Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (4)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
4. The pros and cons of development
(pro) Do not abandon your babies!
• Think of your musical ideas as your children (or, if that is too mind-boggling, your pets!). It is your job to help them grow and develop; be a responsible parent/custodian/pet-owner!
(con) Don't let ideas overstay their welcome!
• Not all musical ideas need to be developed to their maximum potential. There needs to be a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar. (See below for more on this:)
• Growth is of fundamental importance to the European classical music tradition. It is essential to extend, develop, or otherwise 'grow' your musical ideas throughout the course of a composition. • Is growth of equal importance to other musical traditions? Could a person write a good, extended composition that totally disregards the growth principle?
How to grow: After you have identified musical ideas you have created and labeled them (idea 1, idea 2, (2.1, 2.2 for variants) etc.), try to extend them. There are many, many ways to do this (see next entry), but the starting point is to want your ideas to grow. Yes, just like the 'How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?'joke… • (i) Composers all limit the growth of any idea, probably because to do otherwise would make compositions sound like academic exercises. (ii) Consider Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Is it a model of economy of means? If not, is it 'bad'? What about M's Pno. Cto. #21?


Mitchell wxhao said...

I checked out this post because I was curious about how there could be a "con" to development. In my head it was the mark of a good composer to be able to milk everything he can out of a single idea.

But there's another point, too. Another mark of a good composer might be to know which ideas to milk...

Andre McEvenue said...

This a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. I suppose Beethoven is a prime example of how to use growth in a composition. His music seems to unfold so naturally, and has so much momentum that is created organically.

I do feel that limiting your ideas is a good practice, but I also feel that it is good to explore how contrasting ideas can relate to your initial one during the exploration of ideas process.

Sometimes musical material can all be derived from a single idea, but it does not necessarily honor the tendency of that initial idea, or does not treat it in a way that creates a living flow of music. In these instances, the development can sound a bit stale, and as Dr. Ross mentioned, like an academic exercise.

Robert Godin said...

I always struggle to find the balance between the two. In the beginning I try to write as many ideas as I can but as it goes on I struggle with deciding to develop or just write new material. Pros and cons list should help me going forward.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I think that an idea should continue to be developed as long as it continues to generate interest, and in the best cases, continues to communicate meaning. A repeated idea takes on added significance and lends a greater power to a piece as well as providing a consistent aural touchstone for the listeners. However, all ideas reach a point where there have run their useful course. It all comes down to one's ability to present an idea in new, interesting, and valid ways. I often leave ideas too soon, and those I do repeat don't always develop as much as I would like them to. This is a technique I want to improve in my composition.

Flutiano said...

I'm interested by the question "Could a person write a good, extended composition that totally disregards the growth principle?" I don't see how you could COMPLETELY disregard the growth principle, but it would be interesting to see to what extent you could disregard it and end up with a good, extended composition. However, I'm not completely sure what it would mean to not have any motivic growth in a composition . . . how would you know that it was all supposed to be one composition, just the fact that the performer didn't stop (but if there were rests, maybe even that wouldn't be clear . . .). Maybe I'm taking the question too literally, but that seems like an argument for development to me!

I think I'm getting better at developing my ideas, but I have to keep the balance of contrasting ideas and developed ideas. Sometimes it feels like you have to experience going too far in each direction, writing things that have an overwhelming number of ideas and things that take one idea a bit too far in order to figure out approximately what balance of development and contrast is 'just right.' It seems to be that the balance that is 'just right' could be very different for two different compositions, depending on the length of the composition and the motive itself. This balance seems very hard to quantify, and I wonder if you have to develop an almost intuitive sense of when to continue developing an idea and when to move on to other ideas. Another reason to compose more!