5 Non Musical Books Every Composer Should Own

I’ve written on my own blog about 5 Technical Books Every Composer Should Own. While these books are fundamental to the technique of being a composer, I have had numerous teachers tell me that they’ve learned far more about composition from non-musical books and artists than they ever did from other composers.

One reason these cross-discipline books are important for artists is that they force you to come to terms with the things you care about and want to accomplish in the abstract. The big questions are not “why F-sharp here, and why mezzo-piano there?” but “why do you create at all?” and “what are you trying to say?” When you read about what someone focuses on when writing lyrics, for example, you can take hold of the principles they are speaking about and then do the important work of applying those ideas to your creative process.

In the end, a composer should have both technical and non-technical books on their shelves. If I had to give up one of these sets tomorrow, though, you’d find all the books below in place on my desk without a second thought.

  1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
    No other book has had more profound or lasting an impact on my thoughts and habits as a composer than this. Written as ‘advice to writers’, the overarching idea is that the act of creation is a long one: You’ve got to move your eyes from the big things you want to accomplish to the simple act of creating every day.

Here are some of it’s many wonderful pearls:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts (“shitty first drafts”).
The problem that comes up over and over again is that people want to be successful. They kind of want to create things, but they really want to be successful. (emphasis added)
The dream must be vivid and continuous.

And, finally,

You need to put yourself at the centre of your work, you and what you believe to be true or right….to be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care….A writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and pass this on….So a moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you. We are all in danger now and have everything to face, and there is no point in gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive.

2. Interaction of Color by Josef Albers.
An example of concrete thinking in one discipline being useful as abstract, inspirational material in another. I was introduced to this work by fellow composer Edmund Finnis, and immediately found it so inspirational that I wrote my first piece on the LSO Soundhub Scheme (Interaction) in direct response to its opening chapters.

Take Albers opening:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is
– as it physically is.
This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.
In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize
that color deceives continually.
To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.

Is this not equally true of pitch? Of harmony? Of timbre? One could spend an entire doctorate thinking about how just these six lines apply to music in all its aspects and forms. I also cannot resist including this absolute gem:

In writing, a knowledge of spelling has nothing to do with an understanding of poetry.

3. Fishing the Hat (and Look I Made a Hat) by Stephen Sondheim

The subtitle of this book goes some way to explaining its wonderful, tongue-in-cheek, insight: “The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.”

The books come in two volumes – Finishing the Hat, Vol 1; and Look I Made a Hat, Vol 2). I own both, but suggest beginning with the first. It includes three of my favourite Sondheim musicals (Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd), though not the one I consider the best (Sunday in the Park with George) or the one I love the most (Into the Woods).

The seriousness with which Sondheim takes his craft is obvious from the insightful chapter on “Rhyme and Its Reasons”, the anecdotes are fascinating to any artist (“I had been trained by Oscar Hammerstein to think of a song as a one-act play which either intensifies a moment or moves the story forward”) and the song-by-song analysis of every lyric he wrote for the stage – especially the moments when he criticises himself – were eye-opening to me as a composer.

4. 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick
I have never found a better analogy to describe the work of composing than to that of an architect. People have great difficulty understanding how one ‘creates’ a piece, but when it is described in terms of “building a building” (settling on your materials, discovering what you will lay as the foundation, creating different rooms, thinking about the overall shape and structure) it immediately opens the process up to them.

This is the one book I try to open every single day when I compose. Here are a few of the concrete architectural ideas you might find useful:

Our experience of an architectural space is strongly influenced by how we arrive in it.
Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessary busy agglomerations. (!!!)
Being process-oriented, not product-driven is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.

These examples are all very quickly and obviously applicable to music. But I know that Samantha Fernando recently wrote a work for the London Sinfonietta based entirely on the seemingly less-musical tenant: ‘We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces’.

I know this because I heard her describe the idea and had used the exact same idea as the starting place for my Wind Quintet How to Avoid Huge Ships. I explained the way the ideas affected the composition in a short introductory video:


5. Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.
Every year during my Doctorate studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Alexander Goehr would come and give a single, three-hour lecture to the composition students. Each year, without fail, in the final hour Mr. Goehr would turn the discussion to ‘the most important book on composing he’d ever read’: Zen and the Art of Archery.

The overarching premise – and the lesson Mr. Goehr constantly wanted to drive home to us – is that “Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking….when this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think. He thinks like showers coming down from the sky…”

Note that this book is not a call to abandon technique:

Far from wishing to waken the artist in the pupil prematurely, the teacher considers it his first task to make him a skilled artisan with sovereign control of their craft.

So the point ends up being a hugely useful one. What is all that technique you are developing for? And how do you put it to good use? As the artist pursues this, “he grows daily more capable of following any inspiration without technical effort, and also of letting inspiration come to him through meticulous observation.”

So there you have it. Five non-musical books that can directly impact your outlook on why we do the thing we do, and what it means to be a composer. I hope some of them might be useful to you, and would love to hear your own suggestions in the comments below!

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