Thursday, March 13, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #7)

Question 7 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
7. How challenging is it to come up with a form with which you are pleased in your compositions?
A related question would be, "how satisfied are you with form in your compositions?"

The degree to which I am satisfied (or actually pleased) with form in the music I write depends on the piece.

Sometimes it is relatively easy to come up with a satisfactory form, while other times it is less so. In the latter category, there is a piece that I wrote over 20 years ago whose form I never found completely convincing, yet it still gets played periodically.  I'm pretty sure I won't go back and try to improve that piece, mainly because I think it is generally better to move forward and try to get it right in new pieces than to obsess over old ones, but I have occasionally revised older works, so it's not exactly a hard and fast rule for me.

Sometimes a relatively simple form — A B A, for example — can be the right form for that particular piece; the ideal form for a given composition does not have to be complex.

As an example, listen to the first example below, if you can.

The subtitle for this piece is La Muerte Me Está Mirando (Death is watching me), from a poem (Canción de Jinete) by Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). It is about someone taking a long journey by eerily-red moonlight to Córdoba on a road he knows very well, but, although he can see it in the distance, he knows he will never get there.

Interlude for String Orchestra (1995; 5' 15"):

The first version of this piece was for string quartet, and was written 25 years ago. This version, for string orchestra, is about 20 years old, and the performance on this recording is by the Memorial University Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nancy Dahn.

The form is relatively simple — kind of an A B A, but with the final A section is cut short (like the journey of the protagonist in the poem) — but when I finished this piece, I was happy/satisfied with both the form and the composition, and I still am. I think…

I feel similarly content with the form in this next example as well, performed live by Kristina Szutor:

Dream Dance (2007; 10'):

I think the form is for this piece is based on sonata form, but with what I hope are plenty of surprises in it. There are several points in the second half when a listener might think, ah, here we are, back home again, because the beginning of the opening theme is recapitulated, only to have this conclusion thwarted when the theme veers off in a different direction. I like the fact that it sets up expectations, but plays with them, meaning some expectations are met, but not necessarily right away.

Here are other blog posts on this topic, in case it interests you:

Continuously thwarting expectations will turn you into Wagner of course, so exercise some caution in this!

I think it would be relatively easy to find other compositions of mine where the form turned out to be less than fully satisfying. Most of the time, composers are trying to meet deadlines, and some of the time, at least for me, the piece reaches a state I feel I can live with (meaning I convince myself that it won't bring shame to me or future generations of my family), and, even if I'm not 100% satisfied with the form, I have to release it to the performers to avoid death threats from them. Yes, I exaggerate… I find it a fun thing to do, occasionally…

Being satisfied the music we write is a tricky business; if we are too-easily satisfied, our standards may be too low; if we are never satisfied, our standards may be unrealistically high, causing us to obsess constantly over revisions, and complete very few works, let alone meet deadlines. I guess our goal as composers is to find a happy medium between these two extremes.

If nothing else, perhaps thinking about all these questions on form will cause us to think about it more as we compose.


Naomi Pinno said...

Since this is my first semester composing (complete) pieces, I do not have a whole lot of experience in looking back at my old pieces. When I perform a piece (that someone else wrote) I am rarely perfectly satisfied. Composing is different than performing, because adjustments can be made until the piece is just way the composer intends it (that is one of the best things about composing I think). So far, as I look back at my pieces there are usually some sections I like or dislike consistently; but then there are other sections of a piece I do not remember as clearly. I often change my original opinion on these sections, either to strongly disliking or really liking a section. I also wanted to mention, I agree that there is a point where it is not helpful to keep meddling with a piece, because then it is hard to develop and move forward as a composer.

Pallas A said...

I think that structural form, whether it be a simple or complex, should simply be seen as the structure that the music is built on. It is important to have it at the forefront especially in the early stages in the composition process, but I don't think form alone can make or break a piece if the other musical elements are pretty solid. There are great pieces with simple and complex structural forms, so perhaps the presence of form is more important rather than the type.

I wouldn't say that I'm dissatisfied with what I have composed thus far. But I do worry that one day I'll compose a piece that I really don't like or am very dissatisfied with it and that will be the piece that people like the most. I know that once art is released out into the public, the creator's intentions or opinions on the work don't mean much if it has public appeal. I also wonder if there are any pieces that made it into the classical cannon that their respective composers really hated. It's one thing to not like your music, but it's another thing for others to like that disliked music.