Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take)

The background for this entry is that Jessica Blenis, a former student of mine, reported receiving this advice during graduate studies and finding it problematic.  Her thoughts on the matter can be found in the previous post (March 15, 2014).

If you find the title of this post interesting or provocative, I recommend reading the comment to #1 in this series by Warren Enstrom, an undergraduate studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. (You can find it here.) He writes extremely well, and makes thoughtful points in favour of the advice, "if you can name it, don't use it." In his penultimate paragraph, Warren writes:
"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."
… And this seems a good summary of the argument in support of this advice to young composers.

The Composer's Toolbox; Green Eggs and Ham

I can imagine circumstances in which this could be a useful exercise — such as if I had a student who was reluctant to move beyond established techniques, in which case a "push" (or gentle nudge) to find their own style might be advisable. Most of us don't want to end up writing music that sounds like that of a different and  more established composer, even if we are don't mind borrowing others' techniques.

For the most part, however, I do not advocate this approach.

Jessica mentions the "composer's toolbox" analogy in her post, wherein one acquires as many skills and "tricks of the trade" (i.e., tools) as possible during compositional training (the training period never ends, by the way). These tools invariably include many existing compositional techniques, such as counterpoint, different harmonic languages, and serialism.

Some of the attractive aspects of this analogy are:
  1. Having many such tools can contribute to greater versatility as a composer; 
  2. Greater versatility gives you more options in writing the kind of music you want to hear;
  3. Greater versatility gives you more options for when you are stuck;
  4. Versatility is essential if you want to compose for film, stage, television, or opera. In fact, it's pretty useful for any kind of music you compose.
  5. Among the most  challenging compositional skills to develop are development of ideas, motivic unity, and motivic growth, which are all related to each other. Developing proficiency at these and other skills (such as orchestration) will almost certainly make you a better composer; 
  6. Paradoxically, a personal style of composition can emerge from the mastery of many skills and techniques, probably because of #2.
The "composer's toolbox" idea is one of the reasons I have students try things they otherwise might not wish to try, such as serialism, atonal chords with varying tension levels, Messiaen techniques, compositions based on a specific pitch collection such as the ever-popular 014 trichord (e.g., C, C#, E), compositions involving only three pitch classes, and more.

In trying these things, many (but not all) students experience a Dr. Seussian "Green Eggs and Ham" conversion experience wherein they start with suspicion about the value of whatever device or technique we are trying (I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am!), only to come around to an appreciation for the value of the exercise (I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-Am) after trying it.

On the other hand…

The toolbox analogy is, of course, not perfect.  Here are some thoughts I don't believe I have ever had while composing:
  • "I think I'll try a dash of Messiaen here — non-retrogradable rhythms, and, oh I don't know… perhaps his fifth mode of limited transposition — that would be perfect!"
  • "Pointillism, if I know anything about anything, is what kids are really into these days, so pointillism it shall be in my next chef d'oevre! Because my fans demand it!"
  • "You say you want thirty minutes of music by tomorrow? Why, this calls for some Philip Glass! Waiter! Cheque please!"
In other words, I don't consciously set out to imitate a style or technique when I compose. And yet, I have borrowed elements or ideas related to the above (well, except for Phillip Glass) for my music whenever it seemed like a good idea.

For example, I recall writing a piece for chamber orchestra about 30 years ago in which, influenced by Messiaen, I constructed a mode of limited transposition (MLT) whose pitch class order does not repeat at the octave, as his do, but it repeats every three octaves, since the basic building block on which subsequent intervallic content is based spans a major sixth:

Was this a good idea? Hard to say…  I  think it's an interesting idea, however; I notice, for example, that the above MLT has many 014 trichords, which would likely have a unifying function on a composition based on this. One challenge, at least if you like octave doublings to reinforce a line, is that no consistent octave doublings are possible unless they are three octaves apart.

The point is this: It is possible to manipulate someone else's idea in a way that results in something new. Composers and other artists have done this for centuries.

Not only that; it is possible to use existing (i.e., non-manipulated) ideas, devices, or techniques in creating compositions that are recognizably your own.

Thousands of composers have used major and minor scales, for example in producing compositions that are considered to be original (in the loose sense in which this term is used in music), and the same is true of cadence formulas,  accompaniment figures (e.g., Alberti bass), forms (e.g., binary, ternary, sonata, and rondo), thematic construction (e.g., period, sentence), chord progressions, and serialism. Composers wrote fugues before and after Bach, and many of them are good compositions; should Bach and subsequent composers have avoided the fugue because it had a name? Beethoven wrote sonatas and symphonies after hundreds of previous composers had already done so, and yet we don't generally criticize Beethoven for his 'lack of originality' in this regard.

Pointillism in music has been around for about 90 years, and yet it still attracts me at times (most recently last summer, when it showed up in a piece I wrote for trumpet, trombone, and piano). It seems unlikely that previous composers exhausted every possible avenue in this regard, and the same, I suspect, is true of most ideas or techniques that I can think of.

On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining the possibility of a composition based on conventions found in the music of Phillip Glass that would sound original to anyone but Phillip Glass; emulating Mr. Glass seems like a dead-end to me, but perhaps another composer might find a way to take the various clichés associated with his music in a new direction.

Another weakness in the "toolbox" analogy is that some 20th-century composers achieved fame without strong skills in areas that, historically, were considered essential to a composer's toolbox, such as traditional counterpoint or harmony. The two composers who come most to mind in this regard are Xenakis and John Cage.  I discussed this in: "How much theory do you have to know in order to be a composer?"


A potentially negative aspect of the "if it's got a name, don't use it" advice is the possibility that it can lead to becoming overly self-conscious, or self-censorious, leading to writer's block. If a well-informed composer were up to date on most contemporary and historical practices in music, it seems likely that this composer would struggle to write anything that had not, in some way, been done before.

As I wrote in an earlier postbeing overly concerned with the originality of one's creations may be counter-productive, because it can lead to extreme self-censorship, i.e., not continuing any musical ideas because, upon reflection, they are not original enough.

Of course, the ability to be self-critical is essential if one wishes to do great (or even good) things, which is wherein the paradox lies; too much of it leads to writer's block, too little can lead to facile and cliché-ridden music. Of these two extremes, it seems to me that the latter is preferable if only because we generally become better composers by composing, even if some of it is pretty bad; we don't tend to improve much by blocking every creative impulse because it's been done before.

Uniqueness vs. Shared Traits

It is often said that no two people (or snowflakes) are exactly alike, which suggests that the combination of qualities that make up your personality is unique. I believe this to be true, but I think it is also true that we all share many individual qualities, and thus it seems to me that while everybody is unique, nobody is 100% original.

In a similar way, if we compose regularly and often, while constantly striving to improve the work we produce, we will naturally reach a point wherein the uniqueness of our personality is manifested in our music without a self-conscious attempt to make it so, although our music will share various characteristics with other music, and this is the way it has always been.

The Imperative of Newness: Modernism

While belief in musical progress or in the principle of innovation is not new or unique to modernism, such values are particularly important within modernist aesthetic stances.
—Edward Campbell, Boulez, Music and Philosophy (2010, 37)
Have you ever wondered where the idea that art must reject tradition and blaze new trails comes from? While historical periods in art have always been distinguishable from one another in various ways, they have usually been similar to one another in other ways as well.

"If you can name it, don't use it" sounds like the kind of thinking associated with Modernism in art.  Wikepedia's article on Modernism (retrieved 26/04/2014) states:
The poet Ezra Pound's 1934 injunction to "Make it new!" was the touchstone of the movement's approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past. 
Although Modernism in art is still alive and well today, its heyday in music was probably ca. the first sixty years of the twentieth century, and thus, paradoxically, it might be argued that in order to "make it new" in our postmodernist time, we should be rejecting modernism.

However, in rejecting previous practices, and the desire to "make it new," we would be espousing modernism even as we are rejecting it.  Confused yet?

In any event, I see great value in employing existing techniques and ideas in new compositions, as long as you bring something to these techniques and ideas that is at least somewhat original. This strikes me as (a) practical — it is virtually impossible to write music without any traces of "nameable" techniques or practices, and (b) in keeping with historical practice — with the exception of modernism, art history is more about modifying existing practices than it is about rejecting all past practices.

As I was writing the above, this song kept playing in my head: