Monday, July 23, 2018

Ambition, Talent, and Ego Too! 😻

"The Beatles … had HUGE ambition, and talent, and ego too."

– British journalist and author Ray Connolly, interviewed in It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond (2017; documentary)

Has anyone has ever reached the pinnacle of their profession without these qualities? The answer probably depends on how you define them, of course, particularly the last one.

And, if it is true that no one reaches the top without these qualities, does that mean that aspiring composers should become egomaniacs?

I'd like to explore these questions, but I'll start with ambition.


Ambition is a strong desire to achieve a goal, typically requiring determination and hard work. The goal is usually at least somewhat lofty – I think that is how it is used in the above quote – but it need not necessarily be so – one's ambition might be to get married, start a family, be a good parent, teacher, or friend, etc. Examples of loftier goals are fame, fortune, power, higher status, or excellence.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a human being with no ambition at all, although people are sometimes characterized as such, being labelled slackers, lazy bums, deadbeats, goldbricks, or goof-offs, amongst other strongly-negative terms.

But even if a person wishes to go through life doing as little as possible, that in itself is a kind of ambition, is it not? 😸 I once asked a student if they had identified any ambitions in their lives, and the student said his main ambition was to win a lottery. He has thus far not achieved this, but he subsequently spent many years studying in Germany to become a brewmeister, and is now making a very good living as such, I understand.

I am not sure if anyone reaches the top of their profession without a strong ambition to do so, but perhaps some people get there by simply aspiring to be as good as they can be, and if that gets them to the top, so be it.

Aspiring to be as good as you can be has the advantage of being a motivational goal – everyone can aim to become as good as they can be, although no one really knows where that point is. I suppose that if you ever begin to feel like you are as good as you can be, you're probably not. This aspiration is like the figurative carrot at the end of a stick, motivating us to pursue it, but remaining forever just beyond our reach.

Aspiring to reach the absolute pinnacle of one's profession is, in art, a difficult objective to define. If you're a boxer, and you are the undisputed champion of the world in your weight class, then congratulations; you've reached the top of your profession! Tennis and golf have ranking systems that determine who is number one in their sports. Track athletes become number one in the world when they break world records.

For composers, however, while there are various ways of measuring success, there aren't any universally-recognized criteria that clearly establish someone as "the best of the best," the "Queen" or "King" of the composing world. Incidentally, the word "King" has been applied to Elvis ("the King of Rock 'n Roll"), LeBron James of the NBA ("King James"), and Babe Ruth ("the King of Crash," although he was more widely known as "the Sultan of Swat," and "the Bambino"). No one has applied it to classical composers; there is no King Bach, or King Beethoven. This is good; it means the title is still up for grabs! 😸

A challenge in aspiring to reach the absolute pinnacle of one's profession is dealing with factors beyond one's control. Becoming as good as you can be is something to which anyone can aspire and work toward, but becoming better than everyone else is not, simply because, even if you attain your peak level of achievement, there will nevertheless likely be a lot of people who are better than you.

Some people in both the real world and fiction have opted to cheat or otherwise commit crimes in order to eliminate or gain an advantage over the competition, but, to quote Shakespeare's King Lear, that way madness lies. 😳

(Okay, I will stop it with the emojis now. Apologies to those annoyed by them!)

Shakespeare seems to have been particularly prone to creating characters who committed vile acts for personal gain, such as Claudius killing King Hamlet, and Macbeth killing King Duncan, but there are many examples of similarly-motivated regicides and otherwise dastardly deeds committed throughout actual history, such as physically or verbally attacking one's competitors (cfU.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, many politicians (for whom ad hominem attacks appear to be the norm), and business people (e.g., hostile takeovers, crushing one's competitors)).

Less extreme, perhaps, but still wrong is cheating for personal gain, such as the long list of athletes who have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) or blood doping to gain an edge over their competitors. Swindlers, "confidence men" (which became shortened over time to "con-men"), and some forms of telemarketing also fall under this category.

But, happily, somewhere between wanting to be the best you can be, and Machiavellian (or Shakespearian) schemes to eliminate those that stand in your way, lie other, more honourable (and less mad) options, which brings us back to composition.

Let's say your ambition is to become an excellent, and well-regarded composer. The first part is hopefully something you are always working on on (and something about which I write frequently), but the second part can be something of a mystery for many, myself included.

Start by being clear on your motivation; why do you want to be a well-regarded composer?

The motivation for me is practical; if many people like your music and think highly of you as a composer, then you are more likely to get commissions, performances, and recordings of your music. And if more people are performing and recording your music, the odds improve that the performances and recordings will be of higher quality. These in turn will better reflect how good a composer you are, and more people will have opportunities to hear your music, which in turn can lead to more commissions and programming of your music on concerts. If performances of your work are infrequent, and by weak performers, then the opposite is true; you are less likely to get good opportunities for commissions and performances. Therefore, in my view, becoming a well-regarded composer is just as important a goal as becoming a good composer.

Once you have identified a goal and become clear on your motivation, the next challenge is figuring out what it takes to achieve that goal; in this case it would be:

Make a list of strategies to become better known as a composer.

For most composers, I suspect that this is the tricky, or at least potentially uncomfortable part. Take all my suggestions with a grain of salt; after all, if I were really good at this, I would be better known.

Here are some ideas:
  1. Build relationships with performers (1). Start by taking a friendly interest in performers you already know, such as fellow music students, but make sure you don't come across as someone interested only in what others can do for you.

    There are different ways to proceed; if you want to write for a specific instrumentation, such as clarinet and piano, you could approach a clarinetist you know and ask if they'd be interested in playing such a piece; if they say yes, then try to line up a pianist (or ask the clarinetist if there's a specific pianist they like to perform with). It helps to have a specific performance opportunity in mind, such as an upcoming student composer's concert. If you are no longer in school, you could organize a concert of new works by young composers, or better yet, involve a bunch of your colleagues in the organization of such a concert (see #7 below). If you already have a completed work, such as a piece for clarinet and piano, you could offer scores and parts to performers of these instruments and ask if they would be willing to have a look at them, and let you know if they would be willing to perform the piece.

  2. Build relationships with performers (2). Attend recitals and try to meet the performers backstage afterwards to congratulate them, and let them know how much you enjoyed the concert. Do this sincerely! if you come across as insincere or otherwise disingenuous ("I loved your concert! Here, take some of my music! See ya!"), you can be pretty sure that the performer(s) will not only never play your music, but they may speak badly of you to others. If you did not enjoy the concert, I do not recommend doing this approach.

    If, at some point in the conversation, the performer asks about you, then you can let them know you are a composer, and, if they ask if you've written anything for their instrument, then you can say yes, and you just happen to have a score you'd like to give them, which hopefully you brought to the concert with you. Just in case.

    All of these things don't usually happen, by the way, so, if they don't, use your judgement as to whether the performer might be interested in having a look at a score of yours. The main thing, it seems to me, is to express interest in them, because without it, they are unlikely to be interested in you.

    I don't do this much, but when I did, I would often meet performers backstage and not give them my music, because it just didn't feel right, and I didn't want to come across as a huckster. Occasionally, however, we would seem to hit it off and I would give them my music. In a few cases, it worked out spectacularly well for me.

    The absolute best-case example of this approach working out for me was meeting guitarist Daniel Bolshoy backstage after one of his concerts, and then heading out for a post-concert beverage with some mutual friends, and getting to know him better that way (and vice-versa, of course, which is without question more important! The performer is much more likely to be interested in your music if they like you). At some point he asked about me, and sure enough, I "happened" to have a copy of a long, solo guitar piece with me, which I gave to him, and he seemed at least somewhat interested. I did an occasional E-mail follow-up with him, again saying how much I had enjoyed the concert (which was true) each time, and eventually he had a look at my piece, liked it, learned it, and started to perform it.

    The upshot is that he recorded it onto a CD named "McGillicuddy's Rant," which was the title of my piece, and performed it close to 100 times around the world. He subsequently commissioned a new guitar piece with string quartet from me, which he performed with the Penderecki Quartet. As a result of his performances, other guitarists have heard my music and written me asking for copies of the score, which in turn has led to more performances of this piece. So, this approach can work!

  3. Contact performers and music directors you don't know. This is a crap shoot; most won't even listen to your music if they've never heard of you. Frankly, I'm not sure how useful this is, but, unlike in the old days when you'd have to print and bind a large quantity of scores, and then send them to people who don't know you with the likely result that they'd toss your score directly in the trash, at least nowadays you can E-mail PDF copies of your scores, along with audio links, to as many prospective performers as you like, which is a lot cheaper, and easier. "Cold calls" presumably sometimes produce positive results, or else we wouldn't be bombarded with calls from telemarketers, but the success rate is probably extraordinarily low.

  4. Win competitions. Enter often! Sure, it's a lottery, but if your music is really good, and it looks really good (something we spend a lot of time talking about in composition classes and lessons), you might win something. This does not necessarily lead to anything, but it might, especially if you make it work for you. 

  5. Try to get your music played on the radio. This is obviously a challenge, especially in an era in which the CBC, in my country of Canada, plays significantly less classical (and especially contemporary classical) music than they used to. But all radio stations have air time to fill, and they need to fill it with something, so why not your music? This only works if you have professional-level recordings of your music, of course.

  6. Make your music readily available on the Internet. Start your own website, and post scores and recordings of your best compositions, along with programme notes in each case. Once search engines find your web pages, musicians searching for, say, "music for clarinet and piano," may land on your website where they can look at and listen to your piece for clarinet and piano. Make it obvious how to contact you, should they wish to perform your music.

  7. Organize concerts of your music, and invite other local composers to participate. Basically, make things happen, and get others to help. This involves a fair amount of work, especially if you want to do a good job of it, and get people to show up. But it's potentially an extremely valuable way of getting your music performed. When I was a graduate student, my colleagues and I formed an organization called "Continuum Contemporary Music" back in the mid 1980's, and we became very successful, including having a number of our concerts picked up for broadcast by the CBC. I recommend paying your performers, and hiring the best musicians available, because a concert of poorly-performed contemporary music is not anything that anyone wants to sit through, not even your family.

  8. Perform your own music – this was common practice for almost all composers throughout music history – or even form your own ensemble, like Tim Brady's "Bradyworks," and organize concerts, or explore possibilities of performing on others' concerts.
One of the points I have made in other blog posts is that composers can't simply work in isolation and hope to be discovered. We need to get our music to people in positions to perform it, programme it, commission it, and otherwise advocate for it, and for most of us, I suspect, that is the hardest and least comfortable aspect of being a composer. It is, however, of such tremendous potential benefit that we have to challenge ourselves to overcome any reluctance we may have to promote ourselves and our music in this way.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Composition #1 – Pre-Submission Checklist

A belated welcome to all MUS 3100 "Intro To Comp" students! And welcome as well to all Comp Seminar students. I have already enjoyed working with you during the first 3 weeks of the winter semester of 2018, and I look forward to hearing more of your compositions, and helping you to develop your compositional skills as we move forward.

Today's post is relevant to all composition students, but it will likely be more useful to the Intro students, only because more experienced comp students have probably heard all these things already.

So, with that in mind, as 3100 students approach the due date of your first projects, please review this checklist to make sure you've done all you can to present your score professionally.

50% of your composition grade is based on presentation issues, so make sure you have done, or at least considered, each of the following:

For Starters…
  • Come up with an imaginative and evocative title, centred on the top of page 1. "Project 1," or "Atonal Chords Project" are not imaginative titles. "The Pompous Ass, The Mule, and The Donkey" is imaginative. So much so that I feel compelled to write a piece with this title now…😄
  • Your name should appear in a smaller font, aligned with the right margin (Finale/PrintMusic should have aligned this information automatically if you used "Set-Up Wizard" to create your score).
  • Avoid any temptation you may have to use ALL-CAPS for the title or your name. All-caps is the print equivalent of shouting, which is generally considered poor etiquette.
  • Always include a standard metronome value, expressed in relation to the basic beat value (e.g., quarter, dotted quarter, etc.); this should appear above the top staff's opening metre indication in bar 1. These are standard values:
 40 42 44 46 48 
50 52 54 56 58 
60 63 66 69 
72 76 80 84 88 
92 96 100 104 108 
112 116 120 126 
132 138 144 152 
160 168 176 184
192 200 208
  • Also include a mood/character indicator (e.g., misterioso, con fuoco, joyful, meditative, etc.), aligned horizontally with the metronome marking, and directly next to it. It doesn't matter which is first – the metronome marking or the mood/character indicator.
  • All subsequent tempo or character changes, including rit. and accell., should also appear above the top staff. If writing for a large ensemble, this information is placed above the top staff in each "choir," such as above the strings, above the brass, and above the woodwinds.
  • Mood/character indicators  are generally adjectives, not adverbs (e.g., quick instead of quickly, allegro instead of allegramente, etc.) .
  • You can use Italian, English, or any other language for these terms, but bear in mind that terms should be easily understood by performers. In classical music, Italian terms have traditionally been most widely used, and hence are more readily understood by performers who speak many different languages. 

Italian Mood Indicators – Just some of the many options available:
    affettuoso — with affect (i.e., with feeling/emotion)
    agitato — agitated, with implied quickness
    animato — animated, lively
    appassionato — to play with passion
    brioso — vigorously; with brilliance (same as con brio)
    bruscamente — brusquely
    con affetto — with affect (that is, with emotion)
    con amore: with love; with tenderness
    con bravura — with boldness
    con brio — lively, literally, "with brilliance"
    con calore — with warmth
    con dolore — with sadness
    con fuoco — with fire
    con gran espressione — with great expression
    con molto espressione — with much expression
    con moto — with motion
    dolce — sweet
    espressivo — expressive
    furioso — with anger; with fury
    giocoso — merry; funny; lighthearted; playful
    lacrimoso — tearful, sad
    lamentando or lamentoso — lamenting, mournful
    leggiero — play lightly, or with light touch
    lugubre — lugubrious; mournful and slow
    luminoso — luminous
    maestoso — majestic or stately (generally indicates a solemn, slow movement)
    misterioso — mysterious
    morendo — dying
    pesante — heavy
    saltando — jumping; buoyant
    scherzando — playful
    soave — smooth, gentle
    sognando — dreaming
    solenne — solemn
    sonore — sonorous
    sostenuto — sustained
    spiccato — with a marked bounce; 
    tranquillo — tranquil
    vivace —quick, lively
    vivacissimo —  as quickly as possible

    • There should be a starting dynamic for each performer. Ideally it would not be a "mezzo" dynamic (mp, mf) – some consider this a weak (as in, lacking conviction) way to start a piece – although this is more of a convention than a hard rule. I personally see nothing wrong with it.
    • Dynamics for the piano, or any instrument that uses two staves, such as harp, or marimba, should appear between the two staves, unless both staves require different dynamics simultaneously, in which case each staff can have its own dynamics below it.
    • Dynamics for all single-staff instruments go below the staff.
    • Dynamics for the voice usually are placed above the staff, so as to avoid colliding with the text, which goes under that staff.
    • There should be a generous amount of subsequent dynamic shaping for each performer, including hairpins. 
    • Be aware that intelligent, logical, and effective dynamic choices require much thought and planning; do not wait untill the last minute to make your dynamic choices, because it is unlikely that those last-minute decisions will be the best ones for your composition (and careless, last-minute decisions are usually self-evident, which will affect your mark); make them as you go, trying different possibilities before making your final decisions. Feel free to change them periodically once you have lived with them for a while.
    • A destination (i.e. terminal) dynamic is needed for all hairpins. 
    • A starting dynamic is only necessary if the starting dynamic is not obvious (i.e., if you have a p in the previous bar, there is no need for another p at the start of the hairpin cresc.
    • Dynamics must be centred under the notes to which they apply. Exception: if you have a cresc. or dim. under a long note, such as a whole note, the destination dynamic can be placed at the end of the bar, immediately following the end point of the hairpin.
    • If dynamics are used with hairpins, the two should be horizontally aligned with one another. 
    • Don't make the width of the hairpin any wider (or narrower) than the Finale default.
    • More generally, all dynamics within a system tend to be horizontally aligned, but there are many exceptions to this. Fortunately, this is easy to do in Finale: Highlight all the bars in the system in which you want dynamics to be aligned (and just do this one system at a time), click the "Plug-ins" menu, select "TG Tools," then choose "Move/Align Dynamics." It will give you a few choices, so just pick one, and, if you don't like the result, undo it and pick another.
    • Dynamics should not be placed under rests. 
    • Hairpins do not normally extend through a section that has both notes and rests, although one exception to this would be a section in which every eighth note is followed by an eighth rest, during which a cresc. or dim. is desired.

    System and Staff Spacing; Pagination; Bar Spacing within Systems
    • "Set-Up Wizard" usually does a reasonable job with the vertical spacing of staves and systems, but you may need to add extra space between, say, the solo instrument and the piano, to avoid a cramped appearance on the page. Sometimes you may need to adjust the separation of the RH and LH piano staves too. You can adjust vertical staff spacing by using the "Staff Tool" in Finale; click to the left of the beginning of the first staff in the score whose spacing you want to alter, which selects all bars of that staff for the entire score, then adjust the spacing as desired by clicking and dragging the spacing handles up or down. If you want to adjust only one staff within a single system, then just click on the spacing handle for that staff only.
    • Vertical spacing of staves and systems is normally the same on every page.
    • Pagination:  Avoid a final page with only one or two systems of music. Published scores usually have final pages that are complete, meaning that the systems extend all the way to the bottom of the page, no matter how long or short the composition is. This can be tricky to achieve some times, but at least aim for this.
    • The number of bars per system can change depending on how much content each bar has. A dense texture with many rapid notes in bars will naturally require wider bars than bars with only one whole-note chord. That said, if the number of notes within bars is relatively similar, then the number of bars within a system should be the same. Finale uses its own algorithm to adjust the width of bars proportionately, but you can control the number of bars within a system. You do this by selecting the bar(s) you want to move to another system, then press the up arrow to move it to the previous system, or the down arrow to move it to the subsequent system. 

    • Apologies for shouting (i.e., the use of all-caps), but this is important. Collisions refer to any contact between different elements of the score (except for information that MUST appear within staves, such as notes, metres, and bar lines, which are allowed to contact lines within the staff, of course), such as: Hairpins, dynamics, articulations, notes, accidentals, slurs, and ties.
    • Logical enharmonic spellings. "Logical" means that intervals should be spelled as they sound; F up to Bb is a perfect 4th, but if you spell it F to A#, it looks like a third, which may confuse performers. Cb, E#, B#, and Fb, are occasionally logical, especially in tonal music, but if you can avoid them, it's usually a good idea to do so.

    Logical Enharmonic Spellings; Avoiding TMI
    • "Logical" in this case means that intervals should be spelled as they sound; From F up to Bb is a perfect 4th, but if you spell it F to A#, it looks like a third, which can confuse performers (and trust me, composers do not want to confuse performers; it may cause them to turn on you!). 
    • Avoid different chromatic inflections of the same note name within a chord, where possible. A D up to Db, for example forms a diminished octave, which we would recognize more quickly if spelled D up to C#.
    • If writing for a two-staff instrument, like piano, try to make the enharmonic spellings logical within each staff, e.g., an A7 chord in the LH, played simultaneously with an Eb7 chord in the RH; one uses a sharp, the other uses flats, but both chord shapes are very familiar to pianists, and would therefore be logical spellings. There is no need to only use flats, or only sharps, in both hands simultaneously, unless there is a logical reason for doing so (Bb7 chord in the LH, Eb7 chord in the RH, for instance).
    • There are occasions in which Cb, E#, B#, and Fb, are logical spellings, especially in tonal music, but for the most part, it is better to avoid them if you can, because these notes are usually spelled B, F, C, and E, respectively.
    • All sharps, or all flats? Students over the years have occasionally asked if it might be a good idea to use just sharps, or just flats, within a composition, because it would be more consistent that using a mixture of both. The answer is that, while it would indeed be more consistent, it is virtually never a good idea, because you'd end up with illogical spellings, such as F to A# instead of F to Bb, C to G# instead of C to Ab, B to Gb instead of B to F#, etc. Have you come across the saying, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds? This kind of consistency is an example. 
    • Be consistent! But not foolishly so! :-) By which I mean that if an idea is spelled E-Eb-C-Bb in one section of a composition, don't spell it differently the next time it appears, such as E-D#-C-A#. Just make sure that the spelling you choose is logical each time.  
    • Sometimes a logical spelling involving two consecutive notes leads to a sub-optimal spelling between the second note and the note that follows it. Sometimes there may be more than one logical spelling. In both cases, you just have to use your best judgement and make a call.
    • If it really is equally logical to spell a note either of two different ways (e.g., D#, vs. Eb), then consider this rule of thumb: Brass players sometimes have slightly greater comfort reading flats, whereas string players sometimes are more comfortable reading sharps. Experienced performers, however, are equally adept at reading sharps or flats, no matter what instrument they play.
    • Sharps ascend, flats descend: If you are writing any portion of a chromatic scale, use sharps to ascend, flats to descend. Doing otherwise necessitates the use of naturals to cancel the sharps or flats, such as A - Bb - Bnat - C - Db - Dnat - etc., or F# - Fnat - E - D# - Dnat - etc., which basically (a) results in TMI (the naturals are unnecessary if you follow the "sharps ascend, flats descend" guideline), and (b) creates visual clutter; the bar becomes wider than necessary, and this in turn sometimes creates collisions.
    • TMI, part 2: If moving back and forth between notes a semitone apart, use different note names (C-Db-C-Db-C, etc.), not the same note name with a lot of naturals (C-C#-Cnat-C#-Cnat, etc.)

    • I strongly encourage the use of articulations, where appropriate (obviously!). One of the great benefits of using the MIDI playback in music notation software is that it will (or at least should) play articulations, like staccato dots, or accents, and, as with dynamics, using articulations in a smart and considered way can really improve the sound of a composition.
    • I generally encourage a limited palette of articulations: Staccato dot (.); Accent (sideways wedge: >); tenuto line (–); and any combination of these (staccato accent, for example). There may be a case to be made for the use of other articulations, such as a hard accent vs medium accent, but, frankly, I think students sometime pick one kind of accent because they like the way it looks more than another kind of accent, not because they mean different things, and, even if used deliberately and correctly, not all performers realize that different accent indications can mean different things. 
    • The other problem I often encounter in student work is inconsistent use of articulations; either different accents or different staccato marks used in different places but intended to mean the same thing, or articulations used with an idea in one place that don't get used the next time we hear that idea, or, if they do get used, are not used in the same way as previously. There may of course be cases where we deliberately want the articulations within a musical idea to change when it is heard again, but much of the time, if the articulations of a musical idea are different in different sections, it is due to an oversight on the part of the composer, and not a deliberate choice. 

    Slurs, Breathing Opportunities, and Bowing
    • When writing for winds, use slurs to group notes that you want to sound connected; if you don't, every note will be tongued, which is something like using a "T" syllable to start every note you sing in a melody. While tonguing every note may be desirable in a particular section of a composition, it is unlikely to be a sound that you really want for the entire composition (although perhaps you would want it if the entire composition had a heavily accented, percussive character), so make sure to include slurs as appropriate.
    • Do not equate a slur with a phrase mark, however. They may mean the same thing, but they usually don't. Slurs in wind instruments are usually shorter than a phrase, often covering just 2-4 notes.
    • Where will the wind player (or singer) breathe? Make sure to periodically include rests of sufficient length to allow this. Never assume that a wind player can "circular breathe;" most can't, especially when writing for a community band, student ensemble, or semi-professional ensemble. And, even if you KNOW a particular player can circular breathe, it doesn't mean that they'd appreciate getting a score to play that contains few or no breathing opportunities.
    • When writing for bowed instruments such as the cello, include bowing slurs, whose meaning is similar to wind instrument slurs in that without them, the cellist will change bow direction on every note. There are many cases where this is desirable, but many more cases where it isn't. 
    • One factor in to consider when using bowing slurs or wind instrument slurs is the dynamic of the notes in question; louder note require more breath, and tend to require more bow, which means smaller slurs are usually called for.

    • This is a classic example of a blog post that I initially intended to be short and succinct, and ended up being much longer. I will undoubtedly add to this as I think of more information to add, but I think I'll leave it there for now. I hope you find it useful.
    • Please ask questions about any of the above, or suggest topics that are missing or incompletely addressed above, and I'll try to provide more information.

    Sunday, April 2, 2017

    Ostinatos; making a lot from a little (2. Rite of Spring)

    Further to my previous blog entry
    If the 339 consecutive repetitions of a 2-bar rhythmic ostinato pattern in Ravel's Boléro (1928) don't constitute overuse of an idea, then what does?
    Or, to rephrase the question in a less acerbic way, Ravel's Boléro is his most popular work (according to Wikipedia), yet from start to finish it repeats a 2-bar rhythmic pattern without change or interruption; how does Boléro maintain our interest? Why are most listeners not bored, troubled, or driven mad by the 339 incessant repetitions of this ostinato rhythm?

    The explanation is that there are other musical aspects that change and evolve continuously throughout the work, and these are what sustain our interest, such as: 
    1. It begins almost inaudibly (so quietly that, when I worked as a record department sales clerk as a student, many people who purchased the album tried to return it, thinking there was something wrong with the audio), and grows steadily and inexorably over its 15-16 minute length to become as loud as possible at the end; it is a study in how to write an extraordinarily-long crescendo for orchestra
    2. As such, it is a masterpiece of orchestration, filled from start to finish with colour and texture changes that reflect Ravel's brilliance as an orchestrator. The two-part theme is repeated many times, but each presentation uses a different orchestration (and hence a different colour), and the orchestration also changes within thematic presentations as well.
    3. Its form is essentially a theme and variations, and just as in the best examples of this form, our interest is sustained by hearing many permutations of the main theme, instead of becoming annoyed that a given theme is played over and over again. The unusual aspect in Boléro is that the pitch content of the theme is never varied (except for a modulation in the final 40 seconds), just the colour (orchestration and texture) and dynamics. 
    • This idea is not original to Ravel, however; another mono-thematic work that begins quietly and, over the course of multiple thematic repetitions, eventually becomes very loud, is Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," from Peer Gynt (1875), composed 53 years earlier.
    If Boléro consisted only of 339 repetitions of a short idea, and nothing else, I'll go out on a limb and speculate that the composition would be less popular.  😄

    Or perhaps it would have become celebrated as the grand-daddy of minimalism… 😴

    Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
    Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913) makes extensive use of ostinati, and, more generally, repetitive elements, so today we will look at some of the ways Stravinsky used one particular ostinato, the repeated four-16th-note idea in the excerpt below.

    It is introduced at the end of the first section (Introduction) of Part 1, played by pizzicato violins, while a clarinet sustains a lengthy trill (this is at about the 3-minute mark in the YouTube video at the end of this post; all other timings indicated below refer to this video):

    It is a pretty simple idea by itself, but its simplicity makes it useful, because it works well with many other ideas. Therein lies one of the keys to writing a good, multi-purpose, ostinato: While good music can be written with longer and more complex ostinati, a short, simple idea is probably more flexible, because it can support a variety of other ideas.

    The above excerpt introduces the ostinato somewhat hesitantly, instead of introducing the idea and immediately continuing with almost incessant repetitions, as we found (see previous post) in Boléro. Stravinsky is saving more regular repetitions of this idea for the next section. He is "planting a seed," giving us a taste of an idea that will become increasingly prominent and repetitive.

    Sure enough, about 10 seconds later, he gives us a somewhat longer version of the ostinato, which leads to the strongly-rhythmic bitonal (E (enh.) in the lower strings, Eb7 in the upper strings) chord repetitions that are one of this work's most memorable features, which mark the start of the next section, Augers of Spring/Dances of the Young Girls. This starts at 3:20 in the video below:

    Incidentally, for those interested in "golden mean" ratios, note that in its first three presentations, the ostinato is heard twice, once, (thus three times so far), and Five times, adding up to eight times, all of which are numbers in the Fibonacci series (1, 2, 3, 5, 8…). Sadly, the next time we hear the idea (see excerpt below) it is only presented four times, which is not a Fibonacci number. 😢 It is used eighteen times consecutively the time after that (part of which is two excerpts below), and this too is not a Fibonacci number. 😭 This is a work clearly in need of a revision! 😎 [Okay, I promise to insert no more emoticons in today's post. The are very useful, though…]
    Very soon after the previous excerpt, at about 3:35 in the video below, the heavily-accented repeated chords are interrupted, and we hear the first presentation of the ostinato figure with counterpoint, consisting of an arpeggiated chord in the bassoons, which is itself repeated. Notice that the bitonality continues, this time between the ostinato (Eb7) and the counterpoint below it (E enh.):

    This next excerpt, which starts at about 3:45 of the video, gives us another melody, once again with repetitive elements, this time above the ostinato. Note the frequent colour changes in Stravinsky's orchestration of the melody; the reduction below does not accurately reflect this, but there are 6 colour changes to the melody in 6 bars. When you listen to the full orchestra version (in the video below), note as well that the ostinato at this point is buried in the texture, almost inaudible within the heavily accented chord repetitions (not shown in this example, but the chords are the same as in the last 2 bars of the previous example):

    New melodic fragments are superimposed on the 4-note ostinato over the two minutes that follow the previous excerpt, one of which is this one, which is again repetitive, and occurs at about 5:25 of the video:

    Please suggest other works that make prominent use of ostinati – one such piece is Stravinsky's, L'Histoire du Soldat – and I will possibly (see explanation at the end of this post) discuss them in future blogs… At the very least, I can compile a list with your suggestions. If you can, try to be specific about where the ostinati occur within the work you are citing. In the mean-time, I already have an idea for a third post in this series.

    Below is a recording of The Rite of Spring on a video that shows the score. Try to find other uses of the ostinato discussed above. As well, try to listen to it more than once, in order to find other ostinati, and the degree to which repetition of musical ideas is used. If you don't have enough time to hear the entire piece, listen to at least the first 6 minutes; all of the above examples occur within that time.

    Explanation of my use of the word "possibly" with regards to doing more blogs on this topic:

    My only hesitation is that the amount of time involved doing a post such as this one is daunting. It involved making score reductions in Finale of the sections I wanted to use as examples, saving them as GIFs and importing them into this blog, recording the musical examples, importing them into Audacity and splicing them into sections that corresponded with the notated examples, saving them in two different audio formats (MP3 and OGG) because not all web browsers read MP3s, uploading the audio files to my website, and then inserting the code that lets the Blogger website read and play audio files on all major web browsers. Plus the time spent fixing things that didn't work along the way. Not complaining, mind you! I enjoy doing this, but it is time consuming.

    That said, and to repeat what I wrote above, I do have another post in the works on this topic, so there will be at least three in the series, and possibly more if people make suggestions regarding other works with prominent use of ostinati.

    Thursday, March 30, 2017

    Ostinatos; making a lot from a little (1. Boléro)

    An ostinato is a musical idea that repeats immediately (as opposed to returning later in the composition) and persistently (it usually is repeated more than once). It can be melodic or rhythmic, and is usually fairly short – one to four bars – but it can be longer. Kids love 'em.

    And not just kids; it is widely used in many musical styles and periods.

    The attractiveness of ostinati for composers is easy to understand; you can generate a lot of material from a relatively short musical idea, and, if you do it well, audiences may respond well to the music.

    With the advent of computer-notation software, and, more specifically, the "copy" and "paste" commands in those programmes, it has become extremely easy to use ostinati in compositions. And, with programmes like GarageBand, which comes bundled with every Mac computer, you don't even need any musical knowledge to write loop-based music; in this context, "loop" and ostinato mean the same thing.

    The downside of repetition, however, is that too much can make a composition overly predictable, unless the composer finds ways of varying, interrupting, growing, evolving, or otherwise adding interest to repeated patterns; music that is overly predictable can lose the listener's interest.

    An example of how to successfully repeat an idea to an almost absurd degree is Ravel's Boléro. It uses the two-bar rhythmic ostinato figure below throughout the work; this two-bar rhythmic unit never stops repeating until the work's (very loud) conclusion, about sixteen minutes later:

    There is even further repetition within this two-bar ostinato: The rhythm on beat one is used on the first two beats of each bar; four of the ostinato's six beats are identical. This is repetitiveness ad absurdum, and I won't stand for it!!! [Just kidding, of course; the piece is awesome.]

    The above pattern is repeated 339 consecutive times in Boléro (yup, I counted), which means that the rhythm on beats one and two of each bar is heard 1,356 times.

    That's a lot of repetition!

    One can argue that the uninterrupted repetition of the same short rhythm for sixteen minutes in a composition is a bit much – or a lot much – but Boléro is Ravel's most popular piece, so clearly, millions of people have no issue with it. Indeed, its popularity may in part be due to this rhythmic ostinato!

    So, the question I have for you is this: What makes it work? What does Ravel do to keep our interest despite the 339 ostinato repetitions? Why do audiences cheer enthusiastically following the conclusion of the work, rather like sports fans cheering an exciting overtime win by their favorite team, instead of standing up to boo the repetitiveness?

    I once listened to a radio documentary on Ravel's Boléro in which orchestral musicians were asked to give their thoughts on the work. Many said that they don't look forward to performing it because they perform it so often, there is such a high degree of repetitiveness, and, in some cases, once the piece starts they have to wait an extremely long time before they get any notes to play. However, once  rehearsals begin, they gradually feel their resistance melting and become ensnared by the hypnotic power and beauty of the work, to the point where they feel like standing up and cheering along with the audience after reaching the triumphant final chord.

    Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

    Here's a performance of Boléro, conducted by an unshaven man with a toothpick instead of a baton,  if you wish to have a listen:

    Tuesday, January 24, 2017

    Music Notation Software – Pros and Cons for Composers

    There are several music notation programmes available for computers and tablets, but the brands that I suspect most composers use are Finale and Sibelius. Another excellent notation product is Notability Pro (for Mac only), which some composers I know swear is the best product out there, and is now free.

    In today’s post, I will explore how the use of notation software can affect the composition process, in ways we may not realize, both positive and negative. The first seven points below list many of the unambiguously-positive aspects of using notation software, and the remaining points concern some of the potential challenges that can arise from its use, some of which we may be unaware of.

    If any readers can think of pros and cons not listed below, please let me know via the "comments" area, and I'll add them to the list if merited.

    Music Notation Software
    Cons (or commentary on pros)
    1. Can produce polished, publication-ready scores. 1. This is indeed true. However, it takes considerable skill, and the knowledge of all the minutiae of notation conventions, to produce publication-ready scores, whether one uses notation software or not.

    Because a score produced with notation software generally looks far better than a hand-copied score (although some highly-skilled hand-copyists can also produce beautiful scores), we may be seduced into thinking our score is as good as it needs to be, when in fact it may need a lot more detailed work to reach a point of being truly publication ready.
    2. Scores look better than hand-copied scores. 2. This is generally true. I doubt that many students are trained in the art of hand-copying music any more (I was, which reflects the period in which I was trained (cretaceous)) – but it isn’t always true; a sloppy computer-notated score looks far worse than a beautiful and meticulous hand-copied score.

    Again, this is more a product of the user's limitations than of the software, however.
    3. Pitches and accidentals are notated clearly and correctly.

    3. No disadvantages! Here are some of the reasons this is such a valuable advantage for notation software:

    • Sometimes, in hand-copied scores, pitches are less than 100% clear because they are notated in such as way as to "spill" into the territory of an adjacent pitch.

    • Notation software also notates 2nds correctly. Sometimes, in a hand-copied score, students attempt to vertically align notes that are a second apart, which looks very messy.

    • Notation software also aligns accidentals correctly (again, students sometimes try to fit them on top of each other, causing collisions and all manner of visual mayhem).
    4. Other score information, such as text and articulations, is clear (hand-written text can be somewhat challenging to read if a composer has poor calligraphy skills). 4. This again is generally true, unless the composer uses a font or font-size that is difficult to read.
    5. You can remove or add bars without recopying entire pages.

    • It is also easier to change/add/remove notes and any other score information (such as dynamics, slurs, articulations, text, etc.

    • Software also lets you do A/B comparisons, listening to a version with bars added, and then comparing with a version with those bars removed.
    5. This is a huge advantage of notation software; having to recopy an entire page by hand in order to add or subtract a few bars is such a hassle that it can become a disincentive to make such changes. Anything that gets in the way of making even small improvements in your compositions is a significant problem.

    •And yes, the possibility of doing numerous A/B listening comparisons is a tremendous advantage in using notation software.
    6. Parts can be generated automatically.

    • This is a huge advantage in using notation software.
    6. Generating parts can still involve some work, however, because you may need to adjust the layout, number of bars per system, fix any new collisions that may have shown up, plan page turns, do any necessary last-minute edits (you sometimes notice problems in parts that you didn't notice in the score), etc. But there's no question that generating parts is a much faster process with notation software.
    7. Transpose, Invert, Retrograde, and other commands, as well as plug-ins.

    • Did you know that Finale has commands for melodic inversion, and retrograde? These (particularly inversion) can be useful when considering possibilities of how to grow/extend/transform a melodic idea.

    • There are also third-party plugins available, such as Patterson Plug-Ins for Finale,  which are designed to speed up and generally improve workflow.
    7. Composers can obviously do these things without a computer, but the computer does them much faster. Plus, having these options so readily available makes it easier to try them in order to see if they can be used in your composition.
    8. Dynamics look as they should, and are usually well positioned. 8. Notation software does indeed produce dynamics that are beautiful.

    • They are not always well positioned however; in Finale, you have probably found many cases where a dynamic collides with something else, such as an accidental, note, or slur, which requires the user to re-position the dynamic, or the other objects with which it collides; I'm not sure this happens as frequently in hand copied scores.

    • One potential issue to be aware of is that in some software programmes, a dynamic intended for one instrument (e.g., below the flute staff) in an orchestral score can show up in an adjacent instrument's part (e.g., above the clarinet) when parts are generated. When positioning a dynamic, Finale uses a temporary dashed line to indicate the note to which the dynamic is attached, which reduces the likelihood of misplaced dynamics.

    • There are potential playback issues in the use of dynamics, described in section 9.
    9. You can hear what you write as you write it, performed at the indicated tempo, or at a slower tempo if you prefer, which allows you to listen repeatedly, carefully, and critically.

    • You can also hear and evaluate any indicated tempo changes (including rit. and accel.), and dynamic levels (including cresc. and dim.).

    • You can also listen to the composition, or a section thereof, repeatedly, tweaking it until it sounds as good as you can make it, no matter what time of day you play it, and no matter what your mood is.
    9. Being able to hear an approximation of what you write in real time is a huge benefit of notation software.

    • There are, however, significant issues or limitations in relying too heavily on MIDI playback as a realistic indicator of what your music will sound like; these include:
    • Unwittingly writing parts that are either extremely difficult or even unplayable, because the computer plays them without any problem whatsoever (!). A computer plays unidiomatic lines flawlessly, while a performer might struggle in attempting to play them, or even refuse to play the piece. The computer can lull the user into thinking that the line is perfectly idiomatic, when in fact it is extremely difficult or even impossible. I am not sure how much different this would be in a hand-copied score, but in producing a hand-copied score, a composer usually spends hours playing each line, usually on a piano, which might flag any such issue;
    • Balance problems: The balance in a MIDI ensemble is often not very realistic; 
    • Further to  balance problems, sometimes, in an attempt to bring out a line that is insufficiently prominent, we may temporarily give it an extreme dynamic boost, such as marking it fff instead of f, so we can hear it better in the MIDI playback, but then forget to change the dynamic to its correct value (fff back to f) before giving the parts to the performers, resulting in performers blasting the heck out of that line in the first rehearsal, when all we intended was for it to be more prominent than the lines around it. Or sometimes, an inexperienced composer may use an extreme dynamic boost (e.g., f to fff) intentionally, thinking it necessary to bring out the line to the desired level, perhaps not realizing that if a line is marked  f, while the other instruments are marked mf, the performers and/or conductor will make sure that the f line is heard more prominently than the others.
    • It is also possible that the previous example (extreme dynamic boost) might be the result of poor orchestration; if a musical line is insufficiently prominent in MIDI playback, perhaps it needs to be reinforced in some way (e.g., octave doublings, or the addition of other instruments to that line), or perhaps the material around it is too busy and needs to be thinned out in some way.
    • Unrealistic representation of the nuanced colour and dynamic changes in different registers of an instrument or voice; 
    • MIDI playback is only as good as the quality of the samples  in your computer's sound-bank. 
    • Glissandi, heard through MIDI playback, usually elicits a chuckle from class members, presumably because it often sounds so unrealistic or even ridiculous.
    • The computer will play any glissando, even impossible ones, which may entice composers into writing impossible glissandi. We need to be aware of the possible glissandi for different instruments; always show your work to a performer of that instrument to be sure.
    10. Copy and Paste.

    • Musical material, from the smallest ideas to entire sections, is often repeated, either immediately or brought back later; the Copy & Paste functions let you do this with great ease.
    10. Again, a very useful tool. I recommend exercising some restraint in its use, however.

    • One of the most wonderful attributes of great classical compositions is that ideas are often altered in some way when repeating or recapitulating them. This provides both the comfort of familiarity, since we recognize the ideas, but also an element of surprise, if we recognize that some aspects have been changed.

    • You can make such modifications when repeating ideas in notation programmes, of course, but, at least in student work, it seems as though the ease with which the paste command can be executed often leads to not making modifications.

    • My advice to students is to explore modification possibilities when re-using (pasting) an earlier idea into a later section.
    11. Other limitations and challenges. 11. Using different metres in different staves simultaneously, and having bar lines that don't necessarily line up with each other (vertically).
    12. Other limitations and challenges. 12. Using a time grid at the top of your score (e.g., a grid in 5 second increments), with no bar lines.

    • You can hide bar lines, of course, and create a graphic to represent the time grid, but this involves more work than it would if done by hand.
    13. Other limitations and challenges. 13. Graphic notation can be difficult or even impossible.

    • Again, you can create graphics on a computer, but it takes some skill to do this well, and doing it by hand is often faster.
    14. Other limitations and challenges. 14. Oversize metres in orchestral scores (e.g., a large 4/4 that spans the height of the entire woodwind section) are either impossible or very tricky. Oversize metres are generally much appreciated by conductors, because they can be easily read at a glance. When my orchestral music has been played, I often get the score back with oversize metre changes written in by the conductor.
    15. Other limitations and challenges. 15. Unless you invest in an expensive sample library that includes extended techniques in all instrument families, your MIDI playback will probably not be able to reproduce such sounds. This is not necessarily an impediment to using extended techniques, but I suspect they would be used more if we could hear a reasonably-accurate reproduction of these techniques during playback of our scores.

    These performance techniques include: col legno, col legno battute, sul pont., sul tasto, different mute types for brass instruments, hand-stopped notes (for horn), play with bells in the air, multiphonics, flutter-tongue, harmonics, harmonic gliss. ("seagull effect") for strings (particularly for cello), senza vibrato, scraping sound created by heavy bow pressure and slow bow speed, a myriad of sounds available by slapping, scraping, muting, picking (with a guitar pick) strings inside of a piano, prepared piano sounds, etc.

    Have I missed any significant advantages or disadvantages in my list? Are there times when you feel the notation software is pushing you to notate an idea in the way that it wants, as opposed to the way that you want? Please let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!