I've been composing music for nearly 30 years, but recently I've really had a paradigm shift in the way I write music, especially for medium and large ensembles. I was wondering who among this group might be going through something similar.
I've always composed on paper and/or sitting at a piano or keyboard. I either sketched out ideas on paper then checked and refined them on piano, or sketched on the piano, and wrote down my ideas after I had worked them out. Usually it was a mixture of the two.
While scoring a film, I discovered it was much quicker to write directly to the "piano roll" view in my sequencer. At first it was a direct translation in my brain from working at the piano, to a rotated version on my screen. But then something strange started to happen... I began to leave the piano part of my brain out of the equation, and just looking at the piano roll as a large pallette on which to write. I find it easier to free myself from the confines of my theory training when not looking directly at a piano. Sure, I still know what all the notes are, and what harmonies they make up, but there is something very compelling to me about pulling the little notes up and down, shifting things about, and trying new things. There is a sense of immediacy in the process, in that I can allow myself just to try a lot of things very quickly, and see what sparks my ears interest.
One of the thing that I have carried over from my old habits is to examine every mistake I make to see if it has value. While writing at the piano, that meant if I accidentally hit a note I hadn't intended, I go back and listen to that mistake again, and consider allowing it to pull me in a new direction. For the piano roll, "wrong notes" happen all the time when dragging note bars up and down, or just clicking on the wrong space.
Sometimes have the melodic shape of a phrase in my head, but don't yet have the exact notes. I just throw down notes on the piano roll in the general shape I want, then go back and pull individual notes up and down until it works for me in the context of the current texture.
Yesterday I decided to write a new "serious" piece for large orchestra. Something I hadn't done in a number of years (View of Mt. Fuji from Edo was actually written in 1992... just recently GPOized). I set up multiple GPO instances with the instruments I needed, and just started writing like crazy on that piano roll. Incredibly, the piece is starting to flesh out at a rapid pace, and is turning into something I never would have come up with using "traditional" composition means.
Actually hearing the orchestra immediately at each change is the most rewarding type of feedback. I began wondering what the masters could have achieved if they had had such a tool. I'm certain that at least some of them would have found new and exciting ways to write, and probably have had the time to finish a few more pieces to boot!