Saturday, January 16, 2016

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (®Jan/2016)

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. Entries relating to class business – reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc. – are omitted.

Links are loosely organized by topic to facilitate browsing.

→ Exploring the Creative Process; Struggles and Solutions ←
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (includes section on "writer's block")

→ Planning ←

→ Playing With Expectations; Musical Dichotomies ←

→ Composition Techniques 

→ Form in Post-Tonal Music ←

→ Atonality; What's in a Name? ←

→ Winning and Losing; Judging and Being Judged ←

→ Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music and Marketing ←

→ Composition Issues (10-part series that started this blog) ←
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in assessing compositions that emerge from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite criticism from others.
3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What is it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.
7.1. Less is more / More is more
7.2. Always leave them wanting more / Give them what they want
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot / There's a sucker born every minute
7.4. There can be too much of a good thing / If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.
8.1. Three models for the role of a composer
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds
8.5. Don't obsess
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities

→ Composition Projects ←

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Potentially-Hubristic Folly of Planning

"Creativity is very messy," writes Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman in a Scientific American article entitled, The Messy Minds of Creative People (December 24, 2014).

Well, yeah…

The process that leads to the completion of a composition, or indeed anything you create, is, at least in my experience, rarely linear.
  • There are ideas that don't go anywhere.
  • There are ideas that go somewhere, but not where you want them to go.
  • There are sometimes too many ideas.
  • There are sometimes no ideas, or at least none that seem to be any good.
  • Finding regular, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to compose can be challenging. Kind of like searching for the Holy Grail, or finding a match for all those single socks that dryers produce.
  • When you finally find a block of time in which to compose, the creative well sometimes appears to have run dry. This can lead to…
  • Frustration. And in such large quantities!
  • Every now and then, however, something goes right, which is sweet indeed! However…
  • We may come to believe that what we considered brilliant, or at least pretty darn good, is neither, and in fact may very possibly be complete garbage. (To be clear, it is unlikely to be garbage, complete or otherwise, but the brain sometimes turns on a person.)
  • There can be positive feedback from others, encouraging you to keep doing what you're doing.
  • There can be conflicting suggestions from others, such as:
    • The piano writing is unidiomaticvs. Nah, the piano writing is fine… A good pianist should have no trouble with it.
    • A single motive that permeates every bar of the entire piece? That is PURE GENIUS, my friend! vs. That pervasive motive is fine for a while, but you get pretty sick of it after about the twentieth time you hear it, and by about page five it makes me want to jump off a building! Seriously, dial it back a notch or six; less is more.
    • That middle section makes no sense to me, vs. That middle section is my favourite part!
  • There can be a little voice in the back of your head suggesting that you really have no idea what you're doing, so why keep doing it?
  • There can be self-flagellation. Figuratively, ideally. Otherwise, that would just be weird.
  • There can be happy, joyous times. Oh, what a splendid idea this is! This peppy little minuet will surely get the powdered-wig set dancing! La!
  • There can be self-shaming: Oh, why did I ever think that a peppy minuet was a splendid idea? Hipster kids nowadays are mostly into the bourée, while emo kids are all about sarabandes, at least when they're not listening to the Pavane pour une infante défunte… I feel so ashamed!
  • On good days, there can be the briefly-held and hubristically-based belief that the composition process is really quite straightforward, as long as you focus on executing the plan.
  • There can be a growing sense that your plan isn't working, accompanied by a feeling of increasing dread.
  • There can be creative paralysis upon realizing that not only does the plan not work, your entire piece is basically dead in the water, gone belly up, defunct, bankrupt, demised, passed on, is no more, has ceased to be, expired, gone to meet its maker, a stiff, bereft of life, resting in peace, pushing up daisies, its metabolic processes are now history, it's off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin' choir invisible; basically, what you've got is the compositional equivalent of an EX-PARROT!! [adapted from Monty Python, Dead Parrot Sketch]
  • There can be complaints and seemingly-unrealistic demands from performers of your music.
  • Upon completion of a composition, there can be a sense of accomplishment so profound that, incredibly, you decide to put yourself through this messy process again and begin a new project. 
All of which brings us to the idea of a plan. Here is a cautionary tale, based on a true story, but with abundant and egregious liberties taken:

Chapter One

Once upon a time, there was a student named Sammy (not her/his real name; if you are a student named Sammy, this is not about you. Sorry).

Now Sammy had always composed fairly intuitively, and, while it had often been a frustrating process, it had worked out reasonably well, and s/he was making slow, steady progress.

One day, Sammy got a notion that it would be a good idea to work out a plan for her/his next piece.

Many composers start with a plan, some of which can be really detailed. Insanely detailed! Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez: I'm looking at you, dudes!

A detailed plan could provide many benefits — it could smooth the composition process, since you would always know where to go next within the piece; without a plan, we often struggle when we finish a section because we're not sure where it should go from there. Lots of times Sammy had started pieces intending to take them in a particular direction, only to have the piece go in a different direction! Compositions, like cats, often do not go where we want them to go. A plan would definitely help put Sammy in control of her/his composition, and not the other way around!

Not only that, but a plan would likely result in a work that was well designed, consistent, and organic. No more of this ten-different-ideas-within-the-same-piece nonsense!

A plan could be the key to taking her/his music to the next level.

Chapter Two

And so Sammy began work on the plan. S/he used set theory to work out a pitch system that produced beautiful, non-tonal sonorities.  Actually, it took a few attempts before Sammy was satisfied with this, but the eventual result was most satisfying indeed! When Sammy played arpeggios from this pitch-organization system for his composition class, they were impressed! Sammy's composition teacher was impressed, and immediately thought of cool and wonderful things that could be done with Sammy's system.

Chapter Three

 Sammy worked out related pitch worlds for different sections of the piece. Sammy also worked on the structure of the piece, eventually (again, after several unsatisfactory attempts) arriving at a series of overlapping arch shapes that were a thing of beauty. Approximate durations were assigned to each section, and as well to each subsection. The vertical axis represented intensity, which rose and fell in a series of cascading waves, eventually reaching a climax at the golden mean.

Chapter Four

There may have been more additions/deletions/modifications to the plan after that. Sammy's composition teacher does not remember.

Chapter Five

But Sammy's composition teacher does remember feeling increasingly uneasy as the weeks rolled by and no significant work on the actual composition was presented to the class. Semesters are about twelve weeks long in Canada, the land where Sammy and Sammy's composition teacher both live, and with about half the semester gone, all Sammy had to show the class each week were further tweaks to the plan. To be fair, however, Sammy had sketched out bits of several sections as well. This in no way reflected any malingering, dallying, dawdling, or dilatoriness on Sammy's part; constructing a detailed plan takes a lot of work, and Sammy's teacher understood this, having read about it in a book once.

Chapter Six

Sammy was beginning to feel the crunch, what with the semester half gone and all, and decided to take the leap. The first section took longer than expected, because Sammy wasn't satisfied with the results he was getting. The first section! And already it was starting to feel like herding cats! Why must cats and compositions be so willful? Sammy wondered.

Chapter Seven

Well, friends, I gotta tell ya, Sammy was (and probably still is) a diligent and eager beaver. Literally. No, not literally… the other one… figuratively? Yeah, that's it. But you already know this, because a good portion of chapter five was devoted to Sammy's general lack of dillydallying. And so Sammy, ever keen, put her/his back into it and herded them cats! Which is to say, s/he completed the first section, and was satisfied with it. As were all those who heard it, and they praised Sammy.

We were now about two-thirds of the way through the semester. "Hmm," thought the composition teacher.

Chapter Eight

The process continued as previously, which is to say that it was considerably less smooth than anticipated! Aspects of the original plan — which was quite lovely! — were modified, or even scrapped. The existential angst that Sammy had hoped to avoid was not avoided, and, what's more, it now grew from "I'm not sure where to take my piece in the next section," to "There are aspects to my plan that don't seem to be working, and I am NOT sanguine about this!" And indeed, Sammy was not.

Chapter Nine

And so it came to pass that time marched inexorably on, as is its wont despite our best efforts to the contrary, and small compositional triumphs were mixed with periodic setbacks and occasional blows to the psychic solar plexus, which means that some setbacks were worse than others. Sammy stuck with it, and eventually pulled the rabbit out of the hat, which is to say s/he finished the piece, more or less, by the end of semester.

"More or less" in this case means that Sammy was not fully satisfied with the finished product, as getting it done involved several compromises along the way — sections that didn't quite turn out as hoped, but with no time to make them tickety-boo because it was necessary to move on to the subsequent section in order to finish by the deadline.

The Moral of the Story

Were the challenges faced along the way the product of a faulty plan, or are such challenges simply inherent to the creative process?

Undoubtedly you, as a perceptive reader, already know the composition teacher's view on this, because the title of today's blog kind of gives it away. That, plus opening this blog with, "creativity is messy." And then following that opening with a list of things that make the creative process messy.

However, the composition teacher hastens to clarify his position by saying that while the creative process is indeed messy most of the time, even for so-called geniuses, this doesn't obviate the potential benefits of a well-constructed plan. Should Sammy write more plan-based compositions, it seems likely that Sammy's ability to craft functional plans, with built-in contingencies for when things get messy, will improve. One key is to understand that most plans have to be changed once the actual work of composition is underway.

That said, however, it's probable that for any substantial creative project, things will get messy along the way, with or without a plan, and part of being a composer involves learning to accept this, deal with the inevitable difficulties as they arise, and push past them.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry 
(Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire: "To a Mouse," 1785).

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Exploring Music with No Melody, part 2

In part one, we compared a ridiculous number (20) of definitions of the word, melody, and came up with our own, functional-but-flawed definition (a sequence of notes), eventually arriving at the question at the core of these music with no melody blog posts:
 Does good music require a strong, singable “tune” in the foreground? 
In part two, we conclude this discussion, look at / listen to a variety of works in which a foreground melody is not a primary organizing principle, and end up with a description of a composition project for my students.

Discussion of the above question:
"In the foreground," means that the "tune" is front and centre, the musical aspect that most prominently gives the composition its identity. When we think of Yesterday (the Beatles song), Jingle Bells, Mendelssohn's Wedding March,  or Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, we may think of many facets of these pieces (instrumentation, rhythms, our emotional responses to them, etc.), but it is likely that the aspect of these compositions that first pops into our head is the tune. 
This turns out to be a fairly easy question to answer, because there are, perhaps surprisingly, numerous good compositions whose most prominent and memorable aspect is probably not the “tune."
Here are some of them; the first two have audio clips beneath the music examples, the remaining ones are all videos, some with scrolling scores:
J. S. Bach, Prelude 1, WTC I, BWV 846

L. van Beethoven, Symphony 7, II: Alegretto (pno. reduction)

Schoenberg — Farben (#3 of Five Pieces for Orchestra, also called "Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord Colours"; 1908)

A. Webern, Variations for Piano, op. 27, II

Glenn Gould's performance of the Webern is above; if you haven't heard it, I strongly recommend having a listen (and watch the hand crossings in the second movement, which starts at 1:31). It's very short, as is the case in all Webern music.

Next is another short one, Ligeti, Etudes for Piano, Book 1, No 2:

Howard Bashaw, Prelude no. 5, "Dita Correnti" is next; again, watch the pianist's hands:

Next is Messiaen, Petites esquisses d'oiseaux:

And after Messiaen, it makes sense to listen to some Toru Takemitsu music. This is Riverrun:

Morton Feldman, Piano And String Quartet (it's an hour and 20 minutes long, so get comfortable!):

Philip Glass's music very much belongs in this discussion; this is Glassworks:

These are just some of many compositions that don't have a melody, or "tune," as most people understand those words, as a prominent, foreground feature. There's also an entire genre of music in which this is also the case, which is called Spectralism, music that uses sound spectra or tone colour as a fundamental organizing principle. I wrote a blog about spectral music music a few years ago; click here if you wish to learn more about it. That post also has more music videos by other composers to check out.

In spectralism, as well as in all the above examples, composers found ways of drawing our attention to musical aspects other than melody. These aspects included continuous motion broken chords (Bach, Ligeti), repetitive arpeggios (Feldman), a focus on musical colour and/or sound masses (Schoenberg, Messiaen, Takemitsu, spectralism, Feldman), pointillism (Webern), arpeggios with interjected bird call emulations (Messiaen), fast, angular writing with repeated motives (Bashaw), static minimalism (Schoenberg, Feldman),  and pulsed minimalism with oscillating figures (Glass).

Composition project:  Write three short pieces for piano and one other instrument, in which melody is not a predominant feature. Each piece should approach this challenge in a different way. You can borrow techniques from any of the pieces cited above, or cited in my Spectralism blog, or from any other pieces, or you can come up with your own original solutions to this challenge. The harmonic language cannot be traditional tonality, but this does not exclude the use of traditional sonorities.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Exploring Music with No Melody, part 1

Does good music require a melody? Does the melody have to be something memorable that we can sing or whistle after having heard it? And what exactly do we mean by “melody?”

Let’s take these questions one at a time, but in reverse order:

1. What is melody?
Compare these definitions of melody:
    Oxford Dictionaries:
  1. A sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying; a tune.
  2. The aspect of musical composition concerned with the arrangement of single notes to form a satisfying sequence.
  3. The principal part in harmonized music

  5. Musical sounds in agreeable succession or arrangement.
  6. The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.
  7. The principal part in a harmonic composition; the air.
  8. A rhythmical succession of single tones producing a distinct musical phrase or idea.

  10. A pleasing series of musical notes that form the main part of a song or piece of music.
  11. A song or tune
  12. A sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds; tunefulness.
  13. A rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole.

  14. More from
  15. A pleasing succession or arrangement of sounds.
  16. A rhythmically organized sequence of single tones so related to one another as to make up a particular phrase or idea.
  17. Structure with respect to the arrangement of single notes in succession.
  18. The leading part or the air in a composition with accompaniment.
  19. A succession of notes forming a distinctive sequence; tune.
  20. The horizontally represented aspect of the structure of a piece of music.
  21. The perception of pleasant arrangements of musical notes.
  22. A rhythmical succession of musical tones organized as a distinct phrase or sequence of phrases.
  23. Musically satisfying sequences of notes collectively
Well, the range of definitions is impressive! The closest thing to a common denominator in these definitions is that melody is a sequence (or succession, or series) of notes (tones, sounds). [The word sequence in these definitions simply means succession, not a musical sequence.]

I find it both surprising and odd that so many definitions include words like satisfying, agreeable, pleasant, and pleasing; it seems problematic to attach an emotional response to the definition of melody. 
If a melody is musically dissatisfying to someone, does that mean it's not a melody? Melody can be described in many ways — satisfying or dissatisfying, good or bad, aimless or purposeful, pointillistic or linear, chaotic or predictable, sparse or dense — without changing the fact that it is still a melody. One person's "bad" or "dissatisfying" melody may be another's "good" or "satisfying melody, but in either case, it's a melody. Subjective terms do not belong in the definition. 
My feeling is that a sequence of notes is a somewhat functional, albeit imperfect, definition of melody, because it allows debate on the relative merits or satisfaction-level of melodies without invalidating a melody or entire composition just because we don’t find it pleasant or satisfying. 
The problem, unfortunately, is that this definition — a sequence of notes — doesn't really tell us very much; is any sequence of notes a melody? This is debatable of course, but I suspect most people would say, for example, that a succession of pitches randomly selected from the 88 notes of a piano, with random durations, spaces in between, and dynamics, is not the kind of musical line we associate with the word melody. But perhaps for some people it is.
2. Does a melody have to be memorable?
Again, a problem with this question is that “memorable” is a subjective term; what I find memorable, you might not, and vice versa. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, is memorable. The melody to Scriabin, Prelude, op. 74 no. 2  (below), although very beautiful, perhaps less so (this is very short – only slightly longer than a minute – so, if you don't know this lovely miniature, please have a listen):

There are types of music, such as pop or musical theatre, in which it is particularly important that the melody be memorable.  More generally, it seems likely that most compositions that we enjoy have memorable melodies, but, at least in classical music, the entire piece is not likely to be equally memorable.
Symphonic development sections, for example, don’t need to be memorable; they just need to take the listener for a ride (sometime a wild one) to places where fragments of melodies sound familiar, but are used in unfamiliar contexts and often unstable harmonies.  Most people probably find it challenging to leave a symphonic performance humming the development section, but we don't hold that against a great symphony. For music geeks like me, classical development sections can be enthralling to hear and study, even if more memorable (and more complete) melodies come in the exposition (first section).   
3. Does good music require a melody, memorable or otherwise? 
Well, here we have to backtrack a little; if the question is, does good music require a "sequence of notes," then it seems that the answer is usually yes: Good music typically has notes, and they are typically in a sequence of some sort.  (Well thanks, Captain Obvious, you may be thinking…)
But even here there are exceptions, such as John Cage’s 4’ 33” (Spoiler alert: It has no notes), and non-pitched electronic music, particularly musique concrète
So let’s revise this question, because doing so will get us closer to the objectives of the composition project at the end of part 2 of these Exploring Music with No Melody blogs:

3®. Does good music require a strong, singable “tune” in the foreground? 

— See part 2 for the continuation of this discussion, with lots of music videos.