Quotes on Music & Composition


Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word (1923):


Certain resonances are not utterly displeasing to the terrified eardrum.

Some paroxysms are dinning of tambourine, others suggest piano room or organ loft

For the most dissonant night charms us, even after death. This, after all, may be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called serpent, viola de gambas, aeolian harps, clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, que sais-je encore!

The performance has rapidly reached your ear; silent and tear-stained, in the post-mortem shock, you stand listening, awash

With memories of hair in particular, part of the welling that is you,

The gurgling of harp, cymbal, glockenspiel, triangle, temple block, English horn and metronome! And still no presentiment, no feeling of pain before or after.

The passage sustains, does not give. And you have come far indeed.

from The Skaters by John Ashbery


“Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numskulls.”

–Robert Schumann


Xenakis: […] I think that the computer brought something which is basically different from what the instrumental, traditional music had. That is, the way to go to the tiniest unit of information, that is, to the bit that is making the sound. But the sound, what is it? It is not just one event, it might be the whole music, a Beethoven symphony; for me, it’s “the sound.” The tiniest sound is already a complicated, complex – could be – complex thing that necessitates all sorts of operations to produce it. And the computer gives us this possibility which did not exist before.

Therefore, composing music has many layers. One more with computers, which is the fundamental, ground level, let’s say. And then sounds, more or less complicated, and the chaining of the sounds, how you line them up and how you transform them, then polyphony, kind of, orchestration, the architecture of the piece. So from the tiny bit to, not an hour – it’s too long – let’s say, thirty minutes of music: it’s a whole bridge of thought that you need to know to produce music today. Difficult, of course. You don’t agree?


Mâche: Well, in fact, what I was saying yesterday was rather different. I pointed out the danger of being an instrument-maker for a composer because he spends much time, and you know that you have been spending much time on this work lately. You succeed because you are also a mathematician, which I am not. I suggested that musicians who are not really fit for that work should be very careful before starting it because not only could they waste their time but also they could lose their real purpose, just like Stravinsky. He was playing piano and was fascinated by his own fingers, so he stopped playing. If you are fascinated by the computer, you may stop composing.

Xenakis: Of course, you must not be fascinated by the computer. It’s a tool. You must be fascinated perhaps with what you have in mind. If you don’t have anything in mind, you cannot be fascinated.

The entire discussion: http://www.rogerreynolds.com/xenakis.html

And here’s a related quote (probably paraphrased) stuck in my mind since ~2008, from a conversation with a friend (who is a DSP wizard) when I was starting early work on my homebrew system and planning to give up Max/MSP:

DSP isn’t interesting

But yeah, this essentially describes the last 5 years of my musical life:

If you are fascinated by the computer, you may stop composing.


Any idea of believing in God I have is as much to do with the presence and effect of melody as it is to do with other human beings. Which sounds awful: you’re supposed to believe in God becuase you care about people. But I sometimes think melody is a more instant, and less wearing apprehension of the divine, than people. Other people, you’re blind to the God in them because of their faults.

Paddy McAloon in conversation with Simon Reynolds, 1990.


The former common paradigm of instrumental music (of which the “total chromatic” serial approach was one of the last manifestations) required a kind of “neutrality of the material” (see for example Boulez 1964, 1990), an imperative for a compositional practice that was based on the au- tonomy of symbolic manipulations. To realize a pure permutational combinatorics, it was necessary to play with notes as “atoms,” or primitive building blocks. Here, electroacoustic music has caused a real paradigm shift, introducing the sound-object and the idea of morphological multiplicity. This shift has contaminated not only electronically produced music but also the music played with acous- tic instruments as well as the music combining acoustic instruments and electroacoustic exten- sions. The new situation includes explicitly a criticism of the dualistic distinction between macroscopic symbols and sonic materials, as I have already stated. In other words, I have the feeling that the radicalization of the dichotomy between notes and sounds cannot open any new perspective for us. We are instead going beyond this old duality by articulating the functionalities particular to each category and making them interact.
This leads us to work in the frame of a multiscale approach to composition. Detailed development of musical figures at the macro level of notes should take into account the sonic struc- tures that are called upon below this level, in the microtime domain. Conversely, any work on the microstructure of sound cannot have a musical meaning if it is not realized with the care needed to project it over more global time domains.

Horacio Vaggione in:
Budón (2000) Composing with Objects, Networks, and Time Scales: An Interview with Horacio Vaggione.

Music is not dependent on logical constructs unverified by physical experience. Composers, especially those using computers, have learned— sometimes painfully—that the formal rigor of a generative function does not guarantee by itself the musical coherence of a result. Music cannot be confused with (or reduced to) a formalized discipline: even if music actually uses knowledge and tools coming from formalized disciplines, formalization does not play a foundational role in regard to musical processes… Additionally, musical processes, at least from the composer’s point of view, are not situations “out there” waiting to be discovered: they are rather to be composed (since they did not exist anywhere before being com- posed), and hence they cannot be considered prop- erly as modeling activities, even if they use—and deeply absorb—models, knowledge, and tools coming from scientific domains (acoustic and psychoacoustic modeling, for example).

Vaggione (2001) Some Ontological Remarks about Music Composition Processes


You get up early in the morning and you work all day, that’s the only secret.

—Philip Glass (apparently?)


We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than anyone else. We remember those who made the art from which the “rules” inevitably follow.

  • David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

(There are a lot of good ones but I dont’ want to just reproduce the whole book here!)


The first computer programmer, from the paper in which she wrote the first computer program:

Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

Ada Lovelace Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, October, 1842, No. 82


Thelonious Monk’s handwritten notes to his backing band:


“I do not write experimental music. My experimenting is done before I make the music. Afterwards, it is the listener who must experiment.” - Edgard Varèse


I’m finally reading Hermann Helmholtz’s The Sensations of Tone and there’s a great quote from the translators introduction where Helmholtz describes stumbling his way towards solutions. Not exactly a quote about composition, but still an encouraging thing to read for me, and maybe other musician-engineer-tinkerer-types here:

The pride which I might have experienced over my results in such cases, was greatly diminished by my realization that success in solving these problems was attained only by way of increasing generalization of favorable instances, by a series of happy conjectures after numerous failures. I was like a mountaineer who, not knowing his path, must climb slowly and laboriously, is forced to turn back frequently because his way is blocked but discovers, sometimes by deliberation and often by accident, new passages which lead him onward for a distance. Finally, when he reaches his goal, he finds to his embarrassment a royal road which would have permitted him easy access by vehicle if he had been clever enough to find the proper start. In my publications, of course, I did not tell the reader of my erratic course but described for him only the wagon road by which he may now reach the summit without labor.


wow, this is the exact “life lesson” I’m learning over and over again lately (in music, but also in my PhD research). thank you for sharing!!


The mountaineer is going to know that mountain so much better than the wagon driver.


Perhaps somewhat tangential to the intellectual vibe of this thread, I just wanted to share the gigantic and surprisingly personal Autechre AMA. It iis chock full of insights into their process and mindset.

On structure:

structure i dunno i just try to make things that appeal to me stylistically, a bit like sketching out some graffiti (i never tried any other kind of design or drawing much, i got pretty into messing with letters, maybe the rules of form appealed to me)

music is a bit like that, at least the kind of music i like that has usually some sense of movement in space to it, it’s usually fairly restricted structurally and i like flexing the structures but not quite breaking them, it creates a kind of tension

On emotion:

tbh i think everything has some emotional element, but we’re not really thinking about that when we do stuff

it’s not that we don’t feel like emotions are important, more that it’s hard for me to imagine a sound that doesn’t convey some sense of something, and quite often when people discuss emotions in music they only think of happy or sad as being emotions, when imo emotions are a lot more than that

e.g. if we put out a really angry track, then people rarely describe it that way. they would more likely say it was unlistenable or difficult, the emphasis moves from expression to design, maybe they just fail to recognise it as expressive if they think it’s very technical


Ooh, that’s a good one.

I make music just by following where it leads, sometimes with a particular theme in mind which usually has an emotional component, or emotional associations. But often the theme, or at least the angle I’m going to take on that theme, comes after I’ve started hearing the music.


It is failure that guides evolution; perfection offers no incentive for improvement.

Colson Whitehead (1999) The Intuitionist

While technological failure is often controlled and suppressed—its effects buried beneath the threshold of perception—most audio tools can zoom in on the errors, allowing composers to make them the focus of their work. Indeed, “failure” has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and effi- cient as the humans who build them. New tech- niques are often discovered by accident or by the failure of an intended technique or experiment.

Kim Cascone (2002) The Aesthetics of Failure


My approach to composition usually begins with the creation of raw source material–an exploratory and improvisatory process. Creating the source material is the most playful part of composition– a direct, uninhibited sensual experience of interaction with sound waves. At this stage there are no constraints. It is like playing an instrument, but both “playing” and “instrument” have expanded meanings in electronic music. For example, Volt air began as a collection of sound clouds generated by the Cloud Generator program. Pictor alpha (2003) started with pulsar trains generated by PulsarGenerator. To make the source material for Thither (work in progress), I played an Ondioline (an old electronic keyboard instrument) and recorded it on analog tape. My most recent piece, Now (2003) is the result of a second-order process, since it is based on a granulation of Volt air, part III. One could also consider a composition algorithm as a generator of source material (as did Xenakis). Indeed, I think of PulsarGenerator as sonic algorithmic composition system with an interactive graphical interface. Sometimes an extramusical idea or emotion drives the work. For example, in Nuage gris (work-in-progress) the music is a direct reflection of a deeply-felt mood. Tenth vortex (2000) and Eleventh vortex (2001) are also the product of intense emotions. In Clang-tint (1994), each movement’s sound and organization reflect a specific thematic subject.
The second phase of composition is the important phase of classifying and editing the source material. I divide the various sounds into types. Within each type I then organize the sounds by time scale (micro, sound object, meso). I am usually pruning the material at the same time, discarding some, and editing and transforming the rest. Through this rather intense labor, I become intimately familiar with the material. I am imagining how it might organize itself into larger scale forms, and I start to plan the macroform. This is where the game becomes complicated. Before this point, I tend to work intuitively. To plan a macroform is to set a goal, so one has to shift to a rational problem-solving mode of thinking. In effect, the piece becomes a complicated jigsaw puzzle. It is as if each piece in the puzzle is a sound object with a potentially unique morphology. As I assemble the puzzle, certain objects appear to be natural matches: they fit in sequence or in parallel. Other objects seem out of place. How they will ultimately fit together is not evident at the beginning.
The difference between a conventional jigsaw puzzle and a composition is that one can construct new sound objects to fill in gaps, or transform existing objects so that they fit better. The more objects one constructs, however, the more combinatorial possibilities accumulate. The game of composition may slow down, as each object inserted carries additional implications, some of which can only be resolved by further editing. As the puzzle takes shape on higher time scale of meso structure, the trial-and-error process of montage, of rearrangement and refinement, should lead to the illusion that the puzzle could be solved in only one way. Of course, there is no perfect solution. One is not obliged to fit all the original source material into the puzzle. The puzzle is solved when I say it is, and the solution is not necessarily final. A composition is never perfectly formed, and it can always be remixed or regranulated. Even great works have stray threads or they could have been solved slightly differently. They are human products. It makes no sense to talk of a perfect solution to a compositional puzzle: perfect according to what criteria?

Curtis Roads (2005) in Brigitte Robindoré: Forays into Uncharted Territories, an Interview with Curtis Roads



So, once we have accepted the acoustic ecology arena as the basis from which soundscape composition emerges one could perhaps say that its essence is the artistic, sonic transmission of meanings about place, time, environment and listening perception. In my experience the term eludes any further definition. And my sense is that as soon as we try to define it further, we rob it of its essence, indeed of its freedom within that vast and interdisciplinary arena. Why? Because each soundscape composition emerges out of its own context in place and time, culturally, politically, socially, environmentally and is presented in a new and often entirely different context. It has its very own life wherever and whenever it is created and reproduced…

Each new recording will create a totally new piece as it is nothing more than a specific moment in time, an excerpt and detail of a place with its very own sound characteristics. It can only speak specifically of that moment and that place, not in general terms. But paradoxically, that specific moment and place can contain all the ingredients, out of which a meaningful language can emerge for a work that addresses soundscape and listening issues. And it is that material, and not some pre-determined musical structure or context, that will contribute significantly to a work’s unique character.

Hildegard Westerkamp (2002) Linking Soundscape Composition and Acoustic Ecology