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!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

2014 Newfound Music Festival starts Today!

The Newfound Music Festival was scheduled to begin last night, but, as locals know, Memorial University was closed last night due to a "snow storm" (sic).

It wasn't much of a storm, but, as often happens, the prediction of a snow storm puts some people around here in a tizzy (no, the sky isn't falling; it's just snow), and free-ranging cancellations ensue. This may seem rather odd for a place that gets as much snow as we do (we had 21 feet of snow in 2000-2001, which was the highest all-time snowfall among all major Canadian cities), but there it is.

Let's move on to the festival:
  • The repertoire from last night's concert will be redistributed to the concerts tonight (Thursday) and tomorrow (the day after Thursday), and tonight's concert will now start a half-hour earlier (7:30), although tomorrow's will start at 8PM as originally scheduled. There will also be a "pre-concert installation" starting at 7PM tonight.  The Newfound Music website will be updated today to reflect these changes, so you may wish to check that periodically if you are planning to attend.

  • The Symposium, enigmatically titled "On the Bleeding Edge," is going ahead this afternoon as planned.
    • Start time: 1PM.
    • Location: Suncor Energy Hall.

  • I would like to strongly encourage all members of my composition class (Music 3100, W2014) to attend as many of these events as possible. The festival is organized primarily for your benefit.

  • As a further incentive, I offer the following: Students who write a thoughtful reflection on their experiences in the festival in the comments area below will receive credit for up to two blog comments. Heck, I could even go as far as giving three comment credits if you really go to town and write a reflection that is lengthy and thoughtful. This deal expires in one week, so, if you wish to avail of this opportunity, it would be best to do so in the next few days. Comments may be critical if you like — there is no need to pretend you loved something if you didn't — but whether they are critical, positive, or even wishy-washy, try to give reasons why you feel that way. Were there compositions that you especially liked? Were there others that you didn't like or didn't understand? Were there presentations that you particularly enjoyed or didn't enjoy? Either way, try to give a few reasons why you felt that way. I certainly will not be offended if I read negative comments; on the contrary, as long as they are articulated well I welcome them, or any other honest reactions you had to festival events and compositions.
And that is all for now; I hope you enjoy the festival!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Removing a Key Signature from Transposing Instruments in Finale

When you write for a transposing instrument (clarinet in Bb or A, saxophone in Eb, horn in F, trumpet in Bb or D) in Finale, it automatically inserts a key signature. This is fine for tonal music, but it is not desirable for non-tonal music.

You can write for the transposing instrument "in C," meaning the pitches will sound as written (not transposed) by unchecking the "transposition" box in the "Staff Attributes" dialog box (click on Staff Tool, double-click on the staff of the transposing instrument to get there).  This gets rid of the key signature (assuming there is none in your score), but it does not solve the problem, because you will eventually have to transpose the part so that the performer can read it properly, and at that point, Finale will insert a key signature.

Here is how you remove the key signature while maintaining the correct transposition. I use Finale 2011, so for later versions, I have pasted the instructions from Finale's website.


For Finale 2011 and earlier:
  1. Make sure your score does not have a key signature by selecting "C major" or "A minor" as your key. Then…
  2. Select (by clicking) the Staff Tool.
  3. Double click the staff of the transposing instrument. This opens the "Staff Attributes" dialog box.
  4.  If you want the correct transposition in your score, make sure the "Transposition" box has a check mark. If you want a "C score" (untransposed score), keep it unchecked.
  5. To the right of the "Transposition" check-box, is a button labelled "Select…"  Click on this.
  6. This takes you to the "Staff Transpositions" dialog-box.
  7. At the top of this dialog box, make sure the "Transposition: Key Signature" button is on. Do NOT use the drop-down menu to the right of these words to select your transposition; this will insert a key signature into the clarinet part, which is what we are trying to remove!
  8. Instead, click the "chromatic" radio button, and THEN select the desired transposition from the drop-down menu next to the word "chromatic." 
  9. Click "OK" twice to exit these dialog boxes and return to your score.


For Finale 2012:
  1. Open the ScoreManager window. (Windows menu > ScoreManager).
  2. Select the Transposition option and click Other under the instrument list tab.
  3. Click the radio button next to Chromatic (under some circumstances, you may need to change the transposition level if it is not already set to the appropriate interval).
  4. Click OK to leave the ScoreManager window and return to your score.


For Finale 2014, the process is simpler than in previous versions.

To set up a new document without a key signature:
  1. Go to File > New > Document with Setup Wizard.
  2. Select the desired ensemble or click Next to choose individual instruments and continue through the Wizard.
  3. On the fourth page of the Setup Wizard, choose Keyless from the key signature drop-down menu.
  4. If desired, choose the key for the tonal center and select Hide Key Signature and Show Accidentals.
  5. Click Finish.
To set a section without a key signature by using the Key Signature tool:
  1. Select the Key Signature tool.
  2. Choose Keyless from the key signature drop-down menu.
  3. If desired, choose key for the tonal center and select Hide Key Signature and Show Accidentals.
  4. Ensure that the measure range is correct and click OK.

Finding Time to Compose — 5 Tips

   Is finding time to compose or write a challenge for you? I suspect it is for most people, at least some of the time, and so I offer some thoughts and suggestions on this topic:


Why?

   First, it helps to understand that composing is a skill, like playing piano, shooting a basketball, or public speaking. As a general rule, the more time spent developing a skill, the greater one's level of achievement. 

   Also, skill development proceeds more efficiently if done on a regular basis. This is why music teachers usually advocate practicing daily to their students, even if the period of practice is short, rather than cramming all of your practice-time into one extended period per week. Studies, such as this one, have confirmed this.

   The one caveat to these general rules is that mastery of a skill is not just a matter of accumulating, say, 10,000 hours of practice (see 10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All, for example); the time spent developing skills must be done intelligently.

   For example, if you practice a Beethoven sonata every day for two hours, but never pay attention to fingerings, dynamics, phrasing, structure, or even wrong notes, you will likely not progress very quickly, if at all.

   If, on the other hand, you practice the sonata for twenty-five minutes a day, work out good fingerings, work on difficult passages slowly until they can be played cleanly, stop when you make a mistake to figure out what caused it and what will correct it, and experiment with different phrasings and articulations until you find ones that make good musical sense, then you will will assuredly learn to perform the sonata more quickly, and much better.

   Applying these principles to composition, this suggests that your development as a composer will proceed more efficiently if you can compose on a regular basis, even if for a relatively short period of time (such as 25-30 minutes a day), if done intelligently. And if you can fit in two composing sessions a day, that would be better still!

   For what it's worth, my experience has been that daily or near-daily composing does not necessarily make the process flow smoothly, but it flows considerably more smoothly than otherwise. I think this is because the music keeps "simmering" away in my mind on an ongoing basis (including when I fall asleep and wake up), and not just when I am sitting at my computer actively trying to compose.

   Regular and ongoing engagement with your work-in-progress makes it easier to resume composing next time you are in your workspace. On the other hand, when I go through periods in which I don't compose for days or even weeks at a time and then try to return to it, I often struggle, feeling like I have no idea what I am doing (more so than usual, which is a lot!), making for a slow and angst-ridden process.

   Are you convinced yet? If so, the next challenge is finding time to do this!


How?

Five suggestions; other suggestions welcome in the "comments" area below!
  1.    Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
       A: Only one, but the bulb has to really WANT to change.


       Just like the old lightbulb joke, you must start by genuinely wanting to find more time to compose. It has to be a high priority. I'd like to become a better guitarist and pianist, but until I am convinced that these goals are really important, I am not likely to spend much time pursuing them.

  2.    Make a schedule that includes regular times for composing and try to follow it. If you find it difficult to follow, modify your schedule, and continue adjusting it until you come up with a schedule that works most of the time. Remember that all you need is about 25 minutes of composition a day to experience the benefits described above, at least until more time is required in order to meet a deadline.

  3.    Try to compose at roughly the same time every day. Our bodies work in natural rhythms ("circadian rhythm") that can affect us to varying degrees and in various ways during the course of daily life.  If you can train your body to be in "composition mode" at a particular time every day, you will probably find that your creative impulses will be primed and ready to go at that time. And if mornings (for example) aren't working for you, try setting aside a different time of day for your daily composing.

       Composing at the same time every day is something that a great many composers seem to have had in common. Maynard Solomon's 1998 biography of Beethoven states, rather enigmatically, that the composer's "daily routine reflected his adherence to an exemplary standard of behavior” (Solomon 51), which perhaps supports Anton Schindler's description of Beethoven's daily routine in his largely-discredited Life of Beethoven (1840):
    "Beethoven rose at daybreak, no matter what season, and went at once to his work-table. There he worked until two or three o' clock, when he took his midday meal. In the interim he usually ran out into the open two or three times, where he also 'worked while walking.' Such excursions seldom exceeded a full hour's time."
       Erik Satie, in his A Day in the Life of a Musician, claimed, probably with tongue in cheek (but possibly not), that he was "inspired" daily from 10: 23 to 11: 47 AM, and again from 3:12 to 4:07 PM. He would also walk 10 kilometres from his apartment on the outskirts of Paris to Monmartre every day.

       Morton Feldman described his routine as follows: "I get up at six in the morning. I compose until eleven, then my day is over. I go out, I walk, tirelessly, for hours." It was a revelation for me to discover how common it was for great composers to compose at a specific time every day.

       A fixed routine seems to be true of other creative people as well, such as writers. This article in The Guardian tells us that Charles Dickens wrote from 9 AM to 2 PM every day, "after which he would walk incessantly, and put his mind in neutral." Others find their best time of day to write is in the evening or late at night.

       Esther Freud, a novelist whose work I should probably know but don't (although most people are familiar with her famous great-grandfather), has offered this advice about writing (from The Guardian):

       Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.

       Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, writes

       There are certain behaviors that cropped up over and over again in my research. A large number of novelists and poets, for instance, wake up early in the morning and try to get some words on the page before other obligations kick in. Composers, I've found, almost invariably take a long daily walk. (www.slate.com)

       This habit of taking a long walks is, by the way, one I recommend highly! 

  4.    Another great suggestion from Esther Freud (also from The Guardian article cited above), but one that has been expressed by many creative people, is this: 

    Don't wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.

       If you make it a habit to compose at a regular time every day (say, from 8AM to 11AM ), you will likely find that your brain provides you with all the inspiration you need during that time.  Inspiration can occur at other times, of course, but if you sit around waiting for it, you may find yourself waiting for something that never arrives.

  5.    For those times when inspiration strikes while you are away from your piano, computer, or other composing aid, always carry manuscript paper or a manuscript sketch book, and a pencil around with you, and jot down ideas when you get them. Beethoven apparently always carried pencils and sketchbooks around, and it seemed to work pretty well for him! You can also record your ideas on your "smart" (sic) phone or tablet (e.g., iPad, Samsung Galaxy, etc.), using GarageBand (Apple), Symphony Pro (Xenon Labs), or other app.

       If, on the other hand, you consistently ignore the inspired thoughts that jump into your head at various times of day, you are in effect training your brain not to be inspired, which is obviously not a good habit to develop.  Now, before you get too hard on yourself, know that everyone ignores their inspirational impulses at least some of the time; there are times when it may be impractical to stop what you are doing and record your inspired idea. But just jotting down one inspired idea per day is enough to keep those thoughts coming.



   Among the difficulties of composing, writing, or any time-consuming solitary pursuit, are that it takes time, it can be frustrating to the point of psychological pain (something I know well), and it takes tremendous discipline.  The positives, for me, are finishing a piece knowing that it is as good as it can be at that point, hearing it performed well, and receiving favourable or constructive feedback from performers and listeners.  But I don't do it because of the positives; I think I do it because I need to.

   Finding the time to compose on a regular basis does not make composing easy (although some days it can be), but it does make it easier than composing sporadically.

   Please let me know your thoughts on this, if you feel so inclined!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Idiomatic Writing for Piano (re-post)

    I wrote the basis of this post four years ago, and subsequently tweaked it several times in an attempt to improve it. The first project for my composition class this semester entails writing for piano, so I edited and expanded this further, adding music examples (originally there were none).


  How do you write idiomatically for piano? Non-pianists often find it a challenge to write well for the piano, and even experienced pianists can struggle with this. Here are some considerations that may help:


You don't need to be a Good Pianist in order to write Good Piano Music

    Virtually all the "great" (and even "pretty great") composers from Bach forward were also known as excellent keyboard performers; when they wrote for keyboard instruments, they really knew what they were doing!  

   However, it is not necessary to be able to perform well on an instrument in order to write well for it.  While most of the great composers were excellent keyboardists, they also wrote well for all the instruments in an orchestra, many of which they likely could not play well (or even at all).  The ability to play an instrument can be a great asset in learning to write idiomatically for that instrument, but it is not essential. Ravel and Ligetti are cited below as composers who were not virtuoso pianists, but who wrote extremely well for piano.

   That said, I recommend that anyone wishing to become a better composer develop at least some piano proficiency. It can give you a better intuitive understanding of how to write idiomatic piano music, and it is one of the two most useful instruments on which to compose any type of music, including orchestral; the other is the computer, but computer notation programmes do not, by themselves, give you a sense of how to write idiomatically for instruments, ensembles, and voices.



Mind the Gap!

   When writing chords (solid or broken), take into account that (i) the gap between thumb and index finger on each hand is wider than the gap between the remaining fingers, and (ii) the left and right hands mirror each other (so the gap in the LH is on the right, and vice-versa in the RH).

Aerial view of typical piano right-hand position: Note the gap between thumb and index finger.
 Note also the Day-Glo red fingernails, facilitating the location of wayward fingers under poor lighting conditions:


Shrewd readers will have noticed this thumb-to-index-finger gap already, perhaps at a very early stage of development (!), and may be asking, "So what?"

Well, okay then! Here you go:

→ A chord with adjacent notes to be played by thumb and index fingers (such as the first chord below) is difficult to play if there is also a wide gap between the index and little fingers.  Not necessarily impossible, just more difficult.  It may be that the sonority you want can only be achieved by writing an awkwardly-spaced chord like this; that may be fine, but be aware that writing lots of awkwardly-spaced chords is likely to be seen by pianists to be unidiomatic, and may cause them to be less inclined to perform it.

The first chord in the examples below is awkward, or even impossible for some pianists; try playing it (but don't try too hard, lest you hurt yourself!) to see why it is problematic.

In the second example, the gap between the thumb (1) and index (2) fingers makes playing this chord relatively easy if the performer's hand can span a 9th, but performers with smaller hands would find the stretch difficult.

The third example below demonstrates a trick that can sometimes be used to circumvent this challenge: The pianist can play two adjacent notes with the thumb, as long as they are both white notes, or both black notes. This works for solid chords, but not for arpeggiations, and can be indicated by a vertical square bracket adjacent to the notes to be played by the thumb, along with the fingering.

Try playing these yourself at a piano — they are all for the right hand — to get a feel for the relative ease or difficulty of each hand position. Also, remember that while these examples are all solid (i.e., non-broken) chords, the same principle applies to arpeggiated chords as well:






Full Spectrum Available! (except where prohibited by law)

   There are 88 keys on the piano, but only 40 of them are found between the F at the bottom of the bass clef and the G at the top of the treble clef; if you limit your note selection to only notes found on the treble and bass clefs, you use only 45% of the available notes on the piano. 
Suggestion 1: Try playing sonorities (chords, melodies, arpeggios, etc.) you write in all registers (on an acoustic piano, if possible) before deciding on the register that works best. Use 8va and 15ma indications above or below the grand staff as needed. [8va above a staff = 8ve higher; 8va below a staff = 8ve lower.] Do not automatically default to using only those notes that can be notated in the treble and bass clefs.   
Suggestion 2: Besides the standard, "LH in bass clef and RH in treble clef," consider each of these options:
  1. Both hands in the treble clef, possibly using 8va and 15ma indications for the right hand (RH; see first example below), or, if you are going to be staying in an extremely high register for more than a few bars, using an "ottava" treble clef (treble clef with an "8" above it, which indicates that pitches should be played an octave higher), or even a "quintima" treble clef (15 above the treble clef, which sounds two octaves higher);
  2. Both hands in the bass clef, possibly with similar 8va/15ma indications/clef adjustments below the left hand (LH) to sound an octave or even fifteenth lower;
  3. Hands spaced very widely apart, at the extremes of the keyboard;
  4. Hands very close together, perhaps one physically on top of one the other;
  5. Crossed hands; LH playing higher notes, RH playing lower notes.
  6. Hand-over-hand; long arpeggio or scalar pattern starting at one end of the keyboard and continuing to the other end, with each hand taking turns playing the notes.
   Here are examples of the above that I made up; play them, and see if they give you any ideas for your own compositions:






   All six examples are in the audio clip below, separated by a second or two of silence; the first has an extra bar not visible above:




Texture and Patterns

   Decide on a music texture, and try to keep it consistent for the duration of a section or even an entire piece if writing a short composition (e.g., 1-2 pages). Longer compositions are likely to have multiple texture changes, but shorter pieces tend to be relatively consistent in terms of texture (e.g., Bartok: Mikrokosmos).

   The choice of texture is of course up to you (every choice you make in composition is up to you!) but one way to make an informed choice would be to look at textures in a variety of piano scores, and borrow/commandeer ones you like.

   Try to avoid getting so caught up in studying scores that you get overwhelmed, however; if you want to buy a pen, and go into a store with a thousand to choose from, your decision would be considerably more difficult than if you went into a store with only three pens. Confucius probably said something like this.  If not him, then perhaps another wise person, such as Yogi Berra, or Groucho Marx.

     Patterns are commonly found in much piano music, particularly in the left hand. Examples include various forms of the Alberti bass (repetitive-pattern broken chord figures), left hand chordal patterns in waltzes (boom - chuck - chuck ...), various arpeggio figures such as the ones used in the C-major or C-minor preludes in book 1 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, or the considerably more demanding arpeggiation figures in the C major Etude from Chopin's collection (here's a link to a performance on YouTube).  See these patterns and others in the music examples below.


This is not to suggest that patterns must be used in your music, but be aware that idiomatic patterns are easy for muscle memory to retain, grasp, and execute. This is true for any instrument, and for the voice as well.

   Frequent pattern changes can be more challenging to perform than occasional ones, simply because there is more for the brain to process in a given time period. However, music in which a given pattern continues for too long can sound predictable and monotonous. It is presumably for this reason that the left hand, Alberti bass pattern in Mozart's famous Sonata "facile" in C major, K. 545 (see opening bars below), is used in the four bars and then it breaks off, not used for another twenty bars, at which point it returns only briefly.

   On the other hand, several of the preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier continue repeating a single pattern of the opening bar for almost the entire piece (e.g., C major, C minor, D Major from book 1), and then there's pattern-based minimalism, in which repetitive patterns are at the core, although subtle shifts tend to occur that can sustain interest. Clearly, a listener's sense as to how long is too long for pattern repetition depends on context, and what is going on musically.  In the case of the cited Bach preludes, the harmonic progressions sustain our interest throughout the course of these works.

   In my experience, early-stage student composers can struggle with this issue, either changing patterns too frequently and for reasons that seem inconsistent with musical logic (such as changing an accompaniment pattern twice in a relatively short phrase), or repeating the pattern for too long, and then changing it unexpectedly and illogically. 

   To summarize, patterns are used frequently in piano music, especially as accompaniments, and it is useful for composers to be aware of this. We also need to be aware of inherent challenges in performing the music we write; frequent pattern changes, or awkward, unidiomatic patterns can make music difficult to play, and can convey less musical logic to listeners. Depending on the challenge, and whether the performer understands the logic behind it or not, writing challenging music can sometimes have negative consequences, such as flawed performances, a performer's loss of confidence in the competency of a composer, a reluctance to perform the work at all, and outright hostility. And yes, I speak from experience…

   On the other hand, most performers I have known have had no objection to performing challenging music if they understood the musical logic behind the challenges, and the writing was idiomatic. 

  
Various Patterns and Textures in Bach, Mozart, and Chopin

Bach: WTC I, Prelude 1                                   Bach: WTC I, Prelude 2


Mozart: K. 545, I                             Mozart: K. 310, III


Mozart: K. 570, II


Mozart, K. 332, I


Mozart, K. 467, II


Chopin: Etude, op. 10, no. 1


Chopin: Nocturne, op. 9, no. 2




Establishing a Kinesthetic Connection. With the Universe Piano.

   Although you do not have to play piano well in order to write well for it, establishing a kinesthetic (i.e., tactile) connection with the piano can help you to develop a better feel for writing idiomatic piano music.

   Write a few bars of piano music, then go to the piano and see how it feels to play it. This is a kinesthetic exercise, the point of which is to develop some tactile connection between the music you write and the way it feels to play it on the piano.  If you are a non-pianist and are perhaps reacting to this suggestion with sudden-onset apoplexy, don't concern yourself too much if/when you play wrong notes (unless they are off by an octave or more... then you may wish to worry); the goal is to find out how it feels to perform your music, not to find out how your music sounds.  A good pianist is likely to play the right notes.  Think of yourself as an actor in a movie playing the part of a pianist; the actor just has to pretend to play the piano and move his/her hands accordingly, while the actual sound would be overdubbed later, performed by a competent professional.  Hopefully.

   Or, do the opposite: Compose a few bars at the piano, then enter the music on your computer or write it down, evaluating your musical fragment as you do.  How many motives are there? Are they related?  How can this idea be expanded? Work on these things for a while away from the piano, and then return to the piano to hear how your added bits sound/feel.

   Either way, the point is to try out your music at the piano.  Don't rely solely on your notation programme's playback function as you compose, because it won't give you a feel for the music; it can play passages without hesitation that sound great to your ears, but which are extremely impractical or even impossible for a performer.

   I also recommend doing this kinesthetic exercise with very challenging music by the great composers (e.g., Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Bartok, etc.); simply attempting to perform a bar here, a bar there, will give you a sense of what is possible in terms of idiomatic writing for piano.



On Attempting to "Out-Shred" Liszt and Rachmaninoff

   "Shredding" refers to impressively fast, loud, and flashy playing of an instrument, usually guitar. But you can apply the concept to piano as well; Liszt did!

   Attempting to outdo or emulate the great romantic composers in writing works of spectacular, showy virtuosity may not be wise in the early stages of compositional training. There is much to be said for simplicity: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" (attributed to Einstein, but many people have articulated a similar sentiment, notably the 14th-century philosopher and theologian, Ockham, and possibly Yogi Berra as well).

   I do not mean to suggest that one should never write showy, flashy compositions — highly-skilled performers like to show off (there's a sweeping statement!), and showy, flashy compositions allow them to do this. 

   However, most composers associated with this type of music (e.g., Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Albéniz, Brahms, Prokofiev, etc.) were themselves spectacularly-accomplished piano virtuosi, and as such, they understood the capabilities of the instrument better than most non-pianists and pianists alike. If you are reading this blog post because you wish to improve your ability to write idiomatically for the piano, then perhaps trying to beat Liszt and Rachmaninoff at their own game (i.e. write showier, flashier music than they did) may not be a very practical way to do this.

   There are, as every composer knows (and embraces!), exceptions to every rule or sweeping statement, of course. Maurice Ravel was one of the greatest composers of piano music that ever lived, but he evidently did not consider himself sufficiently skilled to perform his more challenging compositions, and he is described as merely a "competent pianist" in Wikipedia (Wikipedia: Maurice Ravel, retrieved 18 Jan. 2014). György Ligeti (28 May 1923–12 June 2006) has said he never became a "good pianist" because he did not begin piano lessons until he was 14, and yet he has written some impressively-virtuosic piano music, such as his three volumes of Etudes, and his Piano Concerto. Here's an example:



L.H. and/or R.H. Octaves; For what purpose?

   Although it is possible to play many bass lines in octaves if the notes don't move too fast, don't make that your default approach to writing for the left hand (or the right hand, for that matter); the ear can tire of constant octaves pretty quickly. One or both hands playing in octaves can be an effective way to bring out a melodic line, and/or create more sound volume than would otherwise be the case, but octaves are likely to be more effective if used sparingly, perhaps saved for a particularly dramatic section, as in the two examples above in which left-hand octaves are used (Mozart, K. 332, bar 157, and Chopin, Etude, op. 10, no. 1).
   If you wish to double a melodic line in octaves, consider having each hand play the melody two (or more) octaves apart (as in #5 below); the effect is quite different than a line doubled one octave higher or lower, and it (i.e., #5) is also easier to play than having all the octaves in one hand.

   Below is a one-bar passage, mostly in 16th-notes, played at a relatively quick tempo, in eight different versions (discussion to follow):


Recordings of the above examples:


   The initial passage in the left hand is, by itself, fairly challenging, because it moves quickly (8 notes per second) and doesn't follow a pattern. If it were a rapid chord arpeggiation, pianists would find it less challenging because they typically practice arpeggiation patterns that span multiple octaves; you see this sort of thing in piano concertos frequently. Check out the start of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto to see what I mean.

   Although #1 is not an easy passage, a good pianist should be able to play it cleanly in each hand with a little practice.

   If you ask the pianist to play the left hand in octaves (as in #3 above), the difficulty level increases significantly. There are undoubtedly pianists who could play #3 cleanly in one hand at this speed, but (a) it would likely require a tremendous amount of practice, (b) it possibly would not be played cleanly every time, (c) the pianist would probably play it with staccato articulations on many 16th-note in order to get through it in tempo, and (d) it seems likely to be intimidating and discouraging to many pianists.

   If you give octaves to each hand (#8), you have just upped the difficulty level another few notches, which is bordering on insanity!

   Regarding examples 3 and 8 above, students have occasionally told me that a particularly challenging or awkward passage they have written is playable by someone they know, so there is no need to change it. This may be true, but if a passage seems likely to be extraordinarily difficult for most pianists, the question becomes, is it worth it? Examples 5, 6, and 7 sound quite similar to example 8, but they are less challenging for the performer (although they too are not easy); is the relatively small difference in sound worth asking the pianist to put so much work into it, and the risk that it will not be performed cleanly?

   I would not write anything like #8, UNLESS the pianist had expressed a desire for an extraordinarily challenging score, AND I showed them the passage was told they could play it, AND I listened to them playing it and liked it.

   There are other options: You could add selective octave doubling within each hand if it does not add significantly to the difficulty level, like this:



  #9 might be pushing the limits of what is reasonable to ask of a pianist, but it's worth trying if you want a somewhat-bigger sound than #7, and if you show it to a pianist to get their take on it.

   Another option involves octave displacements between LH and RH; this works well, but bear in mind that, at least in this example, the pitch changes are twice as slow as in previous examples, although the surface-level 16th-note activity remains the same:





    Always have a good reason for writing a passage in octaves. The main justifications for such a passage are (a) you want the big sound that octaves can give you, or (b) you like the colour (including the colour of octaves played quietly). If you want octaves for their colour, also consider both hands playing the passage one, two, three (or more if feasible) octaves apart; each of these options produces a slightly-different colour.

Having each hand play octaves simultaneously, as in #8, is entirely feasible if the notes are moving less quickly, or if the notes are following a familiar pattern for the pianist, like an ascending chromatic scale, for example. 



Pedal Power

   Consider the pedals. Or, more precisely, consider what they do, and how they differ. Once you are done considering them, consider writing piano pieces that use the two pedals that hardly ever get used: Una corda, and Sostenuto.

   There are three pedals on most grand pianos and many uprights, yet most composers only ever require (or at least politely ask) the pianist to use one. This need not be the case, although it is of course fine if you only use the sustain (also called "damper," which seems counter-intuitive since it lifts the dampers from the strings, as opposed to dampening them) pedal, or no pedal at all.  But no matter what pedals you use, make sure you indicate your intentions in the score.

   Here are the three pedals, and what they do on a grand piano:





  1.    Una corda, or "soft" pedal (on the far left).  Its function is, as you might guess, to soften the sound, but bear in mind that it also changes the tone colour slightly.  A chord played using the soft pedal can sound just as loud as a chord played without it (if you play the una corda chord more forcefully to compensate for the effect of the soft pedal), but the timbre will be slightly different. 

       Una corda, by the way, means "one string" in Italian; on a grand piano, depressing this pedal will shift all hammers slightly so that only one string is struck, producing less sound than when all strings (two or three, depending on the register) are struck, which is what normally occurs when you play a note on piano. 

       If you have not spent much time looking inside a piano to see what happens when a note is played, or when the una corda pedal is depressed, give it a try next time you have the opportunity! It's very interesting. The score indication for this pedal is: una corda, or U.C., followed by tutti le corde, or tre corde, or even * to release the pedal.

  2.    Sostenuto pedal (the middle pedal on most grands), described in Wikipedia as "the least used pedal of the three on the piano." This makes it sound a bit like the poor cousin of the pedal family, but it can produce very attractive resonance effects, and can be a useful device for contemporary composers. 

    What it does, and how it works:  It causes the piano to sustain only selected notes, while continuing to dampen others. If you (a) depress any number of piano notes, (b) depress the sostenuto pedal, then (c) release those notes but keep the sostenuto pedal down, those notes will continue to ring, although other notes will not.  The sostenuto pedal sustains only the notes that are sounding at the point the pedal is depressed, as well as the overtones of those notes.

       Its ability to produce selective resonances can create interesting sound effects.  If you silently depress several notes that are in the harmonic series of another pitch and then depress the sostenuto pedal, when you play the fundamental staccato, and fairly loud, to be effective, we hear the attacked staccato fundamental, which is dampened immediately, followed by ringing harmonics of that note. Or, you could do the opposite, as in the example below in which fundamentals are depressed silently in a low register, while overtones are articulated forcefully in a higher register. 

       As with any sound effect, overuse may reduce its impact, but, if you like this idea, consider finding interesting ways to use it as the basis a piece, perhaps a study.  If you want piano notes to be depressed silently, make sure you give the pianist sufficient time to to this; try this yourself at a piano to get a feel for the time required.

       Most uprights do not have this feature.  Instead, many have a middle pedal that dampens the sound in a much more pronounced way than the regular una corda pedal (which itself can produce an interesting effect).  To create a sostenuto pedal effect on an upright, you can silently depress notes in one hand and keep them depressed while you play other notes in the other hand; the example below can be played this way.

       The score indication for the sostenuto pedal is: "Sost. Ped." followed by * to release it, and composers usually indicate the notes to be sustained with nonstandard note-heads, such as diamond shapes: 



  3.    Damper, or "sustain" pedal.  This is the default/standard pedal; it lifts all dampers from the piano strings, causing them to continue sounding while hands are removed from the keys (which would otherwise result in dampers being lowered onto the strings, killing the sound). This is the pedal to which "ped." indications refer, followed by * to release it. You can also use line/bracket indicators for this pedal:  _______^________^_______|

  4.    Even if you use only the damper pedal in your compositions, I recommend indicating in your scores as clearly as possible where you want it used, and where it is to be lifted.  I used to do this inconsistently, thinking that pianists would probably prefer to make their own judgements as to when to use the pedal. While this may be true of many pianists, it resulted in lots of questions from performers about my intentions regarding pedal use, and writing scores that cause performers to request clarity on what we want is an inadvisable practice for composers. I therefore try to be as specific as possible now, but I also usually let pianists know that they are free to use their own judgement regarding modifying my pedal indications.
    Another use of the damper pedal is to provide sympathetic resonance to notes played on other instruments, somewhat similar to the sostenuto pedal. If the damper pedal is depressed and loud notes are played by other instruments or sung, you should be able to hear the resonance of these notes in the piano.  The instruction, "play into piano" is sometimes used to achieve this effect.



  The texture discussion above on the challenge of finding a balance between too much repetition with too little, which is something that I have written about in other posts, if you still have a pulse and wish to check them out:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Welcome Message (January, 2014)

Welcome to all composition students in my class this semester, and welcome as always to other readers of this blog!

I really enjoy every course I teach, but I particularly like teaching Music 3100 (Intro to Composition) because I get to help people, who in most cases have never composed before, develop as composers.

There is a limit on what we can hope to achieve over a 12-week semester, but despite this, many of the students that have taken this course have shown substantial growth as composers. Some students begin the course unsure as to whether they lack sufficient "talent" to develop into good composers, and are surprised to discover by the end of the course that they do, in fact, have plenty of talent to go as far as they wish in composition, provided they put in the many hours of work to get there.

What many people call talent is, I think, often the result of a lot of hard work.

Here are a couple of posts on this topic that may interest you:


I am looking forward to working with you, hearing your music, and reading your blog comments.



Since our first project of the course involves writing for piano (as do most subsequent projects), you may wish to read the post I wrote on this topic, which I just revised yesterday:




Please visit this site regularly to read and comment on posts that interest you. This blog is open to anyone; most of the comments are made by students in my courses, but anyone who wishes to comment is encouraged to do so.

Many of the people visiting this blog are not current or former students — when I checked the "Site meter" at the bottom of this page a few minutes ago, it showed recent visitors from Japan, Singapore, Germany, Holland, Britain, Sweden, Argentina, Guyana, Mexico, and many locations across the USA and Canada. Of course, a great many of these are likely to be web-crawler bots, or people who happened onto this site unintentionally, or people who, having visited this site, realize immediately that this is not what they were looking for, but be aware that any comments you make can be read by a fairly large and diverse audience.

Typically, the majority of comments on these blog posts are made by class members. This is because my students are required to comment on a 10 posts per semester.  Is this good pedagogy? Well, I think so, obviously, but (polite) comments from those who feel otherwise are always welcome! I believe discussion and debate can be a healthy and helpful thing, and my objective is to find ways of engendering it.



Two more things:
  1. I have written 136 posts so far, and you are free to comment on any of them (as well as on any new blogs that I write, of course); I receive E-mail notifications whenever a blog comment is made on any post, no matter how old it is. As an example, I started this blog back in August, 2008, with a 9-part series called Composition Issues, and I still receive notifications of comments on those posts from time to time.

  2. My blogging frequency has varied over the years: 36 posts in 2008, 45 in 2009, 24 in 2010, 4 in 2011 (ouch!), 14 in 2012, and 13 in 2013.  I am going to challenge myself to write ten blogs by early April, when this course finishes.  Let's see if I can keep this up…