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…