Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jessica Blenis Guest Blog: "If you can name it, don't use it" (2)

As mentioned in my previous post, Jessica Blenis recently left a comment on a post I wrote almost six years ago called "Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?" (I wrote that post as an explanation for a restriction I impose on my students' first projects.) I asked if she would be willing to have her comment made into a blog entry, and she agreed, so this is it. Huge thanks to Jess for her comment, and for being willing to share it with others!

Brief background:  Jessica graduated from Memorial University a few years ago with degrees in music composition/theory, and music education, and is currently working on her Master's degree at the University of Calgary.

Jess's blog entries are reflective, insightful, and consistently well written; hers are among the best student blogs I have read. Here are links to her current blog, in which she writes about the process leading to her master's thesis, and her Soundcloud page, in which you can hear selections of her music:

Jessica writes:

Wow! I can't believe this was posted so long ago! Glad to see that it's still inciting thought-provoking conversations and comments from those who are just stepping into the waters.

I'm now about halfway through a M. Mus degree in composition and have been writing atonal music since I took Dr. Ross's intro to composition course at M.U.N. I was intimidated at first and didn't know exactly what to write; I think that most of this was because I didn't identify atonality as being a part of my voice as a composer. I was so used to drawing from limited palette of colours associated only with tonality- they could be combined many different ways, but would always be within a familiar and friendly spectrum.

As a result, my first atonal piece actually sounds nothing like any of the music I've composed since. I didn't identify it as being something "Jess Blenis-y" and nor would I say the same today. I wrote it that way because I based it on what my perception of what atonal music was — and I thought it was ugly. I had this idea that atonal music was always dissonant, always strained, unreasonable, a grinding of notes together making noise rather than music. My piece was a result of that.

I've learned since then that while each composer has a sort of 'sound' that we connect to them when we hear their pieces, their voice isn't always the same from one piece to the next… Unless we're talking about Philip Glass, but let's not go there… A composer's voice is like a chameleon — it adapts to its environment, but still retains some essence of a character which comes directly from the composer. Using familiar and favourite compositional tools is good — it helps create a foundation for your sound — but diversity is fantastic. I remember how surprised I was the first time I heard Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht" after having associated him primarily with serialism.

The more we listen and learn about other composers, the more we learn what resonates within ourselves. Adding tools to your toolbox will give you more to draw from, and it's OK to use these tools to create your own voice, even if some of them are strongly associated with one composer or another.

Not long ago I was told that "…If you can name it, you can't use it." Which to me didn't make much sense. Why would I spend years and years (not to mention thousands of dollars) on learning about these techniques if I wasn't allowed to use them? Atonality, polytonality, serialism, spectralism, whole-tone, pentatonic, aleatory, etc.… John Cage (ab)used silence, so I can't do that, either. So what's left? This is a question that I've been struggling to answer since then.

I've decided that I don't like that statement. If I can name it, I can use it. It's the way in which I use these techniques and tools that matters; not the fact that for a brief second, you might get a glimpse of Varèse or Debussy in my music. I'm not saying that you should blatantly steal from other composers, but you can use their tools in your own way. Take Monet's paintbrush and make a sculpture with it. Make it yours.

If you have any thoughts on this “If you can name it, don't use it,” please feel free to share them! I'm still digesting it. It's not going down easy so I'd be glad to hear from other composers!

So for those of you who are new to the concept of atonality, don't worry — it's not a monster — it's simply misunderstood. The more you listen and study, the more you'll understand and enjoy. There are some really gorgeous pieces out there that happen to be atonal — and you might not even realize that they are atonal while hearing them, because you can relate to them. The form, the instrumentation, the idea behind the music — atonality isn't a strange and alien thing. It's a key to a new box of tools.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"If you can name it, don't use it" (1)

Whenever someone leaves a comment on any of my blog posts, no matter how old the original post, I receive an E-mail notifying me of this. This was how I found out that Jessica Blenis had recently left a comment on a post written almost six years ago called "Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?"

Jessica graduated from Memorial University a few years ago with degrees in music composition/theory and music education, and is currently working on her Master's degree at the University of Calgary.  It was great to hear from her again!  This was actually her second comment on this post, the first coming during the first weeks of her first composition course here in 2008, and so I was interested to see how her perspective might have changed during the interim.

Her recent comment is very thoughtful and well-written, as was typical of Jessica while she was a student here, and I urge you to read it.  In it, she mentions that someone (a teacher?) once told her, with regards to specific compositional techniques, "if you can name it, you can't use it," and she wonders what other composers think of this advice.

To explain further, I gather that this advice means that any compositional technique or style (or device?) that has a name, such as serialism, spectralism, polystylismimpressionism, expressionism, minimalism, aleatoricism, etc., can not be used, and I would guess (although Jessica does not say this) that this restriction came from a teacher (not me); if so, there was likely a pedagogical reason behind it.

One problem in responding to this advice is that it is not clear as to what is meant by "it;" harmony, counterpoint, notes, textures, and instruments can all be named, but are they forbidden?  Probably not, I would guess, but perhaps Jessica can enlighten us on this.

Another problem is not knowing the context in which the advice was given. Was it intended as a stricture, as in, "Composers should never use a technique or style that can be named!", or was it a simply a challenge to be more original?

In any event, it is interesting and provocative advice, and, like, Jessica, I wonder what others think of this. Please leave comments below, and thanks! I will wait a while before posting my thoughts.

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (®Jun/2014)

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. I omitted entries that seemed less 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 blog post. 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 ←

→ Playing With Expectations ←

→ Form in Post-Tonal Music ←

→ Argh! I'm Stuck! ←
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (see section on "writer's block")

→ Atonality – What's in a Name? ←

→ Winning and Losing; Judging and Being Judged ←

→ Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music ←

→ On Composition (Miscellaneous Topics) ←

→ Composition Issues (10-part series) ←
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.

2.1. 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!

→ Thematic Growth, and other Technical Considerations ←

→ Nuts and Bolts; Score Details, etc. 

→ Composition Projects ←

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #7)

Question 7 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
7. How challenging is it to come up with a form with which you are pleased in your compositions?
A related question would be, "how satisfied are you with form in your compositions?"

The degree to which I am satisfied (or actually pleased) with form in the music I write depends on the piece.

Sometimes it is relatively easy to come up with a satisfactory form, while other times it is less so. In the latter category, there is a piece that I wrote over 20 years ago whose form I never found completely convincing, yet it still gets played periodically.  I'm pretty sure I won't go back and try to improve that piece, mainly because I think it is generally better to move forward and try to get it right in new pieces than to obsess over old ones, but I have occasionally revised older works, so it's not exactly a hard and fast rule for me.

Sometimes a relatively simple form — A B A, for example — can be the right form for that particular piece; the ideal form for a given composition does not have to be complex.

As an example, listen to the first example below, if you can.

The subtitle for this piece is La Muerte Me Está Mirando (Death is watching me), from a poem (Canción de Jinete) by Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). It is about someone taking a long journey by eerily-red moonlight to Córdoba on a road he knows very well, but, although he can see it in the distance, he knows he will never get there.

Interlude for String Orchestra (1995; 5' 15"):

The first version of this piece was for string quartet, and was written 25 years ago. This version, for string orchestra, is about 20 years old, and the performance on this recording is by the Memorial University Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nancy Dahn.

The form is relatively simple — kind of an A B A, but with the final A section is cut short (like the journey of the protagonist in the poem) — but when I finished this piece, I was happy/satisfied with both the form and the composition, and I still am. I think…

I feel similarly content with the form in this next example as well, performed live by Kristina Szutor:

Dream Dance (2007; 10'):

I think the form is for this piece is based on sonata form, but with what I hope are plenty of surprises in it. There are several points in the second half when a listener might think, ah, here we are, back home again, because the beginning of the opening theme is recapitulated, only to have this conclusion thwarted when the theme veers off in a different direction. I like the fact that it sets up expectations, but plays with them, meaning some expectations are met, but not necessarily right away.

Here are other blog posts on this topic, in case it interests you:

Continuously thwarting expectations will turn you into Wagner of course, so exercise some caution in this!

I think it would be relatively easy to find other compositions of mine where the form turned out to be less than fully satisfying. Most of the time, composers are trying to meet deadlines, and some of the time, at least for me, the piece reaches a state I feel I can live with (meaning I convince myself that it won't bring shame to me or future generations of my family), and, even if I'm not 100% satisfied with the form, I have to release it to the performers to avoid death threats from them. Yes, I exaggerate… I find it a fun thing to do, occasionally…

Being satisfied the music we write is a tricky business; if we are too-easily satisfied, our standards may be too low; if we are never satisfied, our standards may be unrealistically high, causing us to obsess constantly over revisions, and complete very few works, let alone meet deadlines. I guess our goal as composers is to find a happy medium between these two extremes.

If nothing else, perhaps thinking about all these questions on form will cause us to think about it more as we compose.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #4, 5, & 6)

Question 4 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
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.")
This is pretty similar to question 1, the main difference being that this question allows for a more subjective answer than the first question. Because of this, I'll keep my answer short, starting with what I mean by "form:"
Form: Structure. The way in which a composition is organized, from a large-scale, bird's eye view (e.g., sonata form, or ABA, or rondo) to every subdivision beneath that, all the way down to motivic relationships, thematic structures, sections within a transition or development section, texture… anything at all in a musical composition that is organized, which is to say, everything.
So, no surprise here, but, taking this holistic, organic meaning of form, then on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rank it about a 20 in my compositional process. Or, if that number is unavailable, then perhaps a 10…

That was so short that I'll try answering questions 5 and 6 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post, which are:
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?
Let me draw an analogy to something about which I know nothing (!), which is the way that a building gets constructed. I understand (from reading about this in Wikipedia) that it goes something like this:
  1.    It starts with a a design team, which includes surveyors, civil engineers, cost engineers (or quantity surveyors), mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, structural engineers, fire protection engineers, planning consultants, architectural consultants, and archaeological consultants;

  2.    They make drawings and set specifications for the building's design. They probably make lots of changes to these along the way, because so many people are involved;

  3.    I would guess that the plans need to encompass every aspect of the building, from the overall design, to floor plans, plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, elevators, stairs, etc.;

  4.    Probably some excavation takes place;

  5.    Probably they lay a foundation;

  6.    Probably they construct a frame using steel girders (or whatever one uses these days);

  7.    And so on, and so on, until all of the other things necessary to make a finished building are added, including exterior, interior, plumbing, electrical, windows, doors, inner walls, carpeting, and probably a whole bunch of stuff I know nothing about, but it's all part of making the building safe, functional, comfortable, and nice-looking, inside and out.
The compositional equivalent to this would perhaps be:
  1.    Create a plan, live with it and tweak it for a long time until (a) it contains as much information about the composition as is possible in a plan, and (b) you are happy with it.  The plan can include any aspect of your composition, such as large-scale and smaller-scale form, harmonic language, rhythmic aspects, dramatic aspects (sections can be characterized by their mood (i.e., the mood you hope to elicit in listeners), such as lyrical, aggressive, chaotic, sad, exuberant, confusing, etc.);

  2.    If you were an architect, you would probably run your plan by a whole bunch of engineers and other people, as described above. Since you are a composer, there is no need for this — the consequences of a bad plan in composition are considerably less dire than the consequences of a bad plan in the construction of a building (!) — but it wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea to ask a few people you trust for feedback, especially if you are fairly new at this.

  3.    Following your plan, start by composing smaller sections, combining and expanding them until they become larger sections. Tweak as necessary. Remove sections that no amount of tweaking can help; they may come in handy later, but if not, have them take a time-out by concealing them in your piano bench, or, if you lack a piano bench with a handy lid, garden shed. If you don't have a garden shed or a piano bench with a handy lid, then place these sections neatly in bottom of your cat carrier, and pray that your cat doesn't mind;

  4.    Add any bits necessary to connect the sections, and then tweak some more;

  5.    Put the finishing touches on the work, making sure all dynamics, articulations, bowings, wind instrument slurs, pedal markings, etc., make musical sense.  [You should have been putting these in as you composed each section, by the way!]

  6.    Write programme notes using the most enigmatic language possible (if struggling with this, consider using computer-generated programme notes from this handy site: CCCBSG);

  7.    Design a cover page using a cool font — If you haven't thought of a title yet, now would be an excellent time to do so;

  8.    Write a three-volume edition of performer instructions in single-digit font sizes;

  9.    Print and bind multiple copies of the score;

  10.    Prepare parts, make sure page turns are in good places, proofread them, print them, and tape them together;

  11.    Get people to workshop it, if possible, and then make any changes necessitated by this, and then reprint score and parts, and try to get people to play it again;

  12.   Think of something profound to say about your composition at the première. If this is impossible, as is always the case with me, say something witty instead. Try to avoid saying, "… and I hope you like it!" at the end of your speech; this will be seen as a sign of weakness on your part by some.  Instead, say, "and I hope the experience of hearing this magnificent work does not render you senseless, doomed to spend the rest of your days unable to function on any level but the most basic. I really do, because, and I mean this with all of the sincerity of a washed-up Las Vegas entertainer, I ABSOLUTELY ADORE ALL OF THE FINE PEOPLE IN… [insert name of town or village you believe yourself to be in here, taking care to pronounce it correctly]!!!" This is how you make a name for yourself.
[Possibly I got carried away there; I will attempt to rein myself in now.]

Starting with a well-formed plan is a fine way to go about composing. Of the composers I have talked to or heard from on this topic, the great majority have indicated to me that they approach their craft in this way. I highly recommend it!

I do not start with a plan, however, so you may wish to take this advice with a grain of salt. ;)  I start with a general idea of how long I want the piece to be (but this can change radically once I get further into the composing process), the instrumentation, the type of piece I want to write (atonal and pointillistic, expressive and moving, light-hearted, virtuosic, accessible to young performers, etc.). I also keep the deadline for that composition in my thoughts; basically, I need to know whether I can compose at a leisurely pace, or if I need to become manic about it and write as quickly as possible.  I virtually never have any idea about the overall form of a piece before I start writing it, so my answer to question 5 is that I like to make it up as I go.

[My "make it up as I go" method, explained:  I start with a small idea, and work at expanding it. I try to figure out where it "wants" to go. If it seems like it wants to go in a direction I don't like, then an argument ensues. When the dust has settled, I continue expanding it, but at various points I begin to wonder where the heck this particular composition is going, and so I analyze, in every sense of the word that I know, what I have composed thus far.  In the course of doing this, I usually get ideas of possible large-scale structures that might be feasible for that composition. As I move forward, I revisit large-scale structure possibilities frequently, essentially asking, "is this working?" frequently. If the answer is no, I attempt to fix things before moving on.]

This works for me, but many (probably most) successful composers prefer to start by drawing up a fairly-detailed plan, and, frankly, their approach makes more sense to me, at least intellectually. I guess I like relying on intuition, while visiting the rational part of my brain periodically (which is where analysis and planning come in), but basically, all composers need to figure out an approach that works best for them.

My answer to question 6, then, is yes, I am very much engaged in thinking about form during the composition process (that's part of "making it up as you go"), albeit at some points more than others.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #3)

Question 3 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
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?
Ah! Now we finally get to a discussion of form specific to post-tonal music!

The background for this question is that Pierre Boulez, in his infamous "Schoenberg is Dead" polemic, criticized Schoenberg for, amongst other things, using old forms with new musical language.  This is sometimes expressed as the "foolishness" of pouring new wine into old wineskins.

In a remarkably thoughtful comment on the questions asked in my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post, Warren, a composition student at U. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, writes:
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.
These are all excellent points, and here is an edited version of my reply:

With regards to Boulez and his views on the use of old forms in new music, here are some of my 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-ish, 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. If so, calling it a sonata and structuring the first movement in a way that is related to sonata form seems a curious way to do this.

  3. Can older forms can work with newer musical language? Schoenberg, Bartok, Ligeti, and many other post-tonal composers seem to have thought so, and I see no reason to deny this possibility. The counter-argument to point 1 above is that a composition is not a purely-intellectual exercise; you can argue that it is inconsistent to adopt older forms for compositions employing newer techniques of pitch organization, and that argument can seem reasonable from a purely logical perspective, but if some composers produce powerful and successful compositions while using older forms, then this "logical" inconsistency is moot.

  4. Sonata form expositions feature a contrast between the "home" key and a (usually) "closely-related" key, followed by the instability resulting from touching on more distantly related keys in the development. Obviously, if writing post-tonal music with no sense of pitch centre, adopting this aspect of the sonata principle is not feasible. This principle can be applied to post-tonal music that is in any sense pitch-centric, however; instead of home and contrasting keys, one can create home and contrasting pitch centres.

  5. In addition to a contrast in key, there is often a contrast in character (i.e., mood) between the first and second theme groups in sonata form as well; the opening theme is often attention-grabbing and dramatic, while the second theme group often begins in a more lyrical character. If looking for ways to make sonata form work in post-tonal music, this contrast in mood is an aspect that could be adopted.

  6. Sonata form also employs thematic fragmentation and other aspects of development, as well as sections of greater and lesser harmonic and affective tension; all of these aspects can be at play in non-tonal music as well.
Bringing the discussion back to my own answer to this question, it is probably clear by now that I don't believe post-tonal music "should" avoid older forms, and even if I did hold this belief for my own music, I don't believe in being prescriptive about matters like these. Just because I believe something, doesn't mean others "should" believe it as well.

Do I use old forms? Not exactly… I am not sure I have ever composed something that I knew to be in classical sonata form, for instance.1 I have, however, used principles from this form frequently in writing music. These include presentation of themes with differing characters, moving the pitch centre around, exploring the continuum between stability and instability, using fragmentation and other forms of development, false recapitulations, playing with codas, and, in the largest sense, using A-B-A forms. An example of a piece of mine that does all these things, and is kind of like sonata form is Dream Dance; click the link to check it out if you wish!

It seems likely that Boulez — or at least the young, militant Boulez that wrote his controversial article referenced above — would consider any hint of an older form in modern music to be embracing the false trappings of the past, but I think that most artists are, willingly or unwillingly, part of various artistic traditions which we can choose to embrace or reject, and not narcissistic iconoclasts, rejecting everything that came before us. Even Boulez, in purportedly rejecting Schoenberg's aesthetic, was embracing Webern's.

So, basically, I don't believe in "should" statements when it comes to aesthetics. If you believe it makes sense to reject the use of older forms in your music, then do this! If you believe otherwise, then go ahead and use older forms in your compositions! Either way, what really matters is your degree of satisfaction with the finished product, not what others think you should or should not do.

1 One possible exception would be the two pieces I wrote for Kristina Szutor's "Après Scarlatti" CD, Domenico 1° and Domenico 2°. In these I deliberately based the structures on Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas, which are related in structure to later sonata form (the kind used by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven), but with many differences.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #2)

Question 2 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
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 touched on this in my answer to question 1, but briefly, the use of the same forms by both good and less-good composers might suggest that a composer's originality in the way s/he uses large-scale form is not hugely important to the overall quality of a composition.

One of the reasons theorists and composers delight in studying Beethoven's music and regard it so highly, however, is that he took existing forms and modified them in significant ways.

A specific example of this is his conversion of the coda in sonata form from a simple, short, tonality-affirming and concluding section, to a lengthy, second development section (as in Piano Sonata No. 21 ("Waldstein"), op. 53, I, Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), I, or Symphony No. 8, I.  In addition, he expanded the development section itself to a point where it was sometimes longer than the entire exposition (c.f.Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), and more generally, he wrote significantly-longer symphonies than his predecessors.

Here is a link to a graph that shows this; If accurate, it is a striking visual representation of the difference in proportions between Beethoven's sonata form in the Eroica symphony, and Mozart's in any of his three final symphonies.

Haydn's contribution to the development of sonata form was huge, to the extent that when we describe a "model" sonata form, we are describing the form he established, albeit probably influenced by C. P. E. Bach; just as Haydn is sometimes called the "father of the string quartet," and "father of the symphony," he could also be called the "father of sonata form."

The great composers were not complacent about form. Not every work they composed broke new formal ground, but, over the entirety of their careers, they often did break new ground in terms of large-scale form.

Not every work by great composers showed originality in large-scale forms, but many did, and we recognize these contributions today by performing and recording these centuries-old works, and by studying them in musical form classes.

To summarize, here is my four-part answer to the question above:
  1. For the most part, large-scale forms used by composers are not particularly original, if by original we mean “created directly and personally by a particular artist; not a copy or imitation,” or “not dependent on other people's ideas; inventive and unusual,” two dictionary definitions of the word.

  2. When we speak of originality as applied to form, we usually refer to relatively minor changes within existing forms. Some changes, within this context, were startling and unprecedented, as was the case when Beethoven expanded the coda section of sonata form, but most were more subtle than this. 

  3. Originality of form, in this subtle context, is definitely important; the ways in which some composers effected changes to existing forms is one of the reasons we tend to regard them so highly; Haydn and Beethoven contributed enormously to the development and evolution of sonata form. However, (a) they did not attempt to reinvent the form every time they used it, and (b) their changes to large-scale forms were gradual, occurring over the span of their careers, and were mostly "tweaks" of existing practices.   

  4. Not every composition needs to be unique and unprecedented in terms of large-scale form. We wouldn't write very many compositions if it were otherwise!  Even great composers used a limited number of large-scale forms. They did not attempt to "reinvent the wheel" every time they wrote a work. Nor, I would argue, should we in our compositions. 
Before leaving this question, I will just repeat something from my previous post on this topic:
"Form" exists on multiple levels simultaneously in a composition, from the very small scale, such as the intervalic content in a motive, the way in which a theme is constructed, motivic breakdown, the functions of each phrase segment, thematic structure such as period, sentence, phrase group, "auto-generative," fortspinnung, etc., to increasingly larger scales such as the structure of sections, movements, and entire multi-movement works."
To me, a  core value in great music is the simultaneous existence of all these levels of formal organization; this is more important than the originality of the form.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #1)

Inspired by a presentation by Jocelyn Morlock at this year's Newfound Music Festival, I asked several questions about musical form in my previous blog post, in part to engender a dialogue on the topic — I am genuinely interested in learning how other composers think of this — and in part to get my students thinking about it. Musical form is a topic of interest to all composers.

Because of my propensity towards long-windedness, I have decided to answer the questions posed in my previous post in separate blog entries.  Here is the first question:

1. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in musical composition, and why?
It's tempting to enthusiastically jump up and shout "10," with at least three exclamation marks (of critical importance, ladies and gentlemen!!!), and then wait for the applause to die down, but, when both great and not-great composers used the same forms, such as sonata, and rondo, is this justified?
Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all used sonata form extensively.  So did virtually all European composers, good or bad, from about 1770 to 1900, including Fernando Sor.
Fernando who, you may ask? If you are not a guitarist, you have probably never heard of him, and for good reason: Sor was a competent but uninspired composer, mainly of guitar music, who lived from 1778 to 1839. 
His life overlapped with Beethoven's (b. 1770) and Schubert's (b. 1797), but, to use a baseball analogy (because spring training has now started!) if Beethoven and Schubert were major-league all-stars and first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, Sor was a guy who probably spent a lot of time on the bench. If you don't follow baseball and have no idea what I'm talking about, my point is that history has been kind (deservedly) to Beethoven and Schubert, but not so kind (deservedly) to Sor.
He was reputed to be an excellent guitarist, however…
I mention Sor because, as a guitarist, I played some of his music during my youth. It is well-written for the guitar, and it has pleasing moments, but it never came close to moving me as profoundly as the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and many others. 
Here's an excellent performance of Sor's Sonata in C, op. 22, first movement. In my playing days, I practically — nay, definitively owned this piece! Yeah! (By this I mean that I purchased a copy.) I also learned it, although of course I did not play it very well… Have a listen, and see what you think:

An excellent performance, is it not? (I fail to understand the decision to repeat the exposition, however; once through strikes me as plenty!) But as a composition, I am not sure that any theorists or musicologists would suggest that it is at the level of the three classical-period "greats," Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. I certainly don't.
Why is that, you might ask? Well, I will suggest that the weakness is not the large-scale form, which does all the things a well-behaved sonata form is supposed to do: It opens with a declamatory, attention-grabbing, first theme, followed by another tonic-area theme. The transition modulates to the dominant, and even has a clever tonicization of the chromatic mediant (Eb) along the way. The second theme-group includes several themes, each of which is pleasant enough, and it concludes with a codetta. The development is skillfully handled, and is neither too short, not too long, finishing with a dominant pedal point, as most developments do. The recapitulation is also handled competently. 
In short, Fernando Sor knew what he was doing when it came to form, but, in spite of this, history has relegated him to minor position in relation to the "great" composers.  
This suggests to me that there must have been more to the greatness of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven than their handling of form, and that [DISCLAIMER: PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU ARE SEATED BEFORE CONTINUING TO READ] form is perhaps not the most important aspect of a musical composition!
However (he added, back-pedaling quickly!), one of the reasons we love to study Beethoven is that he did things with standard forms that were often unexpected, or even unprecedented (c.f. "Waldstein" Sonata, op. 53, I)!  
One of the best ways to evaluate composers as "musical architects" (a term sometimes used in reference to a composer's structural design (i.e., form) in a composition) is to compare the following sectioins of their sonata-form compositions: 
  •   Transitions in the exposition and in the recapitulation; 
  •   Development sections; 
  •   Codas; and
  •   Any other aspects of form that are unexpected.
Haydn deserves huge credit for the development of classical sonata form (influenced in part by C. P. E. Bach), and Mozart and especially Beethoven all did some surprising, new things in the sections listed above. I would love to teach an upper-level course on just Beethoven's codas, or, more generally, classical transition sections; these offer an abundance of fascinating procedures, which reinforces the point that form is indeed important.
However, not all sonatas by the classical "greats" are examples of ground-breaking musical architecture; the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 1, op. 2, no. 1, for example, is not remarkable or unusual in terms of its form, and yet it is a highly-regarded composition for other reasons (motivic unity ranking high among them). 
And so, after this long-winded preamble, my answer to the question on the importance of musical form is that form is certainly important, but so are a lot of other aspects of musical composition, some of which are arguably even more important, such as motivic unity and organic growth, the play between expected and unexpected elements, and the music's ability to powerfully move listeners. 
Given this, as well as the fact that (a) lesser composers generally used the same large-scale forms (e.g., binary, ternary, sonata, rondo) as great composers in a given historical period, and (b) great composers sometimes wrote excellent music whose form was not particularly remarkable, I guess I would have to say that large-scale form gets about a 7 or 8 in terms of importance on my scale of 1-10.  
Ah, but why am I only discussing large-scale form, you may ask? Because to be fair, it is important to note that "form" exists on multiple levels simultaneously in a composition, from the very small scale, such as the intervalic content in a motive, the way in which a theme is constructed, motivic breakdown, the functions of each phrase segment, thematic structure such as period, sentence, phrase group, "auto-generative," fortspinnung, etc., to increasingly larger scales such as the structure of sections, movements, and entire multi-movement works. If the question is, how important is form in every sense of the word, meaning on every level, then my answer is easy: it's a 10.
It is essential to think about form on multiple levels as we compose; if we leave it to an afterthought, our music will likely suffer for it. And by "suffer" I mean that our compositions can sound confused, disorganized, inorganic, etc.
You don't necessarily have to adopt an existing form, or even know what form you are using in the early stages of writing. At many points during the composition process, however, it is good to step back from the the small-scale focus on notes, motives, lines, contour, harmonies, textures, etc., in order to assess what is going on in terms of structure, and work out what the overall form is, or will be. 
I virtually never plan the form of a piece before I start writing; I begin, see where it takes me, add or take away bits, see if I like it, and continue until a section of the music is written. While doing this, my mind is simultaneously trying to make sense of my musical ideas, basically through analysis, trying to get a sense for how they are structured, and how the structures can make better sense.  When I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the materials with which I am working, I begin working out a tentative overall form for the composition, but this usually changes as I continue the piece.
Many times, when I am not 100% satisfied with a piece I am writing, it is because the form just does not  work for me, and so I play around with this until the piece makes more sense. Sometimes, in "playing around" with form, I realize that some sections are too long, too short, or even unnecessary, and I wasn't fully aware of this until I did a structural analysis.
On the other hand, some composers, like to begin with an exact, well-planned form, and that obviously can work well too.   
My advice would be to try it both ways (pre-planned form, vs. figuring it out as you go) and see which works best for you.
Answers to the remaining questions in my previous blog to follow; hopefully they will be shorter!