Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Next Project: Using Musical Clichés in Creating Art

Cliché (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary (on-line)):
  • A comment that is very often made and is therefore not original and not interesting:
  • Eg., "My wedding day - and I know it's a cliché - was just the happiest day of my life."
Cliché (Wiktionary):
  1. A phrase or expression that is overused and has thus lost its original impact; a trite saying; a platitude.
  2. Anything other than a phrase or expression (such as a plot device, etc) that is similarly overused.
  • Putting a love interest into a film is a bit of a cliché.

A phrase that has lost its original impact due to overuse is not usually desirable in art (except, perhaps, minimalism) or life, but what would happen if you were recontextualize a cliché in an unexpected way?

Consider this sentence (excerpted from an incredibly-famous novel with the permission of the author):

"My wedding day was the happiest day of my life," said Wanda Hufnagel dreamily. "It's not every day that an act of revenge works out so perfectly!"

It begins with a cliché and is then immediately followed by information that places it in an unexpected context, and if you have read my (incredibly-famous) 9-part series on Composition Issues (note the handy link to it if you missed it!), you will know that one of the dichotomies that I believe is at the core of all successful compositions is the relationship between the Expected and the Unexpected.

And so, with this in mind, here is your next project:
  • Write a composition that makes prominent use of one or more musical clichés, placed in a context that is unexpected/fresh/original.

  • Style: There is no restriction as to style when it comes to your choice of clichés, but your aim should be to write something that falls into the broad spectrum of contemporary classical music. The question of what exactly constitutes "contemporary classical music" is well worth considering and discussing, but for now just think of it as an attempt to create art through music, as opposed to, say, an attempt to sell refrigerators and colour TVs through music (to borrow a concept from Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing")! [And no, I am not denigrating pop music; the best examples of music in any genre may be considered art. I don't buy into the "high art/low art" dichotomy!]

  • Duration: A single movement, 3-5 minutes in length.

  • Form: Any form, including one of your own invention, as long as it it can be seen to be an organic, motivically-unified composition showing development of musical materials.

  • Instrumentation: 3 performers. One of them can be a singer, and no two instruments can be the same.

  • Due date of score and parts: Friday, November 22 (5PM).
In progress works will continue to be presented in class every week.

These will be performed at our end-of-term recital (Nov 29, Petro-Canada Hall).

Any questions you may have will be answered in class.


Jessica Blenis said...

Going into this next project which gives us the opportunity to return to tonal music is actually more daunting, for me at least, than writing atonal music. It's fairly easy to come up with a likeable motif and style, but I think it'll be harder to write in the sense that tonality has more restrictions than atonality. The thing that I think is harder about writing tonal music is that I personally feel more pressure, like I really have to try and write something that will be 'good,' whereas in atonal music, that just kind of happens. It really changes your perspective when you go from one style to the other.

Melissa B. said...

I was thinking exactly what Jess just said. Atonal music is limitless and that made it easier to write. But now, like Jess mentioned I'm going to feel pressured to write something that everyone likes, when it's already hard enough to write as it is!

I hope that made sense.

Kim Codner said...

I think its gonna be interesting this time around. I'm finding it trickier to choose a cliche because i have so many ideas... for the atonal character pieces, you could do 3! Bam! New ideas galore. It is intimidating for me because, let say you choose an idea, get into working on it, weeks go by, and you dont like how it is progressing... yikes! Thus, sometimes i am fearful of set deadlines.
I think this project is a WICKED idea... It will be so fun to put together once I get a brainwave idea!

Mathieu Lacombe said...

It seems that everyone is commenting on the difficulties of writing tonal music. My approach for this new project is combining tonal with atonal, the difficulty in this is having the two approaches coincide with each other but also opens the door to more ideas. I also find that most of the atonal pieces that I've enjoyed and found pleasing were very rhythmic, it didn't matter what the notes were because the listeners attention was focused on the rhythmic predominance of the piece.

meg293 said...

I'm finding this project really difficult. I thought that my cliche (certain aspects of bluegrass music) would be fairly easy. However I find it really difficult to be creative with this! Every time I sit down at the piano to do some work I end up composing what sounds to me like a simple song with bluegrass aspects. I don't really know how to be creative with it/turn it into a cliche...

Kim Codner said...

Reply to Meg293 :)

I think that one thing that really can make a piece different and stand out is varying rhythms by either taking something say, a row of repeated eighth notes and taking some out to thwart what we would expect would happen next. OR... adding something in! Like for example, a triplet! OR Silence... that is something i played with in a piece and turned out was really effective. So maybe try writing a line and if it sounds really "classic" of bluegrass music without a twist, take away or add something we don't expect?? Maybe this won't work for you, but I found it helps!

Heidi said...

I find writing tonal music difficult because I'm just one of those bad tonal writers. My harmonic language, although i've learned all about voice leading and lots of chords, is very basic when I have to produce something myself (I, IV, V). Like Chewy, I'll be focusing on manipulating rhythms and using role reversal with my instrumentation.

Jill A. said...

The first assignment definitely seemed "easier" in a sense. As Melissa said "Atonal music is limitless" we could basically put together any notes and get something great out of it. Many people were nervous about having to write atonally but once they got the hang of it and adjusted to the process many amazing pieces were produced.
I'm hesitant yet excited about the second assignment because of the slightly larger instrumentation, and more freedom i guess. The use of tonality will be interesting to say the least. When I compose I generally right what I like, but I tend not to think within a particular key, so trying this and modulations within my own works will be a great learning experience to say the least.
Choosing a cliche is another interesting part of this project. There are so many possibilities that it is difficult to decide, particularly because I want to do something different then my fellow classmates.
I'm looking forward to really delving into this assignment!

Melissa said...

There no hiding the fact that I am trying to catch up on blog comments, so I thought I would state the obvious, but it is really interesting reading these entries after we have done the project. Hindsight is definitely an interesting perspective.

I think I skipped over the wedding quote last time I read this! haha - thats a good way of thinking about a cliché. I think everyone in the class definitely got their pieces from sounding like the cliché they picked to something totally unexpected. This is one of the things I like about composition... no one's piece will ever sound the same. I know that is kind of an obvious statement, but so true! Everyone's brain goes in a different direction, and that is one of the things I look forward to every class! I'm sad that its over! But you will see me at future student composition concerts!

Philip said...

I kind of like to comment on things that others have said in comments about blogs. There's been a lot of talk about how hard it is to write tonal music. Chewy said that he was going to combine both... the way I feel about it is that I just like to write what sounds good, if that makes any sense. In the first assignment, we couldn't write any pre-existing chord. I just look at it as now we ARE allowed to use pre-existing chords. And speaking of recontextualization in this blog, I like it when composers sort of recontextualize existing chords. Its like using tonal chords in an atonal way... I guess its non-tonality, or not limiting atonality with existing chords, as we did in our first assignment. I had all this organized in my head, but I'm not sure it came out that way...

Philip said...

As a note to Melissa's last comment, I think that a neat assignment would be to get everyone to write the same piece; for example, for everyone to write on the same cliche. It would be interesting to see the different things that people come up with. You could even give people more to start with... like perhaps a melody, so that everyone starts with the exact same thing, but then goes in their own, different directions.

Michael Bramble said...

In contrast to some comments I find the fact that we were allowed to write tonal music for this project less restricting then atonal music. Personally I find that we have a greater knowledge of tonal music and therefore our thoughts and ideas will follow that idiom. I do not lie in bed thinking up 12 tone rows, or atonal melodies. So when we started this project I felt the shackles were removed and I was allowed to fly free in musical space. Quite contrary I imagine to what was expected with aleatoric music.

Tony Taylor said...

I'm excited to start a new project in this context. I think there's a lot of fun to be had in recontextualizing a good ol' cliché. There's so many possibilities. You could take a genre that usually sounds mad, and make it sound oddly happy, or reverse the roles of some instruments, or switch where things are obviously going to somewhere they were definitely not going. The possibilities are really endless, so I'm looking forward to it!