The Creative Process: One Perspective

15 November 2018

When a composer sits down with a blank sheet of paper, or a blank computer screen, what is the process that leads to a completed piece of music? Further, how does that completed work become a performance? While this process most certainly differs from one composition to another (not to mention one composer to another), I will discuss below my own processes related to seven of my recent classical and jazz compositions. The actual lecture involved live performances of these pieces, with performers that included Sunway University lecturers and guests from the Greater KL music community. See below for a link to recorded excerpts from these performances.

Originally composed between 2002 and 2016, all seven of these pieces were conceived for specific performances, though each has been also performed subsequently. The final three are jazz compositions. The first four are in a modern western classical tradition, although each of these includes jazz elements to one degree or another. Four of these works were produced on commission, and all of them were composed for specific performances. All have evolved over time from their premiere performances. Cumulatively, the current performances involve trombone, bass trombone, two violins, viola, cello, bass, piano, soprano, jazz guitar, jazz bass, drum set, and audience participation via handphone.

The seven pieces and their performers for the original lecture and audio excerpts linked below:

Concerto for Bass Trombone
(bass trombone and strings)

Movement 1

Movement 2

Movement 3

Don Bowyer, bass trombone; Mabel Wong and Lee Hai Lin, violins; Andrew Filmer, viola; Joshua cello; Ong Ket Wei, bass

50+50 Trombone Triathlon
(trombone alone, with theatre elements)

Movement 1

Movement 2

Movement 3

Don Bowyer, trombone

Frozen Toes 'n Nose 'n Freezin' Knees
(soprano, trombone, and piano)

Chaing Yi Ling, soprano; Don Bowyer, trombone; Robin Lee, piano

Time Zones
(trombone, computer, and audience)

Don Bowyer, trombone

Fancy Pants Dance
(trombone, guitar, bass, and drums)

Don Bowyer, trombone; George Hess, guitar; Marina Zaini, bass; Lewis Pragasam, drums

Lullaby for Carter
(trombone, guitar, bass, and drums)

Don Bowyer, trombone; George Hess, guitar; Marina Zaini, bass; Lewis Pragasam, drums

Don't Wanna Say the 'Nother T
(trombone, guitar, bass, and drums)

Don Bowyer, trombone; George Hess, guitar; Marina Zaini, bass; Lewis Pragasam, drums

Concerto for Bass Trombone
(bass trombone and strings, composed in 2008)

This piece was composed as a commission for a talented high-school bass clarinetist and later adapted for the bass trombone. The student’s teacher, who was a good friend, asked me to compose something that his student could play with orchestra for a concerto competition. There are not many concertos composed for the bass clarinet, and the competition would not allow transcriptions of music written for other instruments.

The first movement opens with a slow introduction based on quartal harmony i.e., using chords with notes that are a fourth apart rather than the thirds typically found in tonal harmony. This provides a nebulous, somewhat meandering feeling. The main portion of the movement uses more traditional tonal harmony, set over a repeating four-measure phrase that explores changing meters. A repeated ostinato includes three measures of 7/8 time followed by one measure of 6/8 time. Toward the end of the movement, this ostinato is compressed as the meters become smaller and smaller. A short cadenza finishes the movement.

Movement 1 – Quartal Harmonies:
Quartal Harmonies
Movement 1 – Ostinato:

The second movement is slow, with modal harmonies that provide a mournful character. The harmony is centered around D minor alternating with Eb minor, copying the chords of Miles Davis’s “So What” from 1959. Following a brief interlude, a cadenza for the soloist brings a return to the opening theme.

Movement 2 – Modal Harmonies:
Modal harmonies

The third movement is in an Afro-Caribbean style, with the violins substituting for the typical piano montuno in the main theme. Following this, the soloist adopts the montuno pattern while the violins play a soaring melody. This is followed by a call-and-response between the strings, serving as a chorus, and the soloist, which leads back to the original theme. The movement concludes with an extended cadenza for the soloist followed by a quick reminder of the theme from the first movement.

Movement 3 – Montuno:
Movement 3 – Cadenza:

50+50 Trombone Triathlon
(trombone alone with theatre elements, composed in 2007)

I have a friend who is a trumpet player and an avid triathlete. Shortly before her fiftieth birthday, another friend commissioned me to compose this piece as a surprise birthday present. It was to be for solo trumpet, and should have only fifty notes in it. Realizing that fifty notes would make for a very short piece, I suggested that it should have three movements – representing the three stages of a triathlon – and that each movement should have fifty notes plus fifty more “to grow on.” The final composition, then, has three movements with precisely 100 notes in each. It is composed to be a “theatre piece.”

The term “theatre piece” refers to music, typically in the classical tradition, that involves theatrical elements, requiring the musician(s) to engage in choreography, wear costumes, use props, etc. This should not be confused with musical theatre or music for the theatre. One of the best known theatre pieces was a John Cage composition from 1952 titled Theatre Piece No. 1. This piece involved numerous performers in several simultaneous components, including music, poetry readings, dance, and multimedia projections. Two well-known trombone theatre pieces are Leonard Bernstein’s Elegy for Mippy II (1960) and Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V (1966). Both are for trombone alone. In the Bernstein piece, the trombonist is directed to loudly stomp his/her foot while playing. The Berio involves more elaborate theatrical direction, also requiring the trombonist to wear clown makeup and costume. An excellent video of the Berio is available here.

In 50+50 Trombone Triathlon, each movement represents a different stage of the triathlon – Swimming, Biking, and Running. The soloist performs each movement in a different space on the stage, moving from one to the next as quickly as possible. The performer also wears different props for each movement.

Before beginning the first movement, the trombonist puts on swim goggles for the swimming portion of the competition. The music is written to be energetic, almost to the point of frantic. The player is instructed to take loud, exaggerated breaths after each phrase.

Movement 1 – Swimming:

At the end of the first movement, the performer quickly removes the goggles, rushes to the next stage, and dons a bicycle helmet. The musical lines are in a 3/4 time, but use metrical displacement to give the feeling of a continuous circle like the bicycle wheel. Melodically, the lines go up and down like the bicycle pedals.

Movement 2 – Biking:

At the end of the second movement, the performer quickly removes the bicycle helmet, rushes to the next stage, and dons a runner’s jersey with a number on the front. The music is meant to feel like a march that has been rushed.

Movement 3 – Running:

The biggest challenge in each of these movements was to create melodic lines that make sense, but also feel complete after precisely 100 notes each.

My birthday friend gave the premiere performance of this piece on the trumpet, after which I decided to adapt it for the trombone so that I could perform it. This piece has been performed dozens of times around the world.

Frozen Toes ‘n Nose ‘n Freezin’ Knees
(soprano, trombone, and piano, composed in 2002)

This is a set piece from an opera “in progress.” The opera is a modern version of the Orpheus story from Greek mythology, in which Orpheus is a jazz trombone player working with his beloved Eurydice, a nightclub singer. This scene takes place early in the opera, in a club during a performance. The duo has learned that a famous record company executive (Hades) is in the audience this evening. Eurydice sings directly to the executive, dancing around his table, sitting in his lap, and generally flirting as much as possible in hopes of landing a record deal. Following this scene, the executive offers Eurydice a contract, on the condition that she “lose the horn player.” The rest of the opera deals with the trials Orpheus must endure in order to win back his beloved Eurydice.

Regarding the compositional process, this piece began with a string of words that I thought were amusing: “frozen toes ‘n nose.” After adding “freezin’ knees” to the line, I decided I needed to compose something. The line seemed like a flirtatious Mae West metaphor, so I conceived of it as a torch song for a lounge singer. Musically, the composition is in a jazz style, but involves augmented chords and whole tone harmonies more often associated with early twentieth-century classical music. The augmented chord is a set of three notes that are each a major third apart. Due to the symmetrical nature of these chords, it is not possible to determine which is the root of the chord. For example, the notes in a C augmented chord are C-E-G#. The notes in an E augmented chord are E-G#-C, and the notes in a G# augmented chord are G#-C-E. With only twelve musical pitches, there are really only four different augmented chords. The whole tone scale is a symmetrical scale with each pitch one whole step from the ones on either side. Again, this symmetry means that a C whole tone scale (C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, C) is the same as a D whole tone scale. Therefore, there are really only two different whole tone scales. This harmonic and melodic symmetry provides a tonal ambiguity that makes it difficult to identify a key center when listening to the music.

Frozen Toes ‘n Nose ‘n Freezin’ Knees – Augmented Chords and Whole-Tone Scales:
Augmented chords and whole-tone scales

Time Zones
(trombone, computer, and audience, composed in 2010)

Aleatoric or “chance” music has existed in one form or another in western art music for centuries, having become something of a staple of Modern Music of the 20th and 21st centuries. One 18th-century form of chance music involved dice, with the composer creating snippets of music that could be performed in a random order depending on the roll of the dice. More contemporary aleatoric music often involves decisions made by the performer, sometimes selecting from a list of possible passages; other times responding to graphic notation that indicates approximate pitch or timing. These examples typically involve performers making artistic decisions within parameters established by the composer.

The expression “audience participation” has many different interpretations in music. In my music, the expression refers to the intentional use of audience participation to meaningfully influence a performance of a piece of music, resulting in a different performance each time the piece is presented. Music that invites this type of participation must be aleatoric in nature.

“Time Zones” is an interactive multimedia composition for trombone, computer, cell phone, and audience. The composition serves as a metaphor for modern life, in which our plans are frequently interrupted by unplanned demands on our time, interruptions that are often delivered through technology.

Representing a typical day in one musician’s life, the composition includes six sections corresponding to teaching, administrative duties, composition, performance, music technology, and family. Each section includes a trombone part, to be performed live, in sync with sequenced computer music embedded in a projected animation.

The six sections mentioned above are the pre-planned “time zones” of one day. Unplanned demands on one’s time are represented by a seventh section that is triggered any time the performer’s cell phone rings. The cell phone number is on the screen throughout the performance, and the audience is encouraged to call whenever they wish. While no one answers the call, the ringing triggers the music to jump immediately to a seventh section. Following the interruption, the music picks up where it left off, as the performer continues the journey through the daily “time zones.”

Time Zones – Composition:
Time Zones

The audience participation via cell phone in this work certainly provides an interaction that influences the course of the performance. In the years since this composition I have experimented with other types of audience participation in other pieces, including asking the audience to sing with the performance. A concept currently under development will have audience members reading from a script as the musicians perform music to accompany a children’s story.

Classical Music and Jazz

The four pieces discussed above are in the classical music tradition, while the final three below are in the jazz tradition. [Note: Actually, I believe that jazz since the Bebop era – about 1945 – is a style of classical music. That argument, however, belongs in a different forum.] My path in music began with a passion for jazz, later expanding into an understanding of classical music. As mentioned above, many of my classical compositions include some jazz elements. Likewise, some of my jazz compositions written for larger ensembles incorporate classical elements. The four below, however, do not.

Regarding the distinction between the two musical styles, the music most people think of as “classical” is typically composer-centric. Back in the day when record stores and CD stores were common, the classical section would inevitably be alphabetized by composer, so that all of Beethoven’s music was filed together, regardless of performer, and all of Mozart’s music was filed elsewhere. If the London Philharmonic Orchestra released a pair of recordings, one of Beethoven symphonies and another of Mozart, classical music collectors would not expect the two recordings to filed together. Furthermore, when an orchestra performs a Beethoven symphony, their goal is to express as nearly as possible what they believe the composer intended. Individual expression exists in classical music, but it is nuanced. Classical artists who stray far from the accepted opinion of a composer’s intention are generally excoriated.

Jazz, on the other hand, is performer-centric. Collectors of jazz recordings would expect to find Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of George and Ira Gershwin songs right beside the singer’s recording of Cole Porter songs. The emphasis in a jazz performance is on individual expression rather than interpreting the composer. When jazz performers play a jazz standard like “Autumn Leaves,” they are not interested in what the composer intended, and may not even know who the composer was (Joseph Kosma) .

As an example, compare the original recording of the song from 1945 with the two versions by Oscar Peterson from 1961 and 1972. Note that all three versions begin with introductions. In the original, the melody begins at 1:00. In the 1961 Oscar Peterson recording, the melody begins at 0:28. The 1972 Peterson recording begins at 5:35, with the melody coming in at 6:40. Notice that these three versions are very different in tempo, character, and energy. A quick search through YouTube will uncover many more versions of this song with many different interpretations. The jazz musician uses a composition like this as a starting point for individual expression.

As someone who straddles both genres, this distinction has always been interesting to me. When I compose a classical piece, I try to leave room for the performer to express himself/herself rather than dictating all details of the performance as some contemporary classical composers do.

With these distinctions in mind, below are three of my jazz compositions.

Fancy Pants Dance (trombone, guitar, bass, and drums, composed in 2016)

This is another piece that began with a title I found amusing. Musically, the piece is in a Latin jazz or Afro-Cuban style, sometimes referred to as “salsa.” I fell in love with Latin jazz in the mid-1990s, while working on a string of cruise ships, primarily in the Caribbean Sea. I was fortunate to receive a study grant to spend two weeks in Havana, Cuba, in 2002 studying AfroCuban music, then took a group of university students there for a study trip two years later. Finally, I was part of a recording project in Havana for a Parma Recordings project in 2015. This composition incorporates the lessons learned over those 20 years of listening to and studying Latin jazz. Fancy Pants Dance was originally composed for jazz big band. This version for quartet was created for this performance.

Fancy Pants Dance:
Fancy Pants Dance

Lullaby for Carter
(trombone, guitar, bass, and drums, composed in 2015)

My second grandson was born in Florida in 2015, while I was working in Arkansas, some 1600 kilometers away. My wife managed to arrive the day the baby was born, but I had to admire him from afar. I composed this lullaby during the days immediately after his birth, largely as a catharsis for the heartache of not being there in person. It was composed as a jazz lead sheet, with only melody and chords so that I could immediately record a version of it at home with trombone and a computer-generated rhythm section. The interactivity of working with live rhythm section is much more satisfying.

Lullaby for Carter:
Lullaby for Carter

Don’t Wanna Say the ‘Nother T
(trombone, guitar, bass, and drums, composed in 2006)

My wife and I were foster parents for a number of years. One of the children who stayed with us was a five-year-old who started kindergarten while in our home. One evening I asked her what she had learned in school that day. Usually, the reply to this was “Don’t ‘member.” That day, however, she had something on her mind. She told us that she had learned that there are two different ways to spell the word “but,” and the teacher would not allow them to spell it with two T’s. From then on, whenever she used the word “but” in a sentence, she would spell it out: “B, U, T – don’t wanna say the ‘nother T.” This was obviously meant to be a song title. Like Fancy Pants Dance, this piece also began as a composition for jazz big band. Stylistically, the music alternates between a fast swing and a funky New Orleans street beat, both reminiscent of a delightful child who alternated between different moods – but always at a fast tempo!

Don’t Wanna Say the ‘Nother T – Swing:
Swing section

Don’t Wanna Say the ‘Nother T – Street Beat:
Street beat section

While this sample represents only a few of my one hundred plus compositions over the years, they do give an idea of some of the various processes I use when writing music. Virtually every piece I have written was for a specific performance by a specific ensemble, frequently on request. More than sixty are published and available for anyone to perform. Many, though not all, of the ideas began with words – whether lyrics or a title. Many, though not all, of the pieces were intended to be amusing – in addition to whatever else was being conveyed. I have consciously and unconsciously incorporated jazz elements into many of the classical pieces and vice versa. All of these seven pieces include trombone as one of the instruments, but many of my other compositions do not. I have also composed for choir, orchestra, wind band, and smaller chamber music groups.


Musically, many of my compositions began with a rhythmic idea, which I then developed with melodies and harmonies. Others began with a harmonic progression, followed by the melodies and rhythms. Still more began with the melody. I am not aware of a pattern, but I suspect the rhythm may be a more frequent beginning for me.

As a final thought, my music is meant to be both serious and entertaining. I hope the listener will discover humor embedded in many of my compositions. I want the music to be enjoyed.


Don Bowyer
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