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.


Melissa B. said...

I hope I didn't offend you by saying that.

I don't think you were pushing everyone into atonality, but I just wanted to put that out there for those people who didn't want to and felt like they had to or something.


Clark Ross said...

To be honest, it has never even occurred to me to take offense over student comments or blogs... I always get a thrill reading them, and sometimes they spark a desire to write a long-ish reply, which is what happened in your case.

So, no worries!

Jill A. said...

I definitely agree that atonality is an easier way of making a unique piece. It is a very unexpected aspect if a composition is clearly based on a music cliche of sorts. Personally I really enjoy this (and not because its easier! haha) I know there are other options out there but I have a fondness for atonal music so it seems like the most obvious option!

Jessica Blenis said...

Looking back on the first piece that I had begun to write for the second composition project (the music + movie one) I remembered that I was going to go down the 'using atonality as a means of deviating from the original style' path too. This was probably because I'd become so comfortable writing atonal music that going back to writing tonal music was a challenge, and lapsing from tonal back into atonal was the easiest thing to do, and since it was a valid thing to do as well, it was therefore a natural relapse. It certainly is a good way to diverge from a primary idea, as a shift fron tonality to atonality is quite remarkable even to audiences who don't even know the term 'atonal.' I'll use my mother (who is rather ueducated as far as music goes )for an example. She goes to concerts expecting to hear music which is predictable and tonal, "Pretty music" as she calls it, and as soon as it goes atonal, she looks almost as though she's been offended...Proof that atonality provides a very obvious change in the music!

James Bulgin said...

I had some difficulty diverging from the cliche I started with, and am still not quite certain that I succeeded (although I'd like to hope).

Part of the problem, in my case, is that, once I started working with the cliche I had, I grew attached to the song as it was, and didn't want to take it in directions that were too divergent from where it seemed to be.

This was actually a bit of a difficulty in choosing a cliche in the first place. Most of the ideas I had involved cliches that I actually liked, and didn't really want to do anything odd to, since I figure I'd end up spoiling their effect, to me, in some ways.

I often find it very difficult to edit pieces after I've been away from them for any length of time, since the image of the piece as it is now has grown cemented in my mind. I'd often rather just start a new piece if I want to do something different. Of course, this is something of a problem, as quite a number of pieces over the years have been left unfinished as a result.

squinlan said...

I think that using an atonal approach for the beginning of the course is really great for a students freeness in creativity. But it would have been interesting to learn about other approaches later in the course, instead of the similar atonal approach throughout the whole course. A student could probably hone their own compositional approach through trying numerous different kinds? Just a thought. Sometimes I felt a little boxed in by the expectations of creating atonal music, particularly in the first assignment.

Steve said...

I agree with the above comment. Having the very first project in a beginner's composition class require the use of atonality forced us to push ourselves into new territory immediately, and had great results. Even more helpful was having a specific approach to incorporating atonality taught to us (writing 12-16 chords first, the constructing a piece around them). Although there are handouts and methods we have all learned about in other theory classes, if in future assignments we are required to veer into atonality, perhaps a list of 5 or 6 approaches could be taught to us/given to us as an option, or the option to come up with our own method, as Stephen said. A good balance of freedom and restrictions makes the compositional process within a classroom setting the most beneficial, I think.

Andre McEvenue said...

I would like to respond to something that Dr. Ross mentioned on the discovery of a new harmonic language. I often listen to music in the a-tonal idiom, and wonder if there is in fact, an idiom. or convention, as far as harmony is concerned. When I try to write music like this, there seem to be intervals that just seem right.

I really love the minor 9th leap, and the tritone. They sound like nice juicy intervals to me. And I wonder as I write music, if the reason for favouring certain intervals is because my ear is hearing some distant relationship to tonal music in that particular context that I am possibly unaware of.

It seems that theory treatises were frequently written in the era of tonal music, but could an a-tonal treatise exist? Are there a set of rules and preferences that govern how to treat intervals in any given context? Or is harmony something that composers now must create their own language for without any convention to follow.