Composing

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...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before... (Cymbiosis 1986)

Cymbiosis: How is the SynthAxe going to change your approach to composition?

Holdsworth: I’ve now got more sonic capability than I had before with the guitar, inasmuch as I can use synthesis and, in effect, that has sparked a whole other thing off in me. I was, in some ways, getting fed up, not with the guitar itself, but with the way that the guitar was sounding in some respects. It was reaching a point where, more or less, everybody started to sound a little like everybody. There’s obviously some really great exceptions like Scott Henderson or Eric Johnson-all these guys who are doing their own thing.

A Conversation With Allan Holdsworth (Abstract Logix 2005)

Bill: Do you ever write on the road while you’re touring? Or do you need to be in a certain environment with specific material around you to be able to create?

Allan: I don’t really do very well on the road. Back when I worked with Tony (Williams) I remember I used to do a lot of stuff in hotel rooms. That was years ago. Now I like to be at home and just sit down with a guitar and try and come up with a few ideas. If it feels OK then I’ll make notes and just keep going back until I can make it grow into something. But on the road I get panicked, I get really nervous about playing. I’m terrified about playing in front of people. I kind of lose it and then I’m always anxious. And if something’s going on at home then I’m always waiting for it to be the right time to call back there. So I just don’t seem to be able to focus enough to write music when I’m on the road. I can’t get my head empty and free enough to sit down and try to write. I mean, there’s always something going on...some chaos of some kind.

Bill: Is there any direction that you’re currently thinking in these days, compositionally?

Allan: I think some of the things that I’m hearing now are different than anything that I’ve ever done before. And the reason I know that is because I’m writing out chords for these pieces of music and I’m finding it a struggle to get them to fall under my hands. Whereas, sometimes if you write a tune after you played it a couple of times, you can get it. But I was having to really concentrate trying to play these new pieces. I think they’re pretty challenging and they sound a little different than anything I’ve done before. It’s hard for me to explain it. I guess I’ll have to wait until it comes out before I can do that.

Allan Holdsworth (Guitar Player 1982)

When did you compose the material for the I.O.U. album?

Originally, I had a backlog of material from when I left Bill Bruford, and I knew what direction I wanted to go in. So, that’s why it turned out that most of the tunes were mine. It wasn’t that we didn’t particularly want to play anybody else’s. It’s just that those tunes were there from the beginning, and those were the things that I wanted to try to do. So we did them at the gigs and recorded them in England. When Chad and Jeff joined, I just gave them copies of the album, and they listened to it and worked out the parts for themselves. And now I’ve got some songs and Jeff’s got some songs. So we’re on the way.

Allan Holdsworth (Guitar magazine 1974)

How do you compose?

All sorts of different ways. Sometimes it’s going round in my head and I try to get it down on the guitar, sometimes I’m just improvising on the guitar and I find something that sounds OK and that’s the beginning of a piece.

Allan Holdsworth (Guitarist 1985)

I didn’t really want to play the guitar, I wanted to play Saxophone, but it just so happened that I didn’t get a Saxophone, I got a guitar and that’s where it all started. That is why this SynthAxe thing is so interesting to me, because for a long time now I’ve been very interested in the compositional side of things. One of the things I’d really love to do is get an amazing band together but not be a player in it at all, just a writer. I’d love to write a piece of music that a set of musicians could embellish. The themes and the chord structures would be fixed, but the rest of it would be very open to interpretation. In the framework of a band you can tell the players roughly how it is, they know what the bar lengths are and they can take it from there, without ever getting lost or the music becoming something else.

Allan Holdsworth - Jazz Fusion Guitarist (Musicguy247 2017)

R.V.B. - When you set out to make your own music, was it a mixture of composition and improvisation?

A.H. - The compositions are usually vehicles for improvisation. You write a piece of music, then you take some form of it and manipulate it and use parts of it for playing solos. That’s kind of what improvisation is. It’s to write music that gives the soloist a vehicle to solo on. I’ve always loved that because that was the biggest challenge... trying how to play a half decent solo.

Allan Holdsworth interview (Music Maker 2003)

You wrote so many ‘chord’ tunes already, is it hard to find something new?
No, no. It’s not. It’s just that..my life was disrupted by other things. You know. They were totally unrelated to music. Otherwise I would have already had enough tunes for an album you know. Usually when I get into it, it doesn’t take me that long. I haven’t been into it. I was just trying to deal with the other side of life, you know.

When you compose, you try to avoid stuff you’ve done before, right?
Oh yeah, I always try to avoid it. But you can’t avoid it a 100% because it’s like a personality thing, it’s like you can’t put on a new face every day. You’re kinda stuck with the one you got, wether you like it or not (laughs) I think this album will be pretty different just because of the way that Joel and Ernest play together. I think it’s gonna turn out pretty different.

Audiostreet Featured Artists (Audiostreet 2000)

Allan explains this process further, "Well music is such and endless thing. I thought of a way of describing it, I was never really able to describe it, but I thought of a good way to describe it recently. Most people will know this but when you first fall in love there is this kind of urgency and there’s this almost kind of like a horror. At the same time it’s really a great feeling, but there’s also this thing of there’s something you don’t understand yet, because it’s new and that’s the way I feel about music. It’s like having a love affair that never ends. You never get past that like you would with any other relationship, like usually happens with a relationship. My relationship with music is that is what it feels like all the time. So long as I can keep writing something I’ll be happy."

Don’t you know - The Lost Words (Oneiric Moor 2003)

OF: Did the SynthAxe change something in your writing ? (or did you compose some pieces first on guitar)

AH: Some pieces are composed on guitar, but usually if I am writing a SynthAxe record, I will write it all on the SynthAxe. It did change something in my writing. I could play sustained chords and with the breath controller I could play long notes and make them loud or soft, make them go away then bring them back, just like you can on a real wind instrument. I could turn it into a non percussive instrument where the guitar is a percussive instrument. So overall, I would say it gave me more flexibility.

OF: Usually how do you tackle composing a piece ? Melody comes first or a chord sequence, or ?

AH: Sometimes it a melody, sometimes it’s a chord sequence a lot of times it’s a combination something like a choral melody where the top line is the melody that is the most common thing that I do.

DownBeat’s Final Interview with Allan Holdsworth (Downbeat 2017)

What is your approach to the composition process? Do you have a particular regimen in how you do things?

I usually just work some stuff out on the guitar. And when I come up with something that sounds like an idea, I’ll embellish that. Usually I’ll start with the chords; sometimes I’ll have a melody first. It’s not predictable that way.

Once that’s in place, do you give your band a tape of something or chart it out?

In the old days, I would just play it for them. And a lot of my guys have big ears and would make their own charts. I don’t write a lot out for people because I have a strange system where I make notes for myself but nobody else would understand them [laughs]. I’m still kind of caught between the analog and digital worlds. But it’s so easy to make a midi file where I can print something out on computer and send it to my guys. That way they’ll have a file of the music that they can analyze for themselves and interpret it their way.

Harnessing momentum (Innerviews 2008)

How do you go about capturing ideas during your writing process?

Ten years ago, I used to record things when I improvised. I’d put on the recorder and start playing and if I found something interesting, I’d go back and listen and think “Oh yeah, I can work with that.” Sometimes, I’ve gone the way of not recording anything at all. It can sometimes be about how I feel at that point in time, and I just scribble the music down and keep going back to it until I can put it into shape. Sometimes things come really fast and some things take months. Take “Sphere of Innocence” from Wardenclyffe Tower. I wrote the whole tune in a couple of hours but there was a modulation in the middle of it that resolved in a way I wasn’t happy about. Ninety-nine percent of the piece was done in less than a day and it took months to finish the other one percent.

What tend to be the biggest challenges when you’re writing?

The biggest problem is that I’ll start out trying to do something and never consider what it will be like to solo on the harmony. People often come up to me and say “It must be great when you write your own stuff because you can make things easy for yourself.” Unfortunately, that’s not true. A lot of the time, I have more problems with my own music than I do playing other people’s music, and it’s unintentional. Sometimes, I’ll start out and say to myself “Oh, you can write this tune and make it simpler. Go ahead and make life easier for yourself.” But it never happens. It always morphs into something else and I’m back figuring how I’m going to play over all these chords, so I gave up on that idea. I just let the music play out the way I hear it and just figure out all the scales and how I’m going to solo over it later. I make a little roadmap for myself and that’s pretty much it.

What yardstick do you use to determine when a piece is ready to go?

When it feels complete. I have a lot of ideas where something is there, but I know it’s nowhere near completed. So, I keep working on it until it makes a complete circle. It’s like putting two ends together. I keep working on a tune harmonically until I feel there’s a resolution. I also like to modulate things, so even though it sounds like I’m playing the same thing twice, it’s being played in a different key. You hear that on the tune “Tullio” on Hard Hat Area. I think it’s the longest chord sequence I’ve done. The whole solo section for keyboards and guitar is the same. It sounds like it’s almost repeating, but if you listen, you realize the keyboard solo happens just one time. It’s an example of how I let something complete itself in that I keep playing until I feel the piece makes a whole circle.

Legato Land (Guitar Techniques 1996)

Allan’s tunes often feature unusual melodic concepts and strange chord progressions. How on earth does he compose this sort of music?

"Sometimes I get an idea when I’m out on my bike and I’ll come back and try to find it on the guitar. Other times I’d just be noodling and I’ll come up with something and write it out. On other occasions I just force myself to come up with something if I feel the need to write sometimes I can go for months without writing anything. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything in a day. For instance, there was a tune on ‘Wardenclyffe Tower’ called Sphere Of Innocence. I had 80 to 90 percent of that tune complete, but it took about a year to finish because I couldn’t find a way to make the tune resolve itself in a way that I liked. And then one day I just came up with this idea and I got it to modulate in a way that I wanted it to, so I thought, Oh, it’s finished. Great!

"I think the most common way for me to compose is to start with a chord progression; sometimes I hear the melody and the chords as one thing - the harmony moving inside the chord like a multiple melody. That’s how I hear things. In a lot of music you hear the melody and the chords are underneath, but I like to make up chords that work as a three dimensional melody. It’s all happening at once."

Mike Pachelli Show (video transcript 1991)

MP: Compositionally, do you hear compositions like start to finish, do you start finding chords that you – what is your approach basically to composition? Do you hear complete entities, or do you hear parts?

AH: No, I usually have parts, you know if I’m not with an instrument then I’ll have an idea, but I usually come across them by improvising with chords or whatever, then I’ll find something that I like, and I just work on it, try and modulate it – I like to experiment – I like to modulate through different keys.

No Secrets (Facelift 1994)

Alan Holdsworth solo records were to show a marked difference from his work in the seventies with other bands. But it wouldn’t be fair to say, despite his reputation as a guitar player, that his bands were over-dominated by guitar heroics. The shifting chord work which form the basis for Holdsworth’s compositions come through as strongly as any guitar soloing. "Well, I still like that concept. Even now I don’t think of it as being a guitar band. I see my own music as the guitar only being part of the music. It’s not like some bands where you get the guitar as the big feature all night long. It’s not like that with me – I think the music is the feature all night long, but it’s a group effort."

On The Level (IM&RW 1991)

IM - Would it be true to say then that you don’t consider yourself to be a Jazz player?

"People have different points of view. From my point of view I am because everything I write is a vehicle for improvisation and that is what Jazz is to me. However, I’m not involved in any form of the traditional aspect so that makes me not a Jazz musician to some people... many people think of it as a traditional thing so I always think you should clarify it, if it’s mainstream or trad., etc. But in essence the word means to be to be an improvisor. To me to really be able to play over something I can’t do it if I have to look over the paper, so the first thing I have to do is memorise it and then I’ve got a chance. I can’t look at a piece of paper because I won’t be seeing the whole thing. You can’t really get inside it. You’re just fluttering around outside the edge of it. You might come up with something but I usually have to memorise it which takes a while for me. When I write a piece I never think about how difficult it’s gonna be to solo over, I’m just writing the music. I think about them separately . I try and write the music and then, when it’s finished, I worry about how I am going to play over it."

Patron Saint (Guitar Player 2004)

Do you ever get into prolonged ruts? Oh, yeah. I hit a dry spell when I was going through some personal stuff over the past four years, but that affected my composing more than my soloing. I felt my improvising during that time was okay, and I’d occasionally hear stuff that I’d never played before. But to compose, I have to sit down with a guitar and focus, and when things aren’t as I want them, it’s very easy to get scatterbrained and drift from one thing to another-which results in a cycle of non-productivity.

I’ve never heard you cite any compositional influences.

Most of them are classical composers such as Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Copland, and Bartok-particularly his string quartets. I still can’t listen to Debussy’s "Clair de Lune" because, if I do, I’ll cry [laughs]. I can’t get past the first two bars. It’s really weird, man. It tears me up. What I took from those guys was how their tunes make me feel in my heart. It’s about the emotion, rather than what the piece actually is. I think that’s because I want to be influenced, which is a whole lot different than trying to work out precisely what someone is doing.

Strong stuff from the brewery (EQ magazine 1997)

Apart from recording "basic rough ideas" when writing, Holdsworth also doesn’t believe in demos: "Every time my band has done a demo, there’s always something on the demo that I like better than what’s on the master. But the demo’s overall sound quality is never good enough to use. So now I avoid that trap. I just wait until we’re ready to go in and record the thing for real."

The Allan Holdsworth Interview, part one (Musoscribe 2017)

To what degree is the music on your studio albums the product of careful composition and arrangement, and to what extent is it the product of improvisation giving way to creation?

When I write a piece of music, I start with just the composition itself. And I don’t worry about how difficult it might be to play solos over, or anything like that. I just let the composition go where I think it should go. And then I leave sections open for the soloist or whomever, to give them some space to play. I never wrote a composition that was just specifically for improvisation alone. Or if I did, I don’t remember what it was! I like the music to be dense harmony-wise, and then transformed. It works for me, anyway.

Some artists will put out an album that’s simply the latest issue of what they’re doing, as opposed to a cohesive work. Generally speaking, when you’re making an album, is there a kind of unifying concept at work?

The way it’s worked out for me is that I tend to write tunes around the personality of the band that I’m working with currently. For example, when I was playing with Dave Carpenter and Gary Novak, that band was considerably softer than, say, Hard Hat Area which was more aggressive.

The Innocent Abroad (Musician 1984)

Will Road Games rekindle Holdsworth’s legend, or will his insistence on pushing his own compositions to the forefront invite a whole second generation of self-deputized advisors to counsel, "Stick to soloing and leave the writing to hitmakers and geniuses." Allan doesn’t really care at this point. He’s not going to take the advice in any case. After all, he’s given the whole knotty problem a good deal of thought:

The Open End (Boston Sound Report 1988)

BSR: How do you write music?

AH: I’ll sit down with the intention of writing something. I usually leave it to the last minute and go, "Oh shit, we have an album to do in six weeks, I better write some music." (Laughs) So I just sit down and start writing music. I have to force myself into it. Every now and again I’ll come up with something, but I never come up with anything while I’m on the road, there are too many distractions. That’s why I’m anxious to get off the road, because we’ve been on the road for a while now. We were in Europe for two months, England for a month, and then we did a month here. Now we’re going to L.A. for a couple of weeks. So it’s over five months. Everything is in limbo. I don’t feel like l make any progress unless I am at home, working. You can make progress in certain aspects of your playing, on the road, but other aspects go out the window, like writing. I want to get out of that, and I want to go home.

BSR: Do you have a vision in your head of a perfect piece of music that you are working towards?

AH: No, as soon as I do something, I want to do something else. I just keep going forward. Like now, I want to do a solo album that is just composition, no drums or bass, just orchestral. Almost classical. I would like to do that.

The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)

If I’ve written something, it’s a very specific thing, and I want it to be a certain way. Even though someone else could play it, they might not play it exactly as you heard it, whereas if you’re playing it yourself - not that it’s any better - it’s going to be specific. And that’s really important. Even though Steve’s new tune "Joshua" sounds really open, it’s actually very specific in terms of the voicings and what he wanted to hear in the accompaniment. And in that instance, you let the guy do his thing. To serve that, we did that take live.