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 her comment, and for being willing to share it with others here!

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.

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.

What 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.

So 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 relate to. There are some really gorgeous pieces out there that are atonal — and you might not even realize it while listening to them, because you can relate to it. 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.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"If you can name it, don't use it" (1)

Whenever someone leaves a comment on any of my blog posts, no matter how old the original post, I receive an E-mail notifying me of this. This was how I found out that Jessica Blenis had recently left a comment on a post written almost six years ago called "Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?"

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.  It was great to hear from her again!  This was actually her second comment on this post, the first coming during the first weeks of her first composition course here in 2008, and so I was interested to see how her perspective might have changed during the interim.

Her recent comment is very thoughtful and well-written, as was typical of Jessica while she was a student here, and I urge you to read it.  In it, she mentions that someone once told her, with regards to specific compositional techniques, "if you can name it, you can't use it," and she wonders what other composers think of this advice.

To explain further, I gather that this advice means that any compositional technique or style (or device?) that has a name, such as serialism, spectralism, polystylismimpressionism, expressionism, minimalism, aleatoricism, etc., can not be used, and I would guess (although Jessica does not say this) that this restriction came from a teacher (not me); if so, there was likely a pedagogical reason behind it.

One problem in responding to this advice is that it is not clear as to what is meant by "it;" harmony, counterpoint, notes, textures, and instruments can all be named, but are they forbidden?  Probably not, I would guess, but perhaps Jessica can enlighten us on this.

In any event, it is interesting and provocative advice, and, like, Jessica, I wonder what others think of this. Please leave comments below, and thanks! I will wait a while before posting my thoughts.

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (®Mar/2014)

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. I omitted entries that seemed less interesting or relevant, such as reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc.

These are loosely organized by topic to facilitate browsing; clicking on any blog title will take you to that blog post. You may find some that give you ideas about composition techniques, or that contain useful things to think about when composing, including suggestions for what to try when you are stuck.

→ Originality and Art ←

→ Playing With Expectations ←

→ Form in Post-Tonal Music ←

→ Argh! I'm Stuck! ←
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (see section on "writer's block")

→ Atonality – What's in a Name? ←

→ Winning and Losing; Judging and Being Judged ←

→ Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music ←

→ On Composition (Miscellaneous Topics) ←

→ Composition Issues (10-part series) ←
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite criticism from others.

3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What's it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.

8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan.
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
8.5. Don't obsess!
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

→ Thematic Growth, and other Technical Considerations ←

→ Nuts and Bolts; Score Details, etc. 

→ Composition Projects ←

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.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #4, 5, & 6)

Question 4 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
4.  On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in your compositional process? (Be clear on what you mean by "form.")
This is pretty similar to question 1, the main difference being that this question allows for a more subjective answer than the first question. Because of this, I'll keep my answer short, starting with what I mean by "form:"
Form: Structure. The way in which a composition is organized, from a large-scale, bird's eye view (e.g., sonata form, or ABA, or rondo) to every subdivision beneath that, all the way down to motivic relationships, thematic structures, sections within a transition or development section, texture… anything at all in a musical composition that is organized, which is to say, everything.
So, no surprise here, but, taking this holistic, organic meaning of form, then on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rank it about a 20 in my compositional process. Or, if that number is unavailable, then perhaps a 10…

That was so short that I'll try answering questions 5 and 6 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post, which are:
5.  Is it better to work out a form before composing a work, or do you prefer to create the form as you go? 
6.  Are you actively engaged in thinking about the form of your music as you write it?
Let me draw an analogy to something about which I know nothing (!), which is the way that a building gets constructed. I understand (from reading about this in Wikipedia) that it goes something like this:
  1.    It starts with a a design team, which includes surveyors, civil engineers, cost engineers (or quantity surveyors), mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, structural engineers, fire protection engineers, planning consultants, architectural consultants, and archaeological consultants;

  2.    They make drawings and set specifications for the building's design. They probably make lots of changes to these along the way, because so many people are involved;

  3.    I would guess that the plans need to encompass every aspect of the building, from the overall design, to floor plans, plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, elevators, stairs, etc.;

  4.    Probably some excavation takes place;

  5.    Probably they lay a foundation;

  6.    Probably they construct a frame using steel girders (or whatever one uses these days);

  7.    And so on, and so on, until all of the other things necessary to make a finished building are added, including exterior, interior, plumbing, electrical, windows, doors, inner walls, carpeting, and probably a whole bunch of stuff I know nothing about, but it's all part of making the building safe, functional, comfortable, and nice-looking, inside and out.
The compositional equivalent to this would perhaps be:
  1.    Create a plan, live with it and tweak it for a long time until (a) it contains as much information about the composition as is possible in a plan, and (b) you are happy with it.  The plan can include any aspect of your composition, such as large-scale and smaller-scale form, harmonic language, rhythmic aspects, dramatic aspects (sections can be characterized by their mood (i.e., the mood you hope to elicit in listeners), such as lyrical, aggressive, chaotic, sad, exuberant, confusing, etc.);

  2.    If you were an architect, you would probably run your plan by a whole bunch of engineers and other people, as described above. Since you are a composer, there is no need for this — the consequences of a bad plan in composition are considerably less dire than the consequences of a bad plan in the construction of a building (!) — but it wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea to ask a few people you trust for feedback, especially if you are fairly new at this.

  3.    Following your plan, start by composing smaller sections, combining and expanding them until they become larger sections. Tweak as necessary. Remove sections that no amount of tweaking can help; they may come in handy later, but if not, have them take a time-out by concealing them in your piano bench, or, if you lack a piano bench with a handy lid, garden shed. If you don't have a garden shed or a piano bench with a handy lid, then place these sections neatly in bottom of your cat carrier, and pray that your cat doesn't mind;

  4.    Add any bits necessary to connect the sections, and then tweak some more;

  5.    Put the finishing touches on the work, making sure all dynamics, articulations, bowings, wind instrument slurs, pedal markings, etc., make musical sense.  [You should have been putting these in as you composed each section, by the way!]

  6.    Write programme notes using the most enigmatic language possible (if struggling with this, consider using computer-generated programme notes from this handy site: CCCBSG);

  7.    Design a cover page using a cool font — If you haven't thought of a title yet, now would be an excellent time to do so;

  8.    Write a three-volume edition of performer instructions in single-digit font sizes;

  9.    Print and bind multiple copies of the score;

  10.    Prepare parts, make sure page turns are in good places, proofread them, print them, and tape them together;

  11.    Get people to workshop it, if possible, and then make any changes necessitated by this, and then reprint score and parts, and try to get people to play it again;

  12.   Think of something profound to say about your composition at the première. If this is impossible, as is always the case with me, say something witty instead. Try to avoid saying, "… and I hope you like it!" at the end of your speech; this will be seen as a sign of weakness on your part by some.  Instead, say, "and I hope the experience of hearing this magnificent work does not render you senseless, doomed to spend the rest of your days unable to function on any level but the most basic. I really do, because, and I mean this with all of the sincerity of a washed-up Las Vegas entertainer, I ABSOLUTELY ADORE ALL OF THE FINE PEOPLE IN… [insert name of town or village you believe yourself to be in here, taking care to pronounce it correctly]!!!" This is how you make a name for yourself.
[Possibly I got carried away there; I will attempt to rein myself in now.]

Starting with a well-formed plan is a fine way to go about composing. Of the composers I have talked to or heard from on this topic, the great majority have indicated to me that they approach their craft in this way. I highly recommend it!

I do not start with a plan, however, so you may wish to take this advice with a grain of salt. ;)  I start with a general idea of how long I want the piece to be (but this can change radically once I get further into the composing process), the instrumentation, the type of piece I want to write (atonal and pointillistic, expressive and moving, light-hearted, virtuosic, accessible to young performers, etc.). I also keep the deadline for that composition in my thoughts; basically, I need to know whether I can compose at a leisurely pace, or if I need to become manic about it and write as quickly as possible.  I virtually never have any idea about the overall form of a piece before I start writing it, so my answer to question 5 is that I like to make it up as I go.

[My "make it up as I go" method, explained:  I start with a small idea, and work at expanding it. I try to figure out where it "wants" to go. If it seems like it wants to go in a direction I don't like, then an argument ensues. When the dust has settled, I continue expanding it, but at various points I begin to wonder where the heck this particular composition is going, and so I analyze, in every sense of the word that I know, what I have composed thus far.  In the course of doing this, I usually get ideas of possible large-scale structures that might be feasible for that composition. As I move forward, I revisit large-scale structure possibilities frequently, essentially asking, "is this working?" frequently. If the answer is no, I attempt to fix things before moving on.]

This works for me, but many (probably most) successful composers prefer to start by drawing up a fairly-detailed plan, and, frankly, their approach makes more sense to me, at least intellectually. I guess I like relying on intuition, while visiting the rational part of my brain periodically (which is where analysis and planning come in), but basically, all composers need to figure out an approach that works best for them.

My answer to question 6, then, is yes, I am very much engaged in thinking about form during the composition process (that's part of "making it up as you go"), albeit at some points more than others.