Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Just letting you all know that I just handed in the marks for the course, and all of the compositions are ready for pick-up outside my office.

Have a great Christmas!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Farewell, and thanks!

Thanks for all who commented on the various blog entries for this course over the past 3+ months. It has been a pleasure to read them, and I think many of you who read each others' comments feel similarly. It is definitely something I will incorporate into composition classes that I teach in the future. It would be nice to have the luxury of more time in every class in which to discuss issues of relevance to composers, but (a) we don't, and (b) some people seem to find it easier to be more reflective in a blog than they would be in a class discussion, so I think that even if we had time to discuss these things I'd still have a blog.

I have (as of 12 noon today) just finished counting up the number of comments made by each class member, and I must say there were some great comments made in just the past 2-3 days! In any event, the deadline for commenting has now passed, but if you happen to read this and are still in the process of commenting let me know ASAP, and I can still include your comments in my tabulations. But it has to be ASAP because I will be handing in the marks for this course first thing tomorrow morning (Tuesday).

Every member of this class has worked extremely hard this term, and you all have reason to feel very good about all that you achieved.

Best wishes to all, and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas break!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

More congratulations, and loose ends

I thought our second student composers concert of the term went exceedingly well tonight, so I extend my congratulations to you all on a job well done! There was definitely more of a 'flying-by-the-seat-of-you-pants' feeling to this one than there was in the first concert, but it all came off very well nonetheless. There were pieces that we heard for the first time in any version tonight; I don't think that's happened before in previous years (usually, the class gets to hear works in progress, as was the case in with the first project).

I wonder if the performers of James' piece (Melissa, Heidi, Saird) would be able to find 20 minutes or so at some point next week to re-record it? If not, James, you can submit your MIDI recording with your score.

In addition to offering my congratulations, I want to tie up a few loose ends, since the course is now all but over:
  1. Please come to class at 1PM Monday to fill out the course evaluation questionnaire.
  2. We will have a pizza party on Wednesday (at 1 PM). Please confirm your attendance in the 'comments' area below so that I know how much pizza to bring.
  3. Final version of scores and parts due 1PM Wednesday.
  4. If you have any catching up to do with regards to writing your blog entires and/or commenting on my class blogs, now would be the time. I'll probably be submitting marks for this course a week from Monday, or thereabouts, so if your comments/blog entries do not take place by next weekend, they probably won't be counted.
  5. drop by my office periodically beginning in about 8-9 days to look for your compositions. I'll leave them on a chair outside my door.
I guess all that remains is to congratulate you once again on your hard work and all that you have accomplished, and say that I hope each of you continues to compose because you all have a lot of talent and much to express.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Musical Detail (3)

I just finished going through a submitted score for this second project, and, in the interest of saving you all some time and potential grief, I'll share with you some of the detail issues that came up. You may be feeling as though you understand all that needs to be understood about musical detail ("I get it! My score must be really detailed!"), but your score may be suggesting otherwise. In no particular order, here are some of the issues that came up in the score I just saw:
  • Tempo indication (i.e., Moderato) should only be at the top of the first line (i.e., violin) in the score, and sometimes above the piano as well, since piano usually reads from the score. But each PART gets its own tempo indication. (In orchestra scores, each instrument family gets its own tempo marking.)

  • If you change tempo, use the same format you used at the beginning of your score. In most cases, that will mean having a tempo indication word ("Moderato") as well as a metronome marking ("quarter = 92").

  • As just mentioned, the pianist typically reads from the score, presumably because someone in the ensemble needs to know how it all is supposed to fit together. Sometimes the instruments above the piano use slightly smaller staff sizes, in part to make it easier for the pianist to distinguish his/her part from the others, and in part to allow more systems per page. But don't try for, say, 3 systems on a page if doing so results in a cramped appearance.

  • EVERY entry following more than a bar of rest should get its own dynamic.

  • Hairpins should have a destination dynamic, like "f" if crescendo, or "pp" if diminuendo. They also need a starting dynamic, but it isn't necessary to write a starting dynamic if it is clear from the previous measures what the dynamic should be.

  • Don't attach dynamics to rests (!).

  • Make sure there are no improperly-grouped rests or beams. Groupings usually follow the basic beat structure of the metre and its subdivisions,

  • If writing for wind instruments, where do they breathe? If you whistle through the part at tempo (don't worry if you don't get all the pitches right!), it will make it easier to determine where the best places to breathe would be.

  • String bowings MUST be in the score. This doesn't mean the 'up' and 'down' direction indicators, necessarily (although you can put them in when there is some specific direction that you want, like a series of downbows, for example), but it does mean putting slurs over groups of notes that are to be played with one bow. How to do this if you're not a violinist? Go through your string part playing 'air violin' or 'air cello' (in other words, bowing through the music on an invisible instrument; probably best attempted in private!), and feel what the best way to group notes would be. Then, once you have marked in your bowings, take it to a string player and ask them to play through it with a real instrument, and figure out how close you came to achieving what you actually want. If you do this a lot, you eventually develop a natural feel for how best to bow your own music.

  • Don't create big, loopy slurs; they tend to collide with other score elements, like other slurs, dynamics, notes, accents, etc.

  • Speaking of collisions, AVOID THEM! Notation software sometimes creates (or at least allows) collisions between dynamics and articulations, or slurs and notes, or written instructions and slurs, etc. These must be fixed.

  • Be picky in your page layout. If using multiple systems per page (which applies to everybody), make sure the systems are far enough apart so that dynamics, articulations, slurs, etc. in the bottom line of one system do not collide with anything in the top line of the next system. There is sometimes slightly more space between the piano part and the instruments above it, again to facilitate reading from the score for the pianist.

  • Also, keyboard instruments only need one dynamic, in the space between the LH and RH, unless the LH and RH are playing different dynamics.

  • And don't forget to find the clearest enharmonic note spellings possible; notation software is notorious for occasionally making poor choices for you in this regard.

  • Proof-read everything, especially parts. It's amazing what you can miss if you don't go through every part, bar by bar, checking to make sure all dynamics and other score information are there.

And the winner is...

Just for fun, I thought I'd make a list of the blogs for this course that have received the most comments (as of today).

Right now, two posts are tied with 10 comments each, but, taken by topic, there are two clear current leaders:
  • The two musical detail blogs have had a combined 16 comments, and

  • The two blogs with explanations of why compositional/stylistic restrictions were imposed ("Why Atonal Music?", and "Express Yourself?") have also had a combined 16 comments.
The three blogs relating to our musical clichés project received 10 total comments, and both the Kandinsky series and my "Composition Issues" series have had 9 comments.

The number of comments received is in the first column. Each blog title is a clickable link:

10    On Musical Detail
10    Why Atonal Music?
7     Next Project: Using Musical Clichés in Creating Art
7     Creative Angst; Welcome to the Club!
6     Musical Detail Addendum
6     Express Yourself?
6     Kandinsky's Theories (1)
6     Notation Software Woes
3     Congratulations
3     Kandinsky's Theories (2)
3     Writing a Play
3     Available Instruments
2     Composition Issues (2)
2     Composition Issues (5)
2     Composition Issues (6)
2     Composition Issues (9)
1     Using a Musical Style or Cliché as a Point of Departure
1     Composition Issues (1)

I'm not sure if there is enough data on which to scientifically base any conclusions, but here are a few possibilities:
  • The musical detail blogs may have helped make a number of you more aware of the importance of this issue, and engendered some good discussion;

  • Some of you seemed to appreciate having the opportunity to read and discuss the reasons behind the restrictions in projects (Why Atonal Music?, and Express Yourself?);

  • The more-philosophical thread about Kandinsky's Theories actually elicited a few more comments than I anticipated, which would suggest that at least some of you like to think and write about these things; and

  • My 9-part Composition Issues thread got 9 comments total, which isn't terrible (I guess; but possibly it is!), but no single entry received more than 2 comments. This probably means that it wasn't a great idea to post them all in August, since people tend to be most aware of what ever blog entries are most recent. They are an attempt to get you thinking about issues of potential relevance to composers, so I'll probably continue to recommend them to students in future composition courses.
Any further thoughts on this from any of you? What sorts of blogs did you find most interesting, or helpful, or useful?

Below is the screenshot from which this data originated.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Musical Detail (2)

Someone asked what I thought was a very fair question following my "On Musical Detail (1)" blog, and, rather than edit the original blog to clarify this point (it may already be the longest of all my blogs thus far!), I thought I'd answer it here.

The question:

What's wrong with using English terminology? Lots of composers used their native tongue; Debussy in French, Bach in German, Ives in English... I'm just curious as to why it's such a big deal to write in Italian or German when our primary language is English.

Here is my response:

Let's start with the following assumptions:

(1) A musical score is written in code. It is a code that not everyone can understand, even excellent musicians sometimes (we frequently hear that the Beatles couldn't read music, for example).

(2) What we as composers are trying to do is to use this code to communicate our intentions as clearly as possible, so that performers trained in the interpretation of the code can translate it into music that sounds as good (or even better) than we imagined it.

Everything I wrote about in my previous blog stems from these assumptions, especially #2.

With regard to language, it is true that composers write instructions in dozens of different languages in musical scores, like English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, Italian, etc.

But of all these, the one language that is most widely understood by classical musicians, at least when it comes to performance instructions (tempo, dynamics, and expressive markings), is Italian, so, from a purely practical point of view, it works best to give these kinds of instructions in Italian.

I would guess that most classical music students in North America are not well-enough versed in German to understand many German terms found in scores, and French instructions may not be widely understood outside of Canada and other French-speaking countries either.

English instructions are readily understood throughout most of North America, as well as in and many other places in the world, but, as I pointed out in my last blog, they resulted in some confusion during the ECM workshop last week since it is a predominantly French-speaking ensemble.

Therefore, from a purely pragmatic point of view it makes sense to use Italian terms for most of the common text information needed in a score, because that is what classical musicians are used to seeing.

That said, if there are times when the instruction you want is not a commonly-used Italian term, then by all means, write it in English! (But just be sure that there isn't a widely-understood Italian term that conveys the gist of your meaning before reverting to English.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Musical Detail (1)

This past Thursday (November 13, 2008), four of our students had a wonderful opportunity to have their compositions read by the Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal (ECM) under the direction of Véronique Lacroix, artistic director and conductor of the ensemble.

All composition/theory majors had been invited in early September to apply for this opportunity with the understanding that only four could be selected. A special composition course was set up for the four students, which consisted of a weekly two-hour meeting with Dr. Godin and myself, with the aim of composing a chamber music work (flute, bass clarinet, trombone, violin, and percussion) that the ECM would read.

One of the things that Dr. Godin and I stressed frequently (to the point of nagging, probably!) was the importance of musical detail in preparing a score and parts — It is an essential ingredient in conveying a sense of professionalism and compositional competence to the musicians performing your music.

Most of us have our music performed by friends when we start out as composers, and friends tend not to nit-pick too much when it comes to missing details. However, if your goal is to have your music performed by professionals, a thoroughly detailed-score is essential. Plus, even friends would appreciate a clear, well-presented score.

You've probably heard the saying that you don't get a second chance to make a first impression? Well, this truism applies to the scores you prepare as well, and the element that probably influences performers/conductors the most when making an initial evaluation of a score by an unknown composer is the professionalism in the appearance of the score, AKA musical detail. And, no matter how wonderful your music may be, if it doesn't make it past a conductor's initial evaluation stage, it isn't going to be performed.

The point of today's post is simple: If the score is impeccably prepared, it creates a good first impression; if it isn't, it the composer faces an uphill battle to gain the confidence of the conductor and performers.

Two more analogies, just because I am fond of analogies!

If you "finish" your composition without spending sufficient time to fix score detail issues, such as missing or inconsistent dynamics, articulations, bowing and breath slurs, etc., sub-optimal or inconsistent enharmonic spellings, ideas notated in an overly-complex way (see the end of today's post for an example), or other problems such as out-of-range notes, long runs of notes for a wind instrument that leave no room for the performer to breathe, string double stops that are unplayable, trombone glissandi that are impossible, etc., then…
  1. It's like having two strikes against you before you even step into the batter's box.
  2. It's like showing up for a job interview with the remnants of your breakfast distributed generously and equitably over your face and clothes. :p
Of course, even an impeccably-prepared score needs to have something else going for it if a professional ensemble to commit to actually programming it on a concert, but the point is that an absolutely brilliant composition is unlikely to draw much interest or support if the score is poorly prepared.

Unless you're famous, in which case none of this applies... :)

In the workshop, issues that kept coming up and slowing down the rehearsal, which was painfully embarrassing at times for the student composers, included:
  • Missing, unclear, or inconsistent dynamics;

  • Missing, unclear, or inconsistent articulations;

  • Missing rehearsal letters in some parts;

  • Use of English words (i.e., smoothly) as opposed to more standard, Italian terms (legato), which was an issue because the ensemble is predominantly francophone;

  • The impracticality of including a page full of performance notes at the start of the score (partly because not all musicians read English, but partly because, as we were told, the conductor and musicians are unlikely to actually read these instructions! "If it relates to the music," we were told, "then put it in the music!"

  • The use of a key signature in a transposed part of atonal music. Notation programmes sometimes insert a key signature into transposed parts, even if you don't want key signatures in parts! If the music is atonal and there is no key signature in the score, there should be none in the parts; if your notation programme has inserted one you need to remove it. Also, a key signature is relatively rare in contemporary music, and, because of that, it was completely overlooked by one of the performers).

  • Questions on breathing, bowing, phrasing, and pedalling (although there was no piano in the ensemble, there were nevertheless pedalling issues; percussion instruments included a high-hat, vibraphone, and timpani, and there was a question as to how to pedal all three when this particular percussionist had only two feet, and elected to use one on which to stand!).
All of these missing or unclear musical details resulted in valuable (and expensive! This was a professional ensemble whose time we were paying for) rehearsal time lost, a significant concern when each composer had only a half hour of rehearsal time available. For that reason alone, it is important to produce more detailed scores.

But they also resulted in some profoundly uncomfortable moments for the student composers; having a conductor point out flaws in your score in front of the ensemble and all other workshop attendees is not a very pleasant experience, even if the conductor does so graciously, which she did.

Unfortunately, many conductors and performers are not nearly as polite, in which case the situation can become downright mortifying. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience!

Two more issues that I don't believe came up during the workshop readings, but which come up all the time in our class, are
  1. Strange enharmonic spellings, and
  2. Unmusical rhythm notation,
The blame for these is often placed on whatever computer notation software that a student happens to be using, but IMO, it often comes down to a combination of carelessness and disregard for basic conventions learned in music rudiments courses (like notating rhythms to reflect the main beat and its subdivisions).

A good rule of thumb: Avoid information overload. Find the simplest way to notate your ideas. Consider the following two examples; they sound the same, but one is a lot easier to read than the other because it has less information:

So, as we reach the home-stretch of the final project for this course, I encourage you all to learn vicariously from the workshop experience of your fellow students and aim to produce professional-quality, musically detailed and easily-understood scores! And, if that is not incentive enough, remember that your mark will be better if you manage to do this, as indicated in the course outline.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Recontextualizing and atonality

Yet another blog entry based on a response I just made to a student comment...

A comment made about my previous blog ("Express yourself?") was: "At the same time, I don't think there needs to be an atonal section in everyones piece just to be creative and different. I think someone who has a completely tonal piece can set up unexpected passages just as well."

I agree completely!

I hope I haven’t been conveying a sense to the class that all pieces in the current project must veer into atonality, because I certainly don’t feel that way.

However, when I wrote my previous blog I was becoming concerned that, in the early stages of this project, some of the pieces I was hearing did not seem to be venturing very far beyond the cliché or idiom upon which they were based — If I were to listen to those pieces without knowing that they were intended as a recontextualization exercise, I wasn’t sure I would have been able to figure it out.

While it is clearly possible to write good music within a particular style or cliché, that was not the point of this project, so the possibility that some compositions might not have been heading in this direction concerned me.

One of the primary objectives in any of the composition assignments I give is to get students thinking about music in a way they might not otherwise do, AKA “thinking outside the box.” If a composition is not clearly distinguishable from the style or idiom upon which it is based, it probably means the student composer was not thinking sufficiently “outside the box” when writing it.

Which, to bring this back to the above student comment, is why I so often encourage/coerce(!) students to consider introducing atonality into their compositions. It is a way of recontextualizing a cliché or idiom, and it also compels the composer to make a personal discovery of a new harmonic language, something that the teacher in me feels is essential.

There are other ways, of course! But, quite frankly, I think that introducing atonality (or at least something other than diatonic or chromatic harmony) into a composition makes the task of recontextualization a lot easier than not doing so, in most cases.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Express yourself?

Possibly you saw the title of today's blog entry and were giddily anticipating reading about the Madonna song of the same name ("Don't go for second best baby, put your love to the test..."), and, if so, you may be disappointed to discover that it's just an entry on — you guessed it! — expressing yourself within the context of a composition course (like, say, Music 3100, for instance!). My apologies to all who may be feeling aggrieved over this, but perhaps you will find it an interesting topic anyway.

Did you take this course with the expectation that it would afford you the opportunity to freely express yourself through music? Composition may be like no other music course in terms of this expectation, at least amongst some students.

We do not expect this freedom in performance-related courses, even if we can agree that performing the works of others can (and, IMO, must!) involve an element of personal expression, and we certainly don't have it in courses like 1st- and 2nd- year music theory, or renaissance and baroque counterpoint, where we learn (amongst other things) to compose "in the style of" other composers and periods.

The only other course I can think of where there might be a similar expectation of the freedom to express oneself is Improvisation, but even in that course there are conventions to be learned. Group improvisation involves listening to others and working collectively with what you hear more than it does unrestricted personal expression.

As I think you have all discovered, even composition courses involve some restrictions on expressive freedoms. Each of the project guidelines/descriptions in this course, for instance, set out goals and limits within which each student had to work.

There is still tremendous freedom within these limits, but they are there all the same. You couldn't write tonal music for the first project, for example (at least not if you wanted to do well in the course!). And yet, as I think we all heard during our class recital last Thursday, everybody managed to write very personal and individual music within the limits, which was great, and exactly how it should be!

The idea of compositional restrictions can come as something of a disappointment for some students, unfortunately, and perhaps understandably so, since composition, like writing stories, novels, or plays, or creating any art, tends to be regarded as an activity based on complete freedom of expression. What business do composition professors have restricting students' creative impulses? Who do they think they are, anyway???!

Well, here's the way I think of it:

If you were to write a short story and submit it to a magazine for publication, there would be an excellent chance that your story would be rejected. Famous writers sometimes keep boxes filled with rejection slips — it seems to go with the territory — as a reminder of how long they had to persevere before becoming successful.

But let's say you took your story to an experienced editor who told you in very specific terms what was wrong with it. Perhaps it was in need of plot development, or it had technical issues such as faulty grammar, overuse of the same words, misuse of other words, overuse of 'etc.,' etc. :p

What would you do?
  1. Decide the editor is an idiot who doesn't know what s/he is talking about, and just keep sending the same story, unchanged, to as many journals as you can think of, in hopes that someone will one day see what a great story it is (after all, someone's got to win the lottery, right?).

  2. Take the editor's advice to heart, and work at fixing the story.

  3. All of the above (i.e., decide the editor's an idiot but take the advice to heart anyway!).

  4. Berate yourself for allowing yourself to think that you could ever be a writer (believe me, most successful composers and writers have had thoughts along these lines at some point(s) in their lives!).
There are probably a few other options too, but hopefully, most of you would elect to go with option 2 on this!

Composing music is not a perfect analogy to story-writing, of course, but there are many parallels between them. Both, at their best, represent a mixture of conventions, creativity, and technique.

My goal as a composition teacher is to (a) encourage creativity, but, more importantly, (b) help you develop the technique to express that creativity.

And that is why every project has some restrictions!

Saturday, November 8, 2008


On Thursday, 6 November, we had our first student composition concert, and all went well. More accurately, all went extremely well! I have already told you how impressed I was by the music you wrote and the professionalism with which it was performed, but don't just take it from me! Below are a couple of E-mails received from my colleagues that I thought you might like to read:

On 8-Nov-08, at 10:27 AM, Rob Power wrote:

Hi Clark,

I just wanted to pass along my congratulations to you and the composition class for the outstanding concert on thursday night. These recitals are always fun and interesting, but this one was particularly creative. I also very much appreciated their professional attitude and support of one another. What a great bunch of composers and performers!

Please pass my thanks along to the group.


On 7-Nov-08, at 11:18 AM, Paul Bendzsa wrote:

Hi Clark:

I was able to attend most of the first 1/2 of the concert last night. Fabulous! It was surprisingly fresh and and refreshing to hear so much originality.

Congratulations to all!


Dr. Kristina Szutor and Dr. Scott Godin also relayed to me their enthusiastic enjoyment of the music they heard at the concert.

You did exceptionally well, so give yourselves a pat on the back (if you can reach; otherwise, ask someone else to perform this task for you)!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Using a musical style or gesture as a point of departure

Picking up on a issue raised in yesterday's class, perhaps the central challenge with in this project is the question of how to draw upon the source of your cliché (i.e., blues/disco/fiddle music, etc.) without making it sound like the actual genre upon which the music is based?

In my description for this project, I wrote:

"Your aim should be to write something that falls into the art music tradition. The question of what exactly constitutes the "art music tradition" is well worth considering and discussing, but for now just think of it as an attempt to create art through music."


"Your aim in this, as in all our projects, will be to try to write music that fits somewhere in the continuum of contemporary art music."

Perhaps I should have written "the continuum of contemporary classical music," because "art music" may strike some as a rather pretentious term. What music ISN'T art music? (Rhetorical question; don't answer it!)

But all labels for contemporary classical music are problematic. Ask any composer how they respond when a stranger questions them about the kind of music they write, and chances are you will get a number of different answers, followed by an admission that we really don't know what to call the type of music we write, at least not when talking to people who don't normally hear this kind of music.

Possibly this is part of the reason this music isn't more mainstream!

In any event, the point I want to stress in today's post is this:

There is a fine line between a musical style or gesture and a work of art that recontextualizes that style or gesture, but it's a distinction that must be made by you in this project.

I am hoping that this will result in compositions that are clearly not in the style they are emulating, and just as clearly belonging to the admittedly-vague genre of contemporary classical music. If, for example, the 12-bar blues is the style/form you are recontextualizing, listeners should be able to hear the connection to the blues without thinking that it IS a blues composition.

Stravinsky wrote several compositions in this vein, such as the March from the Soldier's Tale, Ragtime for 11 Instruments, Piano-rag-music, Tango, and others.

I expect that everyone will come up with a different way of rising to this challenge, which is as it should be, but I hope no one will be offended if I express the concern that a work is sounding more like an emulation of a particular style than a contemporary classical work that uses a particular style or gesture as a point of departure.

EDIT: And please keep this in mind as you compose (excerpted from the October 14 project description):

Form: Any form, including one of your own invention, as long as it it can be seen to be an organic, motivically-unified composition showing development of musical materials.

TIme keeps on slippin', slippin' …

This is the twenty-third year I have been teaching at the university level (5 yrs at U of T while doing my doctorate, 1 yr at MacMaster, and 17 yrs here), and the way time slips out of one's control EVERY SINGLE TERM never fails to amaze me.

One minute you're on top of things, next minute things are on top of you.

Sound familiar?

All of which is my way of explaining why my mostly-weekly blog entries have not been mostly weekly for the past three weeks. In fact, they have been entirely absent, ironically, coming very soon after my "Delinquent Bloggers" post!

My apologies for this. I'll try to get back into the regular blogging habit for the remainder of the term. And possibly beyond, who knows.

I'm catching up on my reading of student blogs as much as I can this week. I may not always leave a response, but I usually will, and I definitely read them all.

One of the secrets to regular blogging is to keep posts short, at least some of the time (it's less daunting that way), so I'll leave it at that. I'm cooking up a longer blog entry to follow this, hopefully today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Next Project: Using Musical Clichés in Creating Art

Cliché (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary (on-line)):
  • A comment that is very often made and is therefore not original and not interesting:
  • Eg., "My wedding day - and I know it's a cliché - was just the happiest day of my life."
Cliché (Wiktionary):
  1. A phrase or expression that is overused and has thus lost its original impact; a trite saying; a platitude.
  2. Anything other than a phrase or expression (such as a plot device, etc) that is similarly overused.
  • Putting a love interest into a film is a bit of a cliché.

A phrase that has lost its original impact due to overuse is not usually desirable in art (except, perhaps, minimalism) or life, but what would happen if you were recontextualize a cliché in an unexpected way?

Consider this sentence (excerpted from an incredibly-famous novel with the permission of the author):

"My wedding day was the happiest day of my life," said Wanda Hufnagel dreamily. "It's not every day that an act of revenge works out so perfectly!"

It begins with a cliché and is then immediately followed by information that places it in an unexpected context, and if you have read my (incredibly-famous) 9-part series on Composition Issues (note the handy link to it if you missed it!), you will know that one of the dichotomies that I believe is at the core of all successful compositions is the relationship between the Expected and the Unexpected.

And so, with this in mind, here is your next project:
  • Write a composition that makes prominent use of one or more musical clichés, placed in a context that is unexpected/fresh/original.

  • Style: There is no restriction as to style when it comes to your choice of clichés, but your aim should be to write something that falls into the broad spectrum of contemporary classical music. The question of what exactly constitutes "contemporary classical music" is well worth considering and discussing, but for now just think of it as an attempt to create art through music, as opposed to, say, an attempt to sell refrigerators and colour TVs through music (to borrow a concept from Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing")! [And no, I am not denigrating pop music; the best examples of music in any genre may be considered art. I don't buy into the "high art/low art" dichotomy!]

  • Duration: A single movement, 3-5 minutes in length.

  • Form: Any form, including one of your own invention, as long as it it can be seen to be an organic, motivically-unified composition showing development of musical materials.

  • Instrumentation: 3 performers. One of them can be a singer, and no two instruments can be the same.

  • Due date of score and parts: Friday, November 22 (5PM).
In progress works will continue to be presented in class every week.

These will be performed at our end-of-term recital (Nov 29, Petro-Canada Hall).

Any questions you may have will be answered in class.

Delinquent Bloggers

The Thanksgiving break was a great opportunity to catch up on your journals and blog commenting, but if you did not do so, consider this a gentle reminder to spend some time on these activities in the near future.

Journaling can provide the opportunity to clarify your thoughts about your composition by keeping a record of the feedback received in class and your responses to it, but the longer you go without posting a journal, the less useful the process will be. I would also guess that if you wait too long to post your blog, it will be very difficult to remember what exactly was said about your piece.

And the reason I made it a requirement to make at least one weekly comment on my blog entries is that these provide a forum in which to think about and discuss ideas relating to composition and the creative process, something we tend to have little or no time for in class. These too work best if you try to make at least one thoughtful post per week, because doing so might give you specific ideas that you find useful in writing your music.

Most of you have posted a journal entry in the past week, which is great, but a few have not posted anything for anywhere from 2-5 weeks, hence the gentle nudge!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Order of Class Presentation

Nothing profound today, just an "official" order of presentation for Mu3100 students.
  • You must be ready to present your work on the day scheduled (and don't forget about the late penalty if you are not!).

  • If there are extenuating circumstances, you may switch days with someone, as long as you can find someone to switch with.

  • The order of presentation within a class is free, however. Generally, we will start with compositions that involve performers that are not in our class, and, other than that, we'll proceed more or less in the order you arrive. We'll also try to change the order of whoever happens to be last to present on any particular day, since the last person often gets a little less time due to time pressures.

  • Getting through 6 compositions on Wednesdays is obviously going to be an almost impossible challenge, so there may be times when someone gets bumped from their assigned day to the next class.

  • Classes will start at 1PM sharp.
Monday: Saird, Mike, Kate, Melissa B, Kim

Wednesday: Dylan, Phil, Melissa W, Robbie, Meg, Mathieu

Friday: James, Heidi, Neil, Justin, Jessica

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kandinsky's Theories (1)

Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) is one of the best-known 20th-century artists (he is regarded as the originator of abstract art), but he did not begin painting studies until he was 30. Kandinsky had previously studied Law and Economics at the University of Moscow and was evidently very successful, because he was offered a professorship (chair of Roman Law) at the University of Dorpat (Estonia).

And I thought I was a late starter… [ 3 ] ←

In addition to his accomplishments as a painter (visit this website to see his paintings and learn more about him: https://www.artsy.net/artist/wassily-kandinsky), he was also a theorist with strong convictions about the role of art and the artist in society, and more painting-specific issues such as colour theories (he believed that certain colors have an affinity for certain shapes; see more here).

My friend and fellow composer John Oliver wrote a blog ("Artist's Statement") in which he cites Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value: The Personal, The Ephemeral, and The Eternal. This topic—the role of the artist—fascinates me, and it's something I try to get my students to think about, so I will follow my own advice about not getting too hung-up on originality (see: Is Originality a Detriment in Art?, How Important is Originality in Art?, and Originality — Does it have Any Role in Art? ) and reproduce John's Kandinsky quote below:

1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to oneself (element of personality).

2. Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to one's own time (elements of style ...)

3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space).

I will also add another quote from the same booklet, entitled "On the Spiritual in Art" (the publication date of which I have seen listed as 1910, 1911, and 1912 at various places on the Internet). Kandinsky also wrote:

Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated.

Okay; lots to think about there, but this is getting long, so more later!

  • [ 3 ] I decided to become a musician after finishing my BA (humanities) degree. The decision was a rather odd one, in retrospect, because I could barely read music and couldn't play any instrument particularly well. Recognizing that my severe lack of musical skills could get in the way becoming a musician, I began the formal study of music (rudiments) in my twenties, and continued on weekends, evenings, and off-hours while working at a variety of jobs (bus information operator, stereo/electronics sales, department store sales clerk) over the next 15 years, leading eventually (and improbably) to a doctorate in composition. [ ↑ ]
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    Kandinsky's Theories (2)

    (For part 1 on Kandinsky's theories, see previous entry)

    Let's examine Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value.
    The first is a concept that I suspect most would agree with: An artist must express something personal through their art. Kandinsky goes even further, however, by writing that what the artist expresses must not only be personal, but "peculiar to oneself."
    But what is unique to any of us? I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure that there is absolutely no attribute that I possess that is not also possessed by other people. We (or at least most people I know) like to think of ourselves as unique, but I would suggest that it is the combination of traits we possess that makes us and others feel that we are, and it is this combination of traits that makes up our personality.
    I'm fine with the idea that there is a connection between one's personality and one's artistic creations, but I'm proposing that it is impossible to "express what is peculiar to oneself," because nothing is.
    Just for fun, I'm going to flip Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity' to:
    1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is universal.
    I'm not sure I agree with it 100%, but it seems to me that it is true of much artwork of lasting value. I recall reading at some point that most songs are love songs. If true, the reason for this would seem to be obvious; love is something that we've all experienced, and something that affects us profoundly. It is as close to a universal experience as there is.
    But so are basic bodily functions, and you don't hear too many songs about being hungry, or needing to pee. You may conclude from this that there is a vast, untapped market for songs relating to bladder control (the "I had to pee but the teacher wouldn't let me" blues, for instance?), but my own take is that a quality in addition to universality must be present for my above statement to have some validity.
    What to name this quality? Perhaps 'poetry,' or 'mystery,' or simply 'something that causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way.' And perhaps this quality, whatever you wish to call it, is tied in with the personal, which would bring it back to the territory covered by Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity.'
    Speaking of which, I don't know about you, but whenever someone says you "must" do something, my natural inclination is to refuse and/or do the opposite. I am not a fan of imperatives, I guess, which is probably part of the reason I became a composer. So when I read Kandinsky's three 'mystical necessities,' I notice they are all 'must' statements and right off the bat there is a part of me that bristles at being told what I must do.
    My amended wording of #1 would be something like this:
    1. Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.
    And perhaps mysterious too, but this is getting long, so I think I'll leave it at that for today.
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    Kandinsky's Theories (3)

    In my last entry I discussed Kandinsky's theory that the artist "must express what is peculiar to oneself," proposed as one of the three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value, and I suggested that this may be an impossible challenge to meet since I cannot think of any human attribute that is not shared. In trying to come up with a related set of principles that I felt I could agree with, I came up with:

    1. Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.

    Before I go on, I want to sneak in a second principle, one that was also mentioned in my previous entry:

    2. It often causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way (Perspective).

    And, while I'm at it, I'll add a couple more:

    3. It speaks to us; people (but not all people, necessarily) feel a connection to it.

    4. It often touches on the mysterious.

    I think that #3 is self-evident (but I'd welcome input from anyone would like to suggest otherwise!); most of us value an art work because we feel a connection to it. I think this is where the notion that "art is in the eye of the beholder" comes from.

    I touched on the quality of mystery in part 2 of this series. What I'm getting at is the idea that it is one thing for art to grab our attention, and it is another to hold it. There needs to be something there that makes us want to continue our engagement with the art, and perhaps that thing, or at least one element of that thing, is mystery. The Mona Lisa is a good example of this. What the heck is she half-smiling about? It's a mystery, but maybe if we stare at it long enough…

    5. It often touches on the sublime.

    Maybe #4 and #5 are two aspects of the same thing, but I made a separate entry for 'the sublime' because of the number of times I have heard people refer to God in reference to art; for some, great art is evidence of the divine, or at least of the way divinity is expressed through human creations. An art work that is highly valued is often said to be greater than the sum of its parts, and perhaps this is because it touches on the sublime, a quality that is difficult to quantify.

    6. It usually demonstrates technical excellence.

    I throw "technique" into the mix because it's one of my pet causes as a music teacher. The better your technical skills, the better equipped you are to create the kind of art you imagine. Are there 'great' works of art with poor or even average technique? Perhaps; both 'greatness' and 'technique' are qualities that are debatable (although the former more than the latter, I think), but it seems to me that most art referred to as 'great' also demonstrates excellent technique.

    Kandinsky's second "mystical necessity" is that the artist "must express what is peculiar to one's own time," and that is something I think is undeniable. What makes it particularly interesting in our time is that post-modernist art often draws on the art of periods other than our own, but in a way that usually is distinguishable from the art of earlier periods. I do this in some (or much?) of my own compositions; "Dream Dance," for example has sections that evoke (for me, at least) the music of Bach, Haydn, Phillip Glass, Scott Joplin, and Gershwin. In my programme note for the piece I call it an example of "Poly-stylism" because of this, but a composition that mixes styles in this way could not have been written in any period other than our own.

    Here's the way I'd put it:

    7. It is recognizably of its own time.

    Kankinsky's third "mystical necessity" speaks to a transcendent quality in art, which he calls "the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space."

    He rather goes over the top here, does he not? In any event, I think I understand what he means, and I mostly agree with it, although I think it is important to add tha but it's hard to think of art that is felt to be meaningful to "every individual, every people, every age," etc. The Taj Mahal might come close to this kind of pan-cultural ideal, but for the most part, it seems to me that art's appeal tends to have a strong element of culture-specificity. The art of Beethoven, Kandinsky, and yes, even yours truly are not held in equally high regard in all parts of the world (or even within western culture), and, conversely, it has only been in the last few decades that many people in our culture have begun to appreciate and value music from non-western cultures.

    Here is my wording:

    8. Its appeal transcends some cultures and periods.

    And that's all for today, and, probably for my Kandinsky-inspired discussion as well!
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    Notation Software Woes

    Once again, this post is based on a response I made to a student's journal/blog entry…

    The notation programme I have used for the past 15 years or so is called "Composer's Mosaic," by Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU). As you might imagine, I feel extremely comfortable with it, even though it is a more limited programme than Sibelius, Finale, or Notability Pro [click the links if you wish to find out more about them]. But, because I'm usually composing to meet a deadline, the thought of having to learn new notation software AND meet a deadline is pretty daunting and stressful.

    Unfortunately, MOTU stopped supporting Mosaic in 1997. This means that I have to keep an ancient computer around for the sole purpose of running Mosaic, because it doesn't run under the current Mac operating system (OS X).

    Obviously, at some point this will no longer be an option — all computers die eventually — so, I bought Sibelius and Finale a few years ago, intending to try both to see which I liked better, and then stick with that one.

    But the frustration of having to learn a new notation programme while keeping the creative flow going, AND while trying to meet commission deadlines, is huge… So far, I have written one piece in Finale (Dream Dance, which Kristina Szutor played in the 2008 Newfound Music Festival), and I feel I am slowly getting the hang of it, although the number of times I have to go to the manual to look up how to do something really basic is ridiculous, and a real inspiration killer.

    Nevertheless, having learned Finale well enough to have completed one piece, I am ready to try a more ambitious composing project with Finale.

    Not to say that Dream Dance wasn't ambitious; what I mean is that, having muddled my way through the process of using Finale to notate a fairly lengthy solo piano piece, I think I may be ready to try writing chamber music with Finale next.

    I should probably give Sibelius a try too. I know a lot of people insist that it's easier to use than Finale, although in my very cursory attempts to do anything with it I still found it less intuitive and more inflexible than I was hoping for. But I think that would be true of any notation programme.

    Incidentally, one programme that really intrigues me is Notability Pro. It only works on Mac OS X, but it is now FREE (it was not free originally)! Most people, when they see that something is free, conclude that it isn't a high-quality product, but I am told that, not only is it of high quality, but some of my composer friends say it is superior to Finale or Sibelius.

    Notability Pro describes itself as:
    • "easily the most sophisticated music notation software available on any platform. NoteAbility combines both musical intelligence and graphical flexibility in a direct and intuitive graphical user interface. Notate anything from simple melodies to complex avant garde orchestral music, play the score on your MIDI synthesizer or using Quicktime Musical Instruments and print a publishable copy of your score on any OS-X compatible printer."
    And here's the clincher:
    • "If you have been frustrated by the awkwardness and inflexibility of other notation programs, or by the time it takes to learn them, then you definitely should have a look at NoteAbility Pro."

    Sounds pretty impressive, does it not? You may be thinking, 'but why believe the hype on the company's web page?" Mostly, I feel the same way; be wary of hype!

    However, in this case, I am more inclined to believe it than not, because the product was developed by Dr. Keith Hamel, an outstanding composer and professor at the University of British Columbia, and he happens to be a friend of mine. Basically, if Keith says his programme is both easy to use and the most sophisticated music notation software out there, then I'll take his word for it.

    Also, as I mentioned above, some composer friends of mine swear by it (not at it, which is something I occasionally did while learning Finale), telling me it is better, and easier to learn, than both Sibelius and Finale. And, in addition to now being free, Notability Pro does not charge for upgrades. Both Sibelius and Finale release yearly "upgrades" and charge fairly hefty upgrade fees for them.

    [EDIT (2016): Sibelius and Finale seem to have abandoned the yearly updates. Sibelius is now being sold "by subscription" only, as far as I can tell, meaning they charge you a monthly fee to use their software. This seems lame in the extreme. Finale's current version is 2014 [as of 2017, the current version is 24.5], and you can still buy the software outright (academic price: US$350).]

    [FURTHER EDITS (2018):

    1. Finale has continued to produce updates, but they no longer appear to be yearly (which is a good thing, IMO; upgrades cost a lot).

    2. I'm not sure if Sibelius has changed their "by subscription only" model, but I don't think so, according to what a couple of students have told me.

    3. After completing "Dream Dance" (which is mentioned above) in Finale, I ended up using nothing but Finale for the last several years. The reason is the obvious one; once I became comfortable with it, and those long, inspiration-crushing attempts to figure stuff out became mostly a thing of the past, then it became pretty easy to use, and I'm content with it.

    4. I'd still like to try Notability Pro at some point, but I'm not sure I want to try it badly enough to go through the learning curve for yet another notation software programme. If I do, perhaps I'll come back here and report on it.]

    The point is that I know some of you are just learning notation software for the first time so that you can use it in this course, and you are running into frustrations, and I can relate to this!

    But, try to persevere (I seem to use that word a lot, don't I?), because it's useful to be able to create beautifully-notated scores with computer software.

    And if you get stuck or frustrated, ask for help; you can ask in class, or ask me outside of class, or ask other students, because the number of students who are knowledgeable about Finale seems to increase every year.

    Monday, September 22, 2008

    Creative Angst... Welcome to the club!

    Another entry based on a reply I just made to a student journal entry...

    Some of you may be finding that you are not content with a composition; you know it could be better, or perhaps you feel it ought to be better, but you're not exactly sure how to achieve this. And meanwhile, there's a deadline fast approaching... Yikes!

    We tend to want our music to be not only good, but personal as well. After all, people who hear unfamiliar works by well-known composers can often recognize who wrote them, which suggests that there is something of ourselves — almost like a strand of DNA — in the things we create; or at least this seems to be the case in the hands of most composers, bands, and artists in general.

    And so, knowing that what we create is in some way a reflection of who we are, we sometimes find ourselves wishing our compositions were better, but perhaps feeling stymied as to how, exactly, we should go about making them better.

    If it is any consolation, this "creative angst" is a normal part of the creative process. I suspect that even professional composers (or, more generally, all people who create things) experience this on a fairly regular basis.

    The more you compose, the more developed and sophisticated your compositional skills become, so if this project is one of your first forays into writing music, rest assured that your ability to write the kind of music of which you are capable will grow in leaps (and possibly bounds, too; who knows?) as long as you keep at it.

    Regarding your weekly composition projects, I would just encourage you persevere until you're pretty sure that each one is as good as you can make it for now, and then move on to the next piece.

    When you start out as a composer your musical taste generally exceeds your compositional abilities (which is the compositional equivalent to the adage about one's reach exceeding one's grasp), so it is nearly impossible to reach a point where you are 100% satisfied with your creations. "I know what good music is," you might think to yourself, "and this [our composition] isn't it!"

    Maybe. Or maybe it's better than you realize. But, more importantly, remember that your skills as a performer/music connoisseur weren't developed overnight, and the same is true of your compositional skills. If you keep at it, you will eventually reach the point where you become better able to express what you want through music, and therefore become more content with what you compose. When this course is over, you might even surprise yourself by how good some of the compositions you created are.

    And they'll just get better if you persevere.

    There is also a beneficial aspect of creative angst: The points in a composition that gave you the most grief in the composition process can become the sections of which you are proudest when your composition is finished. These "angst-ridden" points may turn out to be the most inspired, since greater inspiration is often necessary to work through creative roadblocks. Read more on this in "Running into a Brick Wall," if you like.

    Friday, September 19, 2008

    Writing a Play

    This is adapted and expanded from a reply I just made to a student's journal entry. I have posted it here on the class blog in case anyone else might find the ideas useful too.

    If you were writing a play, you would, for the most part, be writing dialogue. Dialogue tends to be sequential; that is, one person speaks, then another, then another, etc. Sometimes one character might speak at length; other times, the dialogue may be rather rapid-fire and choppy, with characters interrupting one another, and perhaps even speaking at the same time. And sometimes, characters are silent, but engaged in some activity that the audience can see, as indicated in stage directions.

    Composing has analogies to all these things. You can feature one particular instrument for a while, then focus on a different one, and continue soloing instruments sequentially, but you can also have instruments interrupting one another in a way similar to the rapid-fire, choppy dialogue described above. You can even have players wander about the stage while playing their instruments, or not playing their instruments, assuming their instruments are portable.

    However, a significant difference between play-writing and composing music is that music typically has multiple instruments 'speaking' at the same time, whereas it would be unusual to have multiple characters in a play speak simultaneously, presumably because it would make it hard to understand what they were saying.

    What is it about music that makes multiple instruments playing simultaneously work so well as to be the norm?

    The answer is easy: The composer/arranger assigns different roles to different instruments (or different groups of instruments), and those roles can change occasionally.

    A trumpet solo might be accompanied by slow-moving chords in the strings in a work for orchestra. In this case, the trumpet has a foreground role, while the strings are playing more of background (but essential, nonetheless!) role. Or the trumpet could be in 'dialogue' with another instrument, perhaps the oboe, where they take turns 'saying something,' and perhaps they might even overlap sometimes, while the strings continue in their background role. In that case, both the trumpet and oboe have a similar role.

    A division of musical roles that you learn about in orchestration class is:

    Foreground — Middle ground — Background.

    In this case, the orchestrator/composer decides on a role for each instrument or choir of instruments, and writes accordingly. This 3-part division of roles is a bit more challenging to manage when you are only writing for two instruments, but it is nevertheless achievable if one of the instruments is piano, because you could, for example, have a LH bass line supporting a trumpet melody, while the RH plays chords. In this case, the trumpet would be foreground, piano LH middle ground, and piano RH (chords) would be background.

    One interesting thing about music, though, is that you don't usually see more than three roles represented simultaneously, presumably because, like having several people speak at once in a play, it would result in information overload. However, there may be times where information overload is exactly what you want — perhaps to convey a sense of chaos in the music — in which case you should feel free to give it a try!

    In any event, as you compose, decide on the role of each instrument at any given time, and consider altering that role periodically, perhaps with unexpected interruptions, or by having the instruments take turns being in the foreground/background, or with the instruments having identical roles sometimes (perhaps one is rhythmically doubling the other), etc.

    Another parallel is that just as you wouldn't try to write a dialogue between two characters in a play by writing lines for one character first, and then, once that was finished, writing the lines for another, you would typically write for your two instruments at the same time too. Not to say that you CAN'T do it the other way — anything is worth a try if you wish to do so — but composers typically write for multiple instruments at the same time, probably because it seems the best way to allow the instruments to be equal partners in the music.

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    17 Blogs!

    The "Mu3100 Student Blog List" (on the right column of this page) shows that we are now up to 17 student blogs, which I believe means that all students in this course now have functioning blogs, which is good news... Woo hoo!

    I have a few requests:
    1. Most people's blogs are called "My 3100 Blog," or something along those lines. I would appreciate it if you could change your blog name to anything with your name in it (like: "Clark R's Mu3100 Blog"), as it would make them easier to identify for me .

    2. Don't forget that you get 10% of the mark for this course just for making reasonably intelligent blog entries every week. Most of you are doing this, and doing it well, but there are a few slow starters who have posted very little, so if you're in the late-starters group try to get going on this a.s.a.p.

    3. By the same token, another 10% of the mark is for making a reasonably thoughtful comment on any of the blogs on this page (especially archived ones), and I think a majority of you have yet to participate in this way, so please try to get started on that as well. The blog entries of mine that I'd most like you to read, think about, and discuss, are those in the 9-part series called "composition issues," so please read these and leave comments. These are all in the August archive, accessible on the right hand column of this page; or you could click on the hot link I just made to take you to the outline for the series, and from there there are links to each of the 9 parts.

    4. And finally, if you haven't already done so, please click on "Composition Blog Followers" on the right column of this page in order to follow it. Right now there are about 6 students who have not done so.

    Monday, September 15, 2008

    Available Instruments

    If you would like to write for an instrument played by one of your classmates, choose from the following:

    Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Sax (any), Trumpet, Trombone, Euphonium, Percussion, Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Piano/harpsichord/organ.

    If I have missed anybody, please let me know!
    • Make sure you ask the person you intend to write for if they are willing to perform your piece!

    • You can also select instruments played by other music school students, of course, but it makes things a lot less complicated if you choose one of the above instruments.

    • If you are having trouble finding someone to play your music, let me know, and I'll help if I can.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    What next?

    [ N.B. This is a follow-up to the Project 1 Description for Mu3100. Please read that and complete your atonal chord progression before reading this.]

    Once you have created chords with which you are content, the next step is to compose a short character piece based on your chords.

    How short? Well, there is no exact answer to this, but perhaps somewhere between 1-3 pages of music. Obviously, page length is affected by the number of bars you squeeze into each system, and the number of systems you squeeze onto each page, but the overriding consideration when it comes to deciding how long a piece should be is to determine how long it needs to be. I know that sounds a bit mystical, but that's the way I look at it, anyway. If you feel your composition has said all it needs to in one page, then great; your first piece may well be done! If you feel that, at the end of three pages, it still has more to say, then I guess you'd better keep it going a bit longer! If you're not sure how long it should be, don't worry, because you'll get feedback from your classmates and myself on this issue.

    • The description for Project 1 challenges you to create a sense of "timelessness" through your chords. Try to come up with rhythmic values for your chords that don't always emphasize the strong beats in a given meter (i.e., beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 time). This frees up the rhythm, and can cause the listener to be drawn into each sonority more deeply, especially if the chords do not change very quickly.

    You may repeat chords immediately, or you may interpolate earlier chords between later chords. i.e., chord numbers 1, 2, 3, 3, 4; or 1, 2, 3, 1, 4, etc.

    You may switch registers; I encourage you to consider repeating a given chord in a different register (or in several different registers). Does the colour or harmonic tension of your chord change as the registers change?

    Register (range) is one of the variables you can control and play with. For example, you could have a character piece that sits entirely in an upper register (i.e., no notes below middle C). Or you could have a piece that starts high but ends low, and vice versa. Or you could only use the registral extremes in one of your pieces (i.e., only very high and very low notes, nothing in between). Or you could have rapid and frequent register changes. Or you could have one instrument in one register and the other instrument in a different one. There are many more possibilities!

    You may re-voice chords (possibly while repeating them and/or while doing so in a different register).

    You may add passing tones and other "Non Chord Tones."

    Add a melody to your chords,. This may be played on an instrument of your choice, but preferably chosen from instruments that your classmates play (for pragmatic reasons), or it may be played by the piano, or it may be shared between them in some way.

    • Many student compositions have the melody instrument and piano starting at the same time, i.e., beat one of bar one. There is no reason you CAN'T do that, of course, but bear in mind that this doesn't usually happen in actual chamber music! Frequently, in music for piano and one other instrument, one instrument begins by itself, and the other joins in fairly soon thereafter. Consider trying this.

    • Along similar lines, consider the role of each instrument. Are they in dialogue? Is one more prominent than the other? Do they take turns being prominent and being supportive? Are you using rests?

    Silence (rests): Consider using it.

    Add dynamics and articulations as you compose. You can always change them later, but try to avoid the temptation to leave them out and then add them after you have finished the piece; dynamics and articulations are an integral part of the composition, not an afterthought.

    • If writing for a wind instrument, where will they breathe? If writing for a bowed instrument, what kind of bowing do you have in mind? You may wish to brush up on bowing techniques from your orchestration text.

    • Speaking of orchestration texts, you should obviously know the range of the added instrument, but even more importantly, you should review other aspects of that instrument as well, such as how the colour changes in different registers, how loud/soft it can play (and how well it can be heard) in different registers, what some of its challenges are (for example, flutes can't really play softly in their highest register, and they tend to be fairly quiet in the lowest register), how agile it is, what constitutes idiomatic writing for that instrument, etc.

    • Somewhere in the midst of all this you need to think of a character for your composition. All you need do is come up with a character for this particular piece; remember that this will be one of three pieces you will be writing. Possible characters to choose from: Nervous, mystical (trance), bombastic, joyful, sad, angry, optimistic, dark, crazy, scary, playful, exuberant, simple, etc.

    Good luck!

    Sunday, September 7, 2008

    Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?

    Our first composition project (see Project Description) of this course requires students to create a progression of 12-16 chords for piano where the harmonic tension gradually increases to about the two-thirds point, and then gradually decreases to the end. The chords must be atonal.

    Which begs the question, "why atonal?"

    Here are some of my reasons:
    • The first is that almost every course that involves writing or studying music in the School of Music (1st- and 2nd-year theory, 16th and 18th-century counterpoint, orchestration, aural labs, keyboard harmony, analysis, jazz theory and arranging, etc.) concerns itself with tonal music, and composition is one of the few courses where there is an opportunity to write post-tonal music (electronic music is another). If you don't try writing this kind of music here, it is possible that you would not have the opportunity to do so in any of your other courses!

    • The 20th century was period of unprecedented stylistic change and contrast in music history. Graduating without ever having dipped your toe into the pool of 20th-century techniques would be sad, and difficult to justify.

    • Just as we can better understand renaissance music by learning to write 16th-century counterpoint, we can better understand much of the music of the 20th century by learning to write post-tonal music.

    • Doing so gives you a broader palette of techniques from which to choose as you proceed on the journey to discovering your own musical voice as a composer.

    • Developing your own musical voice as a composer is surprisingly difficult if you limit yourself to composing tonal music. You may wish to debate this point (and I would be happy to engage in such a discussion!), but this has been my experience, based on hearing numerous student compositions over the years. I, like many composers of contemporary classical music, often write music that can be said to be either tonal, or very closely linked to tonal music. I do not believe I would have been able to write music like this, however, had I not undergone a period of many years of studying and composing atonal music. It gives you a different perspective on the nature of tonality, and, ironically, it frees up your thinking as to new possibilities within tonality.

    • It works. I've tried this teaching method for 16 years now, and, despite initial resistance or wariness by some students, which is understandable, it has always resulted in students writing music that I considered to be anywhere from pretty good to impressively good; I believe (in part, because students have told me this) that even the most skeptical students would acknowledge that they ended up writing music that exceeded their own expectations. I once gave a paper at an American meeting of fellow composition professors in which I played excerpts from several student works created in the previous semester's Mu3100 course, and my colleagues' responses were unfailingly positive; many told me they were amazed at the quality of the compositions they heard, especially considering that the works they heard represented the first attempts at composing for almost all of the students, and that the students were just random students who chose to take the Introduction to Composition course, not composition majors. It works, so I keep teaching this way!
    Hopefully, these reasons make sense to you. I guess the main point is that my job is to help students who take this course become better composers, and at this early stage in the process (this is an introductory-level course), I think it essential to explore atonality in order to discover new sonic possibilities.


    Sunday, August 31, 2008

    Composition Issues (outline)

    This is a handout prepared for my introductory composition class, posted here in case anyone might find it useful or wish to make comments or suggestions for improvements. Its main objective is to provoke thought about issues that come up when composing, and to engender discussion on these issues. There are usually no right or wrong answers to the questions posed, but some may find benefit in considering and debating them.

    Here are the 9 sections, and how they break down; each is a separate blog entry:

    1. Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
    1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
    1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much. Shocking, isn't it?

    2. How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
    2.1. Study the music of others.
    2.2. Compose as much as you can.
    2.3. Invite criticism from others.

    3. Understanding your Musical Idea
    3.1. Live with it for a while.
    3.2. What's it about?
    3.3. Does it change character?
    3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
    3.5. Structural Analysis.
    3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

    4. The Pros and Cons of Development

    5. How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions

    6. Balancing the Old with the New, the Expected with the Unexpected

    7. More Dichotomies to Ponder…
    7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
    7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
    7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
    7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
    7.5. The George Costanza approach.

    8. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
    8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
    8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
    8.3. The value of a plan.
    8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
    8.5. Don't obsess!
    8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

    9. Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it

    Composition Issues (1)

    [From a 9-part series for my introductory composition class.]

    1. Originality and Quality of initial musical ideas

    Everyone who has ever played a musical instrument or sung has probably come up with their own musical ideas (a melody or melodic fragment, chord progression, rhythm, etc.)
    at some point. Sometimes, this gives rise to the impulse to create a complete musical composition, but many people have told me that they did not follow through on this impulse because they felt their initial musical idea was 'not good enough,' or 'unoriginal.'
    f this has ever happened to you, I would like to suggest two possibly radical concepts to consider:

    The quality of these ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that might emerge from them; and

    The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

    While it would
    probably be a better plan to start with a high quality, original idea, a good composition can start with an uninspired, not-particularly-original idea!

    •Consider 1 & 2; can you think of any examples?

    If true, what the above statements suggest is:

    The way in which your musical ideas are extended and developed into complete compositions matters more than the quality/originality of the ideas themselves.


    Composition is a craft. The harder you work at developing your craft, the better your ability to compose the kind of music you'd like to hear.

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    Composition Issues (2)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
    2. How do you develop compositional craft?

    2.1. Study the music of others.

    (a) Study music of different genres; try to understand as many styles of composition as you can (but don't feel you have to fully understand all genres, or indeed any genre, before you begin composing; the study can be a lifelong process).

    •How many compositions have you studied in detail?
    •What types of compositions have you studied in detail?
    •How much of your knowledge of music comes from history textbooks or other secondary sources, and how much comes from your study of specific compositions?

    (b) Include lots of 20th- and 21st-century music in your studies. It has been my experience that a great many students who have some interest in composing have no (or limited) interest in the concert music of the past 80 (or so) years.

    •Discuss; is this generally true? Is it true for you? If so, why? Is there anything wrong with this?

    (c) Study (or at least listen to) at least one piece by at least 6 of the following composers. When you find works that are particularly interesting/moving etc., study/listen to more works by that composer. Find out more about them via web searches or other means.
    John AdamsLouis Andriessen Bela BartókLuciano Berio
    Pierre BoulezJohn Cage Ka Nin ChanAaron Copland
    George CrumbMario Davidovsky Morton Feldman Brian Ferneyhough
    Philip GlassGerard GriseyChris Paul Harman Charles Ives
    Helmut LachenmannGyörgy LigetiWitold Lutosławski Olivier Messiaen
    Tristan MurailJohn OswaldSteve Reich George Rochberg
    Clark RossKaija SaariahoGiacinto ScelsiAnne Southam
    Karlheinz StockhausenToru TakemitsuGiles TremblayAnton Webern
    John Weinzweig Christian WolffBernd Alois ZimmermannWalter Zimmermann

    (d) Think like a composer (part 1) while you listen or study. Ask yourself why something (a composition, a section, a musical gesture) works or doesn't; does a given musical idea or section go on too long, too short, or is it just right? Does it speak to you? Why or why not? What qualities in the music help you to connect with it? Sometimes we like a composition right away, and other times it takes a while for us to warm up to it, but we may end up liking it a lot. Why?

    (e) Think like a composer (part 2): Learn what is idiomatic or non-idiomatic for instruments and voice types; make note of textures or orchestration techniques that are effective / captivating / beautiful / disturbing, etc. Many composers keep notebooks, not only to write down their own ideas as they come to them, but also to jot down anything that they find striking in the music of others. Some musical borrowing is not only "okay;" it's good! (It is also a time-honored method of composition pedagogy.)

    While it is true that many people who take an introductory composition class do not wish to become professional composers, one of the benefits of learning to think like a composer is that it can inform the way you play, teach, or research music.

    2.2. Compose as much as you can.

    •Composing is exactly like performing; the more you do it, the better you become (as long as you continually strive to improve!). Consider this: If you are musical enough to be admitted to the School of Music, you are musical enough to become one of this country's best composers. But you have to work at it.

    2.3. Invite criticism from others.
    While it is true that most of us need occasional encouragement in order to go on, we also need honest and constructive feedback from others if we are to grow as artists. The reason for this is that the creation of art is an inherently subjective process, but art itself generally has a communicative (or at least affective) function; in order to learn what effect our art has on others, we need people to tell us their thoughts and reactions to it. Invite criticism from friends and family, of course, but also from people you do not know as well — It is sometimes easier for a stranger to be honest with you than a friend. (Why is that?)