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.