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 Toontown.com) 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.


meganbarnes said...

This is something I really want to start working with. I have millions of musical influences - basically anything I listen to I consider an influence. But when I write, I write completely new ideas (new to me, not borrowed) or I arrange pieces for different ensembles. So basically I write something original or I arrange something as already written. I've been thinking a lot about Composition 4100 and that maybe I would like to try borrowing ideas from pieces that have really moved me and trying to put them in a new context. I have a few ideas already but I'm going to wait until next term to get carried away with them.

Adam Batstone said...

Yeah, I also consider anything I listen to regularly an influence. Whether we like it or not, even the things we don't like influence us. Perhaps even more than what we do.

Im not sure where i heard this idea, (Could have been in class) aha, but alot of the times when we are at the very begginings of a new composition we know where we DON'T want to go much more than where we do.

anyway, some of my "classical" influences

- Stravinsky
- Bach
- Rodrigo
- Scarlatti
- Dowland

I also listen to alot of contemporary classical music as well as a ton of different genres...

Mitchell wxhao said...

Given no context of my background or what kind of music I've listened to in my life, almost everyone has said that every piece I write sounds like video game music.

And video game music happens to be my segue into composing in the first place, so it's so cool that people can hear this as an influence.

I don't even try to be influenced by this. I don't set out to write music that sounds like it could be in a video game but it always happens... maybe this is an asset when it comes to a career choice for me.

Evan Smith said...

I've found in my compositions, I've definitely drawn on influences as well. As you pointed out with the George Harrison reference, sometimes our influences come out in our music through some sort of subconscious means. My sense of harmony is definitely influenced by composers and artists I truly enjoy such as Beethoven, Elton John, Billy Joel, and jazz musicians like Nina Simone.

I think it's important to create music like that of which interests you, so that you are interested by your own music.

Mitchel Fleming said...

Being an up and coming musician, I rely on past composers to discover different textures that can help with bringing out my own ideas. I, like you Dr. Ross, have a fondness for Jazz and a lot of my compositions in this years Intro to Comp course have been jazz inspired. I analyzed the writings of Gershwin, Davis, and Rachmoninow to discover different techniques (especially for piano, as I have no formal training on the instrument) that I can use in my pieces. I do however, find myself adding some melodic figures of theirs into my music. They are not note for note, but I find that it can help me to connect with the composer. I hope that one day I will be able to take everything I have learned from past composers and become my own musician, with my own pure ideas.

Duncan Stenhouse said...

I really enjoyed this follow up post. The thought of being inspired by instead of influenced by is one I connected with. Influence is usually more close to home, people influence your opinions and growth by being around and being able to help shape you. However to be inspired by something is usually a bit more far off, to be inspired by something comes from with in yourself from seeing or hearing something else. You can hear an amazing performance at the Symphony and be inspired to write something as grandious. To me influence comes from the people in your life while inspiration comes from heroes or people that you admire. For example if you read my comment on your last post I would say that my parents choices of music that they played while I was growing up influenced a lot of my musical opinions, while the actual music itself that I grew to love is what inspires me to go forward and write music.