On Notation (with pencil)

I have found this topic on -music- notation quite fascinating. Here I am not talking about the technical or artistic point of view on the music notation, but the process and method in the action of notating.
When I was in University, the composition department kind of encouraged to submit the work hand-written. At the moment very few people were using notation softwares (my very first one was Encore in the mid 90′.) Students needed to submit two copies: one originally hand-written copy, and a photo copy of the original. I learned properly how to notate the score. For example, the space between note, how to make grid on the staff to properly align every object on the score, and so on. However before this process, we need to compose first, and my education of course taught me to do on the music sheet using pencil.

One of my very first handwritten scores from the university life

Before going into the story of composing with the pencil, I’d like to talk about my preference on writing with hands. I am programming a lot, and quite amount of hours of a day, I am sitting in front of computer, typing on keyboard (I can also talk about ‘keyboard!’ well, next time.) but I cannot let handwriting completely go away from my life because I love that process. I am slightly obsessed of some types of pen, pencil, and paper because of that. If I have a right pen and piece of paper, I can really enjoy writing. However, if not, I have a big trouble on writing. Because of that, whenever I find a nice piece of notebook or the pens I like, I must buy them and put them into my notebook collection. I was wondering why I have this tendency. This has happened since I was a young student, a middle school student probably, that I found myself enjoying writing more than anything else in the school life. My notebooks were quite popular in the class because of that. I was also trying to make a nice handwriting that goes nicely with my nice pen and notebooks. I have kept writing my diary also since then. Some of them are written with more care, and some are written not so nicely. And I have kept them all. Even when I read books, I write them down quite often. Just move the words from the book to my notebook. Yes I love writing, the physical process of writing: the feeling of my strength goes into the pen, and the pen smoothly touches the paper skin, and the letters are engraved on the paper, and after lines, it becomes a paragraph of letters, also looks beautiful to me, the beauty I don’t feel the same when I am reading printed books. Probably because printed letters don’t carry the strength, the very momentary strength whatever it is.

Of course the content is the most important one in terms of writing. However the writer should be able to enjoy the process. When composers create music, there are many different processes before a piece of music to be born: Searching for the idea, thinking about form, searching for the sounds, and so on. Then mostly those are notated. There are also many types of music that need a very little amount of notation, or no musical notation at all. Some of my compositions do not have a musical notation but a documentation. But this obsession on writing also gives me a number of challenges on finding out a new way to notate especially when working with a new instrument, or a completely new way of performing. Here in this post, I am probably more talking about more conventional writing.

I know a lot of my colleagues these days use notation programs during composing. I find it amazing. My brain somehow doesn’t allow me to do so. It is for me to jump between multiple dimension in different thinking/physical processes. It has lots of advantages: most among them could be that it saves lots of time. However, probably because of my education, where I needed to submit 6 pieces per year for 4 years, -considering that the school year without vacations only take 7 months- and all those times I was training to write notes on the paper. This was for me the fastest way. Later of the school year, I started using the notation program for submitting which was allowed from the 3rd year. But I needed to write first on the paper and in a couple of days before the deadline, all days and nights, I needed to move all those notes to the computer. This is completely a labouring job.  Almost no creative thought involved, and that was completely welcome and needed after heavy composing period.

This habit has followed me till now. I am doing the same: writing first on the paper, then transcribing all the notes to the program. I have tried to compose with the software, but it just doesn’t work for me: I already forget what I was going to put in when I put the cursor on the screen on the right spot.

Several benefits come when it comes to handwriting composition:

-The time between thinking and writing becomes minimal. You can directly move your thought into the paper.(This can be very different from writing letters -story- on paper, which can be slower.) Rarely the idea or the thought come as the smallest fragment-notes-, but as a big chunk. I write that image first into a piece of paper, try to draw that idea, and indicate with the words what it is about. (This happens a lot more when it comes to electronic music composition. )  Then this drawing goes into the next step: sometimes goes straight into the sheet, or it probably needs a bit more details with more drawing, more indications and so on. This can be called as sketches. I wish I could just go straight into the sheet paper. Never happened.

-There always the second chance to look at what I write when I transcribe the piece into the computer. Since it is a very practical process, not really a creative one, I can easily find errors and mistakes, and can have a certain type of freshness on viewing the score. There some corrections follow in that process. It is quite difficult to find when directly composing with the software.

-Also you can do it wherever you want. You don’t need to carry your laptop. Actually you can get out of your online life for awhile and going back to somehow old fashioned working process that there is no distraction from any notifications; you sit with a pencil and a paper, and your idea.

There are several habits when I compose using pencil. I first sharpen the pencils. I have a set of pencils and I sharpen them all before starting working. Most of time I use those set till they get blunt and I finish the days’ work. So that tomorrow, I need to sharpen them again, and it is the start of the work. This became a rule and a ritual for me. The most painful moment before starting composing today, I sharpen them as slow as possible so that I can work a bit later, because when they are done, I need to start working! So this is the time for my mindset. I become ready to work, and it gives me a bit of time to remind myself what I need to write today.

my pencil set for composing

my pencil set for composing

When I finish sharpening, I draw bar lines (if necessary) and mark each beat on the top of the staff with very small dots. (For example, if you are writing in 4/4, I divide a bar into 4 using dots.) This mark gives me the sense of time flow like a metronome.  Often just 1 minute of music can take several pages of sheet. Depending on the tempo, it is a time-consuming process. This is quite a tricky process; you need to keep the sense of the whole duration of the passage, and this is mostly decided in the planning -the big chunk drawing- and when moving into the sheet, you need to have a clear point on where it needs to start, speed up, and end. Marking the right time duration is essential because you need to go into micro second after all, writing each note when your actual time is much longer than what you write. Fascinating. Isn’t it?

I am not trying to chant on the handwriting process. It is a very personal choice. I only wanted to share my own perspective on the process, how important it is for me as the process of composing. It is important because I can feel the moment of writing later on. It delivers a kind of mood of the moment. It is a personal tracking system of the moment. It is important because it drags myself into the music. -No no, I am not trying to be spiritual here.- It holds my concentration and brings it even deeper. It makes me actualize my thought, from the drawing and planning, to the music. It gives me some kind of satisfaction, oh that can be quite a personal satisfaction since I like writing with hands.

Call me old fashioned, boring if you’d like. That’s okay because for me it is more important to find a joy of what I do. As long as I like writing with hands, I will probably continue composing, with pencil.

Running and Composing

To be clear from the beginning, I am an amateur runner. For many years I have been working out at gym, mostly to improve my physical ability. Sometime it lasted 2 years, and then I became a bit lazy, then I went back again for a year, and then took a break for months, and so on. When I had the traffic accident in 2011, for entire year I was unable to go to gym. From there till the beginning of this year, again I was going back and forth. I was never a runner: I only ran 10~15 minutes combining with fast walking. Fast walking is good too. The point for me was to sweat. Sweating made me feel like I did exercise. Last year I went out to run again on street, but it was a bit hard, and my mind always was shaken by the weather condition. (Hey, I am living in the Netherlands, the wind/rain country!) So it wasn’t so successful. I only ran once or twice per week, always ended up having muscle pain, and didn’t want to go out again.

From January 2015, I started going to gym again. This time, I really set my mind to be discipline, mostly because my mood had been down for awhile, due to external reasons. I had become quite negative, and I was going through many things in life. When turning into the new year, one of my resolution is to go to the gym again. It started nicely. I enjoyed working out again. Then there were two major issues happened in my life. In February my boy friend -now ex- and I broke up, and in March my father suddenly passed away. I needed to move out of the house where I was living, and I went to Korea for 2 weeks for my father’s funeral. It was hard. Meanwhile, I kept on working out. -of course I couldn’t, while I was in Korea.- When I came back to the Netherlands, I really needed some help. But it was more important for me to help myself as much as I could. I needed a big change from inside. Seriously running was one of the helps.

As I was not a serious runner, I could only run -at the moment when I was trying to really run- 2.5 km. This took me 15~20 minutes of running. Still it made me feel very good. Then I slowly increased the distance but didn’t care so much about the speed. I ran 3km, 3.5km, and 4km. I ran every two days. The day I ran and the day I didn’t made a huge difference for the day. My mood was very much depending on my physical activities. Because of that, when I didn’t run, I went out to take a long walk for an hour and a half. That made a bit different. Now, it is a bit too early to say after few months of running, but I increased my running distance into 5.5 km average. I am planning 6.5 km for daily running. And once in awhile I’d like to go on 10~12km. I feel I can do that, but I am still careful not to get injured, and my already-injured left leg by the previous accident can’t handle well much. -It is a very nice discovery thanks to the running. My two legs have different stamina.- After 5.5km of running, I feel that I can run much longer. But I stop, since I know that my mind always goes ahead of my body.

My current house mate is a real runner. He does a full marathon here and there. 42km of running. He was a big inspiration for me to run too. He gave me a lot of insight about what running is about, and he recommended a book to me recently by Murakami Haruki, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running.’ This book is a memoire, he talks about the relationship of long distance running and his writing. A wonderful book. This was a big motivation for me. Mainly because I really wanted to ‘use’ this difficult moment of my life into a new one. I wanted to reborn. Running has become the main tool for that so far.

I see a number of connections between running and composing. Let’s say, rather than composing, a creative work. How we go into the flow of thoughts, how much efforts we need -in order to sit down and start working-, and how much concentration is needed. I see those process from running. How I communicate with my own body, how today’s work moves into tomorrow’s. How I can pass the ‘difficult moment’ in order to just go on. Fighting with myself constantly without knowing any answer. The flow of running, the void of thought that running gives every time, can be compared to the flow of thinking process, the composing process too. Running can be painful. -yeah too early to say when running 5~6 km. But still I have my own standard!- It gives me lots of temptations to ‘stop for a moment,’ ‘drink a water,’ ‘my leg is a bit numb,’ ‘I feel like falling down,’ ‘maybe I am dizzy,’ ‘I ran maybe too much,’ and so on. Then I stop thinking there, and just kept running. Quite a few things sound familiar to what I think of when I am composing. The fear.
Not only mentally, running helps my daily composing process physically too. I have a full energy till the end of the day when I am running in the morning. I seek for healthy food naturally. This is quite an amazing, natural change. I lost around 3 kg too.
I am really happy that I got into this. -rather than drinking, overeating, and smoking.- Somehow I feel that it saves me from many things around especially last months having hard issues. Now in the morning I want to go to run. I am very excited to run. After running, I feel grateful. Then I carry this feeling to composing. The level of confidence, and the level of fear are very different from before. My father always told me that people who have a job requiring more brain activities than physical ones need much more physical exercise. I fully agree.

I have a new goal too: to try a half marathon. I wish I can do that near the future. I just started writing an ensemble piece too. I wish they develop together. Running and Composing.

** Small update on the date 18/June/2015
: it’s been a month since I wrote this post. Now I am running 8km/day. Still with lots of joy, lots of energy. Something I’ve added to this activity is meditation. Maybe I write about it someday.

Composer’s thought: How to make people move?

It has not been a short time since I seriously put myself into being as a composer. I have been composing for acoustic instruments, pure electronics, and combination of two at different venues from a big concert hall to a small underground place. After all those years trying to have more experiences, I have too many questions about life as a composer.

The first thought -that is always in my head- is sadly about how to survive and support -at least- myself in order just to continue. It is true that such a music is quite far from the main stream or a commercial field. It is certainly not aimed to be sold vividly, but to provide a rare, unique experience in a concert place, which I think it is invaluable. It is easy to focus on the issue with the finance, as I also mentioned as the first thought, simply because of its connection to the real life. However, I’d like to talk about the important matter: how to provide the rare and unique experience.

There are many styles in music; the style can be derived from the ways to approach, elements to focus, what the main ‘actor’ is. When those subjects become a style, there are a number of influences between existing music, researches, and social activities. A simple example can be ‘spectral music’ which involves the use of the fundamental properties of sound as a basis for harmony as well as the use of spectral analysis, FM, RM, and AM synthesis as a method of deriving polyphony.[1] This example is more methodological approach and I gave this as an example in order to differentiate from what I’d like to talk about. When I go to a new music concert and listen to the pieces that are presented, such techniques and the methods that composers use in their music are not the core that drag my attention. It is certainly an interesting point to look at. However, first I see the energy of the performance, the actual spirit from the performer(s) that deliver the music to us. Human ears are sensitive enough to catch this; how much interaction was there between the performer and the composer, how many concerns were involved, how seriously they have prepared, how much pain(?) they had. All those matters become an energy to the audience to actually ‘feel’ the music. (I would like to clarify that this term ‘energy’ is not at all as in New Age) The methods and techniques in music require a more intellectual process of listening, which also requires some background study and experience in order to appreciate. However, the feeling, a more emotional process of listening can be achieved without any background. It just comes, and it also let people move. This is something that a child can achieve from a contemporary music.

I am more interested in this matter: how to make people move? What are the things that create such result? Music study doesn’t teach this, and I, probably like any other composers, constantly think about this when starting composing a piece. My thought always meets in social interaction with other people: we never meet a person that is exactly the same as any other. Every single body has a different personality, background, so that we always create a different experience whenever we meet a different person. Some are nasty, some are sweet, some we fall in love, some we remember years later. All those feelings come from the experience we had. All those experiences and judgements toward our own feeling also reveal our own character. We interact, and we become ourselves.

I think this can be applicable in the same manner. What I’d like to see and listen in a concert is a voice of a person, the personality, the different character that I can associate with myself as an individual. No matter what techniques they use, whether it’s with a new, incredible technique or a solo violin piece, I’d like to feel a different personality. And this, in my opinion, could be one of the most important matters for a composer to consider: How I show myself? I am definitely not talking about ‘expressing oneself’ in music, like ‘hey I am very sad these days so that I’d like to make a sad song.’ I am more focusing on the identity, who I actually am, am I sensitive? am I having an accent? am I humorous? am I a jealous person? am I laughing outward or inward? am I introvert and shy? am I have a loud voice? how am I? Those questions bring myself into the things that I really like. from the construction of sound to a science fiction movies, things that make me move. If I know clearly the things make myself move, then I can apply that into my music too. That’s a true sharing, no matter what kind of musical language one uses, one should tell their own story, not someone else. Not the stories that they do not know or that they never experienced.

One said that there is nothing original. I agree. However, there is a different identity.


  1. http://www.compositiontoday.com/articles/tristan_murail.asp