creative blog

The Secrets of Composing

October 23 2018. 

As it turns out, the secret to becoming a better composer is no secret at all. I offered these points to the class, and not I offer them to you, dear reader: 

Compose regularly

Developing regular work habits is the most important thing for you to do. Write everyday if you can. Don’t worry about it being good or bad, just do it. Allow yourself permission to make terrible first drafts. There is nothing more important than regular writing habits – remember – writers block is not a real thing. Keep at it and you will become fluent and confident, and inspiration will come.

Listen to music, study scores

You have to know what has been done before. Take inspiration from the masters of the past, and be aware of what is happening in current artistic milieus in the local, national and international scenes. See the scores. Study them. For unpublished scores, you can email composers and ask for a study copy – many will oblige you. As Boulez says, invention always occurs in contact with the past. Every good composer I have ever met listens to music and studies scores. This kind of exploration is never finished. There is always more to hear.


to competitions. Dozens of them a year. If you apply enough you will win. If you win, you will win more. Then apply more. Until you don’t want to win competitions anymore.

Invest in the success of others as well as yourself

Celebrate the work and success of your colleagues. A life in music is not a zero-sum game.  Play your friend’s pieces, offer criticism if asked, compliment what you admire. To do this, you must:

Go to concerts.

This is so important. If a colleague has a piece being played, or a teacher, or a friend, you mustgo. Be there for others and others will be there for you. Support your colleagues.

Learn from others

Take on emerging composer program experiences such as Domaine Forget, Orford, Banff, Darmstadt, Gaudeamus, Tucakmore LAMP etc. At these places you will receive musical training and just as importantly, you will meet your contemporaries – the composers your age from all around the world.

Be professional

even before you are a professional. Make your scores and parts shine with quality in all ways. Be early, not just on time. Never deliver a piece late. Show up to rehearsal prepared and with your score. Be gracious, thank your performers.

Have fun

As a general rule, if you are not having fun or feeling some kind of buzz at some point in your writing process, no one who plays or hears your work will either. Seek out and follow your passions, be open to new things, and embrace life and your creativity will flourish (as long as you are following rule #1 – compose regularly)



January  2017

this blog is the first of six I will write as composer in residence with

Double bar line! The Encount3rs commission from the National Arts Centre Orchestra is complete. My resulting work, Phi, is 30 minutes in length, scored for full orchestra with electronics used in the final movement. The score is now in the hands of choreographer Jean Grand Maitre.

Perhaps the most amazingly unusual aspect of this commission is NACO’s commitment to giving the artists their very best shot at success. All three composers involved in the event were given two full orchestral rehearsals, spaced out by several months, before settling on a final score. In my experience, this kind of commitment totally unheard of, probably due to cost and time commitments. Lets face it, contemporary music is not exactly known for lucrative ticket sales. NACO’s new focus on creation is remarkable and we will all revel in the wonderful art that results.

As I have written in my previous NACO Creative Blogs, I have immensely enjoyed composing the ballet, and while my work is done, I look forward to the adventure of seeing the ballet come together with video, lighting, and choreography. Since sending the final score and parts, I have been thinking about these double bar line moments, the end of the composition process, and how it compares to other teleological goals in life.

It is hard to define ‘the end’ of the composition process. When someone declares #doublebarline, it might mean: the end of the major creative decisions, the end of score preparations, the end of making individual parts, or the end of the final edit. Perhaps the end is when the piece finally comes alive in performance, leaving the imagined world into the real world witnessed by peers and audience alike. Whatever it means, the double bar line is an event that we composers often see celebrated:



But of course, it is worth reflecting that the purpose of composing music is not to get to the end. It is not, at least for me or anyone I know, some unpleasant process to be endured for promise of an end. I must admit the most joy and pleasure to be found is in the process, not necessarily the end. Sure there is a satisfaction knowing that you met a deadline, and a sense of professional security knowing you can move on to the next commission on time (my teacher Gary Kulesha once told me if you can a) deliver a score on time, and b) not embarrass anyone, you can be a successful composer). Perhaps the end is the moment when the work can be shared. But it is simply one moment, the last moment, on the creative journey. After all, who reads books to get to the end? Who works to get to retirement, goes to school to just to graduate, or goes on a trip just to get home again? It is the journey that must be savoured, because, after all,  every piece ends the same way and all double bar lines sound the same. As a composer I try to be mindful of this and remember that the joy of creation is not a finish line to reach for. 

I leave you with British philosopher Alan Watts, speaking of ends, music, and life:






For more blogs about the composition of my ballet, visit:,







July 18 2016


Nature uses as little as possible of anything. Johannes Kepler.


And so it should also be in good composition. One might say Composers use as little musical material as possible to create the greatest affect. There are so many inspiring musical examples of this . When I demonstrate this point to my students, I often draw on examples by Shostakovich. The 11th Symphony, for example, the first movement begins with open strings, answerd by timpani and a trumpet statement. In the hands of a lesser composer, this might form an introduction to be moved immediately away from. However Shostakovich creates a monumental 20 minute opening movement with just these ideas, without a single  dull moment or extraneous  idea. Amazing.  Become Ocean by John Luther Adams is another striking example. Masterful control of limited material helps to weave a powerful spell.

The third and final movement of my new ballet is based on the material I composed in a tremendous burst back in May (see my previous blog post). The backbone of the movement is build around a large canon-by-augmentation, all in whole notes and half notes, which is perhaps a rather brave thing to do in the new music world. I have fully resisted the temptation to ‘new-music-ify’ the rhythms into nested tuplets and angular gesture, in favour of longer unfolding patterns that are so spread out that they can’t be heard, but hopefully, felt.  Steadfast tempo and strict rhythmic unfolding coupled within the canonic structure creates tremendous power and tension – so much so that I am wonderfully excited.  Premiere April 20 2017.


July 3 2016



At the onset of this collaboration, Jean sent me a whole book of images that inspired him, all related in some way to Phi (which itself is related to everything: beauty, nature, the universe, The Vitruvian Man, and on and on – check out the video below). I have copied several of the images onto transparencies, and have been experimenting with overlaying them onto my Phi-based matrices, with interesting results. Here, the dancer points to A and Bb, a minor 2nd  interval which is present both structurally and melodically throughout the movement.

The 2nd section of the ballet is nearly ready to send to Jean as a MIDI mock-up. I have retitled it Afloat on the River Styx. The original title Man/Machine, was recently released by the Tragically Hip, which necessitated a change.  The movement is framed by steady pizzicato ostinatos based on rhythmic manifestations of Fibonacci numbers (1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21) in a call-response pattern with percussion.  The piece continues to progress well and I am very excited revisit what will be the 3rd and final section, Return to Eden. 



Check out this interesting video, which speaks to phi in design and nature.




 May 30 –

guest blog: Choreographer Jean Grand-Maitre



After having received a prestigious commission from the NAC/NACO, the composer Andrew Staniland, the visual artists Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis and the choreographer Jean Grand-Maitre came together to create an exciting world premiere for Canada’s 150th birthday.
Their passion was ignited by the idea of exploring how the Golden Ratio – Phi – and the world of mathematics could be the most truthful and beautiful phenomena known to our species.
Many of the greatest thinkers in history have said this. They believed that within the great mysteries of the Fibonacci Sequence may reside the answer to the beginning of time itself.
Phi (Provisional Title).
Dramatically opposing esthetics in dance, music and the visual arts will collide or harmoniously align as we explore humanity’s adaption to a myriad of contemporary landscapes.
Still reeling before the nightmarish landscapes the Industrial Revolution has left in its wake, we are hit by yet another clear and present threat: The austere and lonely landscapes of the Technological Revolution. This new revolution may not destroy our environment but it will certainly amputate us of a substantial portion of humanity.
With our omni-present and rapidly expanding technologies we find ourselves more isolated than we’ve ever been. Our profoundly addictive relationship with the digital world is completely transforming our existence and this transformation will be even more dramatic with each new generation.
But could it be that this relentless fusion between real life and the digital world has always been our destiny?
Could all phenomena be governed by the immutable laws of mathematics and is every emotion we feel and decision we make part of a bigger equation we will never understand?
Perhaps we are only just beginning to see a greater truth.
As we give more importance to Mathematics, to the Golden Ratio, to algorithms, to Pi and Phi and to the Fibonacci Sequence/Spiral, we may be getting closer to the beginning of life, to the original spark that ignited it all the one true God – Mathematics – and fortunately for our future’s sake, Science does not care what we believe.
Perhaps our frightening descent into this “quick sand of technology” is exactly where we’ve always been headed. The ancient scientists had already proclaimed Mathematics as the most profound beauty of all: “True Beauty resides in geometry. It transforms our earthly bondage to luminous air. Free of our bodies, we escape into true beauty”

– Euclide
Such huge philosophical questions are not always ideally suited for dance and music. Perhaps they are more appropriate for literature, cinema and theatre. Still, they remain extremely relevant and inspirational and so hey can serve as the context for the exploration of new choreographic and musical ideas. These universal questions can become a powerful focal point for the successful integration of movement, music and spatial deign. Dance, the visual arts and music can portray unexplainable feelings which remain refractive to the reasoning mind. They can inhabit the unexplainable, the world of sensations, of mystery and of dreams. As Ingmar Bergman once asked: “Why must the imaginary world always be held accountable to reason?”.

We all agreed that we would use 4 different esthetics to spur our idea’s:

1- The concept of humanity living in harmony with science and the arts.

2- The concept of humanity being consumed by technology.

3-The concept of the human body fusing with technology.

4-The concept of humanity living in harmony with nature (without any technology).
It is always a thrilling experience to explore these ancient yet relevant themes with other talented artists. Soon a Lighting Designer will be added to our project. In April of 2017, the visionary work of all 5 designers will finally come together on the stage of Canada’s most gorgeous theatre, Southam Hall.


May 17 –

composer’s blog. #nacoballet2017

I love to write in the mornings. Today, after 3 days off (I never write on weekends) I began with a review of the fragments I have on the go so far: three movements, working titles 1> Rex, 2> Man/MachiNE 3> Return to Eden. About a month ago, I had written a canon-based chorale , intended for the last movement. It came out in a mighty burst, which happens sometimes. Today I returned to it and experienced another cloudburst of creativity, and in two hours I was able to sketch out a loose form of the whole movement. This is at odds with the daily ‘grind’ and snails pace at which the 2nd movement is going, where I have been concentrating most of my daily efforts. Day by day: write 12 measures, delete 11 measures. Both kinds of writing are important, but I must confess that while I count on the daily rituals,  I live for the cloudburst. There is nothing like the feeling of music that appears to write itself.  It is a total rush – like the whole earth is vibrating just right to make the sounds, totally in the moment.  Above all I seek clarity and presence. And nothing nothing says ‘be here now’ quite like a FFF brass tutti on a unison. This pitch, this moment, this place. #nacoballet2017    

from the sketchpad:


Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 11.18.08 AM

May 2 –

composer’s blog.

Jean Grand-Maitre and I are creating a 30 minute ballet inspired by the wonderful magic of Phi. It has long been used overtly as a device, used most notably my Bartok, Webern, Nono, and even Debussy. Most uses I have observed and read about use phi as a formal or rhythmic device. I myself have used phi as a catalyst and inspiration, in my doctoral thesis St Croix, and in Talking Down the Tiger.  In this piece, I wanted to explore phi melodically and harmonically. After several weeks of research, I was very pleased with the results:


This is a matrix I created using phi. It is the amalgam of 2 smaller melodies (AKA hexachords), shown here. IMG_0683

Interesting facts on PHI: any 10 consecutive fibonacci numbers added up will give a sum which is divisible by 11 (and the 7th number of any 10 consecutive numbers, if multiplied by 11, will give the sum of those same 10 numbers!). I Thank Mario Livio for this insight, in his wonderful book “The Golden Ratio”

This is particularly interesting to me as I had inadvertently created an 11 note ‘row’ (much like a 12 tone row used by serialists). Interestingly, the missing pitch is the tritone, the most dissonant interval. This happened quite by chance. Using 1 and the pitch C, Db is 2, D is 3, and so on. As one proceeds this way in either an upward or downward direction, the pitch F# does not appear for quite some time (at least until the 30th number in the series. Eventually it probably appears, but I have yet to test it beyond the 1st 30 numbers).

Here is the melody derived using Fibonacci numbers, going up and down in alternation: IMG_0684