Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (2)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
2. How do you develop compositional craft?

2.1. Study the music of others.

(a) Study music of different genres; try to understand as many styles of composition as you can (but don't feel you have to fully understand all genres, or indeed any genre, before you begin composing; the study can be a lifelong process).

•How many compositions have you studied in detail?
•What types of compositions have you studied in detail?
•How much of your knowledge of music comes from history textbooks or other secondary sources, and how much comes from your study of specific compositions?

(b) Include lots of 20th- and 21st-century music in your studies. It has been my experience that a great many students who have some interest in composing have no (or limited) interest in the concert music of the past 80 (or so) years.

•Discuss; is this generally true? Is it true for you? If so, why? Is there anything wrong with this?

(c) Study (or at least listen to) at least one piece by at least 6 of the following composers. When you find works that are particularly interesting/moving etc., study/listen to more works by that composer. Find out more about them via web searches or other means.
John AdamsLouis Andriessen Bela BartókLuciano Berio
Pierre BoulezJohn Cage Ka Nin ChanAaron Copland
George CrumbMario Davidovsky Morton Feldman Brian Ferneyhough
Philip GlassGerard GriseyChris Paul Harman Charles Ives
Helmut LachenmannGyörgy LigetiWitold Lutosławski Olivier Messiaen
Tristan MurailJohn OswaldSteve Reich George Rochberg
Clark RossKaija SaariahoGiacinto ScelsiAnne Southam
Karlheinz StockhausenToru TakemitsuGiles TremblayAnton Webern
John Weinzweig Christian WolffBernd Alois ZimmermannWalter Zimmermann

(d) Think like a composer (part 1) while you listen or study. Ask yourself why something (a composition, a section, a musical gesture) works or doesn't; does a given musical idea or section go on too long, too short, or is it just right? Does it speak to you? Why or why not? What qualities in the music help you to connect with it? Sometimes we like a composition right away, and other times it takes a while for us to warm up to it, but we may end up liking it a lot. Why?

(e) Think like a composer (part 2): Learn what is idiomatic or non-idiomatic for instruments and voice types; make note of textures or orchestration techniques that are effective / captivating / beautiful / disturbing, etc. Many composers keep notebooks, not only to write down their own ideas as they come to them, but also to jot down anything that they find striking in the music of others. Some musical borrowing is not only "okay;" it's good! (It is also a time-honored method of composition pedagogy.)

While it is true that many people who take an introductory composition class do not wish to become professional composers, one of the benefits of learning to think like a composer is that it can inform the way you play, teach, or research music.

2.2. Compose as much as you can.

•Composing is exactly like performing; the more you do it, the better you become (as long as you continually strive to improve!). Consider this: If you are musical enough to be admitted to the School of Music, you are musical enough to become one of this country's best composers. But you have to work at it.

2.3. Invite criticism from others.
While it is true that most of us need occasional encouragement in order to go on, we also need honest and constructive feedback from others if we are to grow as artists. The reason for this is that the creation of art is an inherently subjective process, but art itself generally has a communicative (or at least affective) function; in order to learn what effect our art has on others, we need people to tell us their thoughts and reactions to it. Invite criticism from friends and family, of course, but also from people you do not know as well — It is sometimes easier for a stranger to be honest with you than a friend. (Why is that?)


Kim Codner said...

I agree with many of the points on this blog! I started composing probably only 2 years ago-ish. And i can already feel myself digging deeper into the art of composition.

2.1. Studying music of others has been a big influence on me to date. Whether it be my own study, pieces from music history, theory, or performances, everything i learn i find something that i like and try to learn why it works well.
D) & E) I hardly ever think like a composer, I haven't really thought of it this way. Awesome! I'm going to try it out for my next pieces. It sounds so simple but i never really asked myself why my music works (or doesnt)

2.2. Composing with a deadline has been really pushing me, especially while trying to write 2+ compositions at once in a hurry. I think the more pieces i will write, the better my skills will be.

2.3. I am extrememly influenced by criticism of others! And not in a bad way! It makes me learn how to compose better! Initally i write my pieces as if nobody were to listen but me. That way, I dont worry about what others will think/say. I keep it completely what I would like to hear. But then when people hear it and provide feedback, I listen and take in everything... and thus try to fix what I believe doesn't work.


Melissa B. said...

I think looking to other composers as inspiration is an excellent idea. Most ideas are recycled ideas anyways. You can take a look at what they did, figure out why you like it and try to incorporate it into something new and fresh - something you can call your own!

James Bulgin said...

When I stopped to think about it, after reading your post, I realized that I've done virtually no real 'study' of existing music at all. Although I listen to music all the time (I've nearly always got something playing if I'm on my computer), I've rarely examined it with an eye for compositional detail, and I've never opened the cover of a history or theory textbook. Perhaps this contributes to my sense of only having loose control over my compositional abilities. It's mostly an intuitive thing, and sometimes when things aren't working quite as I would like, I'll have little idea what's wrong or how to go about fixing it. Although I would imagine that this happens to even experienced composers sometimes, as well

Examining existing songs is something that I should probably make a point of doing more. On the very few occasions that I did so (when I was having difficulty emulating a particular kind of mood I was going for), I found it valuable, and it's sometimes surprising what things you notice on close inspection that you never noticed in the last dozen times you heard it. I guess this is because you're in 'enjoying music mode' and not 'composing mode'.

Greg Elenbaas said...

Excellent post! Looking to past composers is a great way to learn new techniques, as well as to gain inspiration. As a programmer, I enjoy reading other people's code to learn different styles and techniques. I imagine the same can be said of almost any discipline, eg architecture, painting, athletics, etc. By looking at the work of those that come before us, we can become inspired to create new from old, while generally increasing the knowledge of our trades. To this day, however, I do not believe technology has matched the versatility and free flow of ideas enabled by the combination of pen and paper. I work for a small office supply store and if you are looking for music composition notebooks, I suggest you check out our offerings. Thanks again for the post.

Greg Elenbaas
ALKO office supply

Brad said...

Upon reading this I have come to the realization that I really haven't analyzed or studied that much of anyones compositions. I've always just sort of done my own thing. (And yes, in response the the configuration you wondered if I made up in my last piece--no I didn't take it from anything, so I guess I sort of made it up..).

I do enjoy your encouragement in 2.2! That's a nice thing to keep in mind when I'm down on my performing or composing!

And as for 2.3: I definitely welcome criticism in anything I do from peers. As long as it is done tastefully or respectfully there is a lot to learn from others! And I always say, just tell me--I can take it! Because I do want to know what I could be doing to get better and better--that's the goal!

Dominic Greene said...

Examining the musical ideas of other composers is a great compositional tool. It has helped me out quite a bit on my past few composition assignments.
Something I have been been noticing throughout the term is that when I have a particular mood in mind that I'm setting to music, I generally have a modest amount of success in composing a melodic line to suit that particular mood. I find that when I am augmenting the texture, I have difficulty in keeping the mood present. Whether I'm adding a single instrument, or several differert instruments to the texture. I'm sure this is something that sill come more naturally to me the more I practice it, and the more I listen to some compositional ideas and tools of other composers.

Dominic Greene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy Brennan said...

Nice blog post! I agree with alot of the points you put forth here. I do feel, like most people here have commented, that studying the music of other great composers can really inspire and provide great tools for any composer. For me, my compositions this semester have been inspired somewhat from the styles of past composers. For example, my text setting was influenced by Schoenberg's music, in particular his Pierrot Luniare song cycle. I was so entranced by its nuances, sounds, timbres and colours when I first heard it, and it has really stuck with me. I also thought that the style of this work suited the text I had chosen, so it seemed approprite to evoke this style.

As well, I feel that this is why we study the music of composers of the past. It allows us to grow and develop as musicians and artists. By observing what techniques they used to make their music so appealing, we can use these techniques, while adding our own personal tastes and individuality. As one musical community, we feed off eachothers' ideas and styles, and in a school setting, I feel our composition classes/seminars try to mimic this same organization. We as students learn from one another and if we never open ourselves up to sharing our work, we all lose out on some opportunity to grow.

Robert Godin said...

I love listening to new music but very rarely to I study the scores in depth, or at all really. Except for the ones I perform. Should definitely start exploring that...

This is definitely one of my favorite blog posts so far. Has a great listening suggestions and gives broad strokes on ways to help you with composing.

Evan Smith said...

This post said a lot to me that seems like it should be obvious, but really aren't. I find a lot of the issues in my composing come from ignorance. Albeit ignorance of current repertoire (as yiu mentioned), of certain techniques, of what is idiomatic for certain instruments, etc... The more I compose the easier these things get. Simple from doing, I am learning and with these pointers you have given here I can see how the sky is really the limit with composition. The more you put into it, the more you get out.

Flutiano said...

I like to use what I read in music theory and history books to understand what I see in scores, and I like looking at what other composer's have done in their writing, but I don't often fit in enough time to study scores so I do not study nearly as many as I would like to. Sometimes I like to use the CMC Centrestreams to hear new music, although I don't see the scores, or listen to different music on NAXOS. Sometimes it can be overwhelming trying to decide which interesting piece I want to study the score for, and when I piece pops out that I really want to see the score for I won't necessarily be able to find a score easily and cheaply (I always hope it's in the MRC).

The more I compose, the more I agree with the statement that practising composition helps improve composition skills. The farther I get into this pursuit and the more pieces I write, the more comfortable I feel as a composer and the more control I feel like I get over the outcome of my composition.

It is heartening to think that "If you are musical enough to be admitted to the School of Music, you are musical enough to become one of this country's best composers." The competition is stiff and there is a lot of work to be done, but it's nice to think that composition isn't an impossible aspiration.