Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jessica Blenis Guest Blog: "If you can name it, don't use it" (2)

As mentioned in my previous post, Jessica Blenis recently left a comment on a post I wrote almost six years ago called "Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?" (I wrote that post as an explanation for a restriction I impose on my students' first projects.) I asked if she would be willing to have her comment made into a blog entry, and she agreed, so this is it. Huge thanks to Jess for her comment, and for being willing to share it with others!

Brief background:  Jessica graduated from Memorial University a few years ago with degrees in music composition/theory, and music education, and is currently working on her Master's degree at the University of Calgary.

Jess's blog entries are reflective, insightful, and consistently well written; hers are among the best student blogs I have read. Here are links to her current blog, in which she writes about the process leading to her master's thesis, and her Soundcloud page, in which you can hear selections of her music:

Jessica writes:

Wow! I can't believe this was posted so long ago! Glad to see that it's still inciting thought-provoking conversations and comments from those who are just stepping into the waters.

I'm now about halfway through a M. Mus degree in composition and have been writing atonal music since I took Dr. Ross's intro to composition course at M.U.N. I was intimidated at first and didn't know exactly what to write; I think that most of this was because I didn't identify atonality as being a part of my voice as a composer. I was so used to drawing from limited palette of colours associated only with tonality- they could be combined many different ways, but would always be within a familiar and friendly spectrum.

As a result, my first atonal piece actually sounds nothing like any of the music I've composed since. I didn't identify it as being something "Jess Blenis-y" and nor would I say the same today. I wrote it that way because I based it on what my perception of what atonal music was — and I thought it was ugly. I had this idea that atonal music was always dissonant, always strained, unreasonable, a grinding of notes together making noise rather than music. My piece was a result of that.

I've learned since then that while each composer has a sort of 'sound' that we connect to them when we hear their pieces, their voice isn't always the same from one piece to the next… Unless we're talking about Philip Glass, but let's not go there… A composer's voice is like a chameleon — it adapts to its environment, but still retains some essence of a character which comes directly from the composer. Using familiar and favourite compositional tools is good — it helps create a foundation for your sound — but diversity is fantastic. I remember how surprised I was the first time I heard Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht" after having associated him primarily with serialism.

The more we listen and learn about other composers, the more we learn what resonates within ourselves. Adding tools to your toolbox will give you more to draw from, and it's OK to use these tools to create your own voice, even if some of them are strongly associated with one composer or another.

Not long ago I was told that "…If you can name it, you can't use it." Which to me didn't make much sense. Why would I spend years and years (not to mention thousands of dollars) on learning about these techniques if I wasn't allowed to use them? Atonality, polytonality, serialism, spectralism, whole-tone, pentatonic, aleatory, etc.… John Cage (ab)used silence, so I can't do that, either. So what's left? This is a question that I've been struggling to answer since then.

I've decided that I don't like that statement. If I can name it, I can use it. It's the way in which I use these techniques and tools that matters; not the fact that for a brief second, you might get a glimpse of Varèse or Debussy in my music. I'm not saying that you should blatantly steal from other composers, but you can use their tools in your own way. Take Monet's paintbrush and make a sculpture with it. Make it yours.

If you have any thoughts on this “If you can name it, don't use it,” please feel free to share them! I'm still digesting it. It's not going down easy so I'd be glad to hear from other composers!

So for those of you who are new to the concept of atonality, don't worry — it's not a monster — it's simply misunderstood. The more you listen and study, the more you'll understand and enjoy. There are some really gorgeous pieces out there that happen to be atonal — and you might not even realize that they are atonal while hearing them, because you can relate to them. The form, the instrumentation, the idea behind the music — atonality isn't a strange and alien thing. It's a key to a new box of tools.


amy k said...

Very encouraging that you've been writing atonal music ever since your first assignment for Dr. Ross! I'm inspired.

I share a lot of these same feelings. In fact, I was also very intimidated by having to write my first atonal piece. However, I had already developed a love/appreciation for performing atonal music before having to try writing myself.

I already enjoyed the challenge of learning complex rhythms and intricate, unfamiliar melodies and studying/analyzing the composer's intentions... But to come up with my own piece... To try to paint my own picture and wonder whether my music will portray what I'm trying to portray... That was terrifying!

I agree that atonal music is not a monster. Is it misunderstood, though? Perhaps the more out-to-lunch atonal music is... But our tastes are constantly evolving and as long as we as composers are willing to keep pushing the limits, atonality will become to go-to tool in our boxes.

Timothy Brennan said...

This is a great post! I too was slightly apprehensive and intimidated when writing my first atonal piece, as I had not written anything in that medium before. However, I remember deciding to use some of the concepts I had learned from Post-Tonal Theory class (such as set theory) to help guide my composing and to provide me with a concept to latch on to while composing. Even today, set theory plays a big role in my music, yet it is something that can be named. However, I do use major/minor chords occasionally to satisfy a mood/atmosphere change or for contrast, but writing in the atonal sphere has no limits. I like the fact that I can keep pushing my own compositional boundaries and adding tools to my toolbox as I develop as a composer.

Emery van de Wiel said...

This post brings to the surface many of my own thoughts on the matter of atonality. Like Jessica felt when she first took this course, I felt as though atonal music was noise rather then music. However as time goes forward and I'm exposed to more and more atonal music I can hear the genius of some composers. Although I am still struggling to write my own strictly atonal music the more I listen to it the more I can utilize the ideas discovered by atonal composers and add to them. I'll continue listening and continue writing and eventually I can see myself combining my thoughts.

Robert Humber said...

I liked this post a lot, especially the part about composers being "chameleons". It's true that most composers have written in various styles but retain tendencies, almost like their signature at the corner of a canvas. We all have this voice, and I think it is important to embrace it rather than dismiss it. It is what makes everybody's music different, and relatable to different situations, emotions, experiences, people, etc. In my opinion, and apparently others as well, too many people focus on categories, terms and genres to describe their music. Let other people define your music when you become the next Beethoven. In the meantime, I don't think the most important thing is to be completely original, inventing new genres of classical music. We are so lucky, we have all the music we could ever hope to absorb at our fingertips. Rather than rejecting the music around us in quest of something completely new, we should let our voice steer our originality. This means doing the opposite, researching all of the millions of musical possibilities and instead of looking for all the spaces in between the music yet to be discovered, we embrace what we have heard and let our own independent voice interpret this information in a way that will undoubtedly be original! The most important thing is just to be as receptive as possible to as many different forms of music as possible.

I'm sort of saying all this as if it is fact, but obviously it's just my opinion and others may disagree. John Cage had different ideas and he's a lot more famous than me.

Jack Etchegary said...

I also don't seen much sense in saying that "If you can name it, you can't use it". This doesn't leave much room for inspiration, appreciation and education. I'll elaborate on this a bit. As musicians we should be inspired and innovated by the previous works of other composers. We should not be trying to "1-up" them by using unexplored ideas, however using unexplored ideas is not necessarily a bad thing - I more so mean that it should not be a composers' only intention. If we are constantly trying to come up with new ways of compositional styles, then how are we to appreciate what already exists? If we aren't able to use what has already been used, then what becomes of the act of learning about these styles and techniques? All in all, this saying seems like an odd thing to say regarding composition. I believe that if it can be named, then it should be studied, appreciated and innovated upon.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with the latter, if you can name it, you can use it. I don't believe that atonal music demands that one ignore compositional techniques of that past. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. I think great composers can use the knowledge, information, and techniques of the past and the things they have learned to create completely innovative compositions. Sure, coming up with new compositional techniques is both exciting and necessary for the craft to evolve. But I don't think ignorance of the past is a means to great atonal compositions. We should work with what we know to create something different, and unique.

Peter Cho said...

I agree to an extent with the general consensus that "if you can name it, you can't use it" is not a particularly great approach to composing. However, I personally interpret this statement in a way that bring to light a very important aspect of music making, be it performing or composing. What I take away from this statement is that you have to constantly do interesting things with the music or else the audience will get bored. It certainly takes this idea to an extreme extent, but I think it is just trying to drive home this point. When I am performing, I play with the mentality that it takes around 5 seconds for an audience member to lose interest. So this means that at least every 5 seconds I need to do something that will revitalize their interest. The most interesting thing about this thinking, especially from a compositional standpoint is that you don't necessarily need to literally change something every 5 seconds. As the ostinato posts explores, there is a great deal of music that is extremely static in a manner of speaking but are really amazing pieces of music. This then opens up a new world of exploring when "less is more." In the end, it is about finding the right balance of using new material (or old material in a new light) vs. using old material. However, it remains that the goal is to constantly create something new and exciting with your music even if it doesn't appear to change much on the score.