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Classical Music Blog by award-winning composer Kati Agócs


Filtering by Tag: #composers


Kati Agocs

“The complexity of things -- the things within things -- just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” - Alice Munro

As artists, we constantly look for inspiration. Sometimes it comes from outside of us (daily life, another artist, a transformative experience, religion, art, or literature). Sometimes it comes from within. The kind of person we are indelibly shapes how we find and use inspiration. I used to have a running joke with a friend of mine, when we were going to a lot of new-music concerts in New York City. If someone is a jerk, his or her music is usually annoying. If someone has sublime aspects to their being, you can hear it in the music. The music became a kind of litmus test, the findings of which we would confirm as necessary - - and it was usually spot on. At the same time, we quickly learned that there is much more in people than can be perceived on a first (or second) listening.

Dreams contain imagery that can reveal how our inner selves understand our experiences. Empowered by this knowledge, we can consciously alter how we process (and respond to) these experiences. Jungian analysis is a process by which we actively remember our dreams, write them down, and discuss them on a regular basis with someone who acts as a guide. This person is trained in the analysis of dream imagery - - both with perspectives drawn from Jung’s work, and with the scholarship that has developed since his era - --and has undergone an in-depth analysis themselves. The goal of Jungian analysis is individuation, or becoming more oneself.  Transplanted from the psychoanalytic context into our own, this concept encapsulates the natural process of a composer finding his or her voice. Listening to (and analyzing) our dreams can facilitate this process.

I used to fear that if I knew my inner world better, the mystique of being an artist would disappear, and the strength of things that come from the subconscious would be mitigated, even diminished. On the contrary, cultivating a dialogue with unconscious areas of my mind has helped over time to clarify my expressive intent and to hone my technique as a composer, and the mysterious parts didn’t go away - - they deepened as I began to develop a more active relationship to them.  Like any process that involves humans, it’s not perfect - -but it can make our work shaped to a lesser degree by aspects of who we are as people that we don’t understand.

A dream about a vast, powerful ocean depths once gave me the courage to have faith in the slow gestation of a piece that I was having difficulty beginning.  I discovered a link between the wild ocean imagery and the depths of the undulating, unseen areas where a new work’s genesis lies. Analyzing certain dreams has helped me to handle complexity in a musical texture. By taking away confusion, it allowed me to clarify exactly what the technical issue at hand was. This has led me to be more transparent in my music, and has given me a desire to hear all of the voices clearly when I layer lines. When a texture gets dense, I have clearly audible voices where, in an earlier work, I might have used clusters.

The elusive area where passion meets technique is the realm of dreams. If something is missing or unfulfilled, either in art or in life, it will usually find its way into a dream. If we are listening, these dreams can help us to formulate more potent questions.  In our art, we become more aware of what tools we need to add to our arsenal, and cognizant of when we are doing something in our work because it is the only thing we are able to do at that time.  This can be freeing, because otherwise we might get stuck in the same place, kept there by our technical limitations. Dream interpretation naturally brings us more in touch with our emotions. This can render our work a more agonizing process for us, but can also make it speak more directly to our listeners. We may sense more rich, complex resonances between the past and the future, and among different aspects of our lives that we didn’t know were connected.

The process of exploring dreams also taps into painful things that have been buried.  When you feel the negative emotions more clearly, you also feel the positive ones in your life more precisely. It’s as if the visual scheme of your life experience goes up a notch, to Technicolor. If we are receptive - - by listening to our dreams and writing them down before we forget them- - then more will emerge. The more material from the subconscious that we externalize, the more it is integrated into us, and the less rigid we are - - the less controlled by what we don’t understand. We are able to discern and to change old patterns in our technique and in our expression.  For me, it is difficult to distinguish between the natural process of maturing as a composer, and what is attributable to my investment in learning about my dreams. I’m using Jungian analysis as a tool to help me mature artistically; perhaps I would have arrived at the same place if I simply followed through on where I want to go musically. But it has helped give me the confidence to keep growing, to experience life more fully, and to realize that complexity can be a good thing.

Jungian Analysis requires discipline, patience, faith, and an analyst who is truly able to listen to you and hear you without imposing their own judgments. That particular skill is an extremely rare one. Also, there are times when dream analysis can be distracting - -- when you just need to focus on getting the music realized, and nothing should come in the way of that. But  I encourage everyone, whether or not they pursue this particular path, to consider how working on the whole person can enrich their work as a composer (or artist in any medium). You can’t reap only the benefits you want from your soul. It is the entire person that goes into making your art. The parts that you are surprised to discover about who you are as a person might make your music more interesting: If you do what seems like a simple thing musically, there will be much more behind it. To “own” that can be empowering.

Think of the image of the ocean beach outside my studio in Flatrock, on the eastern coast of Newfoundland, where the sun rises first in all of North America. It is a beach of rocks.  The ocean laps up to the rocky shoreline, and drops off quickly when you go out to sea. Looking out across the water, you see open ocean with a vast horizon. If you went out on it and kept going indefinitely, you would reach the United Kingdom. I asked a fisherman who grew up in the area how deep the water is. He told me that it drops off quickly very close to the shore, to 100 metres quite suddenly --  and then to hundreds of metres. As I look at the beach and the surface of the water, I know that the ocean just beyond is unfathomably deep. Far beyond that, it taps into the entire ocean, and that ocean is part of a system of multiple oceans. I won’t ever see that deeper part. But I gain an incredible serenity - - and an ever-present awareness of a vast, apocalyptic force -- from knowing that it’s there.

Kati Agócs



Kati Agocs

The symphony orchestra is the one of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding mediums in concert music. Here are ten things for emerging composers to learn now that will make give their orchestral music instant (and ongoing) finesse. I’ve honed these in my own orchestral works and those of my students at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

1.     Sing what you’re writing. If you can’t sing it, then why should someone who plays in an orchestra learn to play it? If a player or conductor is having trouble with a passage that you’ve written and you can sing it to them, you gain instant credibility. 

2.     Pay attention to what is going on in your bass. The bass sonorities have greater sonic weight because they have a broader range of overtones. The clearer you are about the harmonic implications of your bass, the clearer the harmonic palette  — and progression - - of your orchestral piece. 

3.     Steal from other composers. No police person will ever come to your door and accuse you of ripping off Debussy, Messiaen, Stravinsky, or whichever living composer you most admire. People will just think your scores sound good. As long as we have our own creative vision, the things that we borrow from other composers get filtered through our creative prism, so they come out sounding like us anyway.  It would take lifetimes if we started from scratch in the orchestral medium.

4.     Any texture that you write for orchestra should be reducible to a short score that you can play on the piano. If you aren’t fluent enough to play a reduction of what you are writing for orchestra, then practice every day for a few weeks, and you will get there. Very rarely does any effective orchestral sonority have more than four (maximum five) layers. Knowing what is in every register at all times, and making sure there is only one line or texture in each, will help you avoid muddy writing. Playing through your piece in real time will help with architectural clarity.

5.     Make yourself into a pest to your player colleagues. They will think of you as the composer who writes lines for their instrument that make them sound like gods and goddesses of their instruments, and are not a pain in the ass to play. You’ll be amazed at how generous with information players are if you simply ask for help. None of the established orchestral composers whose music you admire learned to write those great licks in a vacuum. They have go-to players that they run things by. Start now.

6.     Don’t be so caught up in your vision that you forget to give others positive feedback. If an ensemble reads or performs your work, be sure to be gracious and thank them. Single out specific players or passages to complement.  Even if it was a train wreck, find something positive to say.

7.      Don’t hesitate to revisit, re-hear, and revise. Be analytical about what worked in your score and what didn’t. The orchestral medium is forgiving, but you will be shooting from the hip for your first few works, so accept that (and develop your mechanism for when and how to revise until you hit that sweet spot where you are one hundred per cent sure that you got it right).

8.     Don’t overuse your percussion, but be bold with your rhythms and percussion instrument choices, supporting the large-scale structure. As my grand-teacher Roger Sessions (with whom three of my own teachers studied) said, “The more things you hit and bang, the less it matters what you hit and bang.”

9.     Develop a thick skin. The orchestral world is tough. You will be humiliated. (Orchestral composer colleagues, you know what I’m talking about).

10. Keep it short. People rarely want to sit through a long piece from a composer they’ve never heard of. Make your impact succinctly (five to six minutes is better than fifteen). Show them that you have chops and something to say. Longer forms are more challenging to pull off. You don’t want to be challenged in form and medium at the same time. Once you prove yourself in the orchestral realm and are more comfortable with longer forms, you can write that longer orchestral piece, and the world will be ready for it.

-  KATI AGOCS (6/2013)