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!


NBus said...

After I was done being confused over why we couldn't freely write what we wanted in composition class I started thinking about what we would learn if we just wrote what we wanted. The idea of having restrictions put upon compositions may seem frustrating but at the same it forces us to learn how to work with specific elements of music; so that when we do get the opportunity to write freely we have a much larger database from which we can draw ideas. Atonality for example is something that I know I avoided like the black plague, but after writing three pieces "because I had to" (in composition class) I find I'm a lot more comfortable with it and now if I ever decide to include it in my future works I feel like I can do so much more effectively.

I think that's the real point of composition class.

Kim Codner said...

I totally agree with this blog. I mean, there are plenty of reasons on why to set restrictions for what we compose:

A) It keeps us on track and gives people who have never composed before something to be guided by.

B) It makes the compositions less arbitrary to be marked. For example, how do you distinguish between pieces and their marks if there were no guidelines? That would be rather tricky.

And many more...

Composition class to me is an opportunity to write beyond my comfort level (sometimes) in a limited timeline which basically simulates real life situations. I like hearing other student's compositions the most because I like to think of what can be changed or written better and i like to hear comments of others to see what I am missing in hearing their pieces.

Expressing yourself through composition puts you in an exciting yet vulnerable situation surrounded by "critics". It is so challenging to put your creations out in the open and hope not to crash and burn.

Melissa B. said...

I was one of those people who were saddened by the fact that we couldn't write what we wanted. (This was at the beginning of the term.) Now, I understand much better why it was necessary to be this way. To me you're being even more creative if you have to work with these rules and guidelines because you need to abide by the rules and be creative at the same time.

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. It seems like a lot of people are going for an atonal section as their unexpected part within their piece. (I'm doing that!) I think it would be cool if there were some pieces that didn't do that.
I'm not knocking atonality. I like it. I'm just having a bit of a rant here! :)

Clark Ross said...

EDIT: I posted a reply here on November 15, but I just now noticed that it was in need of an edit in the last paragraph, without which the paragraph did not make much sense! So, here it is again, slightly edited:

In response to Melissa B's comment ("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 the above 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 otherwise not 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 Melissa’s 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.

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 the composition makes the task of recontextualization a lot easier in most cases than not doing so.

meg293 said...

I'm not sure I think of these guidelines as "restrictions", but maybe more as just that, guidelines. It's like creating anything, unless you have a clear direction for what you're creating, it becomes very easy to fall off track. A professor who tells their students to write a paper on ANYTHING would be faced with some seriously confused and frustrated students. When I'm given guidelines like those given in the first project, I find it much easier to focus on specific creative goals like character or mood.

Jill A. said...

I think the restrictions/guidelines for this course were great! It challenged many people to step outside of their comfort zones and try things (such as atonality) that many would normaly avoid. Just look at all of the great music that has been created! We can can compose what we want, with no restrictions all of the time outside of this class, so this opportunity allowed us to learn and grow as musicians and composers.
I know that i've learned a lot so far and I appreciate the "push" that this course provided myself and others into the realm of composition.

Melissa said...

Dr. Ross, I think you (along with everyone else's comments) hit the nail right on the head.

It was hard to accept at first the we were going to have boundaries. I guess we were all too naive to think that we could actually do whatever we wanted and still learn something.
I took the Jazz Improvisation course last year, and there are more rules in that course that some other of the textbook guided courses. There are more rules that one can imagine, it almost seems overwhelming.
After hearing everyone's piece this past weekend, and hearing how different they were from one another, its hard to imagine what the class could come up with if there had been no restrictions at all.
Also, I think the process of composing would be even more tedious if we were beginning with no boundaries.
That was a whole lot of ideas in one chunk... sorry if it's incoherent. ha. But yeah, the guidelines really made it easier I think to begin with composing.

Heidi said...

Let the tumult of comments from delinquint bloggers begin!
i think even within the guidelines of the projects in this course, creativity is a powerful force that needs harnessing. For me, complete freedom in a project would be dangerous since i already have a hard enough time commiting myself to developing ideas and creating coherence in music. Not to say that if we had complete freedom we wouldn't be able to compose coherently, but i think it was enough trying to achieve that within the boundaries. I think most composers have some sort of sense of purpose or function of a piece before they begin...i think. but of course i'm not a composer so I really have no idea.

James Bulgin said...

I appreciate the value of constraints, especially in a learning exercise. People often learn the most when working in unfamiliar territory, and without constraints forcing them into it, might be just as inclined to follow familiar grooves.

Of course, it can be rather less pleasant if the constraints require you to write in a style or context that you actively dislike. I'm not sure how much I'd appreciate a project that required writing rap, for example. I'm sure whatever came out of it would be as far removed as I could possibly get away with...

The atonality project was a good example of beneficial constraints, though. I had my share of misgivings at the beginning (like many people), and it's not something I would have tried unless I had to, but I definitely feel I benefited from the exercise once I'd managed to find some bearings in unfamiliar territory.

Of course, people often bring their own constraints to creative projects, even if no external ones are provided. If this project had been "Compose whatever you feel like", people would probably still have settled on ideas or styles that have some definition, and then worked within those.

Philip said...

I found the comment Dr. Ross made about the Jazz Improvisation course interesting, and I hope to strengthen his blog's argument with this comment. Like Melissa, I took the Jazz Styles and Improv course last year or so. I found that there wasn't much room for personal expression in that course! The course focused more on different styles of jazz, or what notes or scales you could play over certain chords than emoting through your solo. I find that learning to perform a skill and expressing your deepest feeling through it are two completely different things. After all, as a children we usually learn to speak using one word at a time, not by writing poems to express ourselves.

Michael Bramble said...

A neat thing about the organ repertoire that doesn't seem to have trickled down into the other areas of western music is the importance put on improvisation. The neat fact about this is the fact that most famous organ composers were improvisers, and they would make up music that expressed themselves or a text or whatever. They would then write down this improvisation and sell it as music. Much of the organ rep is like this, from the Baroque to Modern. Louis Vierne, for example, was a blind organist, who would play into a gramophone. Then scholars would take the records and transcribe them. So from this example I think we can take the importance of improvisation and not look down upon it. Often people look down on jazz musicians for they 'make everything up' but maybe more people would respect them if they knew the role of improvisation in the organ world :)

Steve said...

writing within "restrictions" or "guidelines" has been a great exercise for me in MUS 3100. Almost all the music I had previously written had no pre-determined goal.. I usually just start, see what comes out, and work with it until I'm finished. I like this process too, because I will often surprise myself, and I feel I've managed to improve and be versatile without thinking within guidelines.
However, the reality of writing music at a professional level is that you are going to need the skills to be able to write well within certain contexts. If one were to write a film score, you would have to assess the scenes and what type of mood to create, and how through harmony/rhythm/instrumentation you would do that. Being commissioned to write for specific ensembles is another type of guideline composers always have to deal with. It's a great system for us as artists, and for an academic course that requires multiple projects for grading purposes.

David said...

When I was taking 3100 I remember feeling something like this, a little bit stifled, that is. I understood that there had to be some restrictions but I wasn't quite expecting the restrictions that were presented. Mostly the atonality thing and all. Looking back at it though I feel like that course was very well structured towards breaking me into the world of composition. When Phil Nimmons and David Braid came here earlier in the term David gave a sort of master class on improvisation, which is, in my opinion, essentially the same as composition, just on the spot. But one thing that he said that I thought was interesting was his theory that what holds many of us back from being a better improvisor than perhaps we'd like to be was that we just know too much. We have all of these musical possibilities at our fingertips, so many, that we can't decide what to do or we try to do too many of them. So his suggestion was that a great way to help improvisation was to set parameters for yourself. Things like only playing within three seitones on either side of a note, and that's all the notes you get. I think that a composition course is much the same way, if we were just left to ourselves to figure it all out without restrictions then it would certainly take much longer for us to figure out how to just take a couple of ideas and develop them. I heard someone say once that the best art comes from limitations. I think there's a lot of truth in that.

Aiden Hartery said...

Looking at this blog now while at the end of my 2nd semester of 4100 and over a year since 3100, I do see why it was necessary to set restrictions on a degree...

I do think it was a great idea for the first assignment in 3100 to be based on a chord progression that we had to create using non-standard chords. It forced us out of our happy-place, and into a more uncomfortable world of......atonality......

This was a great creative assignment for me, especially since I really had not done any sort of composition before AT ALL. It was something brand new, and I was starting with a clean slate. I was able to create things which I probably wouldn't have thought of or dared to try, which is a great thing.

Setting such a restriction though, did leave a permanent scar, or impression, that I am still battling with today. The fact that we had to write outside the box, under "penalty of death"... (taken from blog comment: "You couldn't write tonal music for the first project, for example (at least not if you wanted to do well in the course!)"

This hindered my understanding to whether it was acceptable as a composer in the 21st century to write with a tonal frame of mind. This restriction put a stain on my thoughts of composition which I am still battling with today. I would sit down, and think of writing a piece, and say to myself...."Oh, that is in D major, I can't write like that." This is a shame, and it is probably based on a misinterpretation on something that happened a over a year ago, but I did stick with me, nonetheless.

Throughout these composition courses, I have learned to expand my mind past the realm of tonality (partly because I wanted to get a good mark in the courses due to the above quotation), something which I am happy about, and might not have been able to do otherwise, but I do still have the task of convincing myself that tonality is still a possibility...

I am very happy with my output in these composition course, and with the advise and helpful tips that I've learned along the way, but it would seem that after these semesters of composition, my comfort zone is now geared more towards the contemporary music and my uncomfortable thoughts are where I was before I began in first place.

Tony Taylor said...

I was glad to stumble upon this blog post, especially since it was a question I asked following the first class this year. As someone who has not spent a lot of time composing original works at all, I was excited to start on some ideas I had. I expected to be able to write anything I wanted, what with this being a seminar class and all. I was disappointed by the prospect of the first project. However, after developing my chords begrudgingly, and starting my actual composition, I realized that in many ways this was a great way to start really "composing". I was in boundaries, but without them at the same time. I am enjoying what I am creating. This project is allowing me to experience the choices and experiences of a composer without the fuss of tonality.

And, with the help of the comments on this blog post, many other highlights have time to mind, and things to think about. I love the variation of pieces we are getting, even at the very beginning of the project. Guidelines help a lot, as long as you can still go on without them later. The same goes for tonality/atonality... After this, I still need to be able to sit down and be able to feel like I am able to write something tonal.

Mitchell wxhao said...

I don't think that I at any point felt as thought I needed to "express" myself through music, to be honest. Or at least, I haven't thought of it this way. Thinking back to the beginning of the course when we had to write a atonal piece, I was initially taken aback. But this was not because we were being asked not to express ourselves, but because I personally had never done it before and was afraid that I would hate what I would write.

Also the "atonal chord" progression we did to start was fairly open. We could use expressive chords in our atonal pieces. I think that there's a huge amount of freedom within the parameters of a guideline.

Timothy Brennan said...

A great post Dr. Ross! Like Tony said, I too was happy to find this post as I think that expressing youruself through your compositions should definitely be a priority when composing. Who you are and your personality really do show through your works and we can never get away from that personality so it's bound to present itselff in what we do.

As for the guidelines for each project, I don't view them as a hinderance to the creative/expressive process at all! Rather, I think these guidelines channel the expressive process in such a way as to get us going in some sort of direction, so that we aren't at a loss as to how to begin or go about composing the work. As relatively new composers, I do think that we need guidance, and the guidelines provide this. There are numerous ways to go about expressing our own individual tastes, likes, preferences etc. within some sort of "restriction." All it takes is some contemplation and exploration!

Andre McEvenue said...

I suppose that the reason for taking composition in school is to develop technique, and to familiarize myself with idioms and new styles that I have never attempted to write in.

Personal expression is something that will always be there, and I feel that without using restrictions to steer you towards unbroken ground, there is a good chance you will continue to write the same kind of music you always have before.

Colin Bonner said...

My attitudes towards the project guidelines have varied all semester long.
Most of the time they frustrate me, making me really feel that I am doing a school assignment more than I am composing. I know, however, that this is silly.
On a good day I recognize come benefits of these parameters: 1) w/o these parameters I doubt I'd ever finish a piece entirely in a couple of weeks 2) I'm forced to approach each piece in very different ways 3) my compositional vocabulary is stretched each week as I work within some rules and incorporate suggestions.
Although with each project I will undoubtably become frustrated by certain constraints I do understand that I am acquiring the skills to being a more well-versed and efficient composer. Though I must say, in the best way possible, this intro to composition course makes me long for the the semesters end when I can approach my works as my own rather than just assignments and begin to really find my voice/purpose as a composer.

Jessica Pereversoff said...

Personally, I appreciate the restrictions placed on our assignments. Never really having composed anything before taking this course, I was very uncertain of how to begin a composition. I was relieved that our first assignment was required to be a progression of atonal chords. For me, it took off a lot of the stress of where to even start. Instead of struggling to come up with ideas for the first assignment, I enjoyed experimenting with different tonalities, having a purpose: finding chords not used in tonal music. I find having clear guidelines in terms of tonalities and such in all of our assignments has helped in bringing ideas into focus. Arguably, this takes away from the creativity of the compositional process, but (as was mentioned in previous comments) for me, it has been very helpful in developing different techniques. I think many composers have to be flexible to the demands of those buying their music (at least at some point in their career). As such, it is useful to develop a way to express oneself while still working within constraints.

Peyton Morrissey said...

Now that it is the end of the semester, looking back over my projects I can see how with the first project I was so afraid of "breaking the rules" that I didn't have any expression in my piece. As I began to compose more, and play around with what I was writing rather than just focusing on making sure I had all aspects of the project involved, and writing to meet those requirements, I found I was liking what I was writing more and more, and could find my creative flow much easier. Much like many others in this course, I find the guidelines for a project very helpful. I fear that without these guidelines I would become overwhelmed and never actually finish a piece, only have beginnings of ideas that could never be formed into full thoughts.

I think expression is definitely an important part of music, and that in playing music I tend to perform much better when I'm playing a piece through which I can put some of my own musical expression. It is the same with composition!

Flutiano said...

I don’t want to express myself through my music. That is not why I compose.

I was unhappy when I was in 3100 to discover that I wasn’t going to be able to write any tonal music. I wanted to work on that skill, as I still do to this day. However, I was also relieved that the first assignment was not allowed to be tonal, and had the specific requirements that it did, because it removed some pressure to create a masterpiece.

What I had a harder time with, and still struggle with, is the need to have creative titles for pieces. I am not a big fan of the idea that music should express something other than music itself. Good programmatic music is still good music when you take the program away, but I generally prefer music that is not programmatic. I prefer a piece to be called “Symphony” or “Sonata” or “String Quartet,” with numbers, keys, and opus numbers appended, then something like “Symphonie Fantastique” or “The Path Ascending” or “The Four Seasons.”

I find it interesting that there seems to be an expectation that composers want to express themselves in the music that they compose. I want to create music, and I want to create music that I like to listen to, and music that performers will hopefully enjoy performing and that audiences will be happy to listen to.

Jordan Mills said...

I think the most important thing to note here, is that above all else, if an experienced and successful editor were to give you feedback on a composition, one would be foolish not to take into account what they have to say. As we try to express ourselves, or create pieces that people enjoy, we should be weary that their are techniques, as with any craft, that require precise execution in order to be successful. As composers, yes, it is the objective to create something unique and original, but more often than not, we should adhere to the advice of those who have been successful, and to the use of technique in our compositions in an original and creative way.

Pallas A said...

I remember feeling very disheartened on the first day of MUS 3100 after finding out that the whole course was devoted to post-tonal writing. However, you (Dr. Ross) once explained that the reason why the course does not focus on tonal writing was because many students would get caught up in wanting to express their creativity that they would not learn the necessary skills needed for composition. In a tonal setting, the student would eventually be more focused on small details, like not writing parallel fifths, instead of focusing their energy on forming and developing a musical idea. Much of the skills that I learned in 3100 can be applied to tonal music, and I gained exposure to concepts that I had no knowledge about, such as the added-value rhythms and the Messiaen modes. I have learned to appreciate the limits placed on all of the composition projects, and though they can sometimes be a nuisance when I have a cool musical idea that would not work for the musical setting, I think that they certainly help with guiding new comp students on a certain path while not hindering their creative thought in the process.