On Process

When a composer sets out to write a new piece of music, the question that must be asked is not ‘What will be the end result of this composition?’ but rather ‘How shall I go about composing this piece?’. Circumstance, medium, voice, technique, and a host of other issues largely circumscribes what shape a piece can ultimately take and still be effective; the composer’s vaunted ability to freely create as he himself deems fit is largely an illusion. What the composer must do is work in cooperation with his constraints, place himself on the path of the piece in the hope that his efforts will bear fruit.

Thus for the composer, it is not the end result that is meaningful so much as the process. Composition is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, and that end is not music. As satisfying as he may find a completed score, it is ultimately useless to him—a finished piece has no further need of a composer. What is necessary for the composer is rather the stack of manuscript paper awaiting the pen. It is in the process of composition where the composer finds meaning, and thus it is the process of composition which infuses the resultant piece with meaning.

The sensitive composer knows that as he begins to convert the blank manuscript paper into manuscript, it is not because he desires to set forth a series of propositions or advance some fact or dogma, but because there is something to which he must respond. A score printed and bound can never be the purpose of composition—the purpose is in the process, in the very wrestlesome act itself, and the finished score is but an image of this process.

For some, one might even go so far as to describe the process of composition as a type of prayer. It would be a slow but intense prayer, stretched out over several months, filled with more failure than success, always difficult and often painful. But by the time the composition of the piece had run its course, the composer can look back on the process and see the transformation, not of the music, but of himself. It is discovered that the process—which was already in place before the piece itself began to form and which continues well beyond the final barline—was of far greater significance than the resulting piece itself could ever be.

Yet in this image others may see the process and thus share with the composer the journey, that is, to communicate, to commune. For such, communication is not demonstrative or didactic. Besides, the composer has no particular wisdom or insight he can offer to others, and certainly nothing new. Communication is not the exchange of propositional statements hidden in a language of notes; to communicate is to participate—perhaps not deeply, perhaps not accurately, and invariably better with some than others, but to participate nonetheless. And so if others might find anything of interest or value in the process, the composer then offers them the resultant image so they might share with him, if they so desire.

JWM, Feast of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, 2008

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