Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (7)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
7. More dichotomies to ponder…
When in doubt, err on the side of restraint; less is more.

• Thwart audience expectations periodically by varying or otherwise manipulating familiar musical materials.
• Avoid becoming overly predictable.
Sometimes, going completely over the top is ok; sometimes, more is more!

• If you're always holding back, it can seem like your music is a big tease! At times it can be good to really wallop your audience with excess. [Can you think of any examples?]
• Some predictability isn't necessarily bad!
Always leave them wanting more.

• This is associated with the theatre, the circus, and, indeed, any form of communication (or entertainment) involving an audience. Sammy Davis Jr. (and many others, I think) called it "the first rule of show business." Although many art music composers may prefer not to think of themselves as "entertainers" (the word has a derogatory association for some, who perhaps think being an "entertainer" is akin to being an organ-grinder's monkey, jumping around with a tin cup), the concept is a useful one for composers of any style of music.
• BTW, I think it's a fine idea to consider your audience when composing, but never pander!
Always give them what they want.

• Another show-biz saying, seemingly antithetical to ←. It seems sound though; if you refuse to "give them what they want," you are perhaps "giving them what they don't want," in which case you shouldn't be surprised if not many people like your music.
• While a useful consideration, it is probably not the key to creating great art, however. It is a justification for pandering to the lowest common denominator.
• Nevertheless, there's no reason to completely ignore this advice, even if you are trying to create good or great art; I'm pretty sure most composers considered the audience, but balanced this with their need to be true to their art.
Don't treat the listener like an idiot.

• Don't assume a lack of intelligence on the part of the listener. Bach's music is filled with clever and sometimes arcane connections, the discovery of which has been delighting those who study or play his music for years. If every connection or musical gesture were painfully obvious, the music wouldn't be regarded as highly as it is.
• Similarly, Beatles songs often have a musical cleverness that would seem unnecessary or even pointless if you are a musical snob who regards pop music as a "dumbed-down" art form. It's obviously not pointless; Beatles music is regarded by many as the absolute pinnacle within the genre of pop music and they are the best-selling artists in pop music history, which would suggest that their inventiveness has been appreciated by hundreds of millions of people.
There's a sucker born every minute.

• P.T. Barnum came up with this saying, and he obviously knew what he was talking about; in his day, and for many years afterwards, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was one of the top acts (in terms of popularity and revenue) in show business. If you make your compositions too intellectual, few people will understand them or be able to relate to them.
• You need to make musical gestures obvious to listeners; too much subtlety is likely to escape their notice.
• "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public" (H.L. Menken, who also wrote: "Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.")
There can be "too much of a good thing."

• Similar to the previous sayings, all this means is that you may have come up with a musical idea that is brilliant, but if you repeat it ad nauseam people won't think it's very brilliant any more. Show some restraint, even with great musical materials!
If you have a good idea, then stick with it!

• This is another way of saying, "don't orphan your musical ideas;" i.e., stick with them until they've had a chance to grow and develop more fully." This was discussed in part IV.
Finally, you can always try the George Costanza Approach: Go against your every instinct!


Joe said...

I remember reading in This is Your Brain on Music that great music was a careful balance between predictability and surprise. This works not only on an observational level, but also a subconscious level. I'm sure that many times, we aren't aware of why we like the music that we like, but I wouldn't be surprised if, deep down, our tastes are a reflection of our often very personal musical heritage. Our tastes have been carefully molded through our lives. I think it's great that, even having listened to music for as long as I have, I can STILL be surprised. That's what I think is the power of classical music: it is endlessly inventive and nearly always refreshing.

Mitchell wxhao said...

It seems like composition is just the act of balancing these dichotomies. Some of these things have come up when I was writing, and I never exactly go for either extreme.