Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Finding Your Own Voice; Tonality, Atonality, and the Composer's Toolbox

We had a discussion yesterday morning in our composition seminar about topics that I suspect most composition students think about from time to time, such as:
  • Why are we restricted to writing post-tonal music?
  • If the music nearest and dearest to my heart is tonal, then shouldn't I be writing tonal music?
  • If a composer (or any artist) is obliged to be true to themselves, shouldn't they be free to express themselves in any way they wish?
I have written about this before – please visit the links below, if interested – so I am repeating myself to some degree, but here are my thoughts on these questions:
  1. Every university course that I know of has content restrictions. Here are just a few examples from Memorial University's music course offerings:
    • Renaissance counterpoint;
    • Baroque counterpoint
    • The four-semester sequence of Harmony & Part-writing courses (which we call "Materials of Music").
    • Jazz Theory and Arranging.

    The stylistic restrictions in these courses are fairly strict, but, in my experience, students do not typically question why they are not allowed to write country, rock, or hip-hop songs, for example, in Renaissance Counterpoint, or Jazz Theory. I think song-writing courses covering country, rock, hip-hop, death-metal, or any of the myriad of sub-genres of popular music would be great to have, and they already exist in many universities. I'd love to see them at ours, but the point is that any course is circumscribed in some way.

    Students usually understand that stylistic restrictions are inherent to course content, and, ideally, their desire to take the courses listed above is motivated by a desire to learn how to write music under such restrictions.

    Of course, more pragmatic motivation for choosing courses is often in play as well, such as the course being required for their programme of study, or the course is in a convenient time slot, or all other theory electives were full, so they had to take the only one that wasn't full, etc.

  2. There are, however, courses in which stylistic restrictions are not explicitly stated in the title or calendar description. One is "Materials of Music," cited above. Looking at the Memorial University 2015/2016 calendar, other examples include:

    • "Principal Applied Study requires one hour per week of individual instruction (vocal or instrumental)." This refers to weekly private lessons. No stylistic focus is specified.
    • "Functional Keyboard I is an introduction to practical keyboard skills for students whose Principal Applied Study is not piano or organ. Functional accompaniment, transposition and score reading are emphasized." 
    • "Chamber Music requires the ensemble to prepare and perform a recital of x-y minutes of music. Each ensemble receives z hours of coaching in preparation for the performance."
    • … and many, many others, such as Small Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, Instrumental Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra, AccompanimentContemporary Music/Improvisation Ensemble ("contemporary" could mean "any music of our time," but it actually means, "classical music of the fairly recent past," in which "fairly recent" is open to interpretation by the course instructor), etc.

  3. Despite the unspecified stylistic restrictions in the above course titles and calendar descriptions, students taking these courses probably understand that they carry with them some stylistic restrictions, because our School focusses mostly on classical music in the broadest sense of that term (which includes contemporary classical music).

  4. Another course in which stylistic restrictions are not explicit in the title and course description is composition, whose calendar description is as follows: "Composition Seminar provides intensive composition study for students whose Major or Minor is Composition."

    So, while it is possible to deduce from this description that any style or genre of composition is fair game, I would just point out that this is not the case in any of the other courses mentioned above; students taking Principal Applied Study, for example, usually understand and accept that they will be more likely to learn the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Clifford Crawley, etc., than country, rock, death-metal, etc. music as part of their performance studies. Again, this is not to suggest that non-classical music has no value, because it obviously does; it is a reflection of the stylistic focus at our School of Music, which is primarily music of the classical tradition. However, we also have a thriving ethnomusicology programme, as well as some courses in popular music, but I would very much like to see more offered in the future. This may even come to pass in the near future, because our newly-appointed (starting Fall, 2016) Canada Research Chair in Ethnomusicology, Dr. Harris Berger, is among other things, a leading scholar in the area of heavy metal and rock music.

  5. Another factor in this discussion of stylistic restrictions is that they are to some degree a reflection of the professor's areas of expertise. Ideally, teachers teach what they know, and, for most of our professors, what they know is primarily classical music. Of course, teachers can be adaptable as well, and if I were told to teach a course on a topic beyond my comfort zone, like writing a Broadway musical, I'd take what I already know about writing for voice, writing for orchestra or band, combining voice(s) with instruments, setting text expressively, etc., and learn everything I could about the structure and conventions of Broadway musicals (about all I know at this point is that they generally have two acts, and that the first usually ends with an unresolved conflict of some sort), and then do my best with the course, hopefully learning more along the way.

  6. In all courses at our university, professors must distribute a course outline or syllabus during the first week of classes. In addition to communicating the marking scheme and general structure of the course, these usually contain more information about course content and objectives than is found in the university calendar. This is where you would learn, for example, that our study of baroque counterpoint focusses primarily on the music of J.S. Bach, with occasional references to other baroque composers. You would also learn that there is, unsurprisingly, no way to master the compositional styles of J.S. Bach in a one-semester course, and so the objectives are more a matter of trying emulate specific aspects of his style, such as binary dance-suite compositions, inventions, and fugues. 

  7. For our course, Composition Seminar, the outline usually states that the focus will be on writing "post-tonal" music. My reasons for this include the following:
    • For most of the past century, the majority of highly-regarded classical composers (and yes, "highly-regarded" is a problematic term, since informed scholars can disagree as to the relative merits of any given composer; I am referring to the composers we learn about in textbooks and more recent composers who do not yet appear in textbooks, but whose music is widely played and celebrated) have been writing post-tonal music, and, since this is a composition course for contemporary classical music, I strongly believe that students should learn explore at least some of the many techniques for writing post-tonal music;
    • The requirement to explore post-tonal techniques often results in students moving beyond their personal comfort zones, meaning that for many, writing tonal music is comfortable and safe, while writing post-tonal music is less so. I believe that moving beyond our comfort zones in a safe, supportive environment is where we often learn the most.
    • It also seems likely that, if students were not challenged to move beyond their personal comfort zones, then some would be unlikely to explore post-tonal techniques, which I would regard as a glaring omission in their development of composition skills.
    • I think many, possibly most, students may not fully understand what is meant by "post-tonal" music, and think the term is the same as "atonal," or even "12-tone" music. It is much, much more than this; it is a remarkably open category; the only thing it isn't is tonal
      • I pasted below a sampling of scales, techniques, and idioms associated with post-tonal music; the options are both plentiful and varied. Not only that, but the list is in no way complete; there are many other approaches to post-tonal composition beyond those listed. In addition, there are approaches that haven't been conceived yet, just waiting for someone like you to think of them.
    • I am of the firm conviction that writing post-tonal music can improve the quality of any tonal music students may write in the future. For students that embrace the challenge of writing post-tonal music, it opens their creative options to include techniques and sonorities that they otherwise might not have considered when writing tonal music.
    • Many composition students have indicated a desire to write music for film or video games. For such students, the more techniques they know, the more effectively they will be able to score for film (or video games, although I confess to not knowing much about this genre of music).
    • I have tried different approaches to the teaching of composition over the past 30 years, and this method works, if students are willing to buy into it. 
    • There are over 20 student comments on a previous blog entry I wrote on this topic, all of which are positive. Many express an initial discomfort with trying to write post-tonal music, but conclude with views similar to this one: "Intro to composition has completely opened up my ears to accepting tonalities that I otherwise would not have heard beauty in!"  
    • One of the most compelling reasons I advocate writing post-tonal music is that when I have allowed tonal composition, the results have generally been disappointing, albeit with some pleasant exceptions along the way. Possible reasons for this include the following:
      • It is very hard to write tonal music that (a) sounds original, and (b) doesn't sound like a poor imitation of some tonal music composer.
      • Despite having taken four semesters of tonal harmony and analysis before starting the first semester of composition seminar, as well as one semester of counterpoint for some, many students who have chosen a composition major did not do particularly well in these tonal-practices courses, and, unsurprisingly, their tonal writing has often been problematic (forbidden parallels, poorly resolved sevenths, doubled tendency tones, odd chord progressions, clearly wrong notes that the student was apparently unable to hear despite playing the file numerous times in Finale or some other music notation programme, etc.).
      • Our ears are so accustomed to tonal music of the highest quality that when we write tonal music of significantly lower quality (as our first attempts almost invariably must be), it just does not sound very good. Again, to be fair, there have been exceptions, but not very many.

  8. None of this comes from an elitist, "Who Cares if You Listen," antipathy towards tonality and love of "academic" music, whatever that might be. I grew up playing rock and folk music, then studied jazz guitar for a few years, and only began studying classical music in my 20s. One thing led to another, and I eventually got a doctorate in composition and became a professor, but I never lost my love of rock and many other kinds of music as well. I remember very well my first reactions to Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and even Bartok… Much like the protagonist in Dr. Seuss's famous book, Green Eggs and Ham, I did not like them, Sam-I-Am!

    Fortunately, I had teachers that (a) helped me to better understand the music I didn't like, so that I grew to not only gain a better appreciation of that music, but to actually enjoy it as well, and (b) exposed me to compositional approaches that I either knew little or nothing about. Therefore, as I see it, an important part of my role as a composition teacher/facilitator is to challenge students to consider compositional techniques, approaches, and possibilities that they may never have tried before. Usually, in trying these new things, students find some they like, but whether they like them or not, they can develop a better understanding of new (to them) techniques.

    This is where the "composer's toolbox" analogy comes in; the more you know, in terms of compositional techniques and approaches, the better equipped you will be to express your uniqueness through music, and the better equipped you will be to write for stage, film, television, or video games, should you ever have that opportunity.

    Most of us want to express something deeply personal through our music; we are better able to do this with a wide array of compositional techniques and approaches in our toolboxes than a limited selection. If you were a writer but your vocabulary had only 100 words, it seems likely that you would find this limiting your ability to express the subtleties and deep thoughts you might wish to express; if you had a vocabulary of 60,000 words, it seems likely that you would be better able to express yourself in an effective and nuanced way.

    Most of the music I have written in about the past twenty years is in some way tonal, with a number of exceptions as well. It is clearly where my heart lies, but I don't think I would find it very interesting to only write tonal music. Moreover, I could not have written any of the tonal-based compositions that I really like unless I had spent years developing skills in a variety of post-tonal techniques.

    Most students appear to have little interest in my music – not complaining, just observing – but if you would like to listen to a few of the tonality-based compositions I wrote just to see where I am coming from, here are a few links:

    Dream Dance (A wild, virtuosic, perpetual motion joyride; 2007)
    Domenico 1° & 2° (Two sonatas inspired by Scarlatti; 2009)
    Last Dance (Juno nominated slow tango, called "haunting and beautiful" by Jon Kimura Parker; 1999)
    iPad Riff Recontextualized (Based on a Steve Reich riff appropriated by Apple for an iPad commercial, 2010)

A student in our class made a great point yesterday about uniqueness not being something we need to strive for, because we are already unique; what we need to strive for is mastery of a sufficiently-large selection of skills so that our uniqueness is not restricted by our lack of skill.

Here's what I wrote about uniqueness in "If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take), a blog post from May of 2014:
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.
This brings us to the second and third questions at the top of today's post, which touch on what I would consider to be an artistic imperative: An artist is obliged to express themselves in whatever way they believe works best. I strongly support this. However, as I wrote above, part of my role as a teacher, as I see it, is to get students to try new things, thereby giving them more tools with which to express themselves. Besides, there are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music; in this one, I ask them to write post-tonal music, which opens the door to a seemingly-infinite range of possibilities.

I have given explanations of why I usually require post-tonal harmonic language and practices in previous posts – links below. The third one in particular addresses this issue, and has generated a high number of comments, all positive (so far!).

Other posts on this topic:
Express Yourself? 
"If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take)
Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant! 
Atonality = Noise?Jess Blenis Guest Blog on Atonality

Here's that list I alluded to earlier of post-tonal techniques and compositional approaches; hopefully, you will agree that there are lots of options to choose from, and it's not by any stretch an exhaustive list! This too is borrowed from an earlier blog post (Jan. 2010):

  1. Modes of limited transposition (Messiaen’s term).
  2. Non-Messiaenic modes of limited transposition (e.g., modes that repeat every 2 or 3 8ves)
  3. Non-Western scales (e.g., pelog, slendra (Indonesia),  Hejaz scale (middle east, and flamenco; AKA Phrygian dominant scale, Jewish scale), Indian scales, etc.).
  4. Octatonic scale (A.K.A. “diminished scale;” this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  5. Pentatonic scales (i.e., anhemitonic (e.g., CDEGA), hemitonic (e.g., EFGBC), hirajoshi (e.g., ABCEF), etc.
  6. Whole-Tone scale (this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  7. Any other made-up, or synthetic, scale.

  1. Added-Value Rhythms.
  2. Additive Rhythms.
  3. Cross Rhythm.
  4. Eastern European (asymmetrical; 2+2+3, 2+2+2+3, 3+2+2+3, etc.), West African, and other world rhythms.
  5. Free (“timeless”, no sense of pulse).
  6. Isorhythms.
  7. Jazz (?).
  8. Mixed meters ( 3/4 | 5/8 | 2/4 | 7/16 |, etc.).
  9. Motor rhythms (continuous motion).
  10. Non-retrogradable.
  11. Polymeters.
  12. Polyrhythms.
  13. Polytempo.
  14. Rhythms or phrase lengths based on Fibonacci (or other) Numerical Series.
  15. Tempo fluctuations (i.e., sudden/gradual tempo changes, metric modulation).

  1. Various programmatic moods, such as aggressive, pretty, wistful, playful, demented, nervous, sad (various kinds), numb (catatonic), angry, fearful, etc.
  2. New jazz, third stream.
  3. Fusions; combining popular music genres (rock/electropop/trance/hippety-hop, etc.) with various post-tonal art-music devices.
  4. Minimalism (repetitive (trance-inducing); sparse and static (trance-inducing)).
  5. New simplicity.
  6. Borrowing/adopting elements of music from other cultures: Japan, Eastern Europe, India, etc.
  7. Expressive (romantic) versus Non-expressive (mechanistic).

  1. Any systematic (or non-systematic) approach to harmony not rooted in tonality.
  2. Clusters.
  3. Extended and non-tonal tertian harmony (e.g., Scriabin’s “mystic” chord).
  4. Extended instrumental and vocal techniques (multiphonics, prepared piano, etc.).
  5. Graphic notation.
  6. Hindemith’s approach to harmony (from The Craft of Musical Composition).
  7. Indeterminacy, aleatorism, controlled aleatorism.
  8. Klangfarbenmelodie, texture-based organization.
  9. Microtones.
  10. Mixed media.
  11. Modulation.
  12. Motivic unity; set theory (post-tonal); using a limited number of specific intervals.
  13. Music without melody.
  14. Nihilism, Antimusic, Decategorization, Biomusic.
  15. Non-Tertian harmony (secundal, quartal, quintal).
  16. Planing.
  17. Pointillism.
  18. Polyrhythms.
  19. Polystylism.
  20. Polytonality, polymodality.
  21. Quotation.
  22. Saturation (e.g., Ligeti's "Atmosphères," industrial music).
  23. Serialism (pitch).
  24. Serialism ("integral," or “total;” creating series of dynamics, articulations, registers, timbres).
  25. Spectral music.
  26. Any combination of the above.

Postscript – My responses to two student comments:

A student writes: "as a composition student, I feel that I should not be told to not write tonal music."

• Do you feel you should not be told to play classical music by your applied instructor? I suspect not, so why suggest that your composition professor should not impose restrictions on what you write? See points 1, 2, 3, 4 above. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding on why I impose technical restrictions on what students write in my composition courses.
The same student writes: "if [my music is] tonal-ish sounding and it's decent sounding and I am enjoying what I am doing, then shouldn't I be allowed to do so? After all music school is supposed to be fun after all and if I am told that I can't write what I want to as a composer that's kind of a drag."
• You are allowed to write (and of course enjoy!) whatever you wish when composing purely for yourself, just like you are allowed to perform anything you like – country music, heavy metal, folk, hip-hop, etc. – on your own or in bands (as a lot of our students do; they play gigs in bands downtown on weekends), but, just as your applied instructor has the right to limit the stylistic choices in the music you perform for credit, your composition instructor has the same right to restrict stylistic choices.

• The suggestion that music school is "supposed to be fun" needs to be examined. I'd like to think that there is some fun to be had in any course I teach, but I suspect my colleagues would disagree with your statement. I would suggest that music school is supposed to be a place where professors teach you new things about music, and students work hard to learn these things. Again, there is sometimes fun to be had, but that's not the overarching objective of music school. When I was a student, there was always a great sense of satisfaction when I felt I had learned or accomplished something in music school, but it invariably resulted from a lot of hard work, which, while I didn't mind it most of the time, I would not really describe as fun.

- - - - - - -
A different student writes: "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music” [quoting my blog]  I disagree with this point. There are lots of university courses in which we interact with tonal music (ex. history), and there are lots of university courses that have us writing shadows of tonal music, with exercises in harmony and counterpoint classes that are intended to improve and demonstrate aspects of that music. However, I cannot think of a single university course (never mind “lots” of them) that requires students to write full, original, tonal compositions."
• I did not write, "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write full, original, tonal compositions." Quite obviously this would be false, although there is a course being introduced in the 2016-2017 year that will lead to the composition of a complete, classical-style sonata form movement, and I highly recommend this to anyone wishing to write "full, original, tonal compositions."

• I do not see how one can disagree with the statement that there are several courses that require students to write tonal music; these include the four semesters of harmony ("Materials of Music"), 16th-Century Counterpoint, and 18th-Century Counterpoint. Counting only these courses, it means that in 6 of the 8 semesters of a 4-year degree, students can take courses with a strong tonal music writing component. Perhaps a better way of stating my point is this: In almost every course that involves writing music at our university, the harmonic language is tonal; I would assume that this is even true to some degree of Jazz Theory, since jazz theory is mostly an evolution of tonal music theory. There is only one course in which the focus is on selected post-tonal techniques ("Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music"), and I'm not sure how much music writing goes on on that course, as opposed to analysis, which is its usual focus.

• Is this a good balance or not? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on one's views of the value of developing skills in post-tonal music for composers; I have listened to a lot of contemporary classical music over the past thirty-five (or so) years, which has informed my view that this is not an adequate balance between tonal and post-tonal skills in the training of composers, which is why I advocate and facilitate the development of skills in post-tonal music.  

• Incidentally, I have frequently supported students wanting to write music based in some way on tonality, but the condition I impose on this is always the same: Explore ways of doing something new and different with tonality, or figure out how composers (such as Debussy, Górecki, Penderecki, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Wolf, etc.) who pushed tonality to its limits or in new directions did so, and borrow or adapt some of their techniques.