Friday, January 23, 2009

Newfound Music Festival - Thursday Daytime Events

The Newfound Music Festival begins on Wednesday evening with a concert sponsored by the Sound Symposium. There are concerts on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings as well, and below you will find the Thursday schedule. Almost all classes are cancelled that day, so I hope that you will take the opportunity to attend as many of the presentations as you can.





Eleanor Mews Jerrett Instrumental Room

"In C" - Terry Riley's Minimalist Classic –
It’s a JAM!
Bring your instrument or voice!

Chris Miller, conductor

MU 2025

Melanie Redmond:

Pedagogical Considerations in Selected Piano Works by Clifford Crawley


Charles W. Hutton Choral Room

Panel Discussion:
Ki Adams, Paul Bendzsa, Scott Godin,
Andrea Rose & Clark Ross:

Bringing Your Creativity to the Classroom

MU 2025

Ian Sutherland:
Contemporary Sonic and Visual Arts
Sites for Knowing


Petro-Canada Hall

Larysa Kuzmenko:

Retrospective I


School of Music Lobby

SMS Lunch

Mingle and chat about the day,
hosted by the student music society!

Eleanor Mews Jerrett Instrumental Room

Paul Bendzsa & Richard Blenkinsopp:

Interface; spatial music


DF Cook

Recital Hall

Postprandial Recital
Talented students perform music
from the recent past

MU 2025

Scott Godin:
for High School Band


Charles W. Hutton Choral Room

Clark Ross:
John Weinzweig;

Composer – Maverick

DF Cook

Recital Hall

Chamber Orchestra
Open Rehearsal with
conductor Vernon Regehr and
composer Clifford Crawley


Petro-Canada Hall

Larysa Kuzmenko: 
Retrospective II

MU 2025

Leila Qashu:
Negotiating gender through dance
among Arsi Oromo youths in Ethiopia

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Atonality = Noise?

All comments that I have read in response to my previous entry were very thoughtful, and today's blog entry grows from one of those comments.

Simon wrote, "It's unfortunate that so much atonal music that we're exposed to (at least in my experience) forces us to equate it with noise."

I suspect that many fellow students would agree with this sentiment, and it has made me wonder how true that is, and why, if true, that might be the case.

I think that we are exposed to far more atonal music than we may perhaps realize; it has been used in the soundtracks to many movies and TV shows, but because the music's function is to serve the the drama, we tend not to process the fact that it is atonal.

On the other hand, I would guess that most music students' conscious exposure to atonality comes in the context of history and theory classes, and I wonder if there is something about the way we are teaching these classes that would lead many (or at least some) students to "equate it with noise."

What do you think?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Atonal — Even the word sounds unpleasant!

    I find above all that the expression, 'atonal music,' is most unfortunate--it is on a par with calling flying 'the art of not falling,' or swimming 'the art of not drowning.' Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea, p.210
Do you have an unpleasant connotation with the word, "atonal?"

If you do, you're not alone; many people who have some understanding of what "tonality" means don't seem to feel very warm and fuzzy about the concept of atonality.

But, strictly speaking, all that is meant by the word is that the music in question is not based on tonality. It doesn't really tell us anything about what the music is based on.

A quick primer on tonality, from Wikipedia:
    Tonality is a system of music in which specific hierarchical pitch relationships are based on a key "center" or tonic. The term tonalité originated with Alexandre-Étienne Choron (1810) and was borrowed by François-Joseph Fétis in 1840 (Reti, 1958; Simms 1975, 119; Judd, 1998; Dahlhaus 1990). Although Fétis used it as a general term for a system of musical organization and spoke of "types de tonalités" rather than a single system, today the term is most often used to refer to Major-Minor tonality (also called diatonic tonality, common practice tonality, or functional tonality), the system of musical organization of the common practice period, and of Western-influenced popular music throughout much of the world today. [Emphasis mine.]
The "common practice period" is generally understood to refer to the baroque, classical, and romantic periods of European music history, roughly spanning 1600 to 1900. So, using this definition, "atonal" could be applied to medieval plainchant, renaissance masses, most Debussy piano preludes, etc., or it could be referring to a work that involves hitting the keys of a piano with an aluminum (so as not to mar the surface of the bat) baseball bat with reckless abandon. It could be referring to "Le Marteau Sans Maitre" by Pierre Boulez, or to "L'histoire du Soldat" by Igor Stravinsky, or to minimalist works by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, or even parts of "Toontown Follies" by yours truly.

It could refer to music that is as deeply moving and beautiful as any music ever composed, or it could be applied to very harsh, disturbing music.

"Atonal" doesn't necessarily equate with "highly dissonant" any more than "tonal" automatically means "consonant." Dissonance and consonance are essential aspects of tonality, but they are essential aspects of much atonal music as well.

Explore the various sonorities that can be created by the scales and modes that you created for our first project of the semester. There is no ban on the use of major or minor triads; I am hoping that your scales will lead you to discover other sonorities that you like and feel can be used in your compositions, and if some of the sonorities happen to be major or minor, so be it! No problem!

But just try to use them in ways that go beyond their use in the context of tonality.

Class Business — Odds and Ends

  • If Mu4100 students want to comment on a blog from last term, please go ahead. Comments on class blogs from either semester will 'count' towards the class blog participation requirement mark, as long as the comments are made this semester; that's why I posted the list of links in my previous blog entry.

  • If you haven't already done so, please send me a quick E-mail with your blog's URL, or, if you're using the same blog as last semester, just let me know. I'll post links to student blogs on the right side of this page, as I did last term.

  • If you haven't started your weekly journals, now would be a good time to do so. Bear in mind that I will be counting student journal entries on a weekly basis this semester, because (as explained in my outline) waiting until the semester is over to post all your journals defeats the purpose of the exercise. One paragraph, once a week; that's all you need.

  • Good luck with everything!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Blog Index — Organized by Topic

Below is an index of most of the blogs I posted last term. I omitted entries that I didn't think would be very interesting or relevant, mostly because they contained information specific to the Fall-2008 composition course, like 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. In particular, I hope you will read the first two. They are loosely organized by topic.

Why Atonal Music?
Express yourself?
Writing a Play
Creative Angst... Welcome to the club!
Notation Software Woes

On musical detail
Musical detail addendum
Nuts and bolts [more on musical detail]

Kandinsky's Theories (1)
Kandinsky's Theories (2)
Kandinsky's Theories (3)

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

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. Shocking, isn't it?

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

3.1. 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!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Class Blog & Student Blogs Explained

There are two kinds of blogging in my composition courses: (1) The Class Blog (an example of which you are reading right now), in which I write fairly regular entries (36 last term, but I don't plan as many this term), and (2) Student Blogs (to which there are links on the right side of this page), which are akin to journals.

Here's what they are each designed to do:
  1. The Class Blog. My entries are usually an attempt to engender discussion, or at least thought, on topics relating to music composition (something we tend not to have time for in class), and usually fall into any of four main categories:

    1.1 Composition issues that you may find useful or interesting to think about, such as various dichotomies that composers wrestle with (i.e., the expected vs. the unexpected, "less is more" vs. "more is more," "always give them what they want" vs. "always leave them wanting more," etc.), notation conventions (i.e., the importance of clarity in the score and how to achieve this – see On Musical Detail, Musical Detail Addendum, Nuts and Bolts), specific notational challenges (i.e., how to notate chance elements, etc.), and aesthetics (such as Kandinsky's Theories);

    1.2 Further explanation or information relating to class projects (such as "Why Atonal Music?", written to further explain the rationale behind this aspect of the first Mu3100 project last term, or "Using a Musical Style or Gesture as a Point of Departure," which provided further information on last term's second project); and

    1.3 Basic communication, such as reminders of due dates and other course-specific issues, requests for help (i.e., when a student was stuck without a piano player just days before a class concert last term), class cancellations, party notices, etc.

    1.4 Links to articles, audio recordings, or video clips relating to composition.

  2. Student Blogs, or journals are intended to be primarily a record of feedback received on your weekly composition presentations, as well your response to that feedback. They need not be lengthy — point form is fine — and they need not take more than 5-10 minutes per week to write, especially if you take notes on suggestions as you receive them.

    The main purpose of Student Blogs is to get you to reflect on feedback received, which can help you improve your composition. There have been many examples over the years of students getting the same kind of suggestions for several weeks in a row, but never responding in any way to these suggestions. As a teacher, I never knew if this was because the student disagreed with the suggestions, or never really understood them, or maybe just didn't hear/remember them. If a student keeps a journal, however, I can usually figure out pretty quickly whether it's a matter of not understanding, agreeing with, or having heard the suggestions. And if the journal indicates that it's a case of not understanding, then I can try to explain the suggestion in a different way. I have no problem with a student disagreeing with a suggestion, as long as I know they understood it.

    Sometimes students comment on other student journal entries, which some have found to be helpful and/or encouraging.

    For some students, their weekly blogs become much more than a simple record of comments and responses to those comments. This in no way is expected or required, but it is always interesting to me to read some of the deeper thoughts some have about their music, and the process by which it is created. It helps me better understand both the composition and the person creating the composition. But again, if journalling isn't something you particularly enjoy, do not feel the need to make your weekly entries anything more than a record of comments and your responses. Keep it short and sweet, if you like.

• But why make the blogs compulsory? Well, the simple answer is that past experience would suggest that if I didn't, there would be little student participation in them, and, since I believe they are a good idea, I use a pretty simple marks-based incentive to encourage student involvement.

• What is this 'pretty simple marks-based incentive' of which you speak? It is explained in the course outline, but basically, I'm looking for a brief journal entry every week as explained above, and if you do that you get 10 marks (i.e., 10% of the course grade). If you make a weekly journal entry but NEVER record the feedback you received, you'd get less than 10 marks, but it's hard to say exactly how much less without having a concrete example.

I also ask students to make one brief but thoughtful comment on one of the class blogs every week, and if you do that, you get another 10 marks (i.e., another 10% of the course grade). These also need not take too long, although they might require closer to ten minutes to do than five.

• Do you mark for grammar, spelling, and other nit-picky things? No. I need to understand what you're writing, so these things may have some bearing on that, but no, I am not nit-picky when it comes to grammar, etc. Put a little thought into your blog comment every week and you get an easy 10 marks, and ditto for student journal entries.

• Is there any evidence that students in Mu3100 thought this blogging process was a good idea? Yes; quite a lot! Most of the Mu3100 students in the Fall, 2008 semester had positive things to say about it, and, if interested, you can read their thoughts in their blogs, links to which appear on the right of this page. A sampling of comments:
  • "Blogging is a great way for the class to keep in touch and discuss things we can't get around to discussing in class."
  • "Man, blogs are fun! I should have been doing these a lot more this semester!"
  • "I really appreciate this post as a good reminder of what should be included in the final scores of our compositions."
  • "I think the whole blogging thing is a really good idea since it allows us to communicate with each other in a non-classroom setting and we can get our thoughts down in writing instead of passing in papers."
And no, I didn't make those up! Anyway, all I ask is that you keep an open mind about this blogging business and try it on a weekly basis, even if you are skeptical about it. You may find, as I believe most of the Mu3100 students did, that it is a useful and beneficial part of the course, and if you don't, then feel free to suggest changes at the end of the course.

New Year, New Composition Blogs!

Hard to believe, but a new year is upon us! Woo hoo! This term (winter, 2008), I will teaching Mu4100, the title of which ("Advanced Composition") is somewhat misleading, because it really isn't very advanced! It's just a follow-up course to the Mu3100 "Introduction to Composition" course, each of which is one semester long.

The format will likely be similar to the intro course: Works-in-progress will be presented (as readings, mostly) every week for the class, with at least one concert, very possibly two. All students are expected to provide feedback to each others' works. The main difference is that the class size will be smaller. There were 17 students in 3100, and while I'm not sure how many will be in 4100, I understand that it will be a lot smaller, maybe about a dozen or so. A smaller class size should allow for slightly more individual attention and feedback, and should hopefully feel a bit less rushed every class. That said, I've had 12 students in 3100 before, and, assuming four students present works in progress every class, it still leaves only about 12 minutes per student presentation, which isn't very much time.

Another aspect of Mu3100 that will be retained for Mu4100 is blogging — both my own blog (the class blog), and student journals. These two aspects of the course were experiments for me last term, and my perspective is they worked extremely well for most students, which is why they will continue to be a part of the Mu4100 course.

My next entry will have more on this.