Form in Music: Composer Interviews

composer jocelyn morlock

Music on Main composer-in-residence Jocelyn Morlock recently interviewed me and a series of other composers, ranging from Louis Andriessen to David Lang, Gary Kulesha, and Kaija Saariaho. The result is her fascinating Compendium of Ideas About Form in Music, which I would encourage you to read in full.

In Morlock’s words:

I asked some of the leading composers of our time to tell us their thoughts on form in music: what form means to them, how they structure their music, if/how they make formal plans, thoughts on repetition, audible structure from the listener’s viewpoint, and how their ideas on form have changed over the course of their careers.

Her narrative weaves together bits and pieces of the composers’ responses. She also includes the full responses at the end, though they’re a little hard to navigate, so I’ve reprinted my answers here as well:

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.