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.


Vanessa Carroll said...

I really like your "digression" here!
I find this balance hard to achieve... And sometimes difficult to know when a change in necessary or not.
I've found that having a deadline is extremely helpful. By completing a piece by a deadline, leaving it for a little while, and then returning, I find I get out of the "zone" and can hear the piece with fresh ears. That way I can see what actually works.

This is a great entry!

Tony Taylor said...

I feel sometimes that the inability to really find the value in a piece of contemporary music is why people put walls up against it sometimes. They are not looking in the right places in the piece or themselves to connect with it. They feel more comfortable judging a piece of music they know how to connect with. It goes just a bit further than what you've suggested in saying that because we don't know the work we can't really judge it. If people were further educated or immersed in how composers use the methods you mentioned in your third to last paragraph I feel they could make stronger judgments on what they're hearing on a moment-to-moment basis.

Jenny Griffioen said...

I definitely think you can see aspects of a composer's personality through their compositions, just as you can see aspects of a performer's personality through their performances and you can see aspects of a writer's personality through their writings... It's part of what I enjoy about watching live performances or hearing compositions by people that I know - getting a different perspective on their character.

I also find it hard to find that balance between revising and letting it go. I tend to over-evaluate my work - which would be ok if I had unlimited time, but as it is, I can easily get stuck trying to make things "just right".

I think it's harder to judge music that I don't understand, as is the case with a lot of contemporary music. If I'm listening to a Classical sonata, I can follow the form, analyze chord progressions, notice any unexpected formal or harmonic elements... I already have a good sense of how this type of music is constructed. But with a lot of contemporary music, my understanding of the compositional techniques they use is so limited, I just don't get it on the first hearing - it takes more digging into the score to really appreciate the music.

Mitchell wxhao said...

It's interesting to think about how I, as the composer of my music, pick which notes are right versus which ones are wrong. I find that once I start a piece, the piece sets its own rules in place, and when I push the boundaries too much, I just know. Some pieces have very strict rules and limits, but others have very few, and it's hard to discern how these rules are established, but it seems that they just are. When I break the rules, hearing it back, I think "No, no, no you can't do that. That's outrageous."

It's almost as if the piece already exists and I'm trying to track down the right notes.

But I prefer to think that I'm writing it myself.

Brad said...

I found the balance between constantly revising and not revising at all was well enforced by the deadlines we set this term. I still have yet to compose anything of the 'art music' variety that was not for a university course. So really, I can't make judgements on my position or speak from experience.

However, when writing songs of the so called 'popular music' variety, I find that when a piece is done--it's done. I just have this feeling that yes. Here is the piece. If I am not totally happy with it I play around with it until I am, but if that proves fruitless, I just shelf it for a while. I finished a song last month by piecing together brand new lyrics with an old theme that I wrote two years ago, with another separate theme that actually fit quite well that I wrote about a year ago. And that sort of thing is fine when you aren't composing with a deadline. That's often how I find I work in that respect. Sometimes it just needs time to breathe. Sometimes you aren't really ready for what you've written, and when a later experience inspires you to dig up that old theme, breathing new life into something previously 'meaningless'.

As to judging based on composition: I believe that we do that unconsciously. It just happens automatically. Of course, there are the people who can write whatever they want whether it applies to them or not, though most often a piece of work can tell a lot about its composer. Whether it pertains to the composer's view of the world, state, where they are in life, where they want to be in life... a piece of music conceived and created by someone--it's another way of communication; of expression. Therefore, it makes sense that one would be judged based on something they've created. However, whether or not that judgement is accurate or appropriate is sometimes hard to tell.

Andrew Noseworthy said...

Very insightful thoughts Dr. Ross! Finding the balance between when something is "done" is definitely one of the hardest parts of composing. I'd say definitely harder than beginning something anyways. I especially liked the comment at the end of this post about relating someone's character to a piece. Lately, I've found some of the compositions I've enjoyed most are ones that remind me of the composer's personal character. I feel like this may be an indication that the composer has not only put a lot of thought and emotion into the piece, but also that they're letting their unique voice come through in the piece.

Jennifer Hatcher said...

Throughout this semester I have found that I've been writing things I like to hear; is this a true judgment of my character? I'm not entirely sure it is. The things I like to hear vary depending on the mood I am in. Generally speaking, I do not compose music that is dreary or either bit sad; but if I wasn't feeling so chipper in the initial phases of beginning a composition I can almost guarantee my piece would show the mood I was in. Perhaps it would be better to say that compositions are a judge of mood of the composer during the writing process. It would be fair to judge compositional abilities, but it would of course just be an opinion. If I really like a piece of music, I would be more inclined to say that composer was excellent and what he/she did. However, there are definitely excellent composers out there that do not write anything that strikes me, therefore I probably wouldn't notice and/or point out their amazing abilities. I have noticed that composers within our class seem to write things that I could hear them playing - once again, composing what they personally would like to hear.

Robert Godin said...

I can definitely agree that judging someone's character based on their compositions is problematic. But I'd even argue that judging someone's compositional abilities off of their pieces can also be unfair.

Many composers often go through various stages of compositional style and evolve with age and experiences. One's musical output could be incredibly diverse over a span of, say, 20 years. Every composition is a look into their mind set at that particular point in time. Every decision they made were made because of what they knew, and how they felt, in those moments of composition.

Perhaps later this composer looks back and says "I wish I could change some of those notes". Maybe when I hear this persons piece for the first time I think the exact same thing; but that still should not give me the inclination to say this composer is lacking in compositional ability. What could be said is that I don't like the decisions the composer made for this particular piece at that particular time because right now he or she may not be the same composer that created that piece. Their mindset might have changed greatly since that piece's completion. But even my position on that piece might change over time as I become more familiar with that style or piece. And I'm sure that's happened to all of us with certain pieces or composers.

I used to be not so impressed with Brahms. But with further listening I came to really appreciate his work. However, there's still some of his pieces that I find quite dull. Obviously that doesn't mean he is lacking compositional abilities! lol It just means I have yet to learn how to enjoy those pieces, or that I just don't like the decisions he made at the time. I feel as though judging a piece , as well as the decisions the composer made for that piece, is quite fair. But to judge someone, and their ability to compose as a whole, off a few pieces, or even one, is impractical and unfair.

Chris Morrison said...

I feel at some point you have to just let it go and see what happens. Knowing when to put down a composition is the genius of creating an effective work. The composer has to intuitively feel at which point their composition strikes the right emotional chord and nuances for themselves and their audience. This ability may separate great compositions from ordinary ones. Things simply feel right. Most music which is well written strikes people emotionally. Knowing when a composition achieves its purpose is what composers aim for. This must be felt intuitively. Judging on an artificial level based on what is composed is flawed because you can never really explain how you intuitively feel that a piece is right.

Michelle said...

I really appreciate the flow of this entry, from analogy to personal experience and posing a question to the reader. I think that judging contemporary music is much more subjective that judging older classical music, simply because there does not exist as great a body of work for comparison. We know what we are supposed to appreciate in a Beethoven sonata, and even in a "modern" work by Ives or Stockhausen, but it's much more difficult to understand how to judge new music that falls outside of specific, prescribed categorization.

beautifuldisaster said...

I can definitely relate to the points that you made in this post. I recently played a Messiaen prelude, and many times that I had performed it, I had played it far from perfectly. However, when speaking to people after these performances, no one had known I had made any mistakes, they thought I had played everything correctly. `I believe that this is due to the fact that the piece is quite contemporary, and no one was very familiar with it. What I had to bring to the performance was expression and mood in order to play it effectively.

When composing contemporary pieces, I believe that musicality and expression can be, in some cases, more crucial that exact notes/pitches. At least, more important than in pieces from previous eras.

Siobhan said...

I think that people are always being judged by their work, composition or otherwise, though it does not necessarily accurately reflect upon their character.

In music history, often composers' emotional state or biographical details are discussed in relation to their compositions. Links are often made between the two, though it would be difficult to simply make allegations of certain personality traits from solely hearing their music. For example, Schumann's emotional instability is often discussed when analyzing his music, particularly his later works. His fortepianos that pop out of nowhere, or sudden changes in mood and dynamic are often attributed to his personality. This is, of course, a correlation between the two and not a causation.

André McEvenue said...

I like to think of a composition as something that exists outside of the composer who created it. I think in some ways, the composer is just a vehicle for the art itself. A good composer is someone who can recognize a good idea when it happens, and has the sensitivity to make the right decisions to take the piece where it wants to go. I think there are many places any given piece could want to go, and there isn't necessarily only one correct path. But some paths are obviously more convincing than others. I agree with Dr. Ross in his point that constantly revising is an excellent way to explore these ideas and possible directions.

I feel that the decisions composers make with the ideas they have do reflect their sensitivity to them, and inevitably their personality will shine through these decisions. On the other hand, can a composer who is a despicable human being still create great art? I feel that they can, and that their great sensitivity to composition might not always reflect their virtuousness as a human being. If this is indeed true, then how much of our personality goes into a composition, and if others say it is beautiful, what does that say about us?

Tennessee Williams, in his interviewing of himself, said that "I have never loved one [person] that I couldn't love if I completely knew him and understood him". So perhaps when we hear beauty in a composition, we are understanding more than we are capable of seeing on a personal level of this individual's complexity and value. Or maybe, composition is less of a reflection of our personality than we often think it is.

Evan Harte said...

I personally find it a bit scary to think that people judge composers by their compositions. Somebody who may not know me at all could hear one of my compositions, not like it, and assume that I'm a person they are not going to like based on what they heard. Though I realize that this is the far extreme of what you have said here, who's to say that people don't think this? Because after all, like you said, Dr. Ross, our compositions do reflect at least a bit of our personalities.

As ashamed of it as I might be, I have, in certain instances, heard compositions by somebody I do not know, ended up not liking the piece and in the end, having negative opinions about that person. I think we all do this at certain points. And it is scary to think about because we can't please everybody with our compositions. And there is always going to be that one person who just doesn't like it.

Another similar idea is the opposite of what I have just said. Not feeling too keen about a particular person in general and therefore judging their compositions based on their personality. This frightens me the greatest. Though as composers, we have to understand that this is the way humans are, and we have to accept it and not let it get in the way of our compositions!

Luke said...

The "coda" to this blog entry really sparked my interest, as composition revision is something I am constantly wanting to do more of, but lack motivation to return to a previous project. I think the "happy medium" usually gives me the most satisfaction in regards to my compositions, and looking back on some of the things I have written, there are many opportunities where I could explore further. One of the most daunting ideas about composing to me is what other people might think about my music, hopefully it says something about my character, and I think most young composers do in fact have a distinct style. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of new music being written by my peers, they all sound like themselves, which is I suppose a good thing, because while it may be a good idea to strive to emulate another composers sound, we should also try and sound like an individual.

Timothy Brennan said...

I agree with you on the fact that personal judgement is a huge and constant factor in all facets of music. From my own experience entering piano competitions, I have met adjudicators and artists who really like my interpretations and style of playing and there have been some who are not in favour of my playing. It comes with the territory and I think that one has to be accepting of that fact. As well, I think it is very important for all musicians, including composers and performers, have a firm grasp and acceptance of who they are as individuals and artists. In my experience as a student at summer programs and festivals, there are a lot of artists and mentors with vastly different opinions of your work, and each one will divulge their opinions and try to impose their ideas on your playing. While this can great (I have gained and learned so much from these programs), it is so easy to take their opinions to heart (especially negative ones) and, in the case of negative opinions, feel downhearted and upset about your artistry. Accepting and liking who you are as an artist can prevent this from happening, as there will always be people who appreciate and find greatness in your work.

Duane Andrews said...

I'd say having a good sense of judgement is a vital part of being a composer though generally we are probably too judgemental in today's world. I've been enjoying the writings of people like Ekhart Tolle who suggest that the root cause of the imbalance in the world today is the dominance of the mind and that we have become too judgemental.

I did enjoy reading this post though and judge it worthy of further contemplation and look forward to checking out part 2 :)

Jack Etchegary said...

It is safe to say that everyone is making judgments all the time, whether or not they are conscious judgments. In an entrepreneurship course I am taking currently, we discussed the role that judgment plays in the business world. People are constantly making judgments of other people based on several factors, and it is important to present yourself as being your best and to be confident in your persona. I believe this to be the case when presenting yourself through compositions. Always striving to present music as if it is the best work we can possibly do, and being confident about the work that we are presenting, are both important factors when taking judgments on one's own compositions. I do however find that sometimes some people may judge too quickly on a piece of music that is far from finished, while there hasn't been much time/availability to make changes or improvements. It is important to be considerate of the stage of a piece of music and to always be cognizant of creating constructive criticisms of one's music. Judgments can have a large impact on the resulting changes that one will put into a piece of music, so for me, encouragement and constructive feedback through our criticism of music and composing are vital factors.