Friday, January 31, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire)

In yesterday's (30 Jan 2014) Newfound Music symposium talk by Jocelyn Morlock, she spoke of a project in which she surveyed sixteen composers on the topic of form in their compositions, which she turned into a blog post called, "A Compendium of Ideas about Form in Music."

It's a well-written and interesting article on a topic that apparently (based on the survey's responses) is of crucial importance to composers.  I include a link above, and encourage you to read it.

Here are some questions you may wish to ponder (I will share my own answers to these questions in later posts; links to my answers embedded in the questions):
  1. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in musical composition, and why?
  2. Most compositions from the 18th- and 19th-centuries use a small number of existing forms (binary, ternary, rondo, sonata, variations).  Does this mean that originality, when it comes to form, is not important?
  3. Should post-tonal music avoid forms associated with tonal music? Do you feel obligated to use "new" forms, as opposed to old forms such as sonata and rondo?
  4. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in your compositional process? (Be clear on what you mean by "form.")
  5. Is it better to work out a form before composing a work, or do you prefer to create the form as you go?
  6. Are you actively engaged in thinking about the form of your music as you write it?
  7. How challenging is it to come up with a form with which you are pleased in your compositions? (Related question:  How satisfied are you with form in your compositions?)
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, and perhaps we can have a dialog on this topic!

10 comments:

Warren said...

The concept of form plays a crucial role in my process. I say the "concept of form" as opposed to just "form," as I think there's a distinction to be made between stricter and looser form, such as sonata form vs. mobile form. Form, in and of itself, is an important characteristic of any composition, but not inherently moreso than melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, or any other musical concept. Form can be the main point of a piece, or it can be less important when compared to melody or harmony, but as a stand-alone element, it is not any more or less important.

Tonal composers were operating within a specific lineage and idiom, and so the forms that were handed down through the common practice period made plenty of sense to use and revise. That being said, originality when operating within that idiom meant sometime different than it does today. Originality was changing the key the second melodic group first appears in so that it wasn't the dominant. Originality was a recapitulation that wasn't present in the proper key. It was important to be original back then, but because the dominant dialogue with form was in regards to revising and recycling old forms, originality was tied up in that system.

In my music, it can be hard to discover a form. I like to think my forms are well-thought out, but because I want to ensure a very solid form, I usually spend a fair amount of time working everything out. At times, it can be hard to discover precisely what I want a form to be, but once I have my form, I find composing the rest of it more or less simple. I do try to come up with my own forms, though my motivation for this is often tied up with an interest in the creation of structure as a whole, less than a disinterest in old forms.

Contemporary composers may do whatever they like in regards to prefered forms, though I have to reference Boulez (it feels terrible to reference a terribly mean, spiteful person) when he talks about using forms that aren't tied up with the common practice period. Boulez has a very good point in that the drive of a Sonata or a Rondo is very key-centric, and once you're operating outside of the world of keys, the connection becomes a bit tenuous. Sure, you can compose a sonata or a rondo that utilizes differing sets or theories for each distant key you would encounter, but what made the common practice period forms work was the socialization of functional harmony. We can use old forms for new harmonic structures, but they become much harder to hear outside of a long context like the common practice.

In regards to myself, I like creating a form beforehand. It helps to give myself a roadmap, and it keeps me from getting too long-winded or using up an idea completely before it's time to move on. Wandering in the compositional dark is not fun for me. Because of my concern with structure, form is constantly on my mind. It would be interesting to try and subvert that focus, but I've not really tried.

Byrann Gowan said...

When it comes to form, it is a huge critical aspect to any piece of music. Form defines music, and I'm starting to learn how important it is to incorporate a certain form into my own pieces. If you don't have a form, you run the risk of having all these great ideas and not being able to organize them. They are ideas, and they can be great ones, but if they are not organized, then they just get used and then it's like they are not needed anymore. Form is an important aspect to any music piece; even in today's music, you see a form. For example, "verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus." Every piece of music needs some sort of form.

Clark Ross said...

Thanks so much for your detailed and thoughtful comment, Warren! You make excellent points.

With regards to Boulez and his views on the use of old forms in new music, sometimes expressed as the "foolishness" of pouring new wine into old wineskins, I have four thoughts:

1. I understand the perception of intellectual inconsistency in using new organizing principals for pitch, rhythm, articulations, and dynamics, but then not using new organizational principals for form. Basically, if you're going to use a radical new approach to the choice of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulations, why not go all the way and use a radical new approach to texture, phrases (if indeed you have any), and form?

2. And yet, Boulez has written three piano sonatas, a Sonatine for flute/piano, and a sonata for two pianos. Admittedly, these mostly were written before he turned 30 (although he continued tinkering with his third piano sonata until he was 38, and it is still "unfinished"), but at the very least this suggests that, early on, he was interested in playing with (or reacting to) old forms with new, serialist language. Paul Griffiths writes that the second sonata has "strong intimations of sonata form in the first movement, and of fugue in the finale." Boulez, on the other hand, has said he was trying to "destroy" sonata form in this piece.

3. Can older forms can work with newer musical language? Some composers seem to think so, and I see no reason to negate this possibility.

4. Although sonata form features a tension between "home" key and "closely-related" key, followed by the instability of more distantly related keys, (a) this principle can be applied to music that is in any sense pitch-centric, and (b) sonata form also presents thematic content of differing characters, thematic fragmentation and other aspects of development, and areas of greater and lesser tension. These aspects can be at play in non-tonal music as well.

That said, I really like this comment of yours:

"Sure, you can compose a sonata or a rondo that utilizes differing sets or theories for each distant key you would encounter, but what made the common practice period forms work was the socialization of functional harmony. We can use old forms for new harmonic structures, but they become much harder to hear outside of a long context like the common practice."

So, many thanks for the detailed and reflective comment! Much appreciated.

P.S. No need to self-identify when you leave a comment, of course, but I am curious as to who you are, and where we might be able to hear your music?

Clark Ross said...

Thanks for your input as well, Byrann! We'll talk more about form in our composition class, probably this week, I think.

In the mean-time, and FWIW, all completed compositions have a form; theorists and composers are interested in how the form was/is used, does it have unexpected elements (which we tend to delight in), and, is it the right form for this piece? This last is the question that can vex composers, since we are often not using pre-existing forms.

Warren said...

Clark,

I'm currently an undergrad studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with Christopher Burns. I've got a few recordings up at my soundcloud. I think I found your blog via stumbleupon or something similar, but at any rate, I love being prompted to think about composition.

Introductions aside, I certainly believe there is value in using old forms, even if I myself don't have much interest in it. There's something that the "symphony" can say, strictly because of the genre it is, that a "large-scale orchestral work" cannot. Even beyond that, there's still plenty of worth and meaning to be ferreted out of the actual structure of the piece.

Andrew said...

When thinking of form in post-tonal music, I would be inclined to think of form as something that holds importance. When composing, I often tend to think of working toward a form similar to the common forms you have listed in the blog. I often do so in the process, rather than beforehand. In my opinion, form is a way of identifying a piece. It demonstrates organization and coherence within in a composition.

I would also like to know more about other types of pre-existing forms you mention in the blog.

amy k said...

A stimulating read. I'm interested in whether the form of a piece should be something the listener is consciously aware of. Composing is so new to me, and I haven't thought much of my audience outside of friends in my composition workshop... It's cool how every composer interviewed hesitated on the idea of the listener focusing on form, while some commented on how recognizing forms is a big part of our enjoyment of music. This info informs my own writing, actually. I'm going to think more of my "listener" from now on.

Flutiano said...

I think I've read some of your answers in previous years, but before I remind myself of them I'm going to address the questions here. Having given the questions some more thought myself, I will turn to your answers . . .

1. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in musical composition, and why?

I noticed that nobody has responded to this question with a precise number yet. Form is extremely important in music. As Dr. Ross said, all music has some sort of form. Some types of form, such as the Rondo, are very clear. The listener can easily tell when the A theme comes back. Sometimes the form isn't nearly so clear. One example, because it's in my mind right now, is from Florian Hoefner's piano recital this evening. He played quite a bit of stunningly complex improvisation - some of his pieces had been partially composed with spots for improvisation, and one was all improvisation. A couple of times I wondered where in the form of the piece he was, either because something sounded like it could be a coda or a transition. I do not doubt for a second that a theorist looking at a transcription would find a form, but it was not always obvious as a listener.

Since it's unavoidable, I'm tempted to say 10. However, I don't think it is necessarily important to always think about form . . . good natural instinct could provide enough form to hold a piece together. That being said, I'm very aware of form in my composition. I also do not like the implication that giving form a 10 might mean that it's the most important thing in a composition. Which I definitely do not think is true. My number might be different if I were writing this tomorrow, but for today, I'm going to give it a 9.

2. Most compositions from the 18th- and 19th-centuries use a small number of existing forms (binary, ternary, rondo, sonata, variations). Does this mean that originality, when it comes to form, is not important?

I think that the originality in the material that makes up the form is important, not the form itself. Whether it is binary, ternary, rondo, variations, etc. I think the form is the glue that holds the ideas together. Sure, you can try to avoid them and use more original formal structures, but I do not think that music that uses these tried and true forms are necessarily any less original. I won't say any more, as I think this question has been answered quite well in previous comments.

3.Should post-tonal music avoid forms associated with tonal music? Do you feel obligated to use "new" forms, as opposed to old forms such as sonata and rondo?

Absolutely not! We still use instruments that were invented long before Sonata Allegro form (even if they do look and sound a bit different). We don't stop using pencils because it is no longer original to do so. I consider these forms to be tools that we can use to the benefit of our music, and I think there is absolutely no reason to stop using them. An atonal sonata form will look much different than a tonal one, since there is a harmonic structure embedded in the form, but a rondo form won't. We don't have to use these forms all of the time, but I think they have an important place in new music.

Flutiano said...


4.On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in your compositional process? (Be clear on what you mean by "form.")

Thinking about how what I'm writing relates to the overall form of the piece often helps me to keep things connected. At least, when I'm writing a longer piece. For example, in the flute choir piece that I'm currently working on, I'm constantly thinking about form , and where what I'm writing fits within the form. I feel like I need to understand it's place in order to make a unified six minute composition, which is how long it will be if I follow the map that I've drawn up so far. However, in the three short pieces that I wrote at the beginning of the semester, I don't remember thinking very much about form. However, before I started writing the second one I had an idea about the macro form of the three pieces as three movements and how I wanted them to go together. I also love the fugue form and am really interested in becoming more adept in writing fugues, but I'm not sure if that's directly applicable to the question . . . Ultimately, I think I'll give this an 8.

5.Is it better to work out a form before composing a work, or do you prefer to create the form as you go?

Once I have some motivic ideas, I start figuring out what my form is going to be. I start with vague ideas and the form becomes more detailed as I write more notes . . . A significant determining factor for me is how long I intend the piece to be. My flute choir piece started out as two ideas, and I the first became an A B A' and the second became C, and I decided that I wanted a coda to include aspects of all three previous sections. If I had been thinking about writing a shorter piece, it probably would have just been A B. I might even have made them different movements or compositions. Sometimes I like to get a sense early on in the composition process of how long every section is going to be, to help with pacing.

6.Are you actively engaged in thinking about the form of your music as you write it?

Yes (I think I already answered this ;))

7.How challenging is it to come up with a form with which you are pleased in your compositions? (Related question: How satisfied are you with form in your compositions?)

I don't find it particularly challenging to come up with a form I like. I wasn't very pleased with my first attempt at writing in sonata form with my string quartet in the winter semester, but I am not unsatisfied with the form, just how I used it. Probably my favourite composition to date had quite a strict form that I was very satisfied with it. It is a percussion quartet made up of 'unpitched' percussion instruments and based on fibonacci numbers. The number of bars in each section was determined by fibonacci numbers, as well as the number of bars in the work and where the significant moments were going to be.

Jordan Mills said...

Personally, I think atonal music should avoid the use of standard forms that one would find in classical music and other genres. I believe atonal music in itself, is meant to go beyond and outside of 'normal' music conventions. My logic being, if we don't retain rules and conventions with regards to parallel 5ths, voice leading, etc. why would we restrict ourselves with preconceptions about form? In my mind, all rules are breakable when it comes to atonal music, so I see no need to be selective about the form. I do, however, believe that the music should have consistency and unity, whether that is created by altering ideas throughout the piece, or by using structures that resemble standard forms. But no, personally I do not worry about form as much when I write atonal music, as I do the fluidity/tension/climax/unity/cohesion of the music itself.