Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Musical Genius

Many of the composers whose music we study and hear are referred to as musical geniuses. I did a Google search for “music genius” and got 142 million results, which suggests that a lot of people use this expression! But what does it mean? And if we do not regard ourselves as musical geniuses, can we aspire to become great composers?

In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir’s wrote: “One is not born a genius; one becomes a genius;” perhaps one could hope to one day attain this lofty status, but before going further, it would be useful to explore the meaning of this term.

On a side note, the continuation of de Beauvoir's sentence is, “and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible.” This (i.e., sexism, as it applies to music) seems an important topic to tackle in a future blog.

What does it mean, exactly?

The term “genius” is is much-used, but lacks a precise definition. Wikipedia tells us that “the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate” (Genius. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 Jan. 2015, from When someone refers to a composer (or anyone) as a genius, we don't exactly know what they mean. Perhaps they regard the composer as being very smart, but since we are talking about a composer and not, say, a theoretical physicist (like Einstein), how are we to know how smart they were?

One understanding of genius relates to intelligence, and specifically to someone of exceptional intelligence. But "intelligence" is a similarly-imprecise concept; IQ tests are designed to measure it, but, as this article tells us,  their validity has been challenged by many. And besides, if we call Bach a genius, it seems unlikely that we do so because we believe Bach would have scored extremely highly on an IQ test (although one can speculate about this possibility); we are presumably referring to his musical genius. But what does "musical genius" mean?

Possibly it means that we are impressed by the great quantity of well-crafted music Bach wrote, and that we find his music profoundly moving, on a level that few have been able to match in musical history. If you have studied counterpoint and tried writing a fugue, you know how difficult it can be to write a good one; if you analyze Bach fugues after having tried writing them, you will almost certainly be blown away by how inventive, and beautiful they are. You might therefore conclude that Bach was extraordinarily clever, and, on that basis alone, label him as a musical genius.

I don’t have a problem with someone holding Bach (or Palestrina, Beethoven, Bartok, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Burt Bacharach, etc.) in such high regard — the more I learn about music, the more impressed I am by the achievements of great musicians in all genres — but I’m just not sure that we all mean the same thing when we call composers geniuses; as stated earlier, the term lacks a generally-agreed-upon, precise definition.

So why do people persist on using this term? My guess, at least as it is used in music, is that it is a way of accounting for qualities that the writer/teacher/blowhard-in-a-bar/etc. is otherwise unable to account for. Perhaps, when we call a composer a genius, we are saying, “I can’t imagine ever having the skill to produce music that is so profoundly moving (or so darned clever, or so vexingly incomprehensible, etc.), and therefore Palestrina (or Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, etc.) was a genius, and you and I are not. Or at least I are not!”

Becoming a genius, in 3 E-Z Steps! 
  1. Work hard (practice). Now work harder!
  2. Be smart.
  3. Find a supportive environment.

Okay, the "3 E-Z Steps" towards genius-hood is tongue-in-cheek, but whether we regard individuals a musical geniuses or not, mastery of music has always been the result of hard work for extended periods (usually decades), with good teachers, familial/community support, AND perhaps above-average intelligence as well. This is an idea suggested by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, in a Psychology Today article entitled: Attaining musical genius: Is practice enough? (17 June 2008), who writes:
“While Mozart may have required lots and lots of practice to produce his great works, his high intellect may have also contributed to his musical genius,”
Kaufman cites a 2007 article by J. Ruthsatz, D. Detterman, W.S. Griscom, and B.A. Cirullo, Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice, whose conclusion may be neatly summarized as follows:

Musical achievement = general intelligence + domain-specific skills + practice

In other words, practice is an essential ingredient, but so are intelligence and "domain-specific" skills. Which you probably knew…

Here's another quote by someone who supports and neatly summarizes this view: “I was intrigued by this term "genius", because as far as I can see it is completely useless,” said Phil Grabsky, director of a feature-length documentary, In Search of Mozart. “What the characters we sometimes call geniuses have in common is drive and determination, often good parenting, and the fact that they are products of the social conditions of their time,' he said. 'All of this was true for Mozart. His talent wasn't simply a gift from God, it was the result of tremendously hard work.” (Source:

…To which I would add, yes, it wasn't "simply a gift from God," but Mozart's talent wasn't just the result of "tremendously hard work" either; not everyone who trains diligently for, say, 10,000 hours, ends up producing work of comparable quality to Mozart's.

→ If this topic interests you, you might enjoy this blog post: "Talent? Skill? What's the Difference?"

Do you have to be a genius to understand how great music works?

Here's some good news: You do not need to be a genius to understand how great compositions work; you just have to make a concerted effort to do this, which develops analytical skills. Indeed, this is one of the main objectives of many music theory courses. Not understanding how a composition works may be the result of not having worked sufficiently to do so, or simply not having developed the skills to do so, rather than being caused by the composition operating on a plane so high that it defies understanding by ordinary mortals. That said, I'm pretty sure that some composers in the 1950's set out to deliberately write music so complex that it challenged the comprehension of ordinary mortals, but that's a topic for a different day.

Do you have to be a genius to compose great music? 

Aside from the fact that the term "musical genius" does not have a generally-agreed-upon meaning (or even, if you agree with the Grabsky quote above, has no meaning), I see it as a problematic term in that it can discourage those who do not see themselves as geniuses from attempting to develop their compositional skills. "Great music was composed by musical geniuses," you might think; "so what chance do I have of ever writing great music, if I am not a genius?"

If such a thought has ever crossed your mind, it might help to be aware of this:
Great composers wrote a lot of not-great music on their way to writing great music. The learning curve for mastery of composition is steep, and every great composer that ever lived took years to develop their "greatness," and it will be no different for you.
"Ah, but what of Mozart," you may ask; "didn't he write great music when he was four, or five, or six?" Answers: No, and no, and no. I discussed this at greater length in "Talent, Skill; What's the Difference?" (apologies for two plugs in one blog post!), but to summarize, although Mozart was indeed a clever and talented youngster, I'm not sure anyone regards music he wrote in the first 17 years of his life as great. Greatness came later. Former New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg went so far as to call Mozart a late bloomer (i'm paraphrasing; he actually wrote that Mozart "developed late"), arguing that few of Mozart's early works, elegant as they are, have the personality , concentration, and richness that entered his music after 1781" [the year he turned 25]. (Lives of the Great Composers, Part 2, p. 103).

It is nevertheless true that some composers —notably Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saëns— manifested great compositional talent early. However, even these composers took years to master compositional craft, albeit fewer years than most other composers (including Mozart) took.

To summarize, "musical genius" is a much-used term, but one whose meaning is not clear, making it problematic to know what exactly people mean when they use this term. It can also be a daunting concept if your goal is to become a better composer, and you are reasonably confident that you are not a musical genius. My suggestion is to not allow yourself to be discouraged by terms like this, and focus instead on becoming the best composer you can become, which, as always,  is done through a combination of hard work, practice, using and developing your intelligence, studying the music of composers you admire in an effort to understand what makes it great, and finding a nurturing environment in which to do this, be it school, a group of friends with similar interests, or retreating to nature in order to compose and study music.
In any great composer's development, not very good music preceded okay music, which preceded pretty-good music, which preceded good music, which preceded great music. I cannot promise that you will write great music, but I can promise that your compositional skills will improve if you stick with it, and it is entirely possible that you have it in you to write great music one day!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spin Doctoring 101

According to Merriam-Webster, a spin doctor is "a person (such as a political aide) whose job involves trying to control the way something (such as an important event) is described to the public in order to influence what people think about it."

"Spin doctor" may also refer to a member of the 1990's eponymous band, but today's post is not about them (spoiler alert: There is an excellent likelihood that I will never write a blog about them; sorry); it's about the value of creating good publicity for your music or for an upcoming concert, particularly during interviews, where the ability to "stay on message," or to "spin" your story, can come in handy.

A Cautionary Tale, or How Not To Conduct Yourself During an Interview

Composers are sometimes interviewed. Gather 'round, kids, to hear how I sabotaged my first such opportunity!

When I was an undergraduate student, I submitted two short movements for chamber orchestra to a "call for scores" by the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop (CCMW), a Toronto organization that "workshops" (i.e., a rehearsal and recorded read-through of your submission, with feedback from the performers) new works by "emerging" Canadian composers, some of which are given the additional honour of being featured on an evening concert.

I had not yet emerged at the time this took place. In fact, I'm still working on it, but I digress. My submissions were selected to be workshopped, but they were not selected for performance on the evening concerts.

Oh well, I thought. Better than nothing. And certainly better than the donkey-kicks to the rear that are commonplace when attempting to emerge as a composer!

The workshop/rehearsal went well, thanks to both the quality of the musicians, who were excellent sight-readers, and (he added, boastfully) the staggering beauty of my parts, over which I had slaved for over a month, using a nifty, plastic music stencil, a device that ensured that all noteheads, stems, accidentals, articulations, etc., were uniform in size, producing a result that was as close to published music as possible with a pencil. So painstaking was the process that I never used the stencil again.

The musicians reacted positively to my music and asked the administrator why it hadn't be selected for an evening performance. "Why the hell is this not on the programme?" the first violinist demanded. "Yeah!" somebody else said, possibly in response to an unrelated question. Demands by first violinists must be taken seriously. The performers' endorsement was communicated to the CCMW artistic team, who were sufficiently impressed that they added my pieces to the evening concert programme. Either that, or they were desperate, perhaps having just realized that their concert was too short.

Either way, I was, of course, pleased.

To clarify, I had obviously hoped that my compositions would be chosen for an evening performance when I submitted them, but when they weren't, I was not particularly upset. That's the way things go in attempting to become a composer, or indeed an artist of any kind; you accumulate many more rejections than affirmations, and I didn't look at this as a complete rejection, since it gave me the opportunity to hear my music rehearsed by professionals in a workshop setting.

So, when I learned the good news that they had decided to programme it on a concert after all, my reaction was, "nice!" or "cool!" or something similarly moderate, not "OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING! I CAN DIE A HAPPY MAN NOW!"

Not Sally Field at the 1985 Oscars, in other words. Who was awesome, in case you were wondering…

Opportunity Blown

The CCMW administrator decided that this story would make a great publicity angle — "Musicians' Endorsement Spells Boffo Break for Deservedely-Obscure Local Composer" or something like that — and got someone she knew at CBC radio to do a segment about it on the national "Arts Report."

A CBC  reporter subsequently telephoned me to have a pre-interview chat, presumably to determine my suitability as an  interview subject (although I did not realize this at the time). She asked several questions that clearly communicated the reaction she wanted from me, such as, "you must be REALLY excited to have this opportunity land on your lap like this!" and "It must be so AMAZING to have had HUGE break at such an early stage in your career!"

I, being obtuse, gave some lame response, such as "Well, yes, I’m really looking forward to hearing a good performance of my music."

This may seem like a perfectly reasonable response to you — at least it does to me — but the sad fact is that this response was sorely lacking in the enthusiasm department. An enthusiasm-fail, if you will.

My general policy on gushing (effusive or exaggerated enthusiasm) is to avoid it unless the situation unequivocally calls for it. Examples of such situations would include (but are not limited to):
  1. A snow day resulting in school cancellation;
  2. My wedding day;
  3. The birth of my children;
  4. All achievements by my children, or, for that matter, the children of people I care about;
  5. Achievements by my students;
  6. Achievements by my cats, or any cats, for that matter;
  7. Winning an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, despite the fact that I have never acted in my life, beyond pretending to know what I am doing when I teach or compose;
  8. Winning a large sum (in excess of $10 million) in a lottery; or
  9. The consumption of 2-3 jars of excellent mead. I have never actually consumed any mead, but my understanding is that it is made from fermented honey, which sounds quite yummy, and I strongly suspect that it would lead to expressions of tremendous enthusiasm on my part. About anything at all.
In any event, with a restrictive policy like this, and without any mead at hand, you can probably guess that I responded to the reporter's questions with insufficient enthusiasm for her liking.

What I realized after the fact was that the reporter wanted a "feel good" story about a nobody (i.e., me) getting the opportunity of a lifetime, and she wanted the hapless schmuck (i.e., me) to gush about it. She wasn't trying to report news; she was trying craft an interesting "human-interest" story for her listeners.

Whether she SHOULD have been trying to craft a story that basically followed a script she had already constructed beforehand is immaterial; this was one of those "it is what it is" situations, meaning that this is the way she was operating (and it is probably the way many journalists often operate), and I ought to have recognized that and used the opportunity to my advantage, thereby gaining a modicum of publicity for my music, which it had never had.

Perhaps the following level of enthusiasm was what she was after, and yes, I am in a silly mood:
Q: "How do you feel about this wonderful opportunity landing in your lap? You must be very excited!"
Okay, so perhaps it was good that I didn't go as over-the-top as the above, but, nevertheless, I could have responded more enthusiastically. Alas, I did not know how the spin-doctoring game was played.

The reporter was clearly getting frustrated with me. "You don't sound like you're very excited by this," she exclaimed at one point, berating me for not playing this game very well.

No? Perhaps this was because I WAS NOT VERY EXCITED BY THIS. Yes, in retrospect, I think that was a big part of the reason I sounded as I did.

I mean, I was pleased of course, but come on! We were discussing a new-music concert! We'd be lucky to get about 30 people to show up, most of whom would be there because their child or friend was having a composition performed, and this did not strike me as a hugely exciting proposition. I looked forward to having a good performance of my music, which virtually never happened in those days, and that was about it.

The reporter chatted with me a little longer, and said she would drop by my apartment the next day with recording equipment to interview me in person.

After I hung up, I reflected on our conversation and swiftly (but not swiftly enough!) deduced out that she had wanted me to demonstrate greater excitement, and I resolved to do this the next day during the actual interview. I practiced on my cats, which only served to alarm them.

Secretly, I think they were nonetheless impressed.

By the next day I had actually worked myself up to an unusually-high (for me) level of excitement in anticipation of the interview, although my cats were still eying me guardedly when they weren't napping. My first interview! And on a national radio show! It would be very cool if my relatives in Alberta heard this! I got up early and donned some non-hobo attire for a change, and waited patiently for the reporter to show up. Or call. Then I waited some more, less patiently… As I continued to wait, the anxiety level started to elevate…

Well, I hung around my apartment all day in an increasingly nervous state, but the reporter did not show up. Or call. Obviously, this was a a perplexing (initially) and depressing (subsequently) letdown. No call, no message; she just decided to ditch me, but neglected to let me know. To quote Jar-Jar Binks, a well-known diplomat, how rude!

A big reason I try not to get too excited about things that fall short of those listed under my very sensible "gushing policy" above is that when I do, and they don’t work out, it can be devastating, as was the case here.

The day after that, I was listening to the CBC "Arts Report" in the morning and sure enough, they had a story about the CCMW, but they had interviewed another young composer for their CCMW story, and this composer seemed very excited by the whole thing; she was gushing impressively. I was not mentioned in the story. Opportunity blown!

Well, of course that further rubbed salt on my already-wounded psyche, which, unfortunately, is the way we learn many of life’s lessons.

And the Moral of This Story is…

What I learned from that experience, and subsequent ones, is that when reporters or publicity people talk to you, they don’t necessarily care about you or your music, but they do care about constructing a story that will interest their audience. You should therefore try to give them something that will make for a good story, ideally delivered with some enthusiasm or at least a strong sense of conviction, while at the same time making the points that you feel are important. Have an agenda, in other words.

Politicians do this all the time during interviews, and it can be really annoying. They respond to questions by making short, prepared, self-aggrandizing speeches, irrespective of what they were asked, like this:
Q: How do you plan on resuscitating the stagnant economy, which has basically ground to a halt during your first term in office? 
A: Nothing is a higher priority than the economy, because the people of this great nation want to work, and they want a government that is accountable, a government that listens to people, and a government that cares about ALL people! Fiscally responsible spending, combined with prudent cuts to outdated  programmes, will produce HUGE gains for the economy, which means more money in EVERYONE'S pocket!
Impressive that so many words can basically say nothing at all and consist of meaningless platitudes! And yet it happens all the time. 

However, when an artist is interviewed, no one expects blow-hardy, meaningless platitudes. I'm not sure people expect much of anything, frankly, so you basically have carte blanche to make whatever points you wish, if you can skillfully weave them, however tenuously, into actual responses to questions asked. Like this:
Q: You must be very excited to have your music performed on this concert!
A: I was blown away by how good the musicians sounded during rehearsals — they are fantastic performers, fully committed to these exciting, brand new compositions, and I'd be excited to be at tonight's concert even if my music wasn't being performed! I've been at rehearsals of the other works on the programme, and the people who come to the concert are going to hear some exciting, amazing, and profoundly-moving music. So yeah, I'm definitely excited to have my music included on such a great programme, but I'm equally excited to hear everyone else's music as well!
I recommend thinking carefully about the story or “angle” that you want to communicate before you do an interview, and then doing your best to communicate these points succinctly. Try to keep it simple; what’s the main thing you want people to know? If there is an opportunity to make a second point, what would that be? What do you think would captivate the attention of a potential concert-goer? What image of yourself would you like to project?

Have an awareness that, in most cases, most of the audience for this interview will be lay people who will probably not be very interested in technical jargon (for hilarious examples of meaningless gobbledygook, check out The Contemporary Classical Composer's Bullshit Generator Javascript). Here's an example of meaningless-techno-babble-with-extreme-attitude that I made up:
“I commenced by constructing a scale based on the familiar 014 trichord, which I don't expect you or any member of the general public would understand, but who cares, because I don't give a damn about idiots. Of course, when cleverly transposed three times, the 014 trichord forms a hexachord whose possibilities were recognized by ancient (albeit pedestrian) composers such as Liszt and Schoenberg to be very fertile in terms of generating a rich but startlingly original (which I mean in a quasi-literal sense) sound palette. The sonic possibilities inherent in this neo-stochastic rationalization exercise are revealed in my third, sixth, and nineteenth "movements," or should I say, "stagnants," because really, that's what they are, in ways that have heretofore only "scratched" the surface, historically speaking. Or should I say, "marred," because that is another word for "scratched." I am not able to reveal more than that, because my competitors (who, without exception, are both scurrilous and unscrupulous) would steal my ideas (and therefore my glory), and I would then be compelled to initiate litigation against them in order to protect my highly-intellectual property. I have sued hundreds of composers in the past week alone! I am not to be trifled with, obviously. Before dismissing you, I will make one final point: I would rather have my masterworks performed in an empty concert hall than have a single fool show up expecting to "understand," or "relate" to the music. Nay, I say let them visit the hardware store, or go bowling, or some such pointless activity. I will take no follow-up questions at this time. Now be gone before I feel compelled to strike you!”
Disclaimer: The long, run-on paragraph above does not represent my views in any way. I like visits to hardware stores. I like bowling. I do not knowingly use the 014 trichord in my music. I like it when people show up at a concert that has my music on it. I know I shouldn't, but I do…

Most people think of music as a form of emotional expression, and yet composers often seem uncomfortable about describing their music in this way, preferring to use jargon to describe their composition process instead. So, don't be afraid to show some enthusiasm as you talk.

It is useful to know something about your audience; if you are speaking to fellow composers or composition students, then use as much technical jargon as you want. If you are speaking to an audience of new-music fanatics, you can probably get away way with describing your process in this way as well. But if you are speaking to a more general audience, such as radio listeners or people at a symphony orchestra concert, it might be good to describe the music in a more programmatic way, perhaps sharing some personal tidbits along the way.

But what if your music is without programmatic content? Well! Then you must find something else to talk about, ideally, something that will capture the imagination of someone listening to you speak. Either that, or start giving your music programmatic titles…

Actually, I must confess that it is for this very reason that I decided to start using programmatic titles for my music many years ago, after being a firm believer that "Chamber Piece No. 3," "Overture," "Prelude and Sherzo," etc., were perfectly good titles for compositions; Beethoven mostly avoided programmatic titles, and it seemed to go pretty well for him, so why not follow his lead?

However, after a few interviews and conversations with audience members who frequently wanted to know what the music was about, what it represented, what it meant, it occurred to me that by not having more imaginative titles I was creating barriers between my music, which I mostly tried to make as expressive as possible, and the audience, and thus I think almost everything I have written for about twenty-five years has a descriptive title, or subtitle, as in "Interlude for String Orchestra: La Muerte Me Está Mirando (Death is Watching Me").

Of course, this can be a difficult challenge when, as is often the case, I am not thinking of any particular programmatic content as I write the music… In cases like these, I listen to the music many, many times, trying to figure out what emotions are triggered in me by the music. I also play the music for my test market (i.e., my wife and kids) and ask for their thoughts and reactions about the music. Sometimes even the cats contribute to the process, although their ideas usually centre around food, or replenishing our supply of catnip-stuffed toys. So if one day I write something called, "Get me some Damn Catnip Toys NOW!", you'll know where I got the idea.

To Summarize…

To summarize, it is useful for composers to be aware of the benefits of communicating well with the public, if we want people to show up at our concerts and listen to our music.

This is perhaps obvious, but communicating in this way, connecting with an audience based on your ability to describe your music, is not always easy to do for most of us, which means that it would be a good strategy to plan your talking points, and maybe even try them out on people that you know and ask them for honest criticism and suggestions.

To some degree, I think that audience members just want to know something about you, perhaps to know if they can connect with you as a person or not, and hearing you talk candidly about your music from the stage before a performance will give them that, irrespective of what you say. But what you say matters too, which is why it is good to work out the way in which you want to "spin" your story.

This is something you can practice in composition class (or with friends and family), by the way; your instructor can give everyone a limited time period (perhaps two to three minutes) to discuss their music, and then class members can give feedback and suggestions to each other. Or class members could interview one another, again followed by feedback from other classmates.

Now I feel compelled to write some catnip-themed chamber music, and so I will finally end this post! Hope you enjoyed it!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take)

The background for this entry is that Jessica Blenis, a former student of mine, reported receiving this advice during graduate studies and finding it problematic.  Her thoughts on the matter can be found in the previous post (March 15, 2014).

If you find the title of this post interesting or provocative, I recommend reading the comment to #1 in this series by Warren Enstrom, an undergraduate studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. (You can find it here.) He writes extremely well, and makes thoughtful points in favour of the advice, "if you can name it, don't use it." In his penultimate paragraph, Warren writes:
"I interpret it as a push to find your own statement of voice in your own style, rather than accidentally limiting your pallet by seeing yourself as a Cagean, or a spectralist, or a minimalist, or any other such distinction, because unless you were alive, in New York, in the 50s, or in the 70s and 80s, or in France in the 70s, you're not, strictly speaking, a Cagean, you're not a minimalist, and you're not a spectralist; you're just writing in a similar style at a later point in time."
… And this seems a good summary of the argument in support of this advice to young composers.

The Composer's Toolbox; Green Eggs and Ham

I can imagine circumstances in which this could be a useful exercise — such as if I had a student who was reluctant to move beyond established techniques, in which case a "push" (or gentle nudge) to find their own style might be advisable. Most of us don't want to end up writing music that sounds like that of a different and  more established composer, even if we are don't mind borrowing others' techniques.

For the most part, however, I do not advocate this approach.

Jessica mentions the "composer's toolbox" analogy in her post, wherein one acquires as many skills and "tricks of the trade" (i.e., tools) as possible during compositional training (the training period never ends, by the way). These tools invariably include many existing compositional techniques, such as counterpoint, different harmonic languages, and serialism.

Some of the attractive aspects of this analogy are:
  1. Having many such tools can contribute to greater versatility as a composer; 
  2. Greater versatility gives you more options in writing the kind of music you want to hear;
  3. Greater versatility gives you more options for when you are stuck;
  4. Versatility is essential if you want to compose for film, stage, television, or opera. In fact, it's pretty useful for any kind of music you compose.
  5. Among the most  challenging compositional skills to develop are development of ideas, motivic unity, and motivic growth, which are all related to each other. Developing proficiency at these and other skills (such as orchestration) will almost certainly make you a better composer; 
  6. Paradoxically, a personal style of composition can emerge from the mastery of many skills and techniques, probably because of #2.
The "composer's toolbox" idea is one of the reasons I have students try things they otherwise might not wish to try, such as serialism, atonal chords with varying tension levels, Messiaen techniques, compositions based on a specific pitch collection such as the ever-popular 014 trichord (e.g., C, C#, E), compositions involving only three pitch classes, and more.

In trying these things, many (but not all) students experience a Dr. Seussian "Green Eggs and Ham" conversion experience wherein they start with suspicion about the value of whatever device or technique we are trying (I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am!), only to come around to an appreciation for the value of the exercise (I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-Am) after trying it.

On the other hand…

The toolbox analogy is, of course, not perfect.  Here are some thoughts I don't believe I have ever had while composing:
  • "I think I'll try a dash of Messiaen here — non-retrogradable rhythms, and, oh I don't know… perhaps his fifth mode of limited transposition — that would be perfect!"
  • "Pointillism, if I know anything about anything, is what kids are really into these days, so pointillism it shall be in my next chef d'oevre! Because my fans demand it!"
  • "You say you want thirty minutes of music by tomorrow? Why, this calls for some Philip Glass! Waiter! Cheque please!"
In other words, I don't consciously set out to imitate a style or technique when I compose. And yet, I have borrowed elements or ideas related to the above (well, except for Phillip Glass) for my music whenever it seemed like a good idea.

For example, I recall writing a piece for chamber orchestra about 30 years ago in which, influenced by Messiaen, I constructed a mode of limited transposition (MLT) whose pitch class order does not repeat at the octave, as his do, but it repeats every three octaves, since the basic building block on which subsequent intervallic content is based spans a major sixth:

Was this a good idea? Hard to say…  I  think it's an interesting idea, however; I notice, for example, that the above MLT has many 014 trichords, which would likely have a unifying function on a composition based on this. One challenge, at least if you like octave doublings to reinforce a line, is that no consistent octave doublings are possible unless they are three octaves apart.

The point is this: It is possible to manipulate someone else's idea in a way that results in something new. Composers and other artists have done this for centuries.

Not only that; it is possible to use existing (i.e., non-manipulated) ideas, devices, or techniques in creating compositions that are recognizably your own.

Thousands of composers have used major and minor scales, for example in producing compositions that are considered to be original (in the loose sense in which this term is used in music), and the same is true of cadence formulas,  accompaniment figures (e.g., Alberti bass), forms (e.g., binary, ternary, sonata, and rondo), thematic construction (e.g., period, sentence), chord progressions, and serialism. Composers wrote fugues before and after Bach, and many of them are good compositions; should Bach and subsequent composers have avoided the fugue because it had a name? Beethoven wrote sonatas and symphonies after hundreds of previous composers had already done so, and yet we don't generally criticize Beethoven for his 'lack of originality' in this regard.

Pointillism in music has been around for about 90 years, and yet it still attracts me at times (most recently last summer, when it showed up in a piece I wrote for trumpet, trombone, and piano). It seems unlikely that previous composers exhausted every possible avenue in this regard, and the same, I suspect, is true of most ideas or techniques that I can think of.

On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining the possibility of a composition based on conventions found in the music of Phillip Glass that would sound original to anyone but Phillip Glass; emulating Mr. Glass seems like a dead-end to me, but perhaps another composer might find a way to take the various clichés associated with his music in a new direction.

Another weakness in the "toolbox" analogy is that some 20th-century composers achieved fame without strong skills in areas that, historically, were considered essential to a composer's toolbox, such as traditional counterpoint or harmony. The two composers who come most to mind in this regard are Xenakis and John Cage.  I discussed this in: "How much theory do you have to know in order to be a composer?"


A potentially negative aspect of the "if it's got a name, don't use it" advice is the possibility that it can lead to becoming overly self-conscious, or self-censorious, leading to writer's block. If a well-informed composer were up to date on most contemporary and historical practices in music, it seems likely that this composer would struggle to write anything that had not, in some way, been done before.

As I wrote in an earlier postbeing overly concerned with the originality of one's creations may be counter-productive, because it can lead to extreme self-censorship, i.e., not continuing any musical ideas because, upon reflection, they are not original enough.

Of course, the ability to be self-critical is essential if one wishes to do great (or even good) things, which is wherein the paradox lies; too much of it leads to writer's block, too little can lead to facile and cliché-ridden music. Of these two extremes, it seems to me that the latter is preferable if only because we generally become better composers by composing, even if some of it is pretty bad; we don't tend to improve much by blocking every creative impulse because it's been done before.

Uniqueness vs. Shared Traits

It is often said that no two people (or snowflakes) are exactly alike, which suggests that the combination of qualities that make up your personality is unique. I believe this to be true, but I think it is also true that we all share many individual qualities, and thus it seems to me that while everybody is unique, nobody is 100% original.

In a similar way, if we compose regularly and often, while constantly striving to improve the work we produce, we will naturally reach a point wherein the uniqueness of our personality is manifested in our music without a self-conscious attempt to make it so, although our music will share various characteristics with other music, and this is the way it has always been.

The Imperative of Newness: Modernism

While belief in musical progress or in the principle of innovation is not new or unique to modernism, such values are particularly important within modernist aesthetic stances.
—Edward Campbell, Boulez, Music and Philosophy (2010, 37)
Have you ever wondered where the idea that art must reject tradition and blaze new trails comes from? While historical periods in art have always been distinguishable from one another in various ways, they have usually been similar to one another in other ways as well.

"If you can name it, don't use it" sounds like the kind of thinking associated with Modernism in art.  Wikepedia's article on Modernism (retrieved 26/04/2014) states:
The poet Ezra Pound's 1934 injunction to "Make it new!" was the touchstone of the movement's approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past. 
Although Modernism in art is still alive and well today, its heyday in music was probably ca. the first sixty years of the twentieth century, and thus, paradoxically, it might be argued that in order to "make it new" in our postmodernist time, we should be rejecting modernism.

However, in rejecting previous practices, and the desire to "make it new," we would be espousing modernism even as we are rejecting it.  Confused yet?

In any event, I see great value in employing existing techniques and ideas in new compositions, as long as you bring something to these techniques and ideas that is at least somewhat original. This strikes me as (a) practical — it is virtually impossible to write music without any traces of "nameable" techniques or practices, and (b) in keeping with historical practice — with the exception of modernism, art history is more about modifying existing practices than it is about rejecting all past practices.

As I was writing the above, this song kept playing in my head:

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 (a teacher?) 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.

Another problem is not knowing the context in which the advice was given. Was it intended as a stricture, as in, "Composers should never use a technique or style that can be named!", or was it a simply a challenge to be more original?

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.