Friday, February 1, 2013

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

In my earlier post on this topic, I discussed judgement in general, and specific ways in which this can be applied to music.  In today's post, I will write about the challenges in evaluating compositions, and suggest twenty-one aspects to consider when evaluating a new work.  In my next blog, I will look at the the three ways, or "planes," of listening to music proposed by Aaron Copland in "What to Listen for in Music" (1957).   At a later date, I will continue this series by writing a blog on judgement in composition competitions, and in the academic setting.

The subtitle for today's entry could be, "It Takes a Village," because it is about something that can be extremely valuable in the creative process:  Seeking feedback from others, and giving feedback to others.  Just as in the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," it also takes a village to develop a composer.  We don't become good composers on our own.

One way in which this is manifested in our composition classes is that everyone is encouraged to comment on others' weekly presentations.  Evaluating a composition we are hearing for the first time can be challenging; it can be difficult to sort out our reaction to the work, and even more difficult to know what to say about it.  When students play in-progress works for each other in our composition class, we sometimes struggle to come up with comments that are constructive, insightful, and honest.

Perhaps because they make us feel good, the easiest comments to make are positive ones, such as:
  • "That was great!"
  • "I really like it!"
  • "I really like the [rhythmic freedom, text setting, harmonic language, colour, use of space, etc.]!"
There is value in all of these in that they are supportive and encouraging, both of which can help motivate the recipient to continue composing. This is a good thing, because whatever your level as a composer, you are likely to improve by sticking with it.

However, the last comment above is the most helpful because it is the most specific. It is heartening to get positive feedback, but a composer usually wants to know how to make their compositions better; honest reactions from others are essential in achieving this.

More difficult to articulate are comments that might be seen as being negative.  Most of us would prefer to avoid being confrontational with others (unless, of course, they cut us off in traffic!), but what do we say if we don't like, or don't react well, to sections within the composition, or even the entire composition?  

My suggestions are to (i) find something positive to say if you can, but (ii) be truthful about what didn't work for you. You don't necessarily need to know how to fix a problem, or even exactly what the problem is, in order to comment on it. However, if you can, (iii) try to be specific; below is a list of twenty ways to do this, and they don't just apply to evaluating others' works; ask them about your own compositions as well:

21 Things to Consider when Evaluating a Composition (in progress, or completed)
  1. Are there aspects that could be better notated?  Note spellings, rhythms, etc.?  This can be a good starting point for a critique, because it is seen as being a more objective area on which to comment, which makes it a "safer" starting point than critical subjective comments (such as, "okay, I gotta be honest here, bars 20 to 120 make absolutely no sense to me! NONE! ZERO!!! What the hell were you thinking there?"). But even notation issues can involve some subjectivity; when it comes to enharmonic spellings, for example, some choices are clearly more logical than others, but there are times when what is more logical to one person is less-so to another. But, for the most part, notation aspects are indeed more objective than compositional quality aspects.
  2. How is the opening? Does the opening grab your attention, or does it draw you in more gradually?  Either way can work, but if neither occurs, you may need to rethink your opening.
  3. Does an idea/section go on too long, not long enough?  The latter is fairly common in works by inexperienced composers.
  4. Are there too many ideas? Too many idea, like information overload, can overwhelm the listener. If you use a limited number of ideas and grow at least some of them in various ways, the listener may be more drawn into the music. 
  5. Are musical ideas heard once and then abandoned? This is related to the previous point — chances are that if there are too many ideas, some are heard only once — but theoretically, a composition with only a few themes could present some of them once. Either way, it's generally a good idea to organize your musical architecture so that main musical ideas are heard again in some form (e.g., exact or varied repetitions; motivic development and/or transformation of the theme). That said, not every idea needs to be heard more than once… A composition can seem pedestrian if every theme is repeated, varied, developed, etc., in some way.
  6. Which are the important ideas? How does the music convey this to the listener?
  7. Do the musical ideas seem unrelated?  Not all thematic material in music needs to be overtly related — contrasting ideas are also welcome — but one of the fundamental organizing principles of classical music composition over the past millennium has been the presence of some degree of organic unity.
  8. Does it have a mixture of stability and instability?  Longer-form classical works have sections that are harmonically stable (such as thematic presentations), as well as other sections that are less stable (such as transitions, and development). Instability creates tension, and stability provides a sense of release; both are important elements in music.
  9. Does it seem "stuck" around one particular pitch? Could it benefit from a "modulation" at some point? Modulation in non-tonal music may seem like a strange idea (how can you change key if you're not in a key?), but it can be achieved by establishing a "home" pitch class (e.g., D), then moving away from it to establish new (and probably temporary) "home" pitch classes (e.g., Bb, Ab, etc.).
  10. How are cadences created?  Are they effective?  Do they sound out of place, perhaps because they are borrowed from traditional tonal cadence formulas? Cadences in tonal music have varying degrees of strength in terms of the closure of thematic ideas; how do we create varying degrees of strength in post-tonal cadences?
  11. Does it have artistic integrity?  This is difficult to define, but it is something we tend to recognize when we hear it… Perhaps I will post a blog entry about this at some future point.
  12. Is it too predictable?  Is it so unpredictable that you find it confusing? Or does the balance between predictability and unpredictability seem just right? If so, is does it always feel "just right?" Or are there parts where things feel overly predictable?
  13. Related to the previous point, when ideas are repeated, are they varied in any way?  "Copy and paste" capabilities in computer music notation software make it easy to repeat material, but consider varying repeated material as well. Too much exact repetition becomes too predictable, and this can lose the listener's interest; little (or big) changes to repeated material may surprise the listener, and maintain or increase interest level. 
  14. Does the texture ever change? Does it change too much, or not enough?  
  15. Is the texture too busy? If so, it can be hard for the listener to know what the relative importance of different lines is?  Always be clear on the hierarchy of your musical materials.  What line is most important? What elements have a background, or middle-ground role?  If our main melodic idea is covered up by the other instruments, the listener may not be able to focus on it. Alternatively, you may wish to write a piece in which texture itself is the focus; no single line is meant to be most prominent, just the entire texture as gestalt. Well-known examples of this include Ligeti's Atmosphères, and Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; this approach is sometimes called "sound mass" composition.  Whichever approach you take should be clear to the listener.
  16. Is there a clear climax? Does it arrive too early or late?
  17. Does it have an identifiable musical character, within sections or overall? Is the musical character consistent within sections? Does it evolve in an effective way, or do mood changes seem disconnected/unrelated? Sometimes we may write very fine musical ideas that are not connected in any way to the rest of the composition; perhaps they would fit better in a different composition, or different movement?
  18. Does it sound too much like the musical style of someone else? This is a tricky issue; I have written blogs on originality, the gist of which is that originality is important in art, but not as important as many tend to assume. See links below for more on this. Also, imitating a composer or compositional practice is a time-honoured way of developing craft. If you are going to imitate someone's style or technique, however, all I suggest is that you (a) be aware that you are doing it, (b) acknowledge it in some way, and (c) try to find a way to put your own spin on it, which is where originality comes in.
  19. Does it have all necessary score details (tempo indication, dynamics, articulations, phrasing slurs, breathing slurs, bowing slurs, pedal markings, percussion identification chart, percussion beater indications)?  Do they make musical sense?  Don't put these into the score last, after the piece is otherwise complete; better to put them in as you go, taking your time with them, Doing otherwise causes us to rush through this process, often resulting in score details that make little sense, or are inconsistent, or applied in some sections but not in others.
  20. Does the score communicate the composer's intentions clearly, or are there confusing or ambiguous aspects?  Many composers have had the experience of writing instructions on the score that we thought would be clear to the performer(s), only to find out that they are not, and the performer interprets our score in a way we had not foreseen, and in a way we do not like. In a professional situation, where performers are paid by the hour, clarifying your instructions/intentions can be expensive, which in turn can lead to the organization that programmed your music being disinclined to programme it again in the future (unless you become a celebrity, which in our society allows you to get away with bad behaviour!). It can also cause performers to lose confidence in you as a composer ("I have no idea what this composer wants here!  S/he clearly has no idea of what they are doing!").  Sad to say, this is an attitude most composers have probably encountered and have had to overcome at some point in their careers.
  21. Is it written idiomatically, meaning does it sit well for the instrument(s) or voice(s) used in the score?  A passage may be idiomatic but still difficult; if it is difficult, is there a good reason for it? Most good performers do not shy away from learning difficult passages, but they can become frustrated if they spend a lot of time working on a passage, only to learn at the first rehearsal that their part is buried in the middle of a thick texture that no one can hear.

Sometimes we have difficulty articulating a criticism in a focussed way. We may need to hear the piece again (and again) in order to formulate a well-articulated suggestion. But if this isn't possible — and in our composition class it often isn't, because there are many students' works we need to listen to every class — then you could say something like, "around the top of page two, there was something that I wasn't sure about, but I'm not exactly sure what it was… Do you know what I mean?"  If the answer is no, perhaps someone else from the class will jump in and say, "yeah, I wondered about that too; I think it may be that the mood suddenly changes there," or some similar, more specific comment. This occurs a lot in our class, in my experience.

If you have a constructive critique to make — meaning a specific concern, idea, or reaction to the music — take comfort in knowing that the recipient (a) is probably, like you, hoping to hear honest reactions to their music, and (b) does not need to act on any of the opinions expressed about their music; you are just suggesting things for them to think about, some of which may help make their composition stronger.

When receiving feedback, try to:
  1. Understand it. If you do not, feel free to say, "I'm not sure I understand; could you clarify?" Or, "Do you mean the top of page 2? I wasn't sure about that section either, but didn't know what to do there." Or, "You are suggesting I burn my score and take up something useful in life, such as a training programme to become a WallMart greeter (or Costco shopping-cart wrangler, or elevator operator in an ancient building that still uses such people, etc.). Is that about it?" This last one works particularly well with a touch of frost in your voice.
  2. Communicate that you welcome feedback. On rare occasions in the past, a student has responded to comments in what seemed like a defensive way (or they have not responded at all; no acknowledgement, no disagreement, and no indication that the comment was heard, let alone understood… basically, non-response as a form of passive aggression; read all about it here), which has created an awkward atmosphere that quickly shut the door to further comments from classmates.
  3. Take notes on the suggestions.  Sometimes a comment can seem rather lame at the time, but later, upon further reflection, it might begin to make more sense… Try to keep track of all comments made, both as a way of acknowledging them (which shows your willingness to hear what others have to say), and as a way of acting on them later if you so choose.
  4. Feel free to disagree. All that is asked of you is that you understand and consider what others have to say, but there is no expectation that you will necessarily agree with it.  Here's an example:  "I agree that this opening idea is very short, and that we don't hear it again, but my plan is to come back to it later and extend it into a much bigger section." Or, "yes, the texture is very busy and confused, but my plan is to gradually make it clearer in this next section." Or even, "But there is a musical climax! It's here!" (while gesticulating wildly in the general direction of its location on your score). However, know that disagreeing too much can come across as defensiveness on your part, which in turn can discourage others from sharing honest reactions to your music with you. Always remember that it takes more courage to make a constructively-critical comment than it does to make a non-specific, "that was GREAT" kind of comment, and try to encourage others to be completely honest in expressing their reactions to your music; if you are seen as being defensive, you are unlikely to get many honest reactions to your music that could help you make it better.
One of the qualities that I believe is shared by all great or good composers is having the courage of one's convictions; there may be times when others don't see/hear things the way we do, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are right and we are wrong, or vice-versa. One of the things we learn as we develop as composers is to have confidence in the value of our ideas, but I don't know if you ever reach a point where you don't welcome and consider feedback from others.

There is a fine line between having the courage of one's convictions, and being so stubborn that you signal an unwillingness to consider opinions that are counter to your own.

If we receive feedback in the spirit in which it is given, it can help us to improve our music.

I'm evidently repeating myself; here's what I wrote on this topic quite a while ago (my second-ever blog entry, in fact!):
Invite criticism from others.  
 • While it is true that most of us need occasional encouragement in order to go on, we also need honest and constructive feedback from others if we are to grow as artists. The reason for this is that the creation of art is an inherently subjective process, but art itself generally has a communicative (or at least affective) function; in order to learn what effect our art has on others, we need people to tell us their thoughts and reactions to it. Invite criticism from friends and family, of course, but also from people you do not know as well — It is sometimes easier for a stranger to be honest with you than a friend. (Why is that?)

→ Links to Blogs on Originality and Art ←


Jennifer Hatcher said...

I really enjoy the aspect of this class that allows us to present our unfinished work to a group of other musicians, who then critique it, offer suggestions, praises, or maybe just nod their head and smile after listening. While it can be stressful to present a composition that I consider "finished", only to hear a group of people point out various things that could be changed, or could be better, or shouldn't be there at all, it is in fact very beneficial to hear all of these comments. By listening to what others have to say (even after I've deemed my composition finished), it makes me re-think some of the things I have written, and ultimately results in a better composition. Of course with deadlines in this course there are often difficulties feeling like my pieces are the best I could possibly make them, but the lenience with editing pieces after they have been presented is great.
All critical comments can be taken one of two ways; they can be accepted and used to benefit the composition, or they can be turned down and taken as an offensive statement (perhaps if somebody else doesn't like a part of the composition that was your favourite). I often find it hard to hear somebody say they think the few measures I truly enjoyed should be altered somebody, but in the end it is my decision and all opinions are welcomed. Sometimes all it takes it explaining why I did what I did, and the constructive criticism could potentially be changed once the musical ideas are understood in context. Of course there are also instances where an idea is changed after several suggestions, and the end result is even better than what was originally written. Feedback is ultimately very beneficial to every aspect of composing music.

Robert Godin said...

What I loved about this blog was that almost all of the 20 questions can be used to critique, as mentioned, but also for my own compositions. I can ask myself these questions during the writing process and even when reviewing. Hidden in these questions are potential plans for a composition. I could plan to make things very predictable during the first half and then decide to do the opposite for the second half. I could make some sections have clear cadences and have other sections flow between each other with no sense of re pause to create a great deal of contrast. Definitely a list I'll be coming back to for a while.

Chris Morrison said...

Feedback is an important component of any creative process. The feedback however, has to be sensitive to what the composer is trying to say and wants to convey emotionally. The real challenge is knowing what to accept and what to reject because many people may have varying opinions which may all be equally valid. You have to accept the feedback but certainly be critical because it may miss the point completely. The whole idea of feedback is certainly beneficial for technical aspects though emotional aspects require a different level of feedback; judging a piece technically is a lot different than judging it emotionally.

In addition, Robert Godin raises a valid point about using the list of questions as a sort of screening tool for your own compositions. It can also be helpful as an idea generating tool throughout compositional stages.

Shawn Bennett said...

I have to agree with everything Jenn, Rb, and Chris said. These 20 points are for the most part, very accurate. For the most part

Dr. Ross, I think we have opposing view on the use of repetition. It would appear that you don't believe in direct repetition whatsoever, and I unfortunately do.

I believe that after hearing something once, the listener will feel something different the second time around. If you change something, and make it, as you say, "unexpected," the listener does not always get to have that lovely reflection on what they heard. When you read a poem, you often don't read it just once. The first time around, its lmost impossible to get the meaning.

I guess in your own personal preference, you like to be surprised. You like for music to take many new directions and explore as many different ideas as is logical. And you're quite good at it. But I don't think a direct repetition would go astray here or there.

Perhaps I myself am biased. I can honestly say that I am a great fan of music for film and video games - some of my favorites being the theme from "Inception," by Hans Zimmer, the "Halo" theme, by Martin O'Donnell, and for arguments sake, the "Social Network" Theme by Trent Reznor. In all of these themes, there is a direct repetition somewhere. Or a direct repetition of the main motive, with a slight atmospheric change (an electronic sound most often).

When I'm watching the movie, or playing the game, the music is always there in my mind whether I realize it or not. And repetition of themes or motives (most prominent in the Inception and Social Network themes)to me, seems to be a perfectly effective, and often times most effective, method of expanding a piece of music.

Katie Predham said...

One of the things that I really enjoyed about our composition class is the fact that we could present our pieces, even if they were in the early stages of being written, and have the rest give their opinions on the piece. It helped me figure out how to continue with the music, as well as know what to fix what I had already written.

Every point which you stated in your blog can be used both as a way to analyse another work, but also in composing our own works. As I compose in the future, I will keep these points in mind, and it will help me in knowing what problems to avoid, and how to include important elements in my music.

Luke said...

I think this "checklist" is very valuable when starting or working on new compositions. So many things are overlooked when writing music. I think it is very useful to think about minute details when writing a piece, even from pre-composing stages and planning stages. Points 4, 5 and 6 are some of the challenges I often run into in my music and find hard to overcome. Overall, I think that understanding your musical intentions is very useful in the composition process.

Brad said...

I feel like reading this post before I took Composition Seminar with you this year would've been exceptionally helpful. I would even suggest linking it in the future Syllabus.

I always find it a little difficult to articulate specifically what creates my reactions to pieces, especially in such a short time or after just one listen. Unless it is quite obvious, which it usually isn't, it is hard to come up with articulate, constructive criticism right off the bat. Some are better at it than others and I feel like I would be better at it for reading this post!

Duane Andrews said...

This a great post about the type of judgement that can really inspire composers. Offering criticism can be as insightful as receiving it as a good critic needs to have a good sense of judgement which is also an essential quality for a good composer. There's great information in this post and I was wishing I had read it at the beginning of the term. Perhaps it could be suggested as a starting point for the class blog commenting exercise?

Flutiano said...

These twenty questions are all great things to think about, not only when listening to and evaluating the work of peers, but also in evaluating our own work. In addition to the points that other people have made about thinking about these ideas when starting a new piece or while working on it, I think it could also be beneficial to step back from the composition one is working on and look at it as an observer and think about these questions as if it were someone else's piece. It is not something I have tried, and it is a small distinction, but I think it would be worth a shot.

Thinking about how receiving feedback is described here, it seems really hard. Not only do you have to pay attention, understand the feedback, and make note of it, you have to communicate that you understand and that you welcome feedback. I am getting the sense that one has to have immense communication skills to get optimal feedback on their work (by optimal feedback, I mean a quantity of critical feedback which can be used to improve both the composition at hand and compositional skills in general). Firstly, there's the challenge of making it clear that you want honest, critical, specific commentary. The kind that can really help you grow; sometimes it's really nice to hear "That sounds great!" and "This is terrible" could potentially be helpful to hear. Secondly, there's that hard balance of how much, and how, to communicate your disagreement. If you do not agree, sometimes it can be useful to mention it because it can lead to a dialogue that results in more ideas that are helpful. However, I never want it to come across that I am putting down the other person's ideas and do not value them.

Jack Etchegary said...

There are many great points mentioned here regarding how to give and receive criticisms in compositions. I believe it to be of utmost importance to be constructive and honest in one's criticism's addressed to someone else's composition. At the end of the day, I don't really think anyone is wanting to such a general comment like "That was great!" because I don't think it really pinpoints anything in particular, good or bad. I think that even our praises we give should have direct purpose and give attention to specifics - concentrating on particular aspects of the piece that you liked and then giving examples. I also find it to be quite helpful from my own experiences when people then tie their praises into constructive comments such as "I really enjoyed when you did *blank* here in measures *blank* and *blank*, I wish you used that idea more throughout!" I see it to be very helpful for people to point out the characteristics which they like the best, because often this encouragement of an idea can lead to some great thematic development or inspire another idea from this, both of which I have found to be helpful in my composing. When receiving critiques I think it is perfectly fine to disagree as long as the comment is understood and acknowledged, much like what you have said here in the blog post. Being cold and dismissive towards someone's comment is rude and can really throw someone off, or cause longer term effects on relationships or group dynamics, creating potentially hostile environments. I have definitely most likely been too defensive in some of my responses to criticisms and have worked towards being more open-minded when getting feedback from others. I feel as though the more enthralled in an idea one might be, the higher chance that the person will defend their idea and close their ears and mind to helpful and insightful feedback. It is most certainly important to be thick skinned and confident as a composer but it is perhaps more important to have an open mind and an accepting outlook on the feedback of others.