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.