Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (outline)

This is a handout prepared for my introductory composition class, posted here in case anyone might find it useful or wish to make comments or suggestions for improvements. Its main objective is to provoke thought about issues that come up when composing, and to engender discussion on these issues. There are usually no right or wrong answers to the questions posed, but some may find benefit in considering and debating them.

Here are the 9 sections, and how they break down; each is a separate blog entry:


1. Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much. Shocking, isn't it?

2. How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite criticism from others.

3. Understanding your Musical Idea
3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What's it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

4. The Pros and Cons of Development

5. How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions

6. Balancing the Old with the New, the Expected with the Unexpected

7. More Dichotomies to Ponder…
7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.

8. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan.
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
8.5. Don't obsess!
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

9. Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it

Composition Issues (1)

[From a 9-part series for my introductory composition class.]

1. Originality and Quality of initial musical ideas

Everyone who has ever played a musical instrument or sung has probably come up with their own musical ideas (a melody or melodic fragment, chord progression, rhythm, etc.)
at some point. Sometimes, this gives rise to the impulse to create a complete musical composition, but many people have told me that they did not follow through on this impulse because they felt their initial musical idea was 'not good enough,' or 'unoriginal.'
I
f this has ever happened to you, I would like to suggest two possibly radical concepts to consider:

1.1.
The quality of these ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that might emerge from them; and

1.2.
The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

While it would
probably be a better plan to start with a high quality, original idea, a good composition can start with an uninspired, not-particularly-original idea!

•Consider 1 & 2; can you think of any examples?

If true, what the above statements suggest is:

The way in which your musical ideas are extended and developed into complete compositions matters more than the quality/originality of the ideas themselves.

§

Composition is a craft. The harder you work at developing your craft, the better your ability to compose the kind of music you'd like to hear.


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Composition Issues (2)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
2. How do you develop compositional craft?

2.1. Study the music of others.

(a) Study music of different genres; try to understand as many styles of composition as you can (but don't feel you have to fully understand all genres, or indeed any genre, before you begin composing; the study can be a lifelong process).

•How many compositions have you studied in detail?
•What types of compositions have you studied in detail?
•How much of your knowledge of music comes from history textbooks or other secondary sources, and how much comes from your study of specific compositions?

(b) Include lots of 20th- and 21st-century music in your studies. It has been my experience that a great many students who have some interest in composing have no (or limited) interest in the concert music of the past 80 (or so) years.

•Discuss; is this generally true? Is it true for you? If so, why? Is there anything wrong with this?

(c) Study (or at least listen to) at least one piece by at least 6 of the following composers. When you find works that are particularly interesting/moving etc., study/listen to more works by that composer. Find out more about them via web searches or other means.
John AdamsLouis Andriessen Bela BartókLuciano Berio
Pierre BoulezJohn Cage Ka Nin ChanAaron Copland
George CrumbMario Davidovsky Morton Feldman Brian Ferneyhough
Philip GlassGerard GriseyChris Paul Harman Charles Ives
Helmut LachenmannGyörgy LigetiWitold Lutosławski Olivier Messiaen
Tristan MurailJohn OswaldSteve Reich George Rochberg
Clark RossKaija SaariahoGiacinto ScelsiAnne Southam
Karlheinz StockhausenToru TakemitsuGiles TremblayAnton Webern
John Weinzweig Christian WolffBernd Alois ZimmermannWalter Zimmermann

(d) Think like a composer (part 1) while you listen or study. Ask yourself why something (a composition, a section, a musical gesture) works or doesn't; does a given musical idea or section go on too long, too short, or is it just right? Does it speak to you? Why or why not? What qualities in the music help you to connect with it? Sometimes we like a composition right away, and other times it takes a while for us to warm up to it, but we may end up liking it a lot. Why?

(e) Think like a composer (part 2): Learn what is idiomatic or non-idiomatic for instruments and voice types; make note of textures or orchestration techniques that are effective / captivating / beautiful / disturbing, etc. Many composers keep notebooks, not only to write down their own ideas as they come to them, but also to jot down anything that they find striking in the music of others. Some musical borrowing is not only "okay;" it's good! (It is also a time-honored method of composition pedagogy.)

While it is true that many people who take an introductory composition class do not wish to become professional composers, one of the benefits of learning to think like a composer is that it can inform the way you play, teach, or research music.

2.2. Compose as much as you can.

•Composing is exactly like performing; the more you do it, the better you become (as long as you continually strive to improve!). Consider this: If you are musical enough to be admitted to the School of Music, you are musical enough to become one of this country's best composers. But you have to work at it.

2.3. Invite criticism from others.
While it is true that most of us need occasional encouragement in order to go on, we also need honest and constructive feedback from others if we are to grow as artists. The reason for this is that the creation of art is an inherently subjective process, but art itself generally has a communicative (or at least affective) function; in order to learn what effect our art has on others, we need people to tell us their thoughts and reactions to it. Invite criticism from friends and family, of course, but also from people you do not know as well — It is sometimes easier for a stranger to be honest with you than a friend. (Why is that?)


Composition Issues (3)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

3. Getting a Better Understanding of your Musical Ideas

Inexperienced composers often don't realize the potential of their musical ideas, finding it easier to come up with a series of unrelated musical ideas rather than work out the implications of existing ones.

There are several things you can do to help gain a better understanding of your musical idea(s). These include:

3.1. Live with it for a while; play it repeatedly both in actuality and in your mind.

3.2. What's it about? Or, put another way, what is its musical character (dreamy, angry, intense, scary, peaceful, hopeful, sad, despairing, naïve, humorous, dance-like (this has numerous sub-categories; slow dance, fast dance, graceful, stomp, etc.), sneaky, playful, etc.)?

3.3. Does it change character? If so, is this okay? Why? If not okay, then fix it.

3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece (i.e. to start with a "bang," a slow amorphous introduction to-set up what is to follow, to create a sense of timelessness, etc.)?

3.5. Structural Analysis: Does your musical idea break into phrases? If so, how many? If not, are you sure, and why not? How long are the phrases? How are the phrases related? Are they balanced? Is there a non-tonal equivalent to question/answer structure, or to authentic, half, or deceptive cadences? Are there pitch centers? If so, what are they, and how are they related?

3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis: Since we are probably not dealing with functional harmony, classifying the harmony can be a challenge. Consider using Set Theory; look for vertical and linear sets, see how they relate to one another, try interval vectors. What does all this tell you? What intervals seem most prominent? In general terms, are your materials related to one another, or are they quite different? Are you using non-traditional modes or scales?


Composition Issues (4)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
4. The pros and cons of development
(pro) Do not abandon your babies!
• Think of your musical ideas as your children (or, if that is too mind-boggling, your pets!). It is your job to help them grow and develop; be a responsible parent/custodian/pet-owner!
(con) Don't let ideas overstay their welcome!
• Not all musical ideas need to be developed to their maximum potential. There needs to be a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar. (See below for more on this:)
• Growth is of fundamental importance to the European classical music tradition. It is essential to extend, develop, or otherwise 'grow' your musical ideas throughout the course of a composition. • Is growth of equal importance to other musical traditions? Could a person write a good, extended composition that totally disregards the growth principle?
How to grow: After you have identified musical ideas you have created and labeled them (idea 1, idea 2, (2.1, 2.2 for variants) etc.), try to extend them. There are many, many ways to do this (see next entry), but the starting point is to want your ideas to grow. Yes, just like the 'How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?'joke… • (i) Composers all limit the growth of any idea, probably because to do otherwise would make compositions sound like academic exercises. (ii) Consider Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Is it a model of economy of means? If not, is it 'bad'? What about M's Pno. Cto. #21?

Composition Issues (5)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

5. How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions (may be used in combination with one another)
Repeat…Vary…Extend…
•…with different dynamic•…selected motives (i.e., a, or b, or c, etc.)• …a + b +b' (or a+b+a', etc.)
•…in a different register•…truncate• … continue with similar intervals, i.e., la-do-ti-fa, la-do-ti-fa-mi-so, la-do-ti-fa-mi-so-di-re, etc.
•…with different orchestration•…invert, retrograde, retrograde inversion• … reorder same pitches, i.e., la-do-ti-fa, do-ti-la-fa, la-ti-fa-do, etc.
•…with different harmony•…insert/subtract rests• … combine previous two, i.e., la-do-ti-fa, la-ti-fa-mi, so-fi-la-si-ti-la-fa-mi, etc.
•…in a different mode•…reorder, interpolate (insert), substitute• … using similar or contrasting rhythms.
•…with different counterpoint•…make nonretrogradable• … make sequence
•…with different texture (i.e., pointillism, thicker, thinner, etc.)•…rhythm• …turn into a transition (how? Discuss…)
•…with different accompaniment figure•…shift rhythmic emphasis, rotate• …add dissimilar materials
•…in a different tempo•…augmentation or diminution of all or any portion• … gradually change character.
•…in a different meter•…mode• … create a dialogue
•…in a different key/transposition•…articulation• …reverse roles (melody/accompaniment)
•…with overlap•…selected intervals• …continue linear contour

Composition Issues (6)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
6. Creating tension between familiar/unfamiliar, expected/unexpected
On the one hand, people find comfort in the familiar…

• Once we (as listeners) are familiar with a given opening to a composition, we tend to like to stick with it for a while to see how it will evolve. When it comes back (possibly varied) later in the piece, recognizing it can give us some satisfaction, possibly because it gives us a sense of closure
On the other hand, people become bored with the "same old, same old" after a while.

• People's attention spans have limits, and the mind can start to wander during overly repetitive or aimless compositions. You need to introduce unexpected or unfamiliar elements from time to time to keep people interested.
• Most music is in some sense A-B-A form (where "B" = any brief or lengthy departure from "A"). Also, there is usually repetition within the A or B sections themselves; there is comfort in the familiar.

• Standard forms do not include A-B-C-D-E… form, probably because most listeners would be experiencing information overload by around sections C or D. Unless your aim is to confuse your audience, re-use, develop, extend, transform, etc. your musical ideas!

• True, but there is also no A-A-A-A-A-A… or A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A… form, probably because the audience would slip into a catatonic trance from boredom. Interestingly, Theme and Variations (or Chaconne, or Passacaglia) is A-A'-A"-A'"… form, which is obviously very repetitive, but it succeeds as a form because the listener focuses on the way A is varied each time. Its structural repetitiveness is why some regard it as the least interesting form in music! (Even this form, however, can support the creation of masterpieces of the highest order; Bach's Goldberg Variations and Chaconne are considered to be two of the finest works in the history of music.)
• People just love sequences because they are so repetitive!
• Would sequences be as popular if each repetition started on the same pitch? If the repetition is so great, why is there the "rule of 3?"
• Minimalism is repetitive. That's why people love it. Minimalism is repetitive. That's why people love it. Minimalism is repetitive. That's…
• Minimalism isn't everyone's cup of tea. Some people can't stand how repetitive it is. Also, even in minimalism things change. Slowly. [What's minimalism about, anyway?]
Ostinati. Many composers absolutely adore them! And with good reason! They're repetitive!
• Study the use of ostinati in The Rite of Spring. How long do they go on? Is it ever too long? Overly-long ostinati are a great way to wreck a good idea!
Conclusion: Try to create some sense of balance (or tension) between old ideas/new ideas, the expected/unexpected, the familiar/unfamiliar, and repetition/variety in order to engage the listener for the duration of a composition. Can you think of other elements that need to be kept in balance? (stability/instability, tension/release, etc.)
Perhaps one of the keys to great art is in the way that it leads us along a path between the expected and unexpected (and between the other dualities discussed) in a way that feels "just right" to the observer/listener. It is a fine and elusive line, but there would presumably be a surfeit of great art if it were otherwise. You have to figure out for yourself where that point lies, and it will be different for every composition.

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!



Composition Issues (8)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

8. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
8.1. There are at least three models for how composers see their roles:
  1. Master of the Universe model (AKA the "Control Freak"). Some composers see themselves as "masters" or "controllers" of everything they compose. They make a plan for the piece, and they use their skill and mastery to make the music follow the plan.

  2. In Touch with the Universe model. Other composers adopt a more mystical approach; there are countless potential musical ideas floating around out there, waiting to be brought to life by a composer attuned to them. This kind of composer sees her role as the medium through which some of the infinite thematic possibilities can be given the spark of life.

  3. Sometimes the Master, Sometimes the Mystic model. This is perhaps where most composers find themselves. Sometimes a person may feel a sense of mastery over their craft, while other times they feel like they are caught up in something bigger, like riding a wave, hoping to go along with that wave for as long as they can.
Interestingly, the same points of view can be found in different people's attitudes towards parenting; some people seemingly attempt to plan their babies' entire lives before they are even born, while others pay close attention to the growing child in order to try to learn what kind of person they were sent by the universe (or God, or Vishnu, or the Great Mother Goddess, etc.), and try to serve as facilitators who help the child become the person that s/he was meant to be.

8.2. Once an idea has run its course, the way in which you see your role as a composer will likely determine how you proceed.
  1. If you see yourself as the Master of your music, you are likely to have made a plan before beginning; when your idea has run its course, you simply follow your plan and move to the next stage.

  2. Those who prefer a more mystical/intuitive model might choose to listen to the musical idea repeatedly in order to determine where it "wants" to go, or if it has said all it needs to say.
8.3. Both approaches have merit. The value of starting with a plan, even a loose one, cannot be overstated. It is also a very good idea to become sensitive to where music "wants" to go, even if you eventually decide not to take it there (i.e., you may decide to introduce an unexpected element). If you start with a plan, be open to the possibility of changing it as you go. Some of our best musical ideas may be hidden in unexpected places. For example, a section planned as a brief transition between more 'important' musical ideas may turn out to contain a bar that, if developed further, may become one of the best extended passages in your composition, but you don't discover this unless you allow your composition to deviate from the plan occasionally.

8.4. Sometimes (frequently, in my case) we get stuck because our composition is not turning into the kind of piece we had in mind when we started. Perhaps we had intended to write a fanfare, and we discover we are actually writing something with a more subdued, soulful character. Or perhaps we were asked to write a short, relatively easy work for a friend, and what we end up writing is long-ish and rather challenging.

There is no simple solution for this, but options include the following:
  1. Stop the piece you are writing and start over;

  2. Continue the piece you are writing until it is finished, and accept that it won't be as planned, although it can nevertheless be a good composition. Once finished, you could perhaps then begin a new composition that is more in keeping with the original plan; or

  3. Determine where your plan began to go awry, and fix it from that point forwards.
I have tried all three options, and determining which to pursue usually depends on other factors. These include:

  • How much time do you have? An imminent deadline might call for option 2, unless you're not very far along in your piece, in which case option 1 may be feasible;
  • More generally, the percentage of your composition that is complete is an important factor to consider; if you're almost finished, then option 2 would likely be most practical, for example;
  • How catastrophic is the problem? If your perception is that the portion of work completed thus far is basically garbage, you need to step away, clear your head, and reevaluate this perception. It may be that abandoning your piece and starting over (option 1) is the best course of action, but it would be wise to seek a second and even third opinion before choosing this option, because it is also possible that at least some of what you wrote is salvageable, or that you're just having a bad day where your frustrations are colouring your perception. But sometimes starting over works really well; I have had experiences where the "do-over" resulted in a much easier composition process, with ideas that just seemed to flow more naturally and with less effort.
  • What is the purpose of your composition? If writing for film, for example, you may not have the luxury of option 2; your job is to evoke the mood or character that would best fit the scene, and if that's not happening, then you have to keep at it until it does, which calls for options 1 or 3.

8.5. Getting stuck is a common experience when attempting to create something, so perhaps the most important thing to accept is that it is a normal part of the creative process, and try not to make too much of it when it happens.

8.6. If you can figure out a way to get past the point in your piece where you got stuck, the solution you come up with can become the the most inspired part of your composition. The words below may sound corny, but they're true:

Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!


Other blog posts on being stuck:
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (includes section on "writer's block")

Composition Issues (9): Take your inspiration from wherever you find it

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
9. Aren't these modern times? Aren't we obliged to pursue a completely new approach to composition? Who made all these rules, anyway? A bunch of dead white Europeans? Ever heard of World Music? Rock? etc.

It is good to try new approaches. Take your inspiration from wherever you find it, be it hip-hop, Persian music, commercials, cartoon music, movie music, video games, ringtones, your dishwasher, the ocean, etc. Never feel constrained by the imagined shackles of history or tradition.

On the other hand, history has much to offer, should we wish to avail of it. Many composers have found inspiration in the music of earlier historical periods, among them Aaron Copland, David Del TrediciManuel de FallaHenryk GóreckiPaul HindemithArvo Pärt, Maurice Ravel, Wolfgang RihmGeorge Rochberg, Igor StravinskyJohn Tavener, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. There are no rules when it comes to music composition; we can choose to make our own rules or not, and we all get to decide for ourselves whether we wish to blend old and new approaches to writing music.

Composition Issues (outline)

This is a handout prepared for my introductory composition class, posted here in case anyone might find it useful, or have any suggestions for improvements. Its main objective is to provoke thought about issues that come up when composing, and to engender discussion on these issues. There are usually no right or wrong answers to the questions posed, but some may find benefit in considering and debating them.

Here are the 9 sections, and how they break down; each is a separate blog entry:


1. Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much. Shocking, isn't it?

2. How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.

3. Understanding your Musical Idea
3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What's it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

4. The Pros and Cons of Development

5. How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions

6. Balancing the Old with the New, the Expected with the Unexpected

7. More Dichotomies to Ponder…
7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.

8. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan.
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
8.5. Don't obsess!
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

9. Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it