Thursday, January 31, 2013

Newfound Music Festival starts today!

Newfound Music Festival!

Today is the day classes are cancelled, replaced by a day-long slate of seminars, colloquia, performances, etc., all relating to new and recent music.  Please check schedules posted around the building to see what's going on, and post any comments / thoughts / reactions you have about the festival on this blog entry.

Our special guest, John Beckwith, will start things with a keynote address at 9AM in PC Hall.  If you are interested in composition (and hopefully you are, if you are reading this blog!), you will not want to miss this.  He has had a long and brilliant career as a composer, musicologist, professor, administrator (former Dean of the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto), and CBC scriptwriter/programmer.  And, for five years, he was also my composition teacher at the University of Toronto.

I will be talking about my composition, Dream Dance, at 12:30 in PC Hall, in a talk called "Playing With Expectations."  I have spent approximately 20 hours on the PowerPoint for this, and hopefully you will find it an interesting and fun presentation.

And I'll be doing another talk on The Beatles at 3:30.  Time spent preparing PowerPoint presentation for this: Approximately 50 hours.  Yes, I am insane.  But you probably knew that…

There will be 8 PM concerts tonight (music by two very talented former students, Kim Codner and Aiden Hartery, an ensemble improv led by Paul Bendzsa, and some pieces of mine that span a 20-year period), tomorrow (an entire programme of John Beckwith's music), and Saturday (works by a variety of composers).  Saturday's concert will be followed by a trip to Bitter's pub for the premieres of seven newly commissioned 2-minute pieces, called "Pint-Sized Encores."

Please take in as much as you can, and post comments on the festival here!


Aislinn Dicks said...

Dr. Ross, I found your talk "Playing with expectations in my music" extremely interesting. First I was struck by the fact that it took so long to complete Dream Dance. I think many composers would give up on trying to continue a piece if they reached the 30 second mark and could write nothing more, but you kept returning to it. Although you discussed the juxtaposition of the sudden minimalist section with the previous material, I think that to listeners there was still a very clear sense of coherency throughout. The constant rhythmic drive certainly left us feeling as though everything flowed together reasonably.

When I heard Dream Dance played by Dr. Szutor in the concert it reaffirmed much of what you discussed in your lecture earlier in the day. The unexpected brief changes were very attention grabbing, as you had intended, and I must say that I really enjoyed the piece. I also thought that, as I touched on above, the polystylism was handled very coherently. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of hearing how you composed the piece, and your thought processes, then after having time to think that over being able to hear the piece performed that evening.

Evan Smith said...

After hearing "Dream Dance" I was speechless. It was so intricate and precise. Often when I hear a piece I think about it musically, (i.e. what chords are present, the rhythms, the melody, etc...) but it was very interesting being forced to listen to something from a compositional point of view. It is definitely something I will be now be doing more often.

I was amazed that a small idea such as the one you started with could unveil the way it did into some 9 minute long piece.

It was really great to see the step-by-step process of how one idea led to the next and how certain ideas were connected. Often, the listener is not even aware these connections exist, but when in the room with the composer, you receive information you are not always privy to.

What I thought was realy interesting was the stylistic borrowings from composers (i.e. the little tributes to Scott Joplin and Bach). These were so interesting because they were not direct quotes, but so similar in style that the references were obvious. This is something I would like to incorporate into my compositions. These men are great for a reason, might as well take from them what we can!

Timothy Brennan said...

I really enjoyed your talk "Playing with Expectaions" Dr. Ross! I too found it fascinating to hear and listen to the process through which it took you to complete "Dream Dance." I liked how you thouroughly explained every detail of the piece and took us through your process step by step, which allowed us to fully understand why you composed the piece the way you did. It's not often that we get to hear a composer's perspective on their own piece, so I really liked that aspect of the talk as well!

One point that stood out to me was the numerous ways in which composers can "play with expectations" in their music. Rhythmic shifts (such as hemiola), melodic shifts and harmonic shifts (even the slightest chord change) can all prove to be useful compositional tools for avoiding the obvious. I didn't realize that there were so many, and I will definitely try to incorporate these ideas into my future compositions.

I liked your comment on how the element of surprise in music is an emotional reaction, and that afterward we only remenber that we were surprised and not the surprise itself. I completely agree, as I often find that when composers alter their music on a repetition, a new mood or tone is created. Even something as simple as a mode/quality change can have a drastic effect on our emotional interpretation of the music. This is why I think that surprise is an essential tool for a composer, as the only way for the music to truly speak to the audience it is for them be not only aurally engaged in the music, but also emotionally and psychologically.

Hearing "Dream Dance" played by Dr. Szutor in the concert that evening was a unique experience for me. I was listening to the piece more intently as I was paying attention to all the subtle details and changes that you talked about earlier that day. Even though I had some knowledge as to how the piece was to unfold, the compositional devices and surprises you used were clear to me and I'm not sure that I would have picked up on everything if I hadn't have had an explanation prior to the performance. Therefore, my listening experience was enhanced by your talk, and it allowed me to fully comprehend and experience the most from the piece!

Shawn Bennett said...

Dr. Ross, your discussion of "Playing with expectations" was excellent! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I must say "Dream Dance" is my new favorite of your compositions. It's quite something. And I think many of the reasons why I like the piece so much were discussed in your lecture. I love the use of the blues scale in a not-so-bluesy type piece. I love the insistent, almost inherent, oscillating sixteenth-note figure. I love the pieces' unity, despite your dangerous experimentation with polystylism.

On the topic of "polystylism," I have to ask - why was it you were so timid to implement multiple styles in the piece? The minimalist section sounds phenomenal, and does not sound a shred out of place. Did you really feel it was only ok to do something like that after you had read the term polystylism as defined by Linus C Pauling?

Last semester in 20th Century Harmony class, Dr. Staniland played us the audio of Arnold Schoenberg's final lecture, delivered in California near the end of his career. It was quite an experience to hear Schoenberg himself talking - kind of made him seem more than a name in a history book. And one of the things he said that stood out to me the most was this:
Schoenberg had emancipated the dissonance, invented serialism, and achieved worldwide fame as perhaps the greatest innovator of music ever. Despite all this, he said that he himself wasn't sure whether or not he had written anything that was purely atonal. He had basically written the proverbial book on atonal music, and he wasn't sure if he had ever really bothered to take into account his own rules. Schoenberg said that when he composed, he never ever thought about such trivial, artificial boundaries as "music theory." He listened to the pitches, reviewed what they said to him artistically, and composed anything he felt the music was saying to him. It wasn't about using a particular style or technique - it was about the music.

I guess my point in all this is that every composer should take note of Schoenberg's words. Its not necessarily about the theory behind it. Music is first and foremost an art form - and the rules that exist for music are what we create for it. I hope that over the ten year period it took you to write "Dream Dance," you took note of this too; every place in the music that you said caused you grief, sounded phenomenally natural. I am quite glad that you decided to ignore the implications of such silly things as style, and just write what you felt!

Clark Ross said...

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments!

Just wanted to pick up on some of the points made by Shawn…

The reference to Dr. Linus C. Pauling in my slide show was on a slide with other comments that were meant to be humorous. I made up the quote I attributed to Dr. Pauling; I mentioned this in the presentation and it got a laugh, but I was evidently not sufficiently clear on this point. Sorry for the confusion.

Secondly, if any famous person had made such a statement ("Compositions should not have a cross-genre conversion experience mid-stream, and certainly not 30 seconds into the piece"), I would have done what most composers would have done, and that is written several pieces that crossed genres 30 seconds into the piece, just to prove it could be done.

As I have written in other blogs, composers are often "contrarians," meaning if some authority figure says "you can't do this!" you do it anyway, just to find out for yourself if it the statement is true or not.

The reason I struggled so much with that piece is that the logic of what it was doing — changing genres — just didn't make sense to me for that piece.

Now, obviously, the fact that I finished it eventually and it all makes sense to me now means I wasn't looking at it correctly at the time, but for me (and, I suspect, for any composer), I need to understand the logic of what I am writing in order to keep writing. By "logic" I don't necessarily mean some complex plan; I mean "something that makes musical sense," even if I can't quite explain why it makes sense at the time.

So, since it wasn't making sense to me at the time, and this piece was not a commission (meaning a piece i HAD to finish by a deadline), I would just tinker away at it every now and then, trying a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and always not being satisfied with what I was doing, so I'd put it away for a year or two, until finally, I heard about polystylism and thought, "hmm... maybe that's what's going on in this piece!" and once that happened, it began to make more sense to me.

But I'm never motivated by concerns over what others might think of my music, or what theoretical basis there might be for my compositions. I can't control what others think, so I don't worry about it, and the theoretical basis is always something that I wonder about after writing a piece, or halfway through, just to see what is going on in the piece I am writing, and once I understand it, it can give me ideas for how to continue.

Thanks again for the very thoughtful comments!

Michelle said...

I really enjoyed the lecture "Playing with Expectations in My Music." As Evan commented, it is neat to see the step-by-step process of how ideas interconnect and mesh into one another. The skill for writing varied repetition is something that I struggle to make sound natural in my own compositions, unsophisticated as they are, so I really enjoyed your breaking down of the processes by which this can be achieved, such as transposition, increased density, varied harmonic colour, and textural inversion. Despite (or perhaps because of) the very deliberate manner in which this was accomplished, it sounded incredibly natural.

I am very interested in the ideas of musical borrowing, quotation, and paraphrase, and thoroughly appreciated the depth with which you discussed the minimal section of "Dream Dance." It did seem to fit perfectly within the confines of the piece; as you explained, it is consistent with the opening oscillating 16th notes. I am not overly familiar with the implications of using the term "polystylism" so perhaps the answer to this is obvious, but I am curious as to why you reject this applicability of this concept to "Dream Dance."

I also liked that point that playing with expectation doesn't mean surprising the listener constantly; it is important to find a balance between avoiding and sometimes fulfilling those expectations. Also, I appreciated the point that surprises should not be random or ridiculous (unless of course the point is parody and/or absurdity), a topic that I believe has been brought up in class recently.

Luke said...

Looking back on this lecture I was inspired and motivated to write more music from little snippets that I had jotted down in my sketchbook, just as exercises to see how they could be developed. By using different methods of expansion, I began to play with my own expectations a little bit and ended up taking some of those ideas and developing them further. I thought it was interesting to hear you, the composer, talk about your creative process and how the piece came to be. One particular aspect of the piece that stood out to me was the repeating 16th note figure, which was changed as the piece progressed, in different rhythmic figures and harmonic textures. There were several instances that piqued my attention consistently throughout the piece, and I aim to incorporate similar methods into my own writing. One idea that stuck with me was that of polystylism, which I thought was very effective in creating an overall atmosphere in the piece.