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.


Warren Enstrom said...

I think that, at its core, it is very good advice. While learning various techniques, as well was watching others learn various techniques, it's always hard when one gets to a predicament and tries to work out exactly what a minimalist would do, or exactly what a spectralist would do, or exactly what an impressionist would do. That's all well and good, if you're trying to make a strictly spectralist, minimalist, or impressionist piece, but one of the largest reasons that these movements even have names is because they're historical.

Don't get me wrong. There are still people writing in a minimal style, in a spectral style, and in impressionistic styles, but the "big names" that people often list for each style are aging (or dead) composers who had their masterpieces written long before many of the current generation of composers were born. Think of Reich, Adams, and Riley. They musical revolution fell in the 70s and 80s, but the generation going through music school was born in the 90s. Think of Grisey, Murail, Dufourt, and Harvey. Their spectral heyday was also in the 70s. Sure, you have later composers like Saariaho, but she's not cited as a master so much as someone still in the making.

The problem with moving yourself into the mindset of writing a "spectralist" or "minimalist" piece is that it quickly becomes a musical exercise and stops being a musical composition. I've done it before, and I've seen many other students do it as well: they want to try writing a piece in style x, so they do it to the t. And it's entirely unremarkable, because they've stripped away everything about themself that would normally go into a composition, in an attempt to chase after the style.

There's nothing wrong with doing this for learning, but I really appreciate the advice that if you can name it, you can't do it. I think constantly referencing styles and movements that have already come before is a bit misleading -- obviously not everybody will agree with this, but at least in my own art, a lot of the draw is finding my own niche and carving it out. It's hard enough to do that on my own, let alone considering all the adjectives one might try to slap onto my music: "proto-spectral, post-minimal, post-Cagean Sound Art"?

At some point, you have to put down the labels, and put down the styles, and close your eyes to the movements and just write. You'll use techniques you stole from Cage, from Feldman, from Reich and Adams and Grisey and Harvey and des Prez. You'll use them all, and you won't apologize, because you're seeking your own music, and part of that means acknowledging that in some regards, what you write is a continuation of what's come before, but most importantly, it's also a re-imagining, a new attempt, a new piece, a new moment in time entirely.

I can certainly see where Jessica finds things to dislike about the statement, and I certainly don't think it's the only piece of advice you'll ever need. But I interpret it as a push to find your own statement of voice in your own style, rather than accidentally limiting your pallet by seeing yourself as a Cagean, or a spectralist, or a minimalist, or any other such distinction, because unless you were alive, in New York, in the 50s, or in the 70s and 80s, or in France in the 70s, you're not, strictly speaking, a Cagean. You're not a minimalist, and you're not a spectralist. You're just writing in a similar style at a later point in time.

(There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but I think it's extremely difficult for one to capture the essence of a stylistic movement after the cultural context is gone. Without the Darmstadt school to drive abstract serial pieces, that style has fallen by the wayside, and anybody approaching the genre treats it very differently in this century than it was treated last century. It's a matter of cultural context.)

Clark Ross said...

Warren, you make some great points once again, and you write very well.

Would you be willing to let me post your comment as a "guest blog" on my site, to increase the odds that others will see it?

If you are willing to allow this, I would post your comment verbatim, but if there is any editing you wish to do (not that it needs it) before I post it, just let me know and I will hold back. If I don't hear anything, I won't post it, of course.

I think it would be great to have your response posted right after Jessica's guest blog, since you both make some valid points.

Let me know, and thanks again for your comment!

Flutiano said...

The degrees of agreeing with this statement (if you can name it, don't use it) seems to be directly aligned with degrees of taking it literally/understanding what it means.

It is easy for me to read "If you can name it, don't use it" and think about notes, intervals, and chords. I tend towards the very literal interpretation, which would basically lead me to believe that composition is dead and we should all go do something else. (It's a melody? Shame! Silence? Too Cagean! A perfect cadence? Get rid of it! Tonal? Cliché! Atonal? Nope, that's been done before.) This seems like pretty bad advice to me.

However, how Warren takes it, it seems like pretty good advice. If I read it as don't sit down and try to imitate what somebody else did, that makes sense to me (other than as a learning exercise, to learn how to use the styles so elements of them can be incorporated in your own, individual work).

If the determining factor on whether or not we agree on this statement is how we perceive its meaning, and then precipitates multiple blog posts and thoughtful discussion, then maybe the literal quote "If you can name it, don't use it" is of little consequence. As a vaguely controversial statement, it seems to have led to in depth thought on the concepts of imitation and originality.

My impression is that if you try too hard to be completely original and extremely creative and innovative, and this is your goal, it is easy to get overwhelmed. However, this comment encourages thinking about creativity and originality from the perspective of what has come before, and has a name. Which leads me to thinking about composition in terms of combining things that others have done in ways that I would like to hear. This is much less overwhelming.

Robert Humber said...

Like the other comments, I don't see the point of avoiding anything that has ever been written in search of an "original" sound. Instead I think that one should absorb every genre, style and idea that they can, and through this varied knowledge, their voice will appear. I feel like I have said this on other posts as well, but I strongly believe the answer to originality is not running away from, but DIVING HEADFIRST into existing music. This is why as composers, we should be studying scores and listening to music regularly. There are a variety of reasons:

1: The "greats" of classical music are still relevant because they were... great. To eliminate a passage from your music because you realize it accidentally sounds strikingly similar to a passage from Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste" would be pretty silly in my opinion, assuming that your music probably progressed into that section in an original way, and will probably proceed to original ideas afterward. ATTENTION EVERYONE: Bartok was pretty good, so if you accidentally hint at his music, that's GREAT!

2. We are all individuals. If we study a wide variety of music and write honestly in our own voice, it will probably be original. Why force it? That's the equivalent of pretending you like classical music because you want to seem "cool and original" when in reality you hate it and your passion lies in... knitting or something. Which brings us to the age-old cliche, BE YOURSELF. Honestly though, with enough knowledge and experience, anyone can write impacting music which reflects who they are.

3. Relating those two points, I would say every great composer I've heard sounds genuine. If composers went against every impulse they had for their music, it wouldn't be their voice... it would be like their anti-voice... kind of silly to say but it's true. John Cage wrote crazy music but it's who he was. He was just as much a philosopher as he was a composer, and his music reflects that. Trying to be as "out-there" as John Cage without really having genuine motivations other than "I want to be totally unique" probably will not come across as genuine. Simple as that.

4. There are endless possibilities for familiar concepts. In fact, I am personally super impressed when a composer finds interesting new ways of combining these familiar concepts. Each composition can be summed up as a series of decisions. The best composers know EXACTLY when to give you what you want to hear and also know EXACTLY when to take your expectations and shatter them. Don't eliminate a dominant 7th chord with an added 9 because it's been done before. Just make sure there is a reason for it, give it context. That will make it a rewarding decision.

5. Schnittke. He writes a lot of V I's. But I'll tell you what, it's not lame when he does it. This, to me, proves that V I's (a very cliched device) can still sound good in modern music. In our composition class we are not allowed to write V I's but it's not because it CAN'T work. It's because at our undergraduate level, we probably won't be able to make them not sound super lame. Schnittke's whole modern style revolves around this idea of absorb all different styles. The way that he conceptualized these various styles is his way of doing it. Be like Schnittke... (I don't mean write polystylistic music, I just mean study as much as possible and you will develop your own sound).

This comment was a bit scattered, but I hope my point came through.

Cleary Maddigan said...

The statement that one should not employ techniques that were allready used at one point in history is provocative, and evokes a strong reaction. I strongly disagree with this idea. Why would we study the music of Bach, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski, or Pendereki if this were the case? However I don't agree with the idea of identifying oneself with a certain "camp" of composition i.e. Neo-romantic, Minimalist, Romantic, Spectralist, etc. It is perfectly reasonable to employ spectralist techniques, or minimalist techniques in one's piece, but the use of them does not mean that you belong to a certain cohort of composers. The reality is, is that there is not "style" of the 21st century, because you have people writing in all different kinds of styles. If anything no two people evoke the same style of music in the 21st century, and can only be identified as their unique seld. Yes, I enjoy microcannons, and musical ciphers, but that does not mean I am a Schnittkean composer, It means thta I enjoy and employ those techniques.