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.

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (®Jun/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.