Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Keep? Discard?

Simon's guest blog (below; March 16, 2009) mentions having varying degrees of attachment to his own musical ideas, which I suspect anyone who creates things has experienced. You've come up with idea x, which you really like (and to which you become quite attached), but you're not so sure about idea y.

I think this is a normal occurrence in the creative process. More importantly, I think it is an essential aspect of the creative process. If a composer were to like everything s/he created, chances are that composer would be not a very discerning individual, and their music would likely reflect that.

One of the skills that I think composers need to develop is discernment; the ability to evaluate whether idea y is worth pursuing or not.

The difficulty for most student composers, as I have mentioned before, is that their level of musical sophistication exceeds their level of compositional technique.

Why? Because most students begin formal training in composition when they reach university, but, in order to get into a Bachelor of Music programme, they need to have spent years developing skills in one or more instruments, often coupled with some music theory and history training as well. This results in the phenomenon of knowing that a composition, or section, or musical idea, is less than it could be, but not knowing exactly how to go about improving it.

The solution I typically recommend is to just push forward with your musical ideas, even if you are not convinced of their quality, because it is often only by doing this that you discover the potential of that idea to grow into something bigger, or at least something to which you can feel more attached.

It doesn't mean you necessarily keep and develop every musical idea you ever come up with; it just means that you often need to work with an idea a fair bit until you come to a better understanding of what it can develop into.

Should you ever discard your musical ideas?

I don't think so. For two reasons:
  1. If you have worked very hard on a musical idea, there is a good chance that it has value.

  2. You don't have to use it right away. You may find a use for it later, possibly in a different section of the same piece, or possibly in a different composition. You also may never find a use for it, but since we don't know whether we will eventually find a place for it or not, it makes sense to keep the idea, but just set it aside for now if you don't feel it works in the particular section of your composition for which it was originally intended.
But it all starts with working harder with the musical idea to which you were initially not very attached — not being too quick to give up on it — and frankly, my experience as both a teacher and composer leads me to feel that, if you do this, you will usually find a place for that idea in the composition on which you are working.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thematic Growth, part 3

[This is a re-post of 2 blogs from last August, since they are relevant to the "Thematic Growth" discussion]

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

*Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.


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


Guest Blog — Simon (Thematic Growth, part 2)

Simon wrote a remarkably thoughtful blog in response to my previous entry ("Thematic Growth"), and I thought I would post it here as a "guest blog" with his permission, since I fear not too many people would see it otherwise. (I would be happy to post "guest blogs" more often, if you think it is a good idea.)

SIMON MACKIE: I started out writing a reply to the blog entry on the main page, but it turned into a bit of a rant, I guess, so I decided to run with it and post it as full entry on its own. Here it is:

It's strange--I have two completely different mindsets and methodologies when I'm composing "art music" versus "popular music" (I strongly dislike those terms, but it gets my point across). With the latter I have no problem repeating ideas and figurations. If I have a cool countermelody that goes on behind the vocal or main guitar/keyboard line, I'm eager to reuse it and let it go on at length. I'll bring back a chorus three times if I think it's good enough. But with the former kind of music I feel pressured to keep changing things. Why? I'm not really sure. I have to force myself to develop some ideas, convincing myself that people aren't going to be bored hearing it the second time around. Though, in both styles I'm still driven by the fear of sitting on one chord for too long (though I'm getting a little better and allowing passages of harmonic stasis). More than just worrying about whether an idea has reached its full potential (as Kim mentions), I worry about whether I should even be using my ideas. Sometimes I come up with an idea that I'm so attached to, I don't want to use it until I can write the perfect context for it to fit in. Two reasons why: the insecurity of not coming up with as good an idea again; and not wanting it to stand out against surrounding ideas that maybe aren't as good.

Guess it all boils down to insecurity, doesn't it? It's really tough to separate ourselves from our pieces--because that's like tearing ourselves apart. Then we have to rely on our limited scope of objectivity without totally rejecting the subjective. Examining it pragmatically versus viscerally.

We also have the option of relying on an outside source of opinion. Even this presents a fair share of problems. Even if we accept external opinions, we will still weigh them against our own two views. For instance, take the following three scenarios, provided that your subjective view is that your idea is good.

-If the External matches your Objective, but disagrees with your Subjective, you face your original dilemma--though possibly in a more balanced manner depending on how committed you are to it.
-If the External disagrees with your Objective, but matches your Subjective (this may seem slightly odd), it's further reinforcement.
-If the External coincides with your Objective, which also matches your Subjective, you've probably hit the spot.

There are many other situations which would arise if you feel that your idea isn't any good but think people would like it. And, of course, all kinds of other results depending on the circumstances.

I definitely didn't answer any questions, and have probably created a whole new level of questions, but it was good to see the questions out there in the first place and see how other people react to the same dilemma.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thematic growth, part 1: Fortspinnung!

I mentioned in yesterday's class that many student compositions I hear have opening ideas that are immediately captivating, but the material often feels to me as if it is truncated before having reached some sort of completion or fulfillment; instead, other ideas are introduced. This is a relatively-common occurrence when learning compositional craft, and I suspect that even experienced composers struggle with this on occasion.

I think it arises in part because of the extreme disproportion between the length of time it takes to compose music, and the length of time it takes to hear it; you can spend days working on a musical idea that lasts only 30 seconds. After spending so much time working on a musical idea, it is easy to tire of it and want to start working on a different idea.

I think it also comes about because we just don't have all the tools we need to construct longer, motivically-related (and therefore organic) sections of music.

One suggestion to counteract this is to practice writing single lines of significant length, perhaps 32 bars or longer, without concerning yourself with harmony, counterpoint, or orchestration; focus only on building, or "spinning out," your line. This can help you to grow your musical ideas into longer entities, which in turn gives you a better sense of how to construct longer compositions with proportions and musical ideas that feel organic.

A term for melodies that are "spun" from limited motivic resources is fortspinnung; here is an example by J. S. Bach, from his Invention in D minor, BWV 775; the fortspinnung begins in bar 5:




For ideas that are colour based — the principal interest is harmonic, textural, or the orchestration — this technique works less well, but you may be be able to adapt it by writing your harmonic progression on one or two staves which continue for as long as the progression needs to last. You could also insert indications such as, "flutes and oboes here," "only use bass-register instruments," or "light, transparent texture," to guide you when you come back to orchestrate or otherwise expand your short score to its fuller form.

Do all musical materials need to be worked out to their full potential? Absolutely not! But a sense that none of the ideas has reached some kind of musical maturity may lead to a feeling of dissatisfaction about the composition in general for listeners.

Also, just because you work out an idea to achieve its full potential beforehand doesn't mean you have to use the idea in its entirety the first (or any) time the listener hears it. You could introduce it in segments, interrupted by a contrasting idea, gradually working its way to the full presentation of the idea.

Don't buy it? I have a theory that all composers are contrarians to varying degrees. When a teacher says, "avoid parallel fifths," an aspiring composer may say, "oh yeah? We'll just see about that!" and decide to write a piece using nothing but parallel fifths, and ditto for any other musical 'rule' or 'guideline.' So, even as I write this, a part of my brain is saying, "but wouldn't it be cool to write a piece with absolutely no sense of thematic growth or fulfillment whatsoever?

My answer would be, that if you feel that way, then give it a try! But perhaps not in my course… Centuries of musical practice suggest it is important to learn how to 'grow' your musical materials in a natural and organic way, which is why composition teachers often encourage their students to develop the skills and patience to work on this.