Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Judge Me By My Composition, Do You? (Part One)

Today's title is a reference to Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), in which Yoda famously says, "Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm?"

Indeed, while many would probably agree that it is unfair to judge people by their size, and as Star Wars viewers knew, Yoda's mastery of The Force meant it was clearly a mistake to dismiss him based on his extraordinarily-diminutive stature (not to mention his peculiar sentence constructions), it seems to be a fairly common practice in the world.   Basketball and North American football coaches routinely consider size when choosing players for their teams, although they presumably take other factors into consideration as well, such as speed, and sport-specific skills.  According to some studies, in American presidential elections, "candidates that were taller than their opponents [usually] received more popular votes."  Other studies have suggested it is a factor in mate selection, and advancement in the corporate world.

Judging people based on their height is clearly unjustified in most instances (even in sports there are numerous examples of great athletes that happen to be shorter than average), but judging people based on other factors is a frequent practice that can often be justified.  Picking the best candidate for a particular job entails evaluating numerous factors specific to the execution of that job.  Selecting the best university for you, choosing friends, clothes, books to read, and music to hear — these all involve an evaluation process of some kind, even if we are not consciously aware of it.

In music, we routinely make judgements.  We do this if we prefer one performer's recording of Beethoven over another's.  Some people love Bob Dylan's voice; some people can't stand it.  I recently met someone who claimed to dislike all songs by Paul McCartney, but many regard him as the most successful songwriter in history (Google "the most successful songwriter in history" and see what you get).  I have participated in numerous performance "juries" wherein a panel of faculty members assess student performances, but I have always been aware that there is some subjectivity involved in giving a fair and balanced assessment of what I heard.  Different people can evaluate the same performance in slightly (or sometimes greatly) differing ways.

That said, I suspect that evaluating a performance of a two-century-old sonata by Beethoven is a more objective exercise than evaluating a brand new composition.  People familiar with a particular work notice immediately if wrong notes are played, and judge the performance to be flawed, even if it was otherwise very musical.  A performance lacking in "feeling" or "expression" — which may mean that the performance lacks dynamic nuances, subtle tempo alterations such as rubato or rallentandi, or the shaping of phrases — is usually judged to be weaker than a performance with these qualities, although too much of them may be said to be "in poor taste."  But how does a listener judge the performance of a new composition?  How does the listener of a new work know which are the right notes, and which are wrong?

The question is rhetorical; if the listener is unfamiliar with the work, they can't know.  However, the listener may be able to guess that some notes don't seem right based on an understanding of a composer's style, or even based on inconsistencies within a work.

How does a composer know which notes to use, and when to use them?  We make thousands of decisions during the composition process, and we don't always know why we make some choices and reject others, beyond liking or disliking them.  One way to justify compositional choices is to adopt a systematic approach, such as motivic unity, motivic expansion, using existing forms (such as sonata), any of various "-isms" (serialism, spectralism, minimalism), tonality, free atonality, polychords, or any of Messiaen's techniques such as modes of limited transposition, non-retrogradable rhythm, and added-value rhythms.

But whether you adopt a more-systematic or less-systematic approach, all of these approaches involve choices, or judgements, and good composers presumably make better choices than less-good composers.  The composition process involves continually evaluating the music we write, ideally until we reach the point where in our estimation we are unable to make it any better in the time allotted; at this point, the work is done.

To revise or to let it go?
A quick digression:  If we never review and revise the work we do, we are unlikely to write the highest quality music of which we are capable.  If we constantly revise, then the composition will never be finished.  Somewhere between those two extremes is the happy medium that every composer needs to find.  Deadlines help us in finding this happy (or at least practical) medium…
And so, to answer the question posed in the title of this blog, I don't know the degree to which people are, or should be, judged by their compositions; judging a person's compositional abilities based on their compositions seems fair enough, but judging a person's character based on their compositions seems more problematic, although it could be argued that a person's compositions tell us something about that person's character.

In part two, I will suggest twenty specific ways of critiquing compositions, particularly your own.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Project 2 (Fall, 2012) Options

As we near the end of our first project, it may be wise to think ahead to project 2.  Here are some options; aim for a duration of about 3-5 minutes:
(a) Composing a work that "recontextualizes" a musical cliché or genre for 3-4 performers, possibly including voice and/or electronics;
Composing a work for voice and 2-3 other instruments; or
(c) another project of your own choosing for 3-4 performers.  

(a) Below are links with more information on 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.

Here are some links to blogs on the ever-popular topic of tonality/atonality and a definition that may be helpful:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Music is Everywhere; How Can Composers Benefit?

I am struck by the significant role music plays in important events.

During the CBC coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (which I was watching when I began this blog entry over a year ago… and then abandoned it 'till just now), there were musical performances by a children's choir, bagpipes and drums, cello and flute, solo cello, and others. For a while, the CBC had two sound sources playing simultaneously in a split screen, creating a strange cacophony between a live performance by the NAC orchestra in Ottawa and the background music that accompanied the reading of victims' names in New York. This cacophony was taken to an even greater level of sonic chaos when a CBC studio anchor started talking over the reading of names while the two competing musical soundtracks played. It was all very Charles Ivesian, except that I'm not sure Ives would have endorsed the notion that the public needs a gabby news anchor interpreting what we see and hear as we see and hear it.

But I digress. The pervasiveness of music at public events, be they solemn (memorials, funerals, religious ceremonies) or celebratory (weddings, coronations, inaugurations, olympic opening/closing ceremonies, or milestones of any kind), suggests that there is a widespread view in our society that music has an important role to play in such events.

All of this music had to be created by somebody, and that's where composers come in. There is a plethora of music commissioned for religious functions that has made it into the Western canon by a multitude of composers, such as Machaut, Lassus, Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and many others. Palestrina is one of my all-time favourite composers, but if you were to remove church music from Palestrina's list of works, you would have very little left over; the church was his patron for his entire career.

Handel was a prolific and highly-successful composer during his life time, writing numerous operas, oratorios, hymns, concerti, concerti grossi, solo and trio sonatas, suites, works for orchestra, and more, but had he not written The Messiah, by far his most popular work, his place in history would likely have been greatly diminished (he wrote other good compositions that are often played, such as Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, the Largo from Xerxes (3 minutes of absolutely exquisite beauty), and the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, from Solomon (3.5 minutes, very stirring!), but none come close to matching the reverence with which The Messiah is regarded, or its popularity).

Music has traditionally had a significant role in weddings, be they royal or commoner; in Great Britain, Prince William and Catherine Middleton's wedding service (2011) involved two choirs, one orchestra, organ, and a fanfare ensemble, which may have actually been modest in comparison to some royal weddings of the past. All of this music had to be written by composers, and in many cases (including William and Kate's wedding), some of the music was commissioned expressly for the occasion.

Governments, both democratic and totalitarian, and political movements have long believed that music could be used as a tool to sway the masses in some way.  According to Lenin:
Every artist, everyone who considers himself an artist, has the right to create freely according to his ideal, independently of everything. However, we are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases. We must systemically guide this process and form its result. (Lenin, O Kulture i Iskusstve (About Culture and Art), Moscow, 1957, pp 519-520)
In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin enacted numerous restrictions for music which limited content and innovation. Classicism was favoured, and experimentation was discouraged (Soviet Music and Society under Lenin and Stalin: The Baton and Sickle, edited by Neil Edmunds, Routledge, 2009, p 264).

For example, Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was denounced in Pravda as "formalism" and soon banned from theatres for years. This, and the fact that people close to him were disappearing, never to be seen again, understandably terrorized the composer and made him fear for his own life. To learn more, I highly recommend reading, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich; it is a disturbing but controversial (due to a dispute over the degree to which the words and sentiments were Shostakovich's own, or those of the Solomon Volkov, the book's editor) account of the composer's life.

 Here are some interesting articles on this topic:
And, as we all, know, the role of music is not limited to public events; we hear music in commercials, television shows, MP3 players, radio (including talk radio, where it is used to fill time between segments of shows), video games, while on hold on the telephone, movies, airports, street corners, theme parks, parades, parks, stores, elevators, other people's cars, at the gym, etc. For most of us, I suspect, it can be a challenge to go an entire day without hearing any music!

Music is powerful, and it is everywhere! How can composers benefit from this?
  • If we realize that there seems to be a never-ending demand for music of all kinds for different purposes, we can aim to become skilled at writing music in a variety of styles and for a variety of functions.

  • If we can figure out where music is needed, and write high-quality music quickly that fits the bill for different needs, we might be able to make a successful career of composing, although, like any competitive career, there are many other people trying to do the same thing, so perseverance, flexibility, discernment, smarts, chutzpah, luck, and, oh yeah, high-level skills, are all necessary.

  • Another important factor is "who you know;" a lot of opportunities — perhaps the great majority — come to composers based at least in part on who we know. This is a topic into which I may delve at greater length in a future blog, but we need to be to be aware of it. In my view, the first priority in your development should be to become really good at composing, but it is also important to get to know people who are in a position to programme/use your music.

  • More generally, and from a purely practical viewpoint, it is useful for aspiring or established composers to consider the many roles that music has in society, and the many kinds of music needed for different purposes. What kinds of music would you like to write? Are there types of music you would be unwilling to write?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Project 1; What Next?

When you have completed the first step of composition project 1 — Write a progression of 12 to 16 chords of your own invention for piano, using only whole notes and solid (non-broken) chords, with no octave doublings; none of the chords should sound like an obvious sonority in functional harmony — and are satisfied with the result, you should begin writing the first of your three compositions based on your chord progression.  Aim to finish one piece per week, with an additional week to make any final revisions (although you should be making revisions as you go as well).

We will listen to and comment on your works-in-progress this week, so make sure to bring three copies of your scores, as well as some way of playing them (live or via computer is fine).

Here are links to blogs with more information on how to proceed; in particular, the second link below should be helpful:

Project 1 - Atonal Theme and Variations
Project 1 - More Details

Good luck!

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (® 2012-September)

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. I omitted entries that I didn't think would be very interesting or relevant, such as reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc.

These are loosely organized by topic to facilitate browsing; clicking on any blog title will take you to that page. You may find some that give you ideas about composition techniques, or that contain useful things to think about when composing, including suggestions for what to try when you are stuck.

Originality and Art
Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
How Important is Originality in Art?
Is Originality a Detriment in Art?
Originality — Does it have Any Role in Art?

Argh! I'm Stuck!
Strategies for Becoming Unstuck
Creative Angst... Welcome to the Club!
Oh, the Pain of it all!

Atonality – What's in a Name?
Why Atonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!
Atonality = Noise?

On Composition (Miscellaneous Topics)
When Your Reach Exceeds Your Grasp
How Much Theory do You Have to Know to be a Composer?
Bob Ross, Empowering the Masses, and Fear of Failure
On the Perception of Progress
I Love it When a Plan Comes Together
You Might be a Composer if …
The Ross (née Heisenberg) Uncertainty Principle, and Other Musical Dichotomies
How to Become a More-Skilled Composer
Talent? Skill? What's the Difference?
Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity
Express Yourself? Really???
Writing a Play; an Analogy to Composition
Keep? Discard?
Notation Software Woes
Musicworks Magazine

Composition Issues (10-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!

9. Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it

10. Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity

Thematic Growth, and other Technical Considerations
Thematic Growth (1)
Thematic Growth (2; Simon's Guest Blog)
Thematic Growth (3)
A Sampling of Post-1900 Materials of Music; See Anything You Like?
Things to Consider when Composing for Piano

Nuts and Bolts; Score Details, etc.
On Musical Detail (1)
On Musical Detail (2)
On Musical Detail (3)
What is a "Fair Copy?"
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
Project 4: Jessica's Tips on Writing for Youth Band
Project 4: Clark's Tips on Writing for Wind Band
Project 5: Write Three Character Pieces for Solo Piano
Project 6: Choice of Text Setting, or Genre Recontextualization
Project 7: Writing for Chamber Ensemble

Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music
"Audiences Hate Modern Classical Music Because Their Brains Cannot Cope"
On the "Hatred" of Modern Classical Music Due to the Brain's Inability to Cope
Marketing Contemporary Classical Music (1)
Marketing Contemporary Classical Music (2)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When your reach exceeds your grasp

Have you ever heard it said that someone's reach exceeded their grasp?  It is a metaphor referring to a desire for something that is, currently at least, unattainable.  You reach for something, but are unable to grasp it.

I have heard this said in a disparaging way, as if it is foolish to aspire to goals beyond one's current limitations, or, put another way, as if one should not aspire to rise above one's station in life.  According to an article in The Telegraph (U.K.; 2004), Britain's Prince Charles apparently claimed that "the modern education system went against natural selection and wrongly encouraged people to think they could rise 'above their station.'"

Maintaining the status quo is a pretty sweet deal for those who sit comfortably atop the class hierarchy, but it's not a particularly good deal for everyone else.  It also goes against democratic or meritocratic ideals that many societies (including Britain's) espouse, so, no offence to the prince, but I would suggest that aspiring to rise above one's current station in life is natural, and should be encouraged.

Another Englishman, the poet and playwright Robert Browning (1812-1889) perhaps felt similarly when he wrote, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp” (line 97, Andrea del Sarto; 1855) in a remarkably long-winded dramatic monologue about a Florentine renaissance artist whose technique was said to be flawless, but who, according to Vasari,  "lacked ambition and that divine fire of inspiration which animated the works of his more famous contemporaries, like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael." (Wikipedia)

Self-portrait of Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) 
His grasp apparently exceeded his reach; this may be why you have not heard of him.

David, by Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer; 
Michelangelo's reach and grasp were huge. Like David's hands.

So, to summarize, Andrea del Sarto was a gifted painter with flawless technique, at least according to Vasari (and to be fair, not everyone agrees with his assessment), but history has not accorded him the exalted status of his renaissance contemporaries such as Michelangelo, perhaps because del Sarto lacked the desire to grasp the unattainable, whereas Michelangelo, like all great artists, had this desire in spades, as well as the technique to make it attainable.

Which brings us to composition.

If you have spent years learning to sing or play an instrument, you probably have a pretty good sense of what great music sounds like.  You may also have an opinion of what bad music sounds like; the ability to make these kinds of judgement calls is something we all have, and it is called discernment.  Not everyone agrees with our opinions regarding the relative merits of different artistic creations, but the point is that we make these judgements frequently.

One of the potential frustrations for university-age composition students is that, at the beginning of our composition studies, there is often a significant gap between the quality of the music we perform and study, and the quality of the music we write.  This is to be expected, of course — the music we perform and study is often written by some of the greatest composers that ever lived, whereas music students are often relative novices and just learning the craft of composition — but it can be frustrating nonetheless.

I will call this the Skill-Taste Disparity.  We have developed a sense of artistic taste that allows us to recognize great music when we encounter it, but our compositional skills are not yet sufficiently developed to allow us to create great music.

One solution would be to lower your expectations; if you don't expect to write high-quality music, then you probably won't be disappointed if your compositions are mediocre!

However, I don't suggest you do that…

Instead, I will reference Ralph Waldo Emerson — "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm" — and suggest that you approach all your compositional work with enthusiasm and intelligence, but understand that it takes time and dedication to eliminate any disparity that may exist between your musical taste and compositional skills.

Lowering your expectations may reduce your frustration levels, but I suggest that reaching beyond your current grasp is essential in order to become an excellent composer, and I encourage any aspiring composer to do this with enthusiasm!

Sure, there is a cost to this — I have done many things in life with tremendous enthusiasm, only to be figuratively have the wind taken out of my sails (or, to use a more visceral metaphor, to be kicked in the head by a mule with remarkably-powerful hind quarters) on numerous painful and doubt-ridden occasions (before the premiere: "This is going to be GREAT!!!" After the premiere: "OUCH! That SUCKED!!! Why did I ever think I could be a competent composer?) — but I don't know how to approach it any differently.

And I truly believe that if you stick with it, you will write very good, perhaps even great, music.

Welcome (September, 2012)

Welcome to all composition students in my class this semester, and welcome as well to any other readers of this blog!

This year begins with tremendous excitement for me, because we have substantially "beefed-up" our composition offerings to composition majors and minors at Memorial University's School of Music.  Starting this semester, composition majors and minors will be able to take composition for four semesters (all of third and fourth year), plus an additional semester of study in second year for anyone interested in composition.  This is a significant improvement in our programme, and I am looking forward to working with you, hearing your music, and reading your blogs.

This next section is excerpted from my welcome message from a previous semester:

Please visit this site regularly to read and comment on entries relating to music composition. This blog is open to anyone; most of the comments tend to be by students in my courses, but anyone who wishes to comment is encouraged to do so.

Many of the people visiting this blog are not current or former students — when I checked the "Site meter" at the bottom of this page a few minutes ago, it showed recent visitors from Japan, Singapore, Germany, California, Ottawa, and New Brunswick — so be aware that any comments you make can be read by a fairly large and diverse audience.

A list of student blogs is on the right column of this page; if you are in the course and your blog isn't listed, please let me know your blog's URL and I will add it.

Typically, almost all comments are made by class members for one very simple reason: Class members are required to comment on a certain number per semester. That's right; I am an ogre! I compel students to comment on the class blog by means of marks incentives.

Is this fair? Is it right? Is it good pedagogy? Well, I think so (obviously), but (polite) comments from those who feel otherwise are always welcome.  I would be happy to hear thoughts on the idea of enforced blog participation as a course requirement, whether you agree with it or not.  I believe discussion can be a healthy and helpful thing, and my objective is to find ways of engendering it.

Enjoy, and may you always find the right notes!

Two more things:  
  1. I have written about 115 blogs so far, and you are free to comment on any of them (as well as on any new blogs that I write, of course).  I receive E-mail notifications for any blog comments made.
  2. My blogging frequency has diminished down to a trickle: 36 posts in 2008, 45 in 2009, 24 in 2010, 4 in 2011 (ouch!), and 7 thus far in 2012.  To counter this shameful (!) trend, I am going to challenge myself to write one blog a week for the next 12 weeks on average.  Let's see if I can keep this up…

Monday, February 27, 2012


The topic of spectral music came up in class today, and I thought it would be interesting to find out more about it.

Let's start by listening to an excerpt from "La Barque Mystique" by Tristan Murail, chosen in part because the instrumentation is very similar to that of the ensemble some of you are writing for (second project, W2012).  This may also give you ideas for textures and roles of the instruments to use in your own composition.

You may have noticed that there appears to be no melody.  The texture changes frequently, but at no point do we get anything that might be described as melody with accompaniment, or homophony.  The instruments often play different material from one another, some of it linear, but it doesn't appear to be contrapuntal in sense of intertwining relatively independent melodic lines.

Instead, we hear a succession of sonorities for the most part, often begun in the piano, with other instruments contributing pitches to the piano's, thereby changing the overall musical colour.  Many of the sonorities are sustained, but there is sections with short bursts of activity, particularly in the piano.

To me, the effect is of many "splashes" of sound colour.

You also may not have heard anything resembling a regular pulse here; it may well be that the performers are feeling a pulse that helps keep them together, but it does not sound like metrically predictable music in any way.

And so, with no melody and no regular pulse, we might well ask, what is it that holds this music together?  The answer is that it uses timbre (sound colour) as its primary organizing principle; it is an example of spectral music.  An even clearer example of this is Gérard Grisey's Partiels, which can be found at the end of this blog.  Have a listen to it now if you like.

From Wikipedia (accessed today; disregard the fact that the second sentence is not a sentence):
Spectral music (or spectralism) is musical composition practice where compositional decisions are often informed by the analysis of sound spectra. Computer-based sound spectrum analysis using tools like DFT, FFT, and spectrograms. The spectral approach focuses on manipulating the features identified through this analysis, interconnecting them, and transforming them.

The spectral approach originated in France in the early 1970s, and techniques were developed, and later refined, primarily at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique [IRCAM], Paris, with the Ensemble l'Itinéraire, by composers such as Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Murail has described spectral music as an aesthetic rather than a style, not so much a set of techniques as an attitude – that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time". Julian Anderson indicates that a number of major composers associated with spectralism consider the term inappropriate, misleading, and reductive. More recently (2003) the Istanbul Spectral Music Conference redefined the term "spectral music" to encompass any music that foregrounds timbre as an important element of structure or musical language.
Some points of particular interest are:
  1. Murail describes spectralism as an aesthetic, rather than a style, which I take to mean that he regards it as a principle or value within his compositional philosophy;
  2. Murail's statement that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time" makes me think of light passing through a slowly turning prism or crystal,  changing colour gradually and beautifully;
  3. Some composers associated with spectralism consider the term misleading, which suggests to me that different composers define the term differently; and
  4. The Istanbul Spectral Music Conference (ISMC; 2003) definition of spectral music encompasses any music in which timbre is an important element of structure or musical language; this seems significantly more open-ended than the definition found at the beginning of the Wikepedia article (compositional decisions … often informed by the (computer) analysis of sound spectra).
If the idea of composing music in which colour is an important organizing principle appeals to you, then I encourage you to give it a try.  You are free to define spectralism in whatever way you wish, be it the more "scientific," computer sound analysis model, or the more open-ended, ISMC redefinition, or even some other definition of your own making.

One of the wonderful freedoms in composing is that you can define terms relating to your compositional practice in any way that is meaningful for you. Your understanding of these concepts may be spot on, or seriously flawed, but ultimately it doesn't matter as long as you compose good music.  Good music can grow out of an idiosyncratic or even inaccurate understanding of a term or concept, such as spectralism, polystylism, minimalism, etc.

I think it is important for composers, even experienced ones, to constantly find ways to increase our compositional vocabulary (knowledge of techniques, devices, and styles), and trying a variety of compositional approaches such as spectralism, polystylism, etc., in whatever way we understand these terms, are ways of doing this.

Below are more videos of what could be considered to be spectral music (the first might not be considered spectral by some, but it is certainly an example of #4 above):

Schoenberg — Farben (#3 of Five Pieces for Orchestra, also called "Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord Colours"; 1908)

John ChowningStria (1977)

Iancu Dumitrescu - Cogito/Trompe l'Oeil (part 2/2)

Want to learn more? Read Introduction to the Pitch Organization of French Spectral Music, by François Rose, in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 1996), pp. 6-39.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


(From Wikipedia; accessed 2012-02-12):
 Polystylism is the use of multiple styles or techniques in literature, art, film, or, especially, music, and is a postmodern characteristic.

Some prominent contemporary polystylist composers include Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Colgrass, Lera Auerbach, Sofia Gubaidulina, George Rochberg, Alfred Schnittke, Django Bates, Alexander Zhurbin, Lev Zhurbin and John Zorn. However, Gubaidulina, among others, has rejected the term as not applicable to her work. Polystylist composers from earlier in the twentieth century include Charles Ives and Eric Satie. Among literary figures, James Joyce has been referred to as a polystylist. Though perhaps not the original source of the term, the first important essay on the subject is Alfred Schnittke's essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music (1971)". The composers cited by Schnittke as those who make use of polystylism are Alban Berg, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Edison Denisov, Hans Werner Henze, Mauricio Kagel, Jan Klusák, György Ligeti, Carl Orff, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Henri Pousseur, Rodion Shchedrin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Slonimsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Igor Stravinsky, Boris Tishchenko, Anton Webern, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann
I don't find this definition very helpful.  Is polystylism applied to the use of multiple styles within the same piece — this is how I understand the term — or the use of multiple styles in different works?  If it is the latter, than I think the term is so widely applicable that it becomes meaningless; it would be difficult to name any composers whose style did not change during the course of their creative lives.

Composers have often written in different styles for different occasions; one style for church music, another for chamber music, and perhaps even another for "showy" pieces like concerti, or for theatrical works.  Bach's music has been described as a "fusion of national styles" (Manred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 1947), referring to his melding of the styles of the two dominant musical cultures of his time, Italy and France, with inherited German practices to create his own unique musical style.

In the early baroque period Monteverdi and other composers wrote in two distinct styles, referred to as prima practica (the older, polyphonic style of Palestrina) and seconda practica (the more modern homophonic and monodic styles, the use of basso continuo and freer dissonance treatment), also called stile antico and stile moderno.  Even late-baroque composers like Bach (in the B minor Mass) and Handel sometimes wrote in the antico style, as did Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (in the Missa Solemnis).

Schnittke's list isn't much help either; if Boulez, Webern, and Pärt are polystylists, are there any composers who aren't?

Here's what I think is interesting about the concept of polystylism for composers of our time:  There is a huge range of musical practices (styles, genres, techniques) coexisting in the world today.  The inspiring part is that, as a composer, you can draw from any of these if you wish, AND you can even find ways to make multiple genres coexist within a composition, if that appeals to you.

This is a (limited) list of "non-popular" music genres, from Wikipedia:
  • Art music: classical music and opera.
  • Music written for the score of a play, stage musical, operetta, zarzuela, film or similar: Filmi, incidental music, video game music, music hall songs and showtunes. 
  • Ballroom music: tango, pasodoble, cha cha cha and others. 
  • Religious music: gospel, Gregorian chant, spirituals, hymns and the like. 
  • Military music, marches, national anthems and related compositions. 
  • Regional and national musics with no significant commercial impact abroad, except when a version of an international genre: Traditional music, folk, oral traditions, sea shanties, work songs, nursery rhymes, Arabesque, Chalga, Enka, Flamenco, indigenous music and Mor lam sing.
As for popular music genres, there are so many that understanding or even listing them all is probably impossible, with lots of overlap between some genres, and disagreement about the definition for many.  Nevertheless, somewhat trusty old Wikipedia has a list of popular music genres that you can check out here, if you wish, broken down into the following main categories:
  • African 
  • Avant-Garde 
  • Blues 
  • Comedy music 
  • Country 
  • Easy listening 
  • Electronic 
  • Modern folk 
  • Hip Hop & Rap 
  • Jazz 
  • Latin American 
  • Pop 
  • R & B 
  • Rock 
  • Ska 
  • Other
Borrowing elements of the popular (or even unpopular) music of one's time has been part of compositional practice at least since the middle ages, so you wouldn't exactly be blazing new trails if you chose to do this today.  What I believe is different nowadays, however, is that we are aware of many more genres of music than was ever the case previously, thanks to communications technology such as radio, television, and especially the Internet.

Many young composers studying in universities are experiencing something akin to the prima practica and seconda practica of the early baroque period, wherein they write (or listen to) music in any of the many popular genres for bands they might be in, or write songs for solo performance, or charts for jazz performance, and then switch to another mode of composing for their contemporary classical music composition courses.


Just kidding.  I think it is wonderful that multiple musical practices coexist (variety is the spice of life, and all that), but the point of this blog is that it is also fine and natural to explore ways of combining multiple practices in the contemporary classical music you write.  And vice-versa too, if you can figure out a way to make that work.

There have been many classical composers who were influenced by jazz — here is a limited sampling of some of them — but the influence has gone the other way as well, with jazz artists such as Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock all having cited the influence of classical music on their own practices.  Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain has jazzy versions of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and de Falla's El Amor Brujo.

Just for fun, have a look at Wikipedia's list of popular music genres some time, and see if there are any there that you could reference in some way in your next composition.  How about a little African highlife mixed with modes of limited transposition?  Or lo-fi, or psydeco, or elevator music, or video game music, or Eurodance, or downtempo, or or new jack swing, or …

Well, you get the picture.  There are a lot of musical genres out there, and if you find any of them musically interesting, consider incorporating aspects of these genres into your compositions if you wish.

Postscript — My response to some great comments:

Nice to see that this has engendered a discussion!

Joe (AKA "soup") writes about the importance of internal consistency in a composition, and while that is a fine principle (it seemed to work pretty well for Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and possibly composers whose last names did not begin with B as well), I'm not sure that polystylism necessarily works in opposition to internal consistency.

After all, as I referenced above, Bach blended different national styles within compositions; the fourth keyboard Partita begins with a very French "Ouverture," followed by a German Allemande, a Courante that is a French dance, but this one seems to be a French/German/English hybrid, an Aria that sounds Italianate to me, a Sarabande, a dance said to have originated in Spain, although this one doesn't sound very Spanish to me, a Menuet, which is dance of French origin (although once again, I'm not sure how French this one sounds; it could be Italian or German), and a Gigue, a dance originally from England, but, when spelled this way, is French.

Is there "internal consistency" within this Partita? I would say yes, definitely, but perhaps the consistency operates on a deeper level (harmonic language, the consistent technique of Bach's musical language), whereas the stylistic differences perhaps operate more on a surface level.

Joe also mentions risks; composition involves risks, but they are of relatively minor consequence. Every composer fails a lot. If you try something and it doesn't work as expected, you just try it again, and keep at it until you are satisfied, after which you move on to the next challenge. 

I don't know that polystylism increases the risk that a composition will be lacking in internal consistency very much; I think that composers for whom internal consistency is a priority will find a way to incorporate it into their music, whether they write polystylistic music or not.  Put another way, "internal consitency" refers to a lot more than style, although it can refer to style as well, of course.

If you like the idea of polystylism AND you also like the idea of internal consistency, you can find a way to combine the two.

For those who haven't already heard it, here's a link to "Dream Dance," a piece some have called the finest piano composition since Greek antiquity (admitedly, the people calling it this are my kids, and I told them to say that if asked). It touches on different styles as it bops along (Gershwin, Glass, Bach, Haydn, Scott Joplin, and even some Clark Ross in there somewhere), and I *think* it has internal consistency!

In response to Richard Ford's comment, thanks for sharing your thoughts!  It's always a thrill when someone I don't know leaves a comment.  You raise an important point: Just how important is "internal consistency" anyway?  I suspect every composer would have their own take on this, but the point is that we should at least ask the question from time to time; we don't have to follow centuries of classical music tradition if we don't think that tradition speaks to us or our audiences. 

Thanks to all commentators so far, and further comments always welcome!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Writing for Chamber Ensemble

As mentioned in my previous post, for your second and "major" project this semester, you have the choice of writing for band or small chamber ensemble.  Today's post has information on the second option.

Length: 5 minutes minimum

Difficulty level:  Writing for professionals frees you to write more challenging music than would otherwise be the case, but it is still of highest priority (both for the purposes of this course, as well as more generally) to write idiomatically for instruments.  Most professionals don't mind playing challenging music if it is written idiomatically (and if the challenges make musical sense to them), but they don't tend to like playing music that is poorly-written or poorly-notated.  A pragmatic consideration is that the higher the difficulty level, the lower the number of ensembles that would be able to play your music.

Instrumentation:  The Ora Ensemble consists of flute, violin, cello, and piano.  You should write for all instruments in the ensemble, although sections of your composition can feature different combinations within the group more prominently if you wish.

Deadline:  12:00 noon on Monday, 9 April, 2012 (this is both the course deadline and the ensemble's deadline).  This is for the score AND parts.  This is a firm deadline; late submissions will not be accepted.  This is eight weeks from tomorrow's (Monday's) class.

Reading:  Your work will be read by the Ora ensemble shortly after submission, possibly towards the end of that week.  The date of the reading needs to be finalized, and when it is I will announce it here.

Performance:  There is a chance that the Ora ensemble will perform one or more works in a concert in April/May (date TBA).

Copies:  I require one bound copy.  I would expect that the ensemble would like at least one bound copy and parts as well, but possibly they would like four bound copies plus parts (i.e., one copy for each member).

Other information:
  • Scores should be printed on both sides of the page.   
  • The following information should be included in the score (usually on the left hand page opposite page one of the music):  
    • Duration;
    • Instrumentation (instrument list in score order);
    • Notes to the performers (if applicable); and 
    • Program notes.
  • It should be a single movement, showing development of your musical ideas (i.e, not multiple movements).
  • More information to follow.
Other posts that you may find interesting and useful:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Writing for Wind Band

For the second project this term, you have a choice between writing a piece for wind band or writing a piece for a reading by the Ora Ensemble.  Today's post has information about the wind band project (and is an edited re-post of my 27 Feb. 2009 entry).

Length: 5 minutes minimum

Difficulty level:  Grade 3-4, if submitting it to the Gower Community Band "Terra Nova" Competition.  For the purposes of this course it can be of higher difficulty, but be aware that doing so might disqualify your piece from consideration for the Gower competition, as well as for the CBA competition, if you plan on entering either of these.

What do those grade levels mean?  Good question!  After researching this on the Internet for the better part of an hour, I was unable to find an "official" explanation of grade levels, but PLEASE correct me if there is such a document, and I will post it to this blog immediately.  In the meantime, below are links that explain grade levels, but note that these explanations differ from one another.  The third has many recordings of pieces at different grade levels, which might help give you a sense of what particular grades of concert band music sound like:
Chart of Band Instrument Ranges for levels III and IV, according to Saskatchewan Band Association:

  • These are written ranges, meaning that transposing instruments (Cl., Sax., Tpt., Hn.) will not sound as written.
  • Be aware that not all notes within the ranges of these instruments are equally easy to play.  The most comfortable notes for brass players are usually within the lowest octave above their fundamental note (for Bb tpt. it is Bb; for F hn. it is F, etc.); if they have to play notes in the highest portion of the ranges above for protracted periods they tend to experience lip fatigue.  
  • Source:  http://www.saskband.org/Resources/6-9Guide.pdf, page 19.
  • I created this chart myself; in cases of any discrepancies between my chart and the SBA ranges, go with their ranges.
  • Thanks to Jason Caslor for drawing the SBA guidelines to my attention.
  • Other band associations or publishers may have slightly different ranges for these levels, but this at least gives you something to go on.
SBA Available Dynamic Levels:  The same publication cited above lists (on page 15) six available dynamic levels for level IV:  pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, along with cresc., decresc., morendo, sfz., fp.  Frankly, my feeling is that this range of dynamic levels should suffice for almost any kind of music you want to write.

Available Articulations:  The SBA publication cited above references articulations (with a code: FO#3), but does not appear to explain what the code means (it claims to do so on page 6, but I could find no explanation on that page).  In any event, I would suggest limiting yourself to the following articulations:  Staccato (.), Accent ( > ), Tenuto (—), Tongued (notes not under a slur are normally tongued individually), and Slurred (but use common sense in your slur patterns; irregular patterns are probably not feasible at this level).

SBA Available Meters:  2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, 5/8, 7/8.  I would guess that if 5/8 and 7/8 are available, 5/4 and 7/4 would also be meters that level IV bands could handle, but I could be wrong.  I would also guess that, while the listed meters are available, frequent meter changes could move your composition beyond levels III and IV.

SBA Available Note Values:  All note values from 16th to whole note, with dots on eighth notes or larger.  Triplet 8ths and triplet quarters also available.  As with everything else, common sense is necessary here; there are combinations of these values that can make for very tricky rhythms, and too many contrasting rhythmic patterns happening simultaneously can also be tricky, possibly raising the level of your composition beyond III and IV.  Syncopation and hemiola are listed as being available, again within common sense.

Instrumentation:  See information posted on the main School of Music bulletin board.  For that matter, read all posted information about the competition before you begin.

Deadline:  12 noon, 9 April, 2012 (this is both the course deadline and the Gower deadline).  Note that the deadline if you write for the Ora Ensemble is the same.

Reading opportunity:  Dr. Jason Caslor has agreed to schedule readings of your concert band compositions on 28 March, 2012.  I am guessing he would like score and parts at least a couple of days in advance of that reading, but I strongly encourage you to aim for this deadline; this will allow you time to make changes/improvements before you hand in the final version.

Copies:  The GCB Terra Nova Program requires four bound copies; I require one.

Other information:
  • Scores should be printed on both sides of the page.   
  • The following information should be included in the score (usually on the left hand page opposite page one of the music):  
    • Duration;
    • Instrumentation (instrument list in score order, including number of divisi required, such as "Flutes 1, Flutes 2, Flutes 3," etc.);
    • Notes to the conductor and performers (if applicable); and 
    • Program notes.  Note that the GCB Terra Nova Program requires program notes.
  • The GCB Terra Nova program also requires that the composer's name not appear anywhere on the score (this information, along with contact information, should be submitted in a sealed envelope accompanying your submission).  
  • The copy you submit to me should have your name on it.
Here are my suggestions:
  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 indicating instrumentation for particular sections or lines of music if you have something specific in mind. For example, you could write "clarinets and flutes in octaves" over a line, or "brass" over a chorale-like chord progression.  If you don't have specific instruments in mind, no need to do this; just figure it out later when you are orchestrating.

  3. I've had teachers insist that it is best to begin 'orchestrating' ('bandating?' '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 scoring them for band, then continuing the short score version for a few more pages, then orchestrating, etc.).

  4. Try to avoid the temptation to "overscore" (which means to use thick textures by default). 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 transparently-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, especially for less accomplished players; 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 wide variety of instruments at your disposal, consider using colour, texture, or density as organizing principles.

  6. Bear in mind that most music fits into foreground-background (prominent-supportive) roles, 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 a style or technique that interests/excites you, and then run with it.

  8. How do you feel about a plan?  The longer the work, the more a plan comes in handy, so consider formulating one.  Remember that you can always change your plan as you go.