbers, tri-section, bi-section, etc. I have formally structured works on the basis of a pre-determined numerical process. Interestingly (and I am not vain enough to make too much of a comparison,) both my return to Sonata form and my interest in number systems reflect exactly how Debussy approached form.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

We now have the option of choosing to create music with or without contrast and repetition. Each type of music does something different. I have done both, but my preference remains for music that deals essentially with contrast and repetition. It is simply a reflection of the kind of music I prefer to listen to, and the repertoire I grew up with. Neither is better than the other, but they do tend to play to different audiences. I am essentially a mainstream, “main stage” composer, not by design, but because the music I hear in my head is closely related to the standard repertoire.

Formal signposts may or may not be important in a work. They may also be very subtle. In Feldman’s “Piano and String Quartet“, are there formal signposts? Or in Gondwana by Murail? Yes, there are, but they are defined less by obvious contrast than by subtle shifts in pitch and/or colour. The psychological time of these works sets up an expectation of stasis, so small changes become important. I cannot think of a single work in which there is not some kind of contrast, albeit very subtle.

Repetition is still important for me. All music, even music which ostensibly eschews repetition, involves some kind of repetition, if only of colours or textures or instrumental combinations. The art of composition demands artful disguising of this repetition. In my work, I went from open repetition in my early work, through more disguised repetition, and have now returned to open repetition again. In the music of people like Larcher or Widmann, periodicity and repetition are very important. Simple 4 and 8 bar phrases have made a return, but in partnership with more complex manipulations and side by side with very deliberate asymmetrical phrasing. One of the lasting influences of pop music on contemporary “art” music is the clarity of phrasing and periodicity which help the music carry its own syntax within itself– this music no longer requires audiences to be previously versed in high modernist phrase and structural procedures. That is, it is no longer music for a specialist audience. Even late Carter is highly periodic in nature, albeit in a very deftly disguised way. This is nothing short of amazing in a composer who spent almost 80 years doing everything in his power to eradicate repetition.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

Not consciously. But it is important to recall that taking “pleasure” from a piece of music is a very different experience for each individual listener. When audiences in the Baroque era heard a fugue, part of the pleasure they took in hearing it was an intellectual appreciation of what was happening, which meant that they could better appreciate the skill (and wit) of the composer in mastering the form. The audibility of the form was (and is) very much part of our enjoyment of the work. There are certainly audience members who hear sonata allegro or rondo or fugue very clearly, and take some pleasure in this. And keep in mind that, as I said earlier, sonata allegro form just works. The reason it works is because the clear structural divisions create expectations which the composer must work with or against. Whether or not we want an audience to hear a clear sonata form, they will hear the ebb and flow of the music because of the form.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

Yes and no. As I said earlier, in my youth I worked in traditional forms almost exclusively, then I moved away and worked with looser forms, and now I have returned to more clear forms. I have always been convinced that formal procedure is the most difficult thing to master in composition, and I once again add the disclaimer that this applies equally to anyone who deliberately tries to avoid any kind of audible or traditional form. Denying form is a way of asserting the importance of form.

All music is a journey through time, which sets it apart from literature or poetry. We try to “hook up” our audience with the temporal experience we are asking them to undertake. The human mind perceives time both linearly and spatially. I have always believed that it is the job of the composer to lead the listener through this experience in a convincing way, and that, to me, means organizing time, which in turn means controlling form. I have always held this to be true.

 

 


David Lang

 

I don’t really want to answer these questions because I think separating them out the way they are here breaks up what for me is the real answer, but I am happy to give that:

 form is memory

something happens, you notice it when it happens, you notice when it leaves, you judge things against it that aren’t it, you remember it when it returns.

form is the mechanism by which composers regulate familiarity

 

 


Hugo Morales Murguía

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

The compositional process for me starts experimenting with the object or instrument in question, generating and creating the sounds of the instruments as a first step in the process without taking them for granted, in this way the form or shape of the piece emerges from the development and narrative based on these techniques and their results. In other words, for me global structure in music is intimately related to the process of rediscovering the sounds of an existing instrument, or creating the vocabulary of a new one; and the story on how these sounds interact and evolve in time creates hence the musical discourse.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

I tend to think that musical parameters like overall structure and timing are very difficult to work out with other extra musical elements besides careful listening and musical intuition. Whenever I have tried to base global form in non-musical foundations I find myself spending a lot of time recomposing and balancing timing afterwards. So my answer is No, at least not deliberately.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

I think there is always contrast in music; the pure action of generating a sound is already a contrast with silence. But mostly there is always contrast and development in my works when it comes to form, I tend to go A, B, C, D, etc., there might be similarities between the sections for the sake of musical coherence, but I frequently go forward and almost never go back. Otherwise I stay in A and don’t move.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

I prefer not to think or have big expectations on how “the listener” will interpret my works, mainly because it always surprises me the plurality on which we as human beings listen and understand music, in that sense I think there is no “one listener”, the same listener can even have different interpretations of the same work after time.

Nonetheless I do try to be objective during the compositional process, detaching myself from the practice and constantly trying to take some distance and listen and experience my works from an independent listener point of view. In that sense I suppose I am more focused on what I would like to hear and see as a member of an audience, believing that we compose based on how we listen (with the freedom of tweaking and enriching this process with other elements).

 And in terms of form I prefer if this goes unnoticed, I prefer works that stop time rather than pinpointing duration and memory. But that is just my own appreciation as a listener.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

I suppose we all change our ideas about music and process at some point along the way. However in my case form has remained very much a consequence of lower-level activity rather than a superimposed mold or a preconceived notion.

 

 


Nico Muhly

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

It’s the only thing I decide first. You work out the form and suddenly all the rest of it — the notes and the rhythms and all of that — comes later. When you’re working with text, oftentimes the text suggests a musical form.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

I love a passacaglia and a chaconne; the ritualistic nature of those older forms pleases me. I’ve had the pleasure of working with two great libretti, which, again, suggest their own musical structures.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

I’m not sure that this is really a question as much as a series of misconceptions about how music works?

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

Yes, in the sense of something “working,” but no, in the sense of counting bars and beats and watching a process unfold. There is so much great music from the 60’s in which the additive and subtractive processes are so clear — thinking of Music for 18 Musicians, Music in 12 Parts…even the hippie cells of In C make a sort of delayed structure….

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

Yes — I started listening to more Wagner! You can stretttttttch out the douuuuuuuuugh.

 

 


Kaija Saariaho

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

I always plan the form ahead, except maybe for very small, spontaneously written works. As a young composer I was influenced by Kandinsky’s ideas concerning form and content: “The form is the outer expression of the inner content” – in On the Problem of Form – he has verbalized what I felt intuitively.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

I have made experiences with both drawings made by myself and texts.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

Contrasting elements are needed to create musical form, as they are needed in any other field to perceive differences.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

I like to be conscious of the form and I find it disturbing if I cannot perceive it when listening the music.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

I don’t think my basic perception and concept about the form being in close connection with material has changed as such, even if in different periods of my career I have been working on different kinds of formal ideas.

 

 


Caroline Shaw

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

It depends on the piece, but when I think of “form” I think of something having a physical shape, which music often does for me. Some of my work starts from some visual image or texture, or maybe a concept from critical theory, and then I build out from there. Some pieces are muscular and goal-oriented, with a climactic moment in mind. With others my approach is more passive. 

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

Yes, definitely. Usually visual art or sculpture, or movement and patterns, rarely text or narrative. And I do sometimes use historical names for movements of a work, but these tend to be pre-18th century terms, before the rise of sonata form and motivic development.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

Ah, these would be such great questions to ask a choreographer! Dancers are thinking about movement and space in this way all the time, and I love it.

Hm. Wow. I would need to think about this for much longer, and I will…

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

No. I rarely think about form when I’m playing Mozart or Brahms, because I’m so into the particular harmonic shifts and elegant melodic twists that are happening. They’re so exquisite and amazing!! And then, suddenly, we’ve gotten to a new key, and that’s amazing too, but I don’t really know how we got there! Of course, I could retrace it if I needed to, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about when I’m learning and playing the music. I used to feel really self-conscious about my rather unscholarly lack of attention to the signposts in the sonata form of first movements of Mozart. It’s not something I tell people. But now that I’m older, I feel okay about it. We all make up our own ways of seeing and feeling and enjoying music, I suppose.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

Yes, I’m sure, though I don’t know how exactly. I’ve started to categorize some of my pieces according to this little grid I made up — where some pieces are more like conceptual poetic art objects, and other pieces lean toward being pure music that lifts and falls, that just tries to be joy and sadness without words. I guess that’s my sense of form these days.

 

 


Ana Sokolovic

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

Form is a starting and an arriving point. When I start a piece, I start to think about the form. Form is a content. Form is time, more precisely timing. It could change during the compositional process, but is in the heart of the piece itself. If the compositional material is interesting but not put in the appropriate content, we can not appreciate it.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

Now we don’t use one specific form, but we use “a form”. You can not invent a new form. The sonata form is based on a contrasts: two themes. All accidental music is based on contrasts.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

I think I already answered on this question, please read below.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

Form is related to timing, When something will happen. When something new happen, we start a new part of a piece, a new section or a movement. And the audience feel it without necessarily naming it.

In the occidental world, the people are used to change atmospheres; the contemporary pieces which are four hours long with not a lot of changes (like Feldman, and I insist that there I don’t give any artistic opinion on this example) borrowed their form from the oriental / meditational structures.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so,how/why?

Not really. I just understood that I can not invent a new form: it exist already.

 

 


Andrew Staniland

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

To me, form is the largest element of musical phrase in a composition. It is one of the more elusive attributes of composition.

I usually make some plan as to the long arc of a composition, sketching out possibilities such as type of textures, instrumentation, tempo and pace, long term root motion, and so on. However I always depart, often significantly, from the plan. I do think that it is important to develop mastery of long-range phrasing. For me this entails both planning for what one hopes to happen, and listening deeply to what is actually happening.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

Sometimes use established forms, such as the passacaglia. Extramusical inspirations are also very effective – sculpture, poetry, images, and so forth.

 

3. How does form relate to contrast/repetition? Can there be formal “signposts” without contrast? How does repetition affect form in your work?

The tension created between contrast and similarity is one of the great driving engines of music. Without contrast ( ebb and flow, tension and relaxation, high and low, light and thick), there can be no phrase or momentum.

 There can certainly be intellectual form in a piece with no contrasts or signposts, but I do not think that there will be any musical form. Planning a “great form” and actually executing a “great form” are unfortunately not one in the same. If they were, all composers would be writing masterpieces all the time…

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

Awareness of place is certainly part of active listening: where are you now? where were you then? where will you soon be? Good composers can masterfully manipulate this aspect and use it as a powerful musical mechanism. However, when a piece it is successful, it is because several appreciable aspects are simultaneously effective: strong line, compelling texture, good pacing, compelling form, and so on. Individual elements become force multipliers that conspire to create a meaningful experience.

I believe that profound musical experiences are often beyond technical musical vocabulary. Active listening means being listing with your full being, not necessarily to include counting measures in the seven part rondo.

 

5. Have you changed your ideas about form in music over the course of your career, and if so, how/why?

Yes, my views and opinions seem to change with time. I have increasingly become less interested in what I call “academic” control of musical material such as integral style pre-planning. I expect my opinions will continue to ebb and flow.

 

 


Dan Visconti

 

1. What does “form” mean to you, and how does it relate to your process? Do you plan the form of a piece before you begin, or does it emerge as you write?

Form to me isn’t a vessel that one can pour ideas into; to me, it’s simply the fingerprint left by the process of composing and not something that is ultimately separable from process. I find that when the form is not premeditated but instead emerges naturally that I have the best—and most formally coherent—results as a composer.

 

2. Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

Usually there is an overarching theme, problem, or premise in each of my pieces and I believe that these concepts have become a substitute for form, not just for me but in lots of music from the past 50 years. Extramusical references are well and good, but I’m most drawn to pieces where drama is established on purely musical terms. Bach’s inventions and fugues for keyboard are so effective in the way that each explores a particular idea or premise in a way that is rich in metaphor and meaning, yet implicit. I think art works best when on some level it remains implicit rather than explicit, and that’s why one-to-one correspondence approaches such as “I want this composition to express this painting!” seem to miss out on a lot of what is so great about music.

 

4. Is the form of the piece (whatever that means to you) something that you want the listener to be consciously aware of?

I think only if it is necessary to support the main premise of the piece; for example, I’ve had some pieces where the main event is, say, about canonic entries piling up faster and faster, and I absolutely want the listener to perceive a trend of intensification and a point of catharsis or arrival at the culmination of these entries. But occasionally I write a piece in which the fulfilment of the main ideas has nothing to do with form, and it can become a dogmatic distraction to be concerned with any musical element when it becomes irrelevant. I can think of equally many pieces I have written in which ignoring, obscuring, or even suppressing the piece’s form had a great positive effect on the outcome. I try and tune in on the unique character of the music and allow it to lead me where it wants to, rather than following my preconceived (and by definition, outmoded) expectations of where the piece ought to go).