The Compositional Process

Why Compose?

by David Liebman

I have always maintained in both teaching and as a central premise of my aesthetic that for the serious improviser, composing is a vital tool towards finding one’s own individual voice. Because the compositional process is more often that not slow and methodical (with exceptions of hurried deadlines), in most cases both technical and aesthetic decisions can be made after deliberate consideration. In mulling over whether or not to use a specific pitch, chord, rhythm, or whatever musical element in question, the musical mind is considerably slowed down, especially when compared to what jazz musicians normally have to consider while improvising. In composition there are no excuses for not getting the music the way you intend it to be, such as the accompanist’s abilities, bad equipment, be it a reed, sound system or out of tune piano, etc., factors which may negatively affect live performance. Composing is the equivalent of being in the laboratory, going through a step by step process. The relatively glacial pace of writing helps a musician to fine tune the mind, so that musical decisions normally made in the heat of the moment during improvisation have a chance to become more refined both consciously and unconsciously over time. Of course the usual elements of intuition, experience, habit and may I dare say a bit of good luck, will always be part and parcel of the improviser’s game, but every little bit helps towards improving one’s prowess. In a certain sense an improviser is always looking for the perfect solo that from a purely musical standpoint would stand up under compositional review, meaning the kind of rigorous editing that is part and parcel of a composer’s trade.

From a more practical standpoint and especially in the case of a musician who leads a band performing one’s own compositions, there is the added value of being able to construct a musical landscape that is personal and challenging. A composition sets up a “problem” to be solved by specifying a musical element(s) to improvise on, be it a scale, melody, harmonic progression, rhythm, texture, etc. Therefore the improviser is in essence composing along the lines that the composition itself highlighted. This process improves both one’s own craft and the entire group’s efforts as a result of focusing on specific musical devices. Also from the practical side, there is the obvious and fortuitous possibility that other musicians will play one’s compositions. This is the ultimate compliment as well as a potential added source of income.

The Compositional Challenge

A major challenge in composing is to find the correct balance between writing too much and too little as far as the improvising is concerned. My goal is to offer the improviser enough freedom to bring out his or her player’s strengths, but at the same time to offer a challenge and enough direction so that the solo inevitably has an inner logic and relationship to the composition itself. If there is too much written material, the soloist may be inhibited or forced into musical corners, resulting in a lessening of spontaneity and feeling. Too little direction in the composition can lead to a lack of cohesiveness. How a song can convey emotion as well as present a concentrated musical problem for the improviser to solve is a core challenge.

A composer works with a mixture of the five elements of music: melody, harmony, rhythm, color (texture/sound) and form. A pervasive guideline, common to all art is the interplay, balance and denouement of tension and release. This is where the artistic aspect of composition is clearly demonstrated, assuming that technicalities of the craft have been learned and absorbed. The inspirational aspects of composing are obviously an important factor but should not be overrated. To paraphrase Bela Bartok, composition is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!! Composing is a learned task like playing an instrument or memorizing a piece of music. Doing it more often than not  makes one better at it.

I once asked the great Stevie Wonder how he wrote so many masterpieces (especially in the 1970s) and his reply was to the extent: “I write five tunes a day!!”

My Body of Work

Listeners and fans familiar with my work over these decades know that I am an unabashed eclectic, having recorded, composed and performed in a wide variety of idioms and styles. To my mind, no matter what the music, one’s essential personality will come forth if it is based on a strong conviction to be true to oneself along with a basic understanding of the idiom involved. Hence, this song book offers a repertoire that is far ranging in style. In a certain way, my first recording as a leader, Lookout Farm, on the ECM label in 1973 set the course of my musical tastes with the four compositions representing these interests over the ensuing decades: twentieth century classical harmony, rock and ethnic rhythms, free and modal jazz with more than a nod to the tradition at times. (I have recorded the music of Miles, Coltrane, Alec Wilder, Cole Porter, Monk, Jobim and even Puccini as of this writing.) Add various shadings of these main directions and you have my basic repertoire for the past forty years which would include straight ahead jazz tunes (ballads, blues, waltzes, swing and contrafacts), odd meter rhythms, ostinato/pedal point settings, chromatic and triadic harmonic progressions, free jazz (linear counterpoint/time, no changes) and of course combinations of these elements. Often, I write for an instrumental format that will be conducive to a particular idiom. For example, a bass-sax-drums trio is quite suitable for a linear counterpoint song; a group with a synthesizer for textural or rock type tunes, etc.

In jazz, hearing a composition come alive on recording or performance is an important aspect of the process. Whenever possible I urge the reader to seek out recorded versions of the tunes. But I must add a caveat which is that composing for me in an ongoing process, meaning a tune is never truly completed. Surely when it is recorded, that does represent some sort of “final” statement of the tune, but even now as I prepare the pieces for this collection, I am constantly changing them. One’s tastes, aesthetic choices and of course knowledge of the tools of music is continually in flux and inevitably evolving as time goes on. With all that said, be aware that what is written here may be different from the recorded version.

In my work a lot of compositions have as their inspiration an image, place, person, mood or something similarly concrete as I am definitely an image oriented composer. There are of course pieces which are purely musical studies, but many have some programmatic intent, at least on the inspirational level which leads me to a sound, be it harmonic, rhythmic or harmonic.  My mind imagines a picture or realizes a feeling, followed by an initial musical reaction. I trust my instinct that what first goes down on the paper is basically acceptable and ready to be worked on. I usually return to a song over days or weeks, sometimes for only a brief period of time to hear how it sounds anew and if needed continually refining it. A piece may begin with a basic concept of what instrumental context the song will be best suited for, but always allowing for the piece to have a new life with another combination in the future. Although I use the piano for the majority of compositions, depending upon the idiom, I might write from the horn (melody) or bass line first or even the drums. However, one way or the other it usually find its way to the piano for final review.

Crucial to the success of a composition are two other skills. Arranging a piece means realizing various aspects of the architecture (form) of a composition by juggling the order of events meaning insertion and placement of intros and outros, codas and tags, vamps, solo order and solo forms, etc. Finally orchestration, meaning texture and sound choices, even in the small jazz group implies which instrument(s) will play what passage at what point. These two elements can drastically alter the overall effect of a song, especially in the performance realm. In my period playing with Miles Davis as well as studies of his entire oeuvre, it was apparent that he was a great spontaneous arranger and orchestrator. He knew when to leave something out of the music or to use a particular instrument for a specific sound.

For the sake of completeness, I have written descriptions of any direct inspirations that were associated with the compositions. Every tune gets a file folder (the real kind) in which I put the date it was written, the initial inspiration, multiple versions of the tunes and any technical or musical points of interest.

There is a reason why so many musicians both enjoy and despair when it comes to composing. It is equally rewarding and frustrating, but necessary for artistic growth. A composition is like growing a plant or more dramatically similar to raising a child. In my musical life, composing has been an indispensable tool for self discovery.


July 2006

Stroudsburg, PA USA