Thursday, December 3, 2009

CMC 50th Anniversary Concert — Friday

This Friday there will be a concert that I hope you can all attend, as it will be the first time in the School of Music's history (of which I am aware) that we have an entire concert of music by composers who are from Newfoundland or who have lived here. The occasion is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Music Centre, an institution that has been at the crux of the development and dissemination of Canadian music, and, it is definitely an organization to join if you continue in composition on a professional level.

Below is the programme and programme information, FYI — Hope you can make it (and if you do, maybe let people know what you thought of it in a blog!):

CMC 50th Anniversary concert
Friday, December 5, 2009, 8 PM
D.F. Cook Recital Hall

Steppin’ Out (1996) by Clark Ross
A Suite for Flute and Piano (1980) by Clifford Crawley
  1. Andante amabile
  2. Allegretto espressivo con alcuna licenza
  3. Allegro scherzando
Three (2009) by Jim O’Leary
Slipping into madness is good for the sake of comparison (2001) by Scott Godin
Ostinati and Hymn (2009; world premiere) by Jim Duff

Ora Ensemble
Krista Vincent – piano
Vernon Regehr – cello

Nancy Case-Oates – violin
Paul Bendza – clarinet
Stephen Hynes – flute

Commissioned by the CBC in 1996, Clark Winslow Ross’ Steppin’ Out is an eclectic single-movement trio for violin, cello and piano. It is essentially lighthearted but sometimes soulful, with stylistic references to the blues, minimalism, Bach and Jimi Hendrix. Steppin’ Out features extensive use of ostinato (recurring pattern) figures, such as the repetitive thirds played at the opening by the piano, which, together with sporadic interjections by the cello, create a kind of musical humour.

Clark Winslow Ross’ compositions have been performed worldwide and across Canada. He has won awards in national competitions and has received numerous commission grants from the Canada Council, the CBC, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council. Clark is Associate Professor of composition, theory, and electronic music at Memorial University of Newfoundland and is the founder and Artistic Director of the Newfound Music Festival. He has lived in St. John’s since 1992.


UK-born Clifford Crawley was educated at the University of Durham, the Royal College of Music and Trinity College, London. He also studied with Lennox Berkeley and Humphrey Searle. With a long career in all levels of music education, Crawley currently holds the title of Professor Emeritus at Queen's University, where he taught for 20 years. After ten years in Toronto, he now lives and enjoys an active musical life in St. John's, Newfoundland.


Jim O’Leary was born and raised in Windsor, Newfoundland and Labrador. A percussionist by training, he studied at the University of Prince Edward Island, and completed Masters degrees in composition at the School of Music in Piteå, Sweden and at the University of Cambridge, England. O’Leary notes that his composition Three was created as one intended to be fairly accessible, explicitly avoiding any over-complexities or density in the work; “the goal was to create intimate music enabling the audience to focus on the subtle changes in scoring and the timbre of the instruments, the use of quarter tones (both melodically and harmonically), and above all the form.”

O’Leary's music has been performed by, among others: the Umeå Symphony Orchestra, the Motion ensemble, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, as well as New Music Concerts, l'Orchestre de la francophonie canadienne and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. He is presently a research student at Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland.


Scott Edward Godin’s Slipping into Madness was commissioned by the East-West Quartet and was made possible with the assistance of the CBC. The title comes from the “Truisms” of New York artist Jenny Holzer, which is a series of paranoid slogans closely resembling ancient proverbs. They range from witty, to confusing, to raving mad. The piece deals with the juxtaposition of many different musical emotions, causing uneasiness of paranoia in the listener who searches for a logical progression of the musical material from beginning to end. Written immediately after the events of 9/11, the piece pays homage to Messiaen’s masterwork, Le quatuor pour le fin du temps.

Godin began his musical training on piano, completing a Bachelor of Music degree in 1993 with Helmut Brauss. Winning the Johann Strauss competition enabled Scott to study in Vienna with internationally renowned pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. He completed a Doctoral degree in musical composition with John Rea at McGill University. Scott’s music has been performed throughout Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the United States. He was a finalist for the 1999 Gaudeamus Competition in Amsterdam, finalist in the 1999 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Young Composers' Competition, and he was awarded five prizes in SOCAN Young Composers Competitions (Canada), including Serge Garant Awards for chamber music in 1996 and 1998.


Jim Duff’s Ostinati and Hymn features interplay of four ostinati between violin, cello and piano, in an overall ABA form. Duff holds a Diploma of Fine Arts from the University of Calgary, a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music, Boston, and a Masters of Music from North Texas State University. Jim has acted as instructor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and for the past fifteen years, he has worked closely with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra as composer, arranger, and conductor for their annual Gala and Pops concerts. Several of his concert band compositions and arrangements have been published and distributed worldwide by Alfred Publishing Company and Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.


Ora Ensemble is a world-class ensemble dedicated to the performance and promotion of contemporary music in Newfoundland and Labrador. The name Ora is Latin for coastline, border or boundary, encapsulating both the ensemble’s physical presence on the edge of the north Atlantic as well as the cutting edge of its artistic mandate.

Founded in 1959, the Canadian Music Centre is proud to celebrate its 50th Anniversary this year. In honour of this milestone, each region of Canada is holding concerts featuring the music of local composers who are affiliates of the CMC. Each composer on this evening’s programme has ties to Newfoundland.

The Canadian Music Centre is Canada’s only organization mandated to house, actively promote and disseminate the music of Canada’s composers within Canada and internationally. With over 700 established composer-affiliates to date, CMC makes these composers’ music accessible through an array of programs. At its core, the CMC houses a public lending library and archive totalling some 22,000+ music scores and recordings which continue to expand as composers deposit new works.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Another Raging Success!

Tonight's concert went extremely well, and I congratulate everyone involved! As I said to Dave in a conversation after the concert, if you added up the number of person-hours that it took to make this concert happen, I suspect you would get an impressively-large number. Not only are there the hours each composer spent writing and editing their work, there are also the hours spent learning and rehearsing the music by the performers; a concert like this represents a tremendous commitment and is a remarkable achievement, and I think you all should feel proud.

As well as it went, though, the one unfortunate aspect was that we were unable to hear the works of two students, one because the performers' schedules were impossible to coordinate, the other due to a technical problem in getting the prepared piano sounds on CD to play in the hall. I'm sure this must have been a great disappointment to those students as well as to the rest of us, but these things do happen from time to time, and there will always be more performance opportunities in the future.

Speaking of performance opportunities in the future, this is the end of the road for this course, but I hope not the end of your development as composers. Some of you will continue on with Music 4100 next term, but even if you don't, you can always continue to write music and try to create opportunities to have it performed. I will talk about this a bit further in tomorrow's class, and I will also set the deadline for score submission, blogs, and class blog comments.

Well done, everyone!

P.S. Does the use of the word "raging" to modify "success" strike anyone else as odd? It is a very common word pairing, but I wonder where it comes from. I found this in the online Webster's dictionary definition of "raging": 3 : extraordinary, tremendous, e.g., "a raging success."

Tonight's Programme Order

I accommodated the programme order requests received as best I could; some people wanted to go early, and others needed to go late, so in these cases I programmed the requests in the order received. The one request I was unable to accommodate was Megan's, who asked to go early, but she is performing one selection with Erin Milley, who had much earlier requested to go late. As it stands, I'm not sure that Erin's first piece (Sarah's) is late enough to accommodate her, but if it isn't, I guess we can delay Sarah's piece until Erin gets there, and proceed in the concert order to Lindsey's and Steve's compositions if necessary. This was more complicated than usual! Good luck tonight.

Student Composition Recital

Music 3100 (Introduction to Composition - Dr. Clark Ross)
7:00 PM
Petro-Canada Recital Hall

Musical Text Settings, and Recontextualized Musical Clichés

Stephen Quinlan Hippo’s Hope (Sylverstein)

Stephen Quinlan (ten.), Jill Dawe (tpt.), Celina Barry (tba.), Jennifer Benson (pno.)

Adam Smith Three Japanese Poems

Susan Watkins (sop.), Andrew Coffin (pno.), and processed prepared piano

Mary Beth Waldram 3:43 (Waldram)

Susan Watkins (sop.), Mary Beth Waldram (cl.), Lindsey Wareham (pno.)

Dave Goudie A Musical Journey Through a Moment (Goudie)

Sarah Caines (m.sop.), Laura Jacyna (vc.), Lindsey Wareham (pno.)

Joshua White Fog

Patrick Edison (ten.), Joshua White (melodica), Laura Jacyna (vc.), Simon Mackie (pno.)

Adam Batstone Sonnet 100 (Shakespeare)

Bethany Saunders (sop.), Adam Batstone (gtr.), Andrew Rideout (perc.)

Aiden Hartery Constantly Risking Absurdity

Stephen Ivany (bar.), Jill Dawe (tpt.), Phillip Holloway (tbn.), Andrew Coffin (pno.)

Chris Rodgers Title TBA

Chris Rodgers (gtr.), Andrew McCarthy (perc.), Dylan Varner-Hartley (pno.), Josh White (db)


Alexander Pryor Une Pesce, Due Pesci (Seuss)

Megan Barnes (sop.), Sarah Clement (fl.), Mary Beth Waldram (cl.), Alexander Pryor (pno.)

Megan Barnes your little voice (Cummings)

Megan Barnes (m.sop.), Mitchell Hamilton (fl.), Katie Noseworthy (, Simon Mackie (pno.)

Sarah Clement Snámh na Rónta (Clement)

Erin Milley (sop.), Megan Barnes (m.sop.), Melissa McDonald (euph.),

Catherine Trainor (bohdrán.), Alexander Pryor (pno.)

Lindsey Wareham I Wandered Lonley as a Cloud (Wordsworth)

Emily Cairns (sop.), Mary Beth Waldram (cl.), Lindsey Wareham (pno.)

Steve Cowan Clave

Brooke Stewart (vn.), Laura Jacyna (vc.), Andrew Rideout

Brooke Stewart Would you Look at That! (Nesbitt)

Erin Milley (sop.), Brooke Stewart (vn.), Laura Jacyna (vc.)

Andrew Rideout Fire and Ice

Erin Milley (sop.), Brooke Stewart (vn.), Andrew Rideout (perc.), Simon Mackie (pno.)

Music 3100 is an introduction to composition for music students in second year or higher, for which no previous composition experience is necessary. The students composed two 4-5 minute works this semester, the first of which was a set of variations for piano and one other instrument based on their own original chord progression, and these were performed on our first concert (October 25).

Students had a choice for the second project between (a) "recontextualizing" a musical cliché or genre for 3-4 performers (possibly including voice and/or electronics), or (b) composing a work for voice and 2-3 other instruments.

If you are interested in learning more about the students’ experiences with composition, feel free to visit the class blog, which has link to each student’s individual blog as well as about 80 composition-related blog entries, many of which have numerous comments by students:

Friday, November 27, 2009

PC Hall Rehearsal Times - Sat/Sun

As mentioned in class today, we have the PC Hall all day Saturday and Sunday. If you want to sign up for a 1/2 hour time slot (or more than one), please do so by leaving a comment below with the time you want. Mary Beth has a swipe card with access to the Hall.

Good luck Sunday!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Written any blogs lately?

I notice that some have not written any blogs for a while (in one case, the last blog was written in September), and some have not left many comments on the class blog (which is what you are reading now). As we head into the final week of classes, it might be good to put these activities on your "to do" list if you have been an inconsistent blogger/commentator. You have until December 11 to get caught up; that's the day I will tally up everyone's totals in these two categories (your own blog entries, plus comments on class blogs).

Don't forget that you can post a review of a MusicWorks article in your blog, and it will count as two blogs. Likewise, a concert review of a contemporary music concert (or a contemporary composition on a concert of otherwise dead composers) will count as two blogs, assuming it is reasonably substantial (just 100-200 words would do the trick!).

If you have not been very good at class participation, I will even consider extra blogs (thoughtful ones, please!) as partial participation credit.

Final Concert! (Do I have your info?)

Well friends, hard to believe it, but we are only days away from our final concert (Sunday, 7PM, Petro-Canada Hall). Have you submitted all necessary programme information? If not, please provide it in the comments section below, by 5PM Friday. I was still receiving programme information for our first concert up to about an hour before the show, and I would prefer to have the information much sooner than that this time.

Also, if you have a requirement to be early or late in the programme, now would be the time to let me know (and the reason, please).

In no particular order, below is the programme information I currently have; please check spellings for accuracy:

Mary Beth Waldram - 3:43 - Susan Watkins (sop.), Mary Beth Waldram (cl.), Lindsey Wareham (pno.)

Aiden Hartery - Constantly Risking Absurdity - Stephen Ivany (bar.), Jill Dawe (tpt.), Phillip Holloway (tbn.), Andrew Coffin (pno.)

Andrew Rideout - Fire and Ice - Erin Milley (sop.), Brooke Stewart (vn.), Andrew Rideout (perc.), Simon Mackie (pno.)

Adam Batstone - [NO TITLE] - Bethany Saunders (sop.), Adam Batstone (gtr.), Andrew Rideout (perc.)

Joshua White - Fog - Patrick Edison (ten.), Joshua White (Mel.), Laura Jacyna (vc.), Simon Mackie (pno.)

Dave Goudie - A Musical Journey Through a Moment - Sarah Caines (sop.), Laura Jacyna (vc.), Lindsey Wareham (pno.)

Alexander Pryor - Une Pesce, Due Pesci - Megan Barnes (sop.), Sarah Clement (fl.), Mary Beth Waldram (cl.), Alexander Pryor (pno.)

Lindsey Wareham - I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud - Emily Cairns (sop.), Mary Beth Waldram (cl.), Lindsey Wareham (pno.)

Chris Rodgers - [NO TITLE] - Chris Rodgers (gtr.), Andrew McCarthy (perc.), Dylan Varner-Hartley (pno.), Josh White (DB)

Steve Cowan - [NO TITLE] - Brooke Stewart (vn.), Laura Jacyna (vc.), Andrew Rideout (perc.), Dylan Varner-Hartley (pno)

Stephen Quinlan - Hippo's Hope - Stephen Quinlan (ten.), Jill Dawe (tpt.), Celina Barry (tba.), Jennifer Benson (pno.)

Brooke Stewart - Would You Look at That - Emily Stockley (sop.), Brooke Stewart (vn.), TBA (vc.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Project 2 - Choice of (a) Musical Cliché or Genre Recontextualization, or (b) Text Setting

I handed out project #2 descriptions on October 26 in class, but never posted them to our class blog, so here they are:

→ You have a choice in your second project between (a) "recontextualizing" a musical cliché or genre for 3-4 performers (possibly including voice and/or electronics), or (b) composing a work for voice and 2-3 other instruments,.

(a) Below are links explaining the cliché-based project:

Duration: 3-5 minutes
  1. Aim to set the words as expressively as possible. ALL musical decisions should be based on textual considerations.

  2. The harmonic language should be original (i.e. not based on traditional harmonic sonorities), as was required for the first project. However, you need not begin by creating an original harmonic progression, as you did for the first project. The kinds of sonorities you choose should grow out of what is expressed by the text.

  3. Selecting the text takes time; you need to live with it for a while before knowing whether it will work in a song setting. Look for a text that can be enhanced by adding music to it, respecting the fact that poems work just fine without music. Setting a poem to music does not necessarily create better art than the original poem without music, and it may produce worse art! Setting a poem to music results in a different kind of art than that of the poem alone; it may touch the listener in a different way. Find a text that draws a meaningful response from you. When you feel you understand it thoroughly, you are ready to begin the process of setting it to music. You may need more than one text if choosing short poems.

  4. Recite the words many times, in many ways, in the same way that a trained actor practices reading the same line many different ways until they discover a delivery that most suits the line. Consider how and where emphasis, space (pauses), rhythm, and tempo can be manipulated most effectively for communicating meaning. Take notes!

  5. Emphasis, when reciting poetry, occurs on at least three different levels:
    a) Emphasis on the correct syllable within each word;
    b) Emphasis on a particular word within each line;
    c) Emphasis on a particular line within a verse; what is (are) the most important point(s) within a verse? How can you communicate this importance to the listener?

  6. Write the text on blank paper, leaving considerable space between lines. Then, using notes made during the previous two steps, begin the process of applying rhythm, meter, tempo, and space (rests) to the text, using standard rhythmic notation below each line of text.
  7. Hints:
    • The more space (i.e. time) you leave between lines (or within them, if appropriate), the easier it will be to add instrumental parts to the voice part. Well-written instrumental parts complement the text and can create a dialogue with the singer.

    • Explore alternatives to the natural tendency to place accented syllables on strong beats, or even strong parts of beats. Challenge yourself to discover other means of communicating emphasis (see #7 below)! Avoiding the obvious makes things less predictable.

    • Free your rhythm; mix simple and compound rhythmic values; use ties; consider other tuplet values.

    • Don’t forget to include rests; singers need places to breathe, and the text will have stronger impact if you give the listener sufficient time to absorb the meaning of each line; too many lines too quickly can result in information overload.

  8. Textual emphasis can be achieved in a variety of ways, such as:
    a) Metric (rhythmic) placement — expected or unexpected;
    b) Delaying the expected arrival of a word (i.e. “and … …cried!”);
    c) Lengthening the note value(s) for a word. Sometimes, shortening note values can have a similar effect;
    d) Using significantly higher (or lower) pitches for a word than were used for the rest of the line;
    e) Textural contrast; a word sung on its own, without accompaniment, can be quite effective;
    f) Text repetition; repeating a word, or even a line, is possible, and gives added emphasis;
    g) Orchestration; similar to (e), but this time the instruments can be used for reinforcement of particular words;
    h) Dynamics (e.g., suddenly louder or suddenly softer); perhaps the most obvious method, so avoid over-reliance on it, although when used in combination with any of the above techniques it is fine.

  9. Challenge yourself to find appropriate places to use extended vocal techniques.

  10. Challenge yourself to find appropriate places to use extended instrumental techniques.

  11. Score carefully; don’t make the singer fight to be heard! Become familiar with the voice you are writing for (where is it louder, where is it most comfortable, etc.), and become similarly familiar with each of the instruments you are using. The most common technical challenge we face when writing for voice is making the text intelligible to the listener; all your careful planning will not matter if the audience cannot understand the words (although even here there are exceptions; if setting Latin Mass movements (e.g., Agnus Dei) for an audience familiar with these texts, the lack of clarity in your text setting may not impede the audience's ability to understand it. Also, some composers, beginning around the mid-20th century, would deliberately set vowels or consonants in isolation from the words from which they originated. This, as you might imagine, can make it extremely difficult to understand the words, although the composer's goal was often expressive nevertheless.

  12. Another consideration in intelligibility is that it tends to be physiologically more difficult for singers have good diction in higher registers.

•Week 1: set text rhythmically, according to 4, 5, 6, & 7 above.
•Week 2: set it melodically. You will have to sing it in class!
•Weeks 3 and 4: finish the project, adding instrumental parts, and modifying the melody as needed. In-progress versions of your work must be workshopped (performed) in class every week.

Since some questions have arisen on the ever-popular topic of tonality/atonality, below are some blog links on the topic and a definition that may be helpful:
→ Tonality (Wikipedia): "The system of musical organization of the common practice period, and of Western-influenced popular music throughout much of the world today"

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Fair Copy" Due Friday, 1 P.M.!

Just a reminder, in case you missed today's class or last week's blogs, that the final, bound, "fair copy" (i.e., best quality copy) of the score for your first project is due this Friday at 1 P.M.

You can get your scores bound at most photocopy shops, including the one in the student centre, as far as I know. It costs about $2 for this service.

The score should have a front and back cover (cover stock, or clear acetate front cover).

The front cover (or cover page, if you are using clear acetate) should have your composition title, the titles of each movement if they have titles (but don't list "I, II, & III" if they don't have titles; use those numbers at the top of the first page of each of the pieces instead) and your name.

Inside the front cover (on the left-facing page) you should have the total duration of the composition, as well as your programme note (and optional brief bio).

The score should be printed double-sided.

I recommend slightly heavier-weight paper for the double-sided pages, so that the notes on the back of pages don't "bleed" through.

There are three blog entries on the topic of musical detail; please read them before handing in your scores:

On musical detail (1)
On musical detail (2)
On musical detail (3)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Successful Concert!

Congratulations to all composers involved in today's concert! I thought it went very well indeed, although, at 2.5 hours in length, it was a bit of a marathon, was it not? :-)

Although we had all heard in-progress versions of your compositions over the course of the past six weeks, these really only gave us a glimpse of the finished products. In most cases, a tremendous amount of revision occurred subsequent to in-class readings, and in all cases the recital provided our first opportunity to hear everyone's finished compositions. Plus, what we hear in class is almost always a read-through, whereas what we heard in today's recital were polished performances, and this makes a huge difference in how an audience hears the music, as we all know.

These class recitals are always a real treat for me, and I hope you feel the same way. There is something very special about witnessing the process that leads from the amorphous, murky beginnings of a work to it's completed state. The creative process is often difficult, perhaps even painful at times, but it sure is rewarding to see it come to fruition.

And many thanks as well to all of today's performers! If I counted correctly, there were 20 performers involved, so an impressive number of people put a lot of work into making this recital a success.

Thanks to Mary Beth Waldram for recording the show, and to Jessie Blennis for her help backstage!

And finally, thanks to all who remained to hear the end of the concert! Only one class member was unable to do this due to having to go to work, but everyone else hung in there 'till the very end, which is a great way to show your support and respect for each other's music.

→ All went well, but, given that we will be doing this again at the end of the semester, it would be useful to think about what could be improved for our next concert.
  • Did you wish there had been a larger audience, and if so, what do might be done to achieve this? Any ideas as to how we could have better publicized the concert?

  • Would you have liked to have had a post-concert reception of some kind in the lobby?

  • Is there anything we could have done to speed up the concert a bit?

  • Any other ideas, or comments?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Upcoming Concert – Information, and Protocol


Our first concert of the course is imminent… This Sunday at 1 PM at the D. F. Cook recital hall. I am REALLY looking forward to it, and I hope you are too! Make sure you invite all friends, family, and basically any other people you have ever met.

Please let me know (via the "comments" section below) the following:
  • Title of your composition, and the titles of the three pieces if they also have titles. You may give it a generic title, such as "Three Pieces for Violin [or whatever instrument you're writing for] and Piano," if you wish, but I encourage you to come up with a more descriptive title if you can. But don't stress over it… If you can't come up with a good descriptive title, a generic one is fine.

  • Your name, as you would like it to appear in the programme.

  • The names of your performers.

  • Any requests you may have regarding where you would like your composition to be in the programme (early, late). Please only make such a request if you or your performers have a valid reason for doing so (like having to be at work, etc.). All class members are expected to support one another by being present for the entire concert; if your piece is on the first half, please don't leave at the intermission

  • If you or your performers are playing two or more compositions, do you prefer them to be back to back, or separated by at least one other composition? If it doesn't matter, just say so, because it makes programming a bit easier.
  • I will endeavor to accommodate all requests. As soon as I have all the information, I will post the programme order to this class blog.

Concert Protocol:
  • Dress: All black, or black pants/skirt and coloured top… Or some other combination that you like that looks dressy, but isn't as formal as a penguin suit.

  • Introductions: Each composer will give a brief introduction to their work; please try to keep it short and snappy; no more than 1 minute, maximum! Remember to thank the performer(s) by name. Your spoken introduction may be off the cuff or written down, but in my experience, audiences seem to relate better to the former than the latter, probably because we tend to speak more naturally when we make it up as we go. If an extemporized introduction is what you choose, consider making a few notes beforehand to help guide you.

  • Programme Notes: Not necessary for this concert, but necessary for the final version of your score. Programme notes by the composer are generally thought to be a good thing in concert settings, but (a) It has been my impression that many concert-goers do not read the programme notes, or read just a small portion of them, perhaps because the lighting conditions during a concert to not lend themselves to reading, and (b) Many of you are already stressed enough by trying to finish your compositions and rehearse them in time for Sunday's concert without having to stress further about writing programme notes at the last minute.

  • Hurry on and off the stage!The concert is likely to be quite long as it is (17 students times 5-6 minute compositions = 85-102 minutes, plus 17 times 1-2 minutes for introductions and getting on and off the stage, = 102-136 minutes; this is absurdly long! By way of comparison, most classical music recitals are planned with something like 60-70 minutes of music…), so it is essential that the switchovers between performances be as brief as possible. Towards that end, each duo should walk on the stage AS the previous duo is walking off, and take very little time between each of your three pieces.
I think that's all for now!

And good luck to all in your preparations!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Last summer, Micheline Roi, editor of musicworks magazine, contacted me to ask if I thought our composition students might like to receive free issues of the magazine. An anonymous (I think) and very generous donor had apparently provided the funds to make this happen, and I was thrilled to be able to pass this opportunity onto our students. Composition students should each have received one issue (Winter, 2007) by now, and you will be receiving two more in the coming weeks.

musicworks has a couple of descriptive catch phrases on the cover above its name, which give you a sense of its purpose and orientation:
  • For curious ears, and…
  • Explorations in sound.
Further information is provided on the magazine's website:
    We stand committed to new and challenging forms of music and to the excitement of creative engagement in sound exploration. We feature composers of new music for concert presentation as well as those who work with recorded sound; we feature improvisers, instrument designers, and artists who work in radio, sound installation and sound sculpture.

    We offer an inclusive context in which ideas can be discussed, and unfamiliar forms of sound art introduced to adventurous listeners.
So, now that you know a bit about the magazine, I would like each Mu3100 composition student to read one article, and then write a blog entry on your reactions to that article. You could make your entry short and sweet (but at least a paragraph), or you could write at greater length; if you do the latter, and you are short of the required number of blog entries at the end of the semester, I will count it as two entries.

The magazine has a wide variety of items, so I hope you will take this opportunity to learn about some of things that are going on in the huge world of contemporary music. Do not feel you have to agree with everything a writer or interview subject says! Disagreements, like skepticism, can be healthy, and can make for a good discussion.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Musical Influences - 2

In my "Musical Influences - 1" blog a few days ago, I promised to "spill the beans" and reveal some of my musical influences. Alas, I fear I have spilled a ridiculous quantity of beans; my response is awfully long... In any event, here is an expanded version of the answer I gave to the music teacher in the Northwest Territories who asked me about this last week:

Some of the composers whose music I most admire include Lassus, Palestrina, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, Messiaen, and Lutoslawski, but I'm not sure how much any of them actually influenced my music in any fundamental way. But they, and many other musical creators in many genres, have all inspired me, without a doubt. I am inspired by the fact that so many people have written magnificent works of sound art whose appeal has transcended time and some cultural differences; it gives me something to aspire to. I am inspired by the raw emotional power of great music.

Great musical creators have an uncompromising refusal to be satisfied with anything less than the absolute best work they are capable of creating. I am both inspired and influenced by this.

Something I hadn't realized until I began thinking about the answer to this question is that the influence of various composers can be found in many of my compositions, although usually for just a few bars here and there. For example, I have written a few pieces that have allusions to Bach in sections, for no valid reason other than it seemed like a good idea at the time, such as:
  • There are about 15 seconds of Bach-like music at 7:11 of Dream Dance for solo piano;
  • There is a longer, Bach-like toccatta section at 3:58 of Steppin'Out, for piano, violin, and cello;
  • The piano figure that forms the entire basis of Julia's Prelude is taken from Bach's prelude to the Bb fugue in the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC), book 1, although I gave it a Schumann-like harmonic treatment;
  • Variation 9 of McGillicuddy's Rant is also based on that figure (Bach, WTCI, Bb Prelude).
In none of these cases was I trying to fool listeners into thinking I was Bach; I was just drawing upon some aspects of his music as a source of stylistic inspiration, in much the same way that I draw upon jazz, the blues, funk, tango, etc., in other pieces; it's all stuff I like, so it finds its way into my music sometimes.

Before I became a classical musician, my aspiration was to become a professional jazz musician, so it is perhaps no surprise that jazz, and related forms like funk and blues, has been a major influence on me, and there are great jazz musicians I admire tremendously, such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Oscar Peterson. Here are some of my jazz-influenced pieces:
Besides the above, I have written a few other works that show varying degrees of jazz influences, such as:
  • Three Pieces for Violin and Piano (1997, ®2004).  The main theme in the first piece has a subtle reference (at least for me) to a blues-based pitch collection, even though this is a 12-tone composition, and the theme returns towards the end accompanied by a walking bass-line in the piano, which makes the bluesy feel more obvious. The third of these pieces, is more overtly-influenced by jazz, and really goes to town with a walking-bass idea, maintaining it for almost the entire piece. My apologies to all for this.
  • The 4th variation of McGillicuddy's Rant (1980-2003) for solo guitar is titled "Bluesy." A weird aspect of this piece is that the second section isn't particularly bluesy; for some reason, it reminds me of music by "The Allan Parsons Project," even though I was never a particularly big fan of the theirs. That's pretty weird, if you ask me.
  • Duck Soup (1994), for bass trombone and piano, makes use of some jazz-like material, but it is less overt than in most of the other compositions mentioned.
  • Passage 3 for Orchestra (1992), also borrows from the jazz world in sections. For a while in the late 1980's and early 1990's it seemed that almost everything I was writing had a walking bass-line at some point, and when I realized this I was able to attend a 12-step, walking-bass recovery group that gave me the courage to put a stop to this insidious practice, at least for a few years. Alas, several relapses have occurred since then, but I'm working on this, taking it a day at a time.
Another specific influence on one piece in particular (Steppin'Out) was an ensemble called the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Steppin'Out also gets kind of crazy towards the end, in a Jimi Hendrix, shredding-type way, so there's another inspiration.

Cartoons (and a now-defunct video game called have also been a source of inspiration... I wrote a piece called Toontown Follies a couple of years ago that was supposed to be a little bit like cartoon music, and my band piece, The Misty Mall of Avalon, has cartoonish moments, and a kind of TV-show feel to the main theme.

George Harrison died while I was composing I sleep and my soul awakens… for guitar and string quartet, and, coincidentally, around the same time I noticed that the my four-note opening motive was identical to the first four notes of George Harrison's “Within You, Without You,” the Indian-inspired composition on the Beatles' “Seargent Pepper’s … ” album. I have been a huge fan of the Beatles ever since I became aware of popular music — I went to Paul McCartney's concert in Halifax this past summer, and it ranks at the pinnacle of my life's musical experiences — and I had tremendous admiration for George as guitarist/composer and, perhaps even more, as a human being, so I decided to write a section of I sleep… that expanded on that four-note motive so as to make it a more evident connection to Within You… I think the connection is subtle enough that if you didn't know about it, you might miss it, but if you know the Harrison composition and are listening for it, the connection is obvious.

But this is not what I would call an example of influence; it was more a matter of inspiration, so much so that I ended up calling the longish, meditative final section of that work "Kirtan for George."

The influences of a wide variety of composers can be found briefly at various points in different compositions of mine, but I have been influenced in a more general sense by genres of music, such as jazz, rock, funk, cartoons, TV game shows, new age, minimalism, renaissance, modernism, and probably a whole lot more. I like many different kinds of music, and I guess that is reflected in the music I write.

Monday, October 5, 2009


I understand from reading student blogs that at least some of you have felt "stuck" at some point(s) during the composition process for this project. If this sounds familiar to you, here are some things that may help, beginning with a slightly modified version of the answer I gave Mary Beth:

  1. Be aware that the feeling of being stuck is a very normal part of the creative process. A common reason for being stuck is that we are putting too much pressure on ourselves, and this awareness can help you react in with at least some degree of equanimity, which in turn can help you become unstuck.
  2. Try different things; there are many ways to become unstuck, none of which work for everyone. (More specific suggestions are listed in one of the links below.)
  3. In this project you were asked to write three character pieces, so consider the mood/atmosphere that your first two pieces have, then think about what kind of mood/atmosphere would go well with them, either as a contrast or as a complement.
  4. Think about textures; what textures do you use in your first two pieces, and what texture(s) might make a nice contrast to them for your third piece?
  5. Feel free to drop by my office with your compositional sketches if you'd like suggestions that are more specific to your particular situation.

Want even more suggestions? Consider reading a couple of earlier and more detailed blogs I wrote on the subject:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Musical Influences - 1

If you were asked to name the composers who have had the most influence on your music, what would you say?

I am sometimes asked this question, and I never quite know what to say... It is relatively easy to list many musical creators in a wide variety of genres whose music I love (although there are so many that it would be a challenge to make a comprehensive list), but I have never taken the time to figure out how much of an influence any of them have had on my music.

Until now. I recently received an E-mail asking me this question from a music teacher who had heard my music in the Northwest Territories, of all places(!), and while I was thinking about my response, it began to dawn on me that yes, a quite a few composers have influenced me to varying degrees in a number of my compositions.

I will spill the beans and reveal my answer later, but in the mean-time, what are your musical influences?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Instrument List

A list of instruments played by students in this class:

Piano (Lindsey, Joel, Alexander, Simon, Adam S.)
Flute (Sarah)
Clarinet (Mary Beth)
Trombone (Aiden)
Violin (Brooke)
Double Bass (Josh)
Percussion (Andrew)
Guitar (Steve, Dave, Adam B., Chris)

• Have I missed anybody? If so, kindly let me know, and I will add your name to this list.

• Voice (Megan and Stephen) not listed above for this project, but you will be able to write for voice for the next project.

• You can write for an instrument other than those listed above, as long as you arrange for a performer to be able to come to our class to play your music. The guest performer does not have to stay for the whole class, just long enough to perform your composition.

• You can write for yourself as a performer, but you do not have to do so. Note that one of the ways to earn class participation marks is through performing, so if you are not performing someone's work then you should make sure to contribute to the class in other ways, most notably by being an active commentator on others' music.

What next? If you haven't already done so, have a look at the blog that explains this assignment. It is mostly a replica of the handout I gave you, but there may be some additional information there that is helpful.

Read "Project 1; More Details" when you have completed your chord progression.

→ Curious about what is required in order to create a "well-prepared score"?
Read the following to find out:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Welcome (Fall, 2009)!

Welcome to all new music composition students in this semester's "Introduction to Music Composition" course (Mu3100)!

As mentioned in our first class, in addition to writing and presenting your music every week, you will be expected to keep your own on-line journal in the form of a blog, in which you will write your thoughts about the music you compose, and your reactions to the feedback received.

As if that were not enough, you also need to check in with the class blog, which is what you are reading right now (i.e.,, at least once a week, and make a comment on items that interest you. If nothing interests you, then I guess you should make a comment about that! The objective is to engender a dialogue about ideas relating to composition between all of us (i.e., you, your classmates, and me). Unfortunately, there is rarely enough time in our classes to have these kind of discussions, which is why we're doing it on-line.

If you have not already done so, please sign-up for a blog at (which is the same as, then send me the link. You should have done so by Monday's class (Sept. 14).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Domenico 1° & 2°

I spent the first weeks of spring/summer finishing a chapter for an upcoming book, entitled Weinzweig; Essays on his Life and Music, edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney. I had spent parts of the previous two years working on that project, but I was very glad to learn more about the music of one of the truly great icons of Canadian music. I may elaborate on this in future blogs.

Having finished the chapter meant I could focus my energies on composing music once again, and the first project I gleefully tackled was a solo piano piece inspired by Domenico Scarlatti for my friend and colleague, Kristina Szutor.

In early 2010, Dr. Szutor will be recording a CD of contemporary piano works inspired by the Italian Baroque composer, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), and she had asked me to compose something for that purpose. The name for the CD is Après Scarlatti. Other composers represented on this CD are Clifford Crawley, Dennis Farell, Norman Dello Joio, Marcel Bitsch, Marcelle de Manziarly, and Marc-André Hamelin.

I wasn't quite sure of how to go about writing a contemporary piece based on Scarlatti's music at first, but, as with so many initially-perplexing ideas in life, once I began to delve more deeply into it I discovered there was much to work with. I soon became quite excited by the project and ended up enjoying the experience very much (which doesn't always happen when I compose).

So much so, in fact, that when I was finished I decided to write another. Part of my rationale in composing a second work was a familiarity with musicologist/harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick's claim that the great majority (almost 400) of Scarlatti's 555 sonatas were written in pairs1 (and they are often performed this way), so it seemed somewhat anomalous to be composing an azygous Scarlatti-influenced sonata. ;)

As I subsequently learned, however, more recent scholarship (notably by W. Dean Sutcliffe, in The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Cambridge University Press, 2003) has challenged Kirkpatrick's claim,2 so it really came down to my feeling that having completed one, it would be fun to write another.

My introduction to Scarlatti's music came through learning guitar transcriptions of his sonatas, and one of the most popular of these amongst guitarists is K. 208 (L. 238) in A major (listen to a performance by Leo Brouwer here). Two of the most pervasive characteristics of that sonata are the steady, repeated, quarter notes in the left hand, and the flowing melody in the right hand with frequent syncopations; these ideas formed the basis of Domenico 1°. The working title for this piece was originally "Domenico Daybreak," and perhaps this will make sense if you hear it (click the "play" arrow in the audio player below; if it doesn't work, click here instead).

Domenico 1° (5:52):

The great majority of Scarlatti's professional life was spent on the Iberian peninsula, most of it in Spain, where he had five children, composed the majority of his single-movement harpsichord sonatas, and became familiar with flamenco music, the influence of which can be heard in some of his sonatas.

I had therefore planned Domenico 2° as a kind of fantasy based on flamenco-like scales (for example, phrygian mode with the possibility of raised third and seventh degrees), but I decided to make it an even-more overt homage to Scarlatti by quoting four bars of his Sonata in B minor (K. 27, which I transposed to A minor) that use a chord progression known as a "fandango," much associated with the music of Spain: Am - G - F - E, in 3/4 time. This quoted passage is also remarkable for the use of hand-crossings (left hand crossing above the right), an uncommon technique for the time it was written, and I based several other sections of my composition on Scarlatti's fandango material as well. If the audio player below doesn't work for you (it apparently does not work in Internet Explorer), click here instead.

Domenico 2° (7:48):3

1. Ralph Kirkpatrick, Domenico Scarlatti, (Princeton University Press, 1983), 143: "385 sonatas [were] indubitably arranged in pairs… not intended to be performed separately… The real meaning of many a Scarlatti sonata becomes much clearer once it is reassociated with its mate.… The relationship between the sonatas of a pair is either one of contrast or of complement. The sonatas that bear a complementary relationship to each other may share a certain overall unity of style or of instrumental character or they may be composed in the same harmonic color. In the contrasting pairs, a slow movement may be followed by a fast; a simple movement, generally slow, may serve as an introduction to a more elaborate; or an elaborate and concentrated movement may be followed by a simpler and lighter movement, for example a Minuet, which serves as a kind of Nachtanz.
2. "Not a single detailed commentary exists in support of any particular pair. Instead we find gestures towards opening thematic connections or an outlining of the sort of broad relationships defined by Kirkpatrick." (p. 368)
3. Sectional repeats are observed in this recording of Domenico 2° (but not in Domenico 1°).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (® 2009-Jul)

Below is an index of most of the 2008-09 blogs posted (and is an update to an earlier blog index). I omitted entries that I didn't think would be very interesting or relevant, mostly because they contained composition class business, such as reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc.

Feel free to browse these — you may find some that give you ideas about composition techniques, or that contain useful things to think about when composing. They are loosely organized by topic.

Originality and Art
Is Originality a Detriment in Art?
How Important is Originality in Art?
Originality — Does it have Any Role in Art?
Kandinsky's Theories on Art
Kandinsky's Theories (1)
Kandinsky's Theories (2)
Kandinsky's Theories (3)

Random Musings on Composition
Express yourself?
Creative Angst... Welcome to the club!
Running into a Brick Wall
Why Atonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!
Atonality = Noise?
Writing a Play; an Analogy to Composition
Keep? Discard?
Notation Software Woes

Thematic Growth
Thematic Growth (1)
Thematic Growth (2; Simon's Guest Blog)
Thematic Growth (3)
Nuts and Bolts; Musical Details, etc.
On musical detail (1)
On musical detail (2)
On musical detail (3)
Group Composition Lessons; Pros and Cons
Class Blog and Student Blogs Explained
New Year, New Blogs!
Adding Multiple Ossia Bars in Finale

Composition Projects
Project 1 - Atonal Theme and Variations
Project 1 - More Details
Project 2: Using Musical Clichés in Creating Art Music
Project 2: Using a musical style or gesture as a point of departure
Project 2: Recontextualizing and atonality
Project 3: Fun With Scales and Modes
Project 4: Composition for Wind Band

Newfound Music Festivals
Newfound Music Festival 2009 - Thursday Daytime Events
Festival Feedback, Please

Composition Issues (9-part series)

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.

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.

3.1. 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.

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.

8.1. 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!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fun With Scales and Modes

If you have been following my blog entries on tonality (Why Atonal?, Atonality — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!, Atonality = Noise?), you will know that I encourage (i.e., require) student composers to explore harmonic/melodic systems that move beyond conventional tonality, where tonality is defined as " the system of musical organization of the common practice period, and of Western-influenced popular music throughout much of the world today" (from Wikipedia). One way to do this would be to experiment with any of the thousands of scales and modes that either already exist or that you can create yourself, hence the title of today's entry.

→ Here is an "octatonic" scale, also known as a "diminished" scale because a diminished seventh chord is formed from every second note. The intervalic pattern consists of alternating half- and whole-steps (or vice-versa):

Here is a short waltz based on this octatonic scale (click on it to enlarge):

Octatonic Scale Waltz:

→ Here is a Hirajoshi scale:

Here is the first phrase of the waltz, this time based on the Hirajoshi scale:

Hirajoshi Scale Waltz:

→ Here is one form of a blues scale:

… and here is the first phrase of the waltz based on that blues scale:

Blues Scale Waltz:

  • We tend to limit ourselves to the use major and minor scales if composing tonal music, but there are thousands of other scale possibilities that have unique nuances and harmonic implications. If you have fun (i.e., experiment) with even a few of them, you may discover that every different scale gives your compositions a slightly (or even radically) different feel.
  • Of these, there are a number of commonly-used alternatives to major and minor scales, such as anhemitonic (which just means "no semitones") pentatonic scales (5-note scales whose pattern can be found by playing only the black notes on a piano, any of which can be the tonic), the blues scale (there are different permutations, but all are derived from the form of the black-note pentatonic scale beginning on Eb, or La-Do-Re-Me-So-La), the Hirajoshi scale (another pentatonic scale, from Japan, but unlike the previous penatonic scale this one has two semitones (which means it is hemitonic): La-Ti-Do-Mi-Fa-La), or the octatonic scale (used in some Russian folk melodies and by some Russian composers such as Stravinsky and Scriabin, as well as by Bartok, and also used in jazz).
  • You can make up your own scales and modes; Messiaen created scales with repeated patterns that he called "Modes of Limited Transposition," such as:

    Tone-Semitone-Semitone-Tone-Semitone-Semitone-Tone-Semitone-Semitone (which he called his third mode):
    or Semitone-Semitone-Minor Third-Semitone-Semitone-Semitone-Minor Third-Semitone (which he called his fourth mode):
  • Messiaen's Modes of Limited Transposition are all based on repeating patterns within equal subdivisions of the octave, but in making up your own modes or scales, you do not need to be limited in this way. You could, for example, create a scale with a repeating pattern that spans a major sixth. After four such pattern repetitions, you would have spanned three octaves and the overall, three-octave, pattern would then repeat. But the pitch patterns in each of the three octaves would be slightly different. Such as this, for example:
  • The following scale is a mirror around the pitch F#, but you could also create a scale with few or no pattern repetitions in it:
  • Another approach, suggested by my friend and former colleague Dr. Scott Godin, is to construct a few (2-3) atonal chords that you wish to use as the basis for a composition, then construct a scale containing all or most of those notes. You can then use that scale to create additional harmonies if you wish.
  • Once you choose or create some scales with which you want to work (play), you could make charts of the triads and "seventh" chords formed on each scale degree. However, you need not build these chords in the same way as is done with major and minor scales (in thirds); you could form chords based on unusual patterns, such as chord I comprising the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th scale degrees; chord II comprising the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees, etc. Remember that there are no rules here, so you can form chords in whatever way you like.
  • All of these approaches create harmonic and melodic sound worlds that are distinct from major/minor tonality, but which can yield some fresh and attractive results.
  • Consider this: "Tonality" refers to far more than mere scales and the chords formed from those scales; it mostly refers to the relationships between the notes and chords in the scales. When using alternative scales and modes, you may notice some relationships between notes and chords that seem "natural" to you, and you are of course free to use them, but bear in mind that often what seems "natural" in these scales and modes are the aspects that are most closely tied to tonality, such as dominant-tonic relationships or leading tones. It can be fruitful to explore note and chord relationships that are not similar to the more familiar aspects of tonality.
  • Incidentally, the objective, when using something like a blues or Hirajoshi scale, is not necessarily to create blues music or Japanese music (although it obviously can be if you wish); it is to write compositions that may sound to the listener as though they are related the kinds of music from which the scales originated, but with your own unique spin on them. For example, my blues-scale waltz fragment above does not sound particularly bluesy, because the F#-F-F#-G in the 3rd bar is not characteristic of blues music. More bluesy in that bar would have been F-Eb-F-G, or even Gb-F-Eb-G, because the F#/Gb in that scale is usually treated as an inflection of F or G.
  • And finally, don't forget that the concepts of "non-harmonic tones" and "modulation" can be borrowed from tonality and applied to any music you compose using these alternative scales.
  • Have fun!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mu3100 Project 1 (Atonal Theme + Variations)


Begin by creating an original harmonic structure on which the variations will be based. Follow the guidelines below. Be able to play this in class.
  1. Write a progression of 12 to 16 chords of your own invention for piano, using only whole notes and solid (non-broken) chords.

  2. No octave doublings.

  3. None of the chords should sound like an obvious sonority in functional harmony. Read these blogs to understand why:

  4. Any chord that sounds like it might have some distant relationship to tonal music (like Vb9 with an added 13th in an unusual inversion) should not function as it would in tonal music (i.e. the chord above should not “resolve” to anything resembling a I or vi chord).

  5. The chords should sound connected in some sense; avoid giving the impression of a random series of unrelated sonorities. On the other hand, the sense of connection need not be obvious.

  6. There should be a gradual increase in harmonic tension to a specific point, roughly 61.8% of the way through the progression(!), followed by a corresponding decrease in tension to the end. This proportion (61.8 : 31.2, which is the same as 1.618 : 1.0 or 1.0 : 0.618) is called the golden mean, or golden ratio, or phi, and is related to the Fibonaci Series (click links to read more about these).

  7. No chords can be re-used, although they may be re-voiced. Note that the same collection of notes can have greater or lesser tension depending on the voicing.

  8. Vary the number of notes in each chord to suit the desired tension level; avoid using four-voice chorale-style texture exclusively.

  9. Explore the possibility of using different registers on the piano, either simultaneously in the same chord (hands widely spaced apart), or as a means of contrast from one sonority to the next, or as a means of contrast for subsequent variations.

  10. Use a very slow tempo, in order to allow the listener’s ears to take in the uniqueness of each sonority before moving on to the next one.

  11. Do not introduce dynamics yet; the increase in tension should be principally effected through harmonic means, not through dynamic control. Perform your chord progression without dynamic inflections.

  12. Your primary composition tools should be your ears and instincts; when comparing chords x and y, which one feels like it has greater tension? However, if you study each chord you write to determine its intervallic content (do a Best Normal Order analysis and a Vector analysis, if you like), this information may be used when constructing new chords, or when altering existing chords for future variations. Each chord should sound “right” to your ears. Atonal music does not have to sound unpleasant, but almost all music is based on principles of tension and resolution, and your challenge is to do this within an atonal idiom.
When you play your chord progression for the class, we will each assign a "perceived tension level" score to each chord, notated on a sheet of paper, where 0 = no tension, and 10 = highest possible tension. This will be followed by a short discussion in which class members will be asked to identify the chords of greatest and least tension, and discuss any general trends with regards to tension in the chord progression (for example, you may find that the tension level increased substantially from chords 1 to 4, then took a dip for chord 5, then stayed the same for chord 6, then spiked (increased substantially) in chord 7, etc.).

  • Week 1 will be spent creating the chord progression.
  • Week 2 will be spent fine tuning it (based on feedback received in class), introducing rhythmic values to each chord (not all whole notes; try to create a sense of “timelessness” or unpredictability through notated rubato), considering the possibility of repeating a chord for rhythmic purposes or of re-using a chord, adding dynamics and articulations, marking in phrasing, and creating a melody.
  • Weeks 3, and 4, will be spent creating a new variation each week.
  • Week 5 will be spent creating the final copy of the score to be handed in, as well as a recording. The recording is normally made during the class recital, date TBA.
  • Note that the work you do each week does not have to be handed in (until the composition is complete), but it does have to be played in class.
Read "Project 1; More Details" when you have completed your chord progression.

→ Curious about what is required in order to create a "well-prepared score"?
Read the following to find out:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is Originality a Detriment in Art?

I think originality is an essential element in art, but in my previous entry I suggested that there are many examples of great art in which the degree of originality is arguably not very high, but this does not seem to detract from the value of this art, or its impact on us.

Today I will go a step further and suggest that originality, and the power of art to move us, may exist in a kind of inverse relationship; that is, a groundbreaking, highly original work of art may be less likely to move us than a work that uses techniques and conventions with which we are familiar, albeit in a somewhat original way. Or, put another way, if someone makes up a beautiful poem in Klingon language, most of us are unlikely to be moved by it unless we know Klingon. Which, alas, I do not.

But first an explanation of why this topic interests me.

I post my music at, a site where anyone can upload their music for the purposes of getting feedback from others. I like it a lot; it is very welcoming to people who make the effort to be involved, which I suspect is true of all on-line communities.

In addition to written comments, you can also vote on others’ music (although some artists choose to disable this option for their submissions, preferring to receive comments only). The voting system goes from 1 to 10 in four categories, one of which is “originality/creativity,” which is explained as follows: “Has this artist created something unique or pushed the musical boundaries?”

The answer to this question is clearly “no” for every piece I have ever heard there, including my own music, if one understands “unique” to mean "highly unusual or rare," "the single one of its kind," or "radically distinctive and without equal" (definitions I found at Fear not, gentle reader; I do not therefore go around MacJams giving scores of “1” in this category. I do what I suspect most voters do; I give high scores to music that doesn’t sound too much like a blatant rip-off of something else, and medium scores to music that does. Being Canadian, my genetics prevent me from giving low scores.

In any event, the existence of this voting category at MacJams got me thinking about the meaning of “originality/creativity” (which I see as two separate categories, by the way, but that is a discussion for another day) and the importance of originality in the evaluation or creation of art.

The other reasons that this topic interests me are that (a) I am a composer, and it’s an issue that is on my mind whenever I write music, and (b) I am a composition teacher, and an idea that I try to communicate to students is that being overly concerned with the originality of one's creations may be dangerous, because it can lead to extreme self-censorship, i.e., not continuing any musical ideas because, upon reflection, they are not original enough.

On the other hand, it seems to me that at least some originality is essential if one does not wish to write music that sounds like somebody else's. As with so many other things in life, it comes down to a question of balance.

And so, to answer the question posed in today's blog entry, originality (by which I mean the quality of uniqueness, being significantly unlike anything else that exists) can indeed be a detriment in art if one of the goals of the artist is to express something that others can understand. In spite of this, it is an essential aspect of art. Perhaps it can be said that a little goes a long way, but too little goes nowhere at all!