Friday, February 27, 2009

Final Project

Hard to believe, but there are only 5 weeks and 3 days of classes left in the semester (starting Monday). Our plan had been to spend about 5 weeks on the first project and 7 weeks on the second, but we must now adjust that plan somewhat to factor in the extra time we spent on the first project, the time it has taken to prepare for performances of this project, and the delays we experienced due to weather-related cancellations.

Here is the situation: I had originally proposed writing a piece for wind band as the second project, about 5 minutes in length, but last week I said you could write for a chamber ensemble of your choice (but run the idea by me first, please) instead, or write for string orchestra, or even a small symphony orchestra. While writing for concert band is still a great idea, it is a very ambitious undertaking, and you need to be practical and ask yourself what the likelihood of completing it will be, considering that we are approaching student recital and jury season, end of term projects, exams, etc.

If you still want to compose for band, however, I will support your decision and help you in whatever way I can. Here are some suggestions for how to approach writing a band piece, but they can also be used if composing for any other type of ensemble:

  1. Compose using "short score" format. Essentially, this means writing something that looks like it could be piano music (i.e., written on treble and bass clefs), or possibly 3-5 staves per system, possibly assigning different staves to different groups within the band. This gives you better control of the composing process. It's much easier to get a sense of the form and create longer lines when you can see more of your music on a single page (such as 4-5 systems of music on one page), as opposed to one humungous system per page.

  2. Write annotations on on your short score that indicate the instruments you think should play particular sections or lines of music. For example, you could write "clarinets and flutes in octaves" over a line, or "brass" over a chorale-like chord progression.

  3. I've had teachers insist that it is best to begin 'orchestrating' ('bandating?'  'banding?' 'bandifying?') your score after you have completed the previous two steps, but there is no rule about this; there are advantages to orchestrating as you go as well (i.e., composing a few pages in short score, then arranging them for band, then continuing the short score version for a few more pages, then orchestrating, etc.).

  4. Don't overscore. There is nothing wrong with having sections of your band piece with rests in the majority of the instruments.  Overscoring — writing a dense and confused score — is a mark of an inexperienced/insecure orchestrator, so try to be bold and consider including at least some thinly-scored sections, so that tutti textures will have greater impact when they occur.  On the other hand, thinly scored band music can sound less effective than we had imagined because it is more challenging to play; weaknesses within sections are more exposed, something that is a consideration when the performers are at an intermediate, amateur level. 

  5. Since you have a fairly wide variety of instruments at your disposal, consider using colour, texture, or density as organizing principles.

  6. Remember that most music fits into foreground-background roles (prominent-supportive), or foreground-middleground-background roles. Work hard at not confusing the listener as to what they are meant to be hearing most prominently.

  7. Are there some techniques or styles you've heard (or heard of) that you'd like to try? Minimalism, world music, fusion, klangfarbenmelodie, etc.? Sometimes a good way to begin is just to pick something you're excited by and then try writing a composition that uses some elements of that style or technique.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Composition Class Concert - 7 PM, 27 February, 2009, P-C Hall.

Today's blog is about the upcoming concert - programme order, performers list, and dress rehearsal order (please provide any missing details in the comments area below).

Programme Order

Jon Rowsell — Brass Quintet #2
Jennifer Murphy, trumpet; Heidi Adams, trumpet; Jill Abbott, horn; Philip Holloway, trombone; Jon Rowsell, tuba

Jill Abbott — The Whirlpool (after Jane Urquhart)
Jennifer Murphy, trumpet; Heidi Adams, trumpet; Jill Abbott, horn; Philip Holloway, trombone; Jon Rowsell, tuba

Kim Codner — Quartet for Changing Time
Kim Codner, flute; Melissa Williams, clarinet; Kalen Thomson, violin; Ian Baird, piano

Simon Mackie — for the girl who got away
Katie Noseworthy, clarinet; Jennifer Emberley, english horn; Megan Buffett, viola; Josh White, double bass; Simon Mackie, piano

Jennifer Vail — Of Pearls and Stars (Heinrich Heine)
Erin Milley, soprano; Stephen Ivany, tenor; Kate Bevan-Baker, violin; Saird Larocque, cello; Ian Baird, piano

Michael Bramble — The Looking Glass
Heidi Adams, trumpet; Scott Latham, marimba; Kate Bevan-Baker, violin; Michael Bramble, synthesizer; Dylan Varner-Hartley, piano


Meg Warren — Womanizer? (after Britney)
Meg Warren, soprano; Richard Klaas, Marimba; Scott Latham, percussion; Ian Baird, piano

Jessica Blennis — subconscious
Mitchell Hamilton, flute; Nelle Duinker, oboe; Richard St. Onge, cello; Ian Baird, piano

Melissa Butt — The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein)
Melissa Butt, narrator; Stephen Hynes, flute; Richard Klaas, marimba; Kate Bevan-Baker, violin; Saird Larocque, cello

Dylan Varner-Harley — untitled
Richard Klaas, marimba; Kate Bevan-Baker, violin; Amy Spurr, violin; Kalen Thomson, viola; Saird Larocque, cello

Kate Bevan-Baker — The Crocodile's Toothache (Shel Silverstein)
Erin Milley, soprano; Kate Bevan-Baker, violin; Amy Spurr, violin; Kalen Thomson, viola; Saird Larocque, cello

• Please note that the compositions of Neil Bussey and Saird Larocque cannot be performed.

Dress Rehearsal Timetable – Petro-Canada Hall, Friday, 27 February

2:00 Kate Bevan-Baker
2:20 Dylan Varner-Hartley
2:40 Michael Bramble
3:00 Melissa Butt
5:00 Simon Mackie
5:20 Meg Warren
5:40 Jessica Blennis
6:20 Kim Codner

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Group Composition Lessons - Pros and Cons

Learning composition in a class format has its plusses and minuses. I've been thinking about this for a while, so I thought I would try to list a few, and ask for your thoughts on the issue.

  • Students get to hear each other's work on a weekly basis, which can create a sense of shared mission, and can foster a supportive and positive learning environment.
  • Hearing others' works in progress can give us ideas we can use in our own compositions.
  • Commenting on the works of others can help develop critiquing skills, and the more developed these are, the better we can critique our own music.
  • Students can draw upon classmates' performance skills to arrange readings of works in progress, and to get tips on how to write idiomatically or use extended performance techniques for the instruments they play.
  • Feedback given to any particular student is often relevant to other students.
  • It gives students multiple perspectives on their compositions, which, since perspective about one's own creations is easy to lose, is particularly valuable.
  • There is less time for individual feedback.
  • It makes it harder to deal with details, and, as I think everyone understands by now, details are of tremendous importance in composing music.
  • The peer feedback process works really well when you get useful feedback, but it works less well when people either don't comment, or don't feel comfortable saying anything 'critical' about others' work.

Any other plusses and minuses you can think of?

What do you think of the the group composition class format?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Running into a Brick Wall

"Running into a brick wall" is, in this case, a metaphor for getting stuck, something that everyone who has tried to create something (music, books, art, science, relationships, etc.) has probably experienced. Things may go reasonably well up to a certain point, but then you begin to struggle with whatever it is you are trying to create, and, if the struggle continues, you begin to feel like you are stuck; you've tried x, y, and z, but none of them worked, and you may feel at a loss as to how to proceed.

I wrote about this in part 8 of my "Composition Issues" series that I posted last August, and, because I know that at least one of you is feeling stuck right now, I thought I would revisit and significantly expand the part of that blog that deals with this issue:

There is no simple solution for feeling stuck, so you may need to try several approaches until you discover one (or more) that helps you get out of your predicament. Here are some options to consider:

  1. The "boot camp" approach, AKA Suck it up, soldier! Bull your way through that brick wall until you break through! The main requirements for this are stubbornness on an epic scale and an extremely hard head. The upside is that it sometimes works! The downside is that it can really make your head hurt. [I used this approach to finish "Dream Dance" ten years after having started it; the opening 30 seconds had been gathering dust in my compositional recycling bin during that time.]
  2. When feeling stuck, we tend to focus our energies on getting unstuck from that point forwards. It sometimes turns out that the root of the problem was much earlier in the composition. We may need to go back several pages to identify the point where things began to go awry, and then 'fix' it from that point forwards. We may need to scrap (or at least set aside) several pages of music, but it will be worth it if doing so results in a better piece.
  3. Take a break – do something else for a while. Frequently all we need is a different perspective, which may be gained by simply not thinking about the piece for a couple of days.
  4. Analyze your music. We learn analytical tools to help us understand music better, but you might be surprised at how often composers don't fully understand their own music until they analyze it. The composition process is inherently subjective, which makes it easy to lose perspective on your composition, but analysis forces you to think more objectively about it. Don't just browse the score to figure out where the major sections are; do a full structural analysis that includes pitch centers, cadence points and types, phrase structure, musical character, and formal structure.
  5. Did you have a plan? If not, now would be a good time to make one. A good starting point would be to analyze what you have written, then make your plan based on that. Plans are definitely useful, but don't be afraid to change them as you go.
  6. Lower the bar! Stop trying to write great (or even good) music! We can sometimes put too much pressure on ourselves when we do that. You may have to lower your level of expectations in order to finish the piece. You can always come back to it later, if you wish, and tinker away at sections that are less than you feel they could be. But frankly, my advice is generally to finish the piece, and then start your next piece; your tenth composition will likely be better than your first one, or your first few, but you won't get to your tenth composition until you finish the first nine!
  7. Exercise. Some scientists suggest that strenuous exercise releases endorphins in the brain that make us feel better. And if you feel better, you might be able to think more clearly about how to get out of the 'writer's block' that you are experiencing.
  8. Stop listening. Or, more precisely, stop relying on the playback capability of Finale or Sibelius to give you a sense of what's going on in your piece. Try not playing back your music for a day, then two days, then longer, if possible (it's tough to do; most of us are addicted to MIDI playback!), and see what difference it makes. It may cause you to think more about motivic relationships, or you may begin paying more attention to structure, or set theory, or gestures... You will almost certainly start to think of your piece in a different way if you try this. (This suggestion courtesy of Andrew Staniland.)
  9. Perspective; use it or lose it. This is a quote from a Richard Bach book (Illusions), and my point in mentioning it here is that perhaps the most common reason that we get stuck is that the inherently subjective nature of the composition process makes it remarkably easy to to lose perspective on our own creations. All of the above suggestions (except the first) are ways of overcoming this loss of perspective.

    Another way of gaining perspective on your music is to play it for others (your teacher, another teacher, your classmates, a non-musician) to see what they might suggest — but make it clear that you REALLY want their honest reactions/suggestions, as opposed to a pat on the back. While it can be encouraging to receive compliments on your music, sometimes what we need most is an honest critique. I have received some great suggestions about my music from my wife, who is not a musician. Not all feedback you receive will be equally useful, but even suggestions you reject (or comments with which you disagree) are sometimes helpful if they cause you to reconsider some aspect of your composition. Part of making good decisions is discerning when to take advice and when to reject it.
  10. Listen to other compositions that are in some way similar to yours. If you are writing a string quartet, listen to a few different models and study the scores as you do so. If you are writing for a non-standard collection of instruments, just listen to different examples of chamber music while studying the score. The models don't have to be of music composed in the last 50 years, but it probably would help if some were. Or just listen to any music, even if it has nothing to do with what you are writing; you may get some ideas that way.
  11. Look at an orchestration textbook. Orchestration texts have information about the capabilities of every orchestral instrument, often including contemporary extended techniques, some of which you may wish to try There is usually also information about writing idiomatically for instruments, different articulation possibilities. etc., all of which can be inspire ideas for your own compositions.
  12. Stop the piece you are writing and start again. This is a pretty extreme option if you have already invested a lot of time into the composition (after all, you are almost guaranteed to get stuck at some point, especially in a longer composition, and if your default response is to scrap it all and start again you are unlikely to ever finish anything), but if you are still in the early stages of a work, a fresh start sometimes gets you back on track.

Never throw your rejected ideas away; I recommend keeping a compositional "blue box" (recycling bin) for ideas that don't get very far. At some later point, when you are in a different frame of mind, you may be able to browse through your recycling bin and find a compositional fragment that inspires you to complete it, or to use it in a completely different composition. I once tried this approach in a piece called Memory Quilt (1999), in which I began by laying out a some compositional fragments that I liked but had never used, and then I experimentally combined them in different ways until I found a result that I liked. I also composed a significant amount of new material based on the musical fragments to give cohesiveness to the overall musical structure.

One of the two worst cases of "running into a brick wall" I ever experienced took place a long time ago, when I abandoned a composition that I had spent about 6 months writing (I had about fifteen minutes written, but it was during a particularly low period in my life and I could not figure out how to finish it), and started a new and completely different piece ("Steppin' Out") that I finished in about a month. I have never been able to bring myself to even look at the abandoned piece again; too many bad memories.

Getting stuck is common, so perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it is a normal part of the creative process. If you can learn to take it in stride you are less likely to stay stuck for very long.

Sometimes, the solution(s) you come up with to being stuck end up being the the most inspired part of your composition. Here is an axiom that may sound trite or corny, but it is true, or at least it is if you allow yourself to see things this way:
Challenges present opportunities for inspired solutions.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Concert Date

WHAT: Composition Class Recital (1st project)
WHEN: Friday, 27 February at 7PM
WHERE: Petro-Canada Hall, Memorial University School of Music

We also have PC Hall from 1-4 PM and 5-7 PM that day, for warm-ups and dress rehearsals.

COMPOSITION DUE DATE: Monday, 16 February, in class.

Looking forward to the concert!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Festival Feedback, Please

The Newfound Music Festival, which had its final concert this past Saturday night, involved more than 100 performers this year, if you include the 4 evening concerts, the student performers concert, and the performance of Terry Riley's "In C" that took place Thursday at 9 AM. We also had 12 presentations on that Thursday, the list of which was posted in my previous blog.

If you figure that everyone involved spent a number of hours preparing for their various performances and presentations, and add in the administrative hours spent planning the event, you could estimate that perhaps over 1000 hours were spent on this year's festival…

All of which begs the question: Do you think the festival is a worthwhile endeavor?

And, while I am at it, here are a few more questions; answer as many or as few as you wish:
  • What concerts did you attend?
  • What did you think of them?
  • What Thursday events did you attend, and what did you think of those you attended?
  • How do you feel about being required to attend some of the Thursday presentations or evening concerts?
  • Would you have attended as many presentations and recitals if you had not been required to do so?
  • Do you have any ideas as to how we could get more students to take in festival events without making them required?
  • Make a rough estimate of the percentage of the students at the School of Music who did not attend any of the Thursday presentations, and/or who attended only one of them.
  • Do you have any suggestions for things you'd like to see/hear at future festivals, or things that you feel could be improved?