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Forte: How composing happens

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Ryan M. Hare, Yakima Symphony Orchestra principal bassoon

As much as I love the bassoon, and performing as the Yakima Symphony Orchestra’s principal bassoonist, I consider composition to be my primary career path. It hasn’t paid me as well as playing bassoon, but maybe it will someday.

In any case, I thought I’d share some of what it’s like to compose music. Disclaimer: I’m not trying to speak for anyone besides myself. But I do know that the description of my process would resonate with many other composers.

For me, composing is almost like playing chess. It’s known that the best chess players are capable of seeing many, many moves ahead, far off in a haze of possibilities. In its earliest stages, a new piece of music is a bit like that. Everything starts with open potential, but as you start making choices, the direction of what is happening starts to come into focus. Nonetheless, every choice leads somewhere unknown and unbound. You can pursue the choice as far as you like, but there are always further unbound choices ahead, and many behind that were bypassed.

Unlike chess, in music you never run out of choices; you can also start again and try out a different, previous choice. This is why drafts are so important. In improvisation, once a path is chosen you can’t go back because you are stuck in time, and something repeated is different than it was before. There is only forward in time.

A new composition in my head is usually very nebulous to begin with. There is a vague notion of the kind of music it might be, what instrumental, vocal or electronic forces might be assigned; some themes and gestures appear. As these coalesce, new paths forward appear, always branching, never ending. Some of this I work out in my head, some at a keyboard, some on paper or at the computer. When I make an end to it, it is to all intents and purposes arbitrary. One could always keep going, but knowing when to stop is critical. There are practical reasons for this, clearly, and the composer just has to try to find the best moment to bring the music to an end.

Studies with teachers, years of study and experience, and above all lots of listening, have improved the quality of my choices, and my ability to make a good end to a new piece when it is required.

What about emotion? Emotion is a reaction to music by the listener, based on past experience and exposure. It is not innate to music, and can be different than what the composer intended. That different people have different emotional responses to the same music is all you need as a proof for this. With a new piece, there’s always a risk that people might not emotionally connect to it. I have to trust that if I connect emotionally to my own music, there’s a good chance that others will as well. So far, it’s worked out OK! It’s quite an amazing thing, music.

• Ryan M. Hare is the Yakima Symphony Orchestra principal bassoon. Learn more about the symphony at

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