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.


Kim Codner said...

It seems to me that if we didn't write the cliche without alterations and to make them organic... they wouldn't be our own, would they?
They would just be pieces that were already written, piled into one condensed composition, and music that we hear in our heads that isn't our own but that we can recognize.

Its cool to be able to write, for example, a waltz, but there are so many out there that if we dont give it organic material and make it into something unexpected, its not something individually written...

Heidi said...

I believe i recall the discussion at the new music festival last year in which the gathered composers tried to categorize their music under a united name (new music, contemporary classical music, 21st century). What's in a name? You say (possibly in jest) that the lack of a name may be why 'art music' isn't on the top of the charts. i guess it's difficult to name music that has been composed recently. All the music 'periods' were named many years after the fact and, in reality are much less discreet than we learn in history class. We'll just have to wait for future generations to analyze contemporary composer's lives and music in the fabric of our time and culture and make them figure out a good name for it.