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?