Composing - March 1, 1999

I have been composing a lot lately. I have always written music in whatever style I was working in, but in the last couple of years, I have found a new level of intricacy, depth, commitment, and freedom in my composing. Since I discovered the classical guitar, I have written two, four movement sonatas which I recorded and released on CD last fall. I have written four guitar duets, which I call Conversations, and I am currently engrossed in a suite for guitar and cello. I intend to record the Conversations and the Cello Suite when they are completed.

As I work, I am becoming more conscious of certain principles that guide my musical direction and define my style. I find that I compose more from intention rather than by accident. When I make musical decisions, the only right or wrong is whether or not the music expresses what I want to say. For a simplistic example, when you get dressed in the morning, it is not necessarily right to wear the green sweater and wrong to wear the black one; it's a matter of which sweater suits your mood or sense of style. By the same token, there are an infinite amount of choices I can make as a composer at any given point, and I often become elated with the freedom I feel to make the one choice which goes to the heart of the matter. I would like to articulate some of the principles that define my composing preferences and influence the musical decisions that I make.

1) Tell a musical story. In every piece I write, I try to describe something. It can be something as specific as a place, person, or animal, or event; it can be an abstract feeling or mood. It can be a complex array of interrelated factors. But like a story, it must have a plot line (theme or melody), sub-plots, beginning, development, and logical conclusion. There must be sufficient interest in the characters to drive the story forward. And there must be tension, because without tension, there is no longing for a resolution, and without that longing, there is no sense of satisfaction when the resolution comes.

2) Create a familiar theme, imply a direction, then go somewhere better than the obvious implication. I learned this from the Beatles. Time and again they astounded by leading the listener down a simple path and just when you knew where they were going...surprise! And the surprise was always better than the implied resolution. My way of doing this is more abstract than Lennon/McCartney, but the principle is the same. I am intrigued by a method that I wouldn't call "atonal," but maybe I will call "multi-tonal." It is a way of not being locked into a fixed key, but always having a sense of center (although the center may constantly shift). It is not modulation in a traditional sense, but there is tension and an often unconventional resolution. 

3) Have a purpose for every note. Each note should be a building block in the total structure. Once in a while I get lucky, and the music writes itself. Most of the time, I mold it and shape it, then mold it and shape it again, until I have created as perfect balance as I am able. Nine times out of ten, if I have to ask the question, "Do I need that note," or "Do I need that phrase," the answer is no.

4) Don't be pretty for the sake of being pretty; Don't be dissonant for the sake of being dissonant. I am not going for effects . I am going for the overall structure, the story. If in the process of my description, the voices join together to make a glorious chord, it's wonderful. If emotions become tumultuous, if converging themes clash, that is wonderful too, when it occurs in the context of the entire flow. For me, to try to make the music be a certain way feels contrived and manipulative. I want to set a structural precedent which gives purpose to any feelings which naturally evolve out of the music.

5) Have a sense of humor. Again, don't try to be funny, but when the humor and light present themselves, lighten up !

6) Be rhythmic. The pulse pulls us in. I frequently start with a rhythmic idea, then plug the notes into the rhythm. It may be too simplistic to say, but there is some truth to the idea that the notes come from the head, the rhythm comes from the heart.

7) Go for the music, not guitar tricks. There are so many guitar techniques and cliches, and conveniences that guitarists easily slip into when they don't put the music first. My rule is, "Let the music create the technique, rather than let the technique create the music."

8) Be organic. My instrument is the guitar. It is made of wood and strings. The other instruments I wish to write for are made from natural materials. I want my music to sound natural, human, elemental. More important than "pretty," I want my music to sound real, to strike a primal chord, to embrace a deeper beauty. 

In stating these principles, I want to emphasize that I am not taking a stance that this is the "right" way. I like lots of music that works with different value systems. I also do not claim to have any corner on these concepts, as there have been many composers before me who have climbed to far greater heights. But these are some of the things I think about when I am composing. To some extent, they describe my musical style and personality. And to my knowledge, there is scarce representation of these values in the guitar world, a situation I would like to remedy with my contribution. 



Old School, by Paul Chasman and the "Great Gatleys"


Accompanied by Dan and Laurie Gatley on bass and vocals, Paul Chasman returns with 11 new original tunes that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think. With his trademark sparkling guitar at the forefront, Paul’s poetic lyrics contrast life and mortality; grief and celebration; and light that penetrates the dark.