Sunday, August 31, 2008

Composition Issues (6)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
6. Creating tension between familiar/unfamiliar, expected/unexpected
On the one hand, people find comfort in the familiar…

• Once we (as listeners) are familiar with a given opening to a composition, we tend to like to stick with it for a while to see how it will evolve. When it comes back (possibly varied) later in the piece, recognizing it can give us some satisfaction, possibly because it gives us a sense of closure
On the other hand, people become bored with the "same old, same old" after a while.

• People's attention spans have limits, and the mind can start to wander during overly repetitive or aimless compositions. You need to introduce unexpected or unfamiliar elements from time to time to keep people interested.
• Most music is in some sense A-B-A form (where "B" = any brief or lengthy departure from "A"). Also, there is usually repetition within the A or B sections themselves; there is comfort in the familiar.

• Standard forms do not include A-B-C-D-E… form, probably because most listeners would be experiencing information overload by around sections C or D. Unless your aim is to confuse your audience, re-use, develop, extend, transform, etc. your musical ideas!

• True, but there is also no A-A-A-A-A-A… or A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A… form, probably because the audience would slip into a catatonic trance from boredom. Interestingly, Theme and Variations (or Chaconne, or Passacaglia) is A-A'-A"-A'"… form, which is obviously very repetitive, but it succeeds as a form because the listener focuses on the way A is varied each time. Its structural repetitiveness is why some regard it as the least interesting form in music! (Even this form, however, can support the creation of masterpieces of the highest order; Bach's Goldberg Variations and Chaconne are considered to be two of the finest works in the history of music.)
• People just love sequences because they are so repetitive!
• Would sequences be as popular if each repetition started on the same pitch? If the repetition is so great, why is there the "rule of 3?"
• Minimalism is repetitive. That's why people love it. Minimalism is repetitive. That's why people love it. Minimalism is repetitive. That's…
• Minimalism isn't everyone's cup of tea. Some people can't stand how repetitive it is. Also, even in minimalism things change. Slowly. [What's minimalism about, anyway?]
Ostinati. Many composers absolutely adore them! And with good reason! They're repetitive!
• Study the use of ostinati in The Rite of Spring. How long do they go on? Is it ever too long? Overly-long ostinati are a great way to wreck a good idea!
Conclusion: Try to create some sense of balance (or tension) between old ideas/new ideas, the expected/unexpected, the familiar/unfamiliar, and repetition/variety in order to engage the listener for the duration of a composition. Can you think of other elements that need to be kept in balance? (stability/instability, tension/release, etc.)
Perhaps one of the keys to great art is in the way that it leads us along a path between the expected and unexpected (and between the other dualities discussed) in a way that feels "just right" to the observer/listener. It is a fine and elusive line, but there would presumably be a surfeit of great art if it were otherwise. You have to figure out for yourself where that point lies, and it will be different for every composition.


Kim Codner said...

Bahaha.. This post is awesome!
Great arguments from both sides of the expected/unexpected, familiar/unfamiliar sides.

I'll give my opinions on which ones I agree with more:

I agree more towards the familiar/expected side for the first point. Once we (listeners) are familiar with an opening, we want to see how it evolvs. People's attention spans DO have limits but if we vary the idea enough and make it so that listeners want to hear the music, then it will work.

For the 2nd Point I am with both sides. Reusing ideas is great! Giving new material for added interest is great as well!

For the 3rd Point I agree with the unexpected. Minimalism can be great, but too much of it without variation would be torturous if you are hyper. I-I-I-I-I-I-I (NO MORE TONIC! WHERES THE DOMINANT?? PLEASE... PLEASE PLAY A DOMINANT!)
I Love minimalism when unexpected changes in harmonies occur. When its too repetitive im not a happy kim. This goes hand in hand with ostinati.

Heidi said...

I agree with all points of this post to varying degrees. Some interesting things to note though:

These concepts may not be universal. Or at least not to the degree we think they are. For instance...

Indian classical music is largely improvisatory. Pieces can last for hours at a time all exploring one particular scale or raga.

Traditional African music can be very repetitive. It can involve complex interlocking patterns that once again, repeat for hours.

Javanese gamelan music involves the repetition of cycles-you guessed it...for a very looong time.

For listeners, the pleasure derived in the first two examples comes frmo the comlpexity and virtuosity of the music, as well as subtle variations within the repetitive forms. In Indian music, the very slow build of tension is also part of the pleasure.
For time cycles, Indonesian people derive pleasure when cycles collide, overlap and begin again.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily argue against any argument you've made. Music does need repetition and variation, but the degree to which worldwide audiences percieve both vary greatly.

Evan Smith said...

This is such a great post. I love how you give such unbiased arguments for each side. I find this a very difficult balance. I tend to write with a tonal/post-tonal sense of harmony, so I'm very influenced by tonal types of tension. But keeping things interesting while not using too many different ideas is difficult. I also find many tonal harmony tension techniques are often so predictable now after years of hearing them, then hardly create tension anymore unless done very cleverly. This is always a struggle.