Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Finding Your Own Voice; Tonality, Atonality, and the Composer's Toolbox

We had a discussion yesterday morning in our composition seminar about topics that I suspect most composition students think about from time to time, such as:
  • Why are we restricted to writing post-tonal music?
  • If the music nearest and dearest to my heart is tonal, then shouldn't I be writing tonal music?
  • If a composer (or any artist) is obliged to be true to themselves, shouldn't they be free to express themselves in any way they wish?
I have written about this before – please visit the links below, if interested – so I am repeating myself to some degree, but here are my thoughts on these questions:
  1. Every university course that I know of has content restrictions. Here are just a few examples:
    • Music students taking renaissance or baroque counterpoint courses learn how to write music in the styles of those periods. 
    • Similarly, the stylistic focus of "Jazz Theory and Arranging" is self-explanatory.
    • Harmony courses (called "Materials of Music") provide instruction in writing and analyzing tonal music, focussing on the musical language and voice-leading practices of the "common-practice period," ca. 1700-1900. Depending on how the courses are structured, they may also include an introduction to post-tonal practices as well.

    The stylistic restrictions in these courses are fairly strict, but, in my experience, students do not typically question why they are not allowed to write country, rock, or hip-hop songs, for example, in Renaissance Counterpoint, or Jazz Theory. I think song-writing courses covering country, rock, hip-hop, death-metal, or any of the myriad of sub-genres of popular music would be great to have, and they already exist in many universities. I'd love to see them at ours, but the point is that any course is circumscribed in some way.

    Students usually understand that stylistic restrictions are inherent to course content, and, ideally, their desire to take the courses listed above is motivated by a desire to learn how to write music under such restrictions.

    Of course, more pragmatic motivation for choosing courses is often in play as well, such as the course being required for their programme of study, or the course is in a convenient time slot, or all other theory electives were full, so they had to take the only one that wasn't full, etc.

  2. There are, however, courses in which stylistic restrictions are not explicitly stated in the title or calendar description. One is "Materials of Music," cited above. Looking at the Memorial University 2015/2016 calendar, other examples include:

    • "Principal Applied Study requires one hour per week of individual instruction (vocal or instrumental)." This refers to weekly private lessons, and, since our School of Music is understood to be a school of primarily classical music, I would guess that students understand that 
    • "Functional Keyboard I is an introduction to practical keyboard skills for students whose Principal Applied Study is not piano or organ. Functional accompaniment, transposition and score reading are emphasized." 
    • "Chamber Music requires the ensemble to prepare and perform a recital of x-y minutes of music. Each ensemble receives z hours of coaching in preparation for the performance."
    • … and many, many others, such as Small Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, Instrumental Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra, AccompanimentContemporary Music/Improvisation Ensemble ("contemporary" could mean "any music of our time," but it actually means, "classical music of the fairly recent past," in which "fairly recent" is open to interpretation by the course instructor), etc.

  3. Despite the unspecified stylistic restrictions in the above course titles and calendar descriptions, students taking these courses probably understand that stylistic restrictions are generally understood or implied due to the fact that our School of Music focusses mostly on classical music in the broadest sense of that term.

  4. Another course in which stylistic restrictions are not explicit in the title and course description is composition, whose calendar description is as follows: "Composition Seminar provides intensive composition study for students whose Major or Minor is Composition."

    So, while it is possible to deduce from this description that any style or genre of composition is fair game, I would just point out that this is not the case in any of the other courses mentioned above; students taking Principal Applied Study, for example, usually understand and accept that they will be more likely to learn the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Clifford Crawley, etc., than country, rock, death-metal, etc. music as part of their performance studies. Again, this is not to suggest that non-classical music has no value, because it obviously does; it is a reflection of the stylistic focus at our School of Music, which is primarily music of the classical tradition. However, we also have a thriving ethnomusicology programme, as well as some courses in popular music, but I would very much like to see more offered in the future. This may even come to pass in the near future, because our newly-appointed (starting Fall, 2016) Canada Research Chair in Ethnomusicology, Dr. Harris Berger, is among other things, a leading scholar in the area of heavy metal and rock music.

  5. Another factor in this discussion of stylistic restrictions is that they are to some degree a reflection of the professor's areas of expertise. Ideally, teachers teach what they know, and, for most of our professors, what they know is primarily classical music. Of course, teachers can be adaptable as well, and if I were told to teach a course on a topic beyond my comfort zone, like writing a Broadway musical, I'd take what I already know about writing for voice, writing for orchestra or band, combining voice(s) with instruments, setting text expressively, etc., and learn everything I could about the structure and conventions of Broadway musicals (about all I know at this point is that they generally have two acts, and that the first usually ends with an unresolved conflict of some sort), and then do my best with the course, hopefully learning more along the way.

  6. In all courses at our university, professors must distribute a course outline or syllabus during the first week of classes. In addition to communicating the marking scheme and general structure of the course, these usually have more information about course content and objectives than is found in the university calendar. This is where you would learn, for example, that baroque counterpoint is primarily focussed on the music of J.S. Bach, and few if any other baroque composers are ever mentioned. You would also learn that there is, unsurprisingly, no way to master the compositional styles of J.S. Bach in a one-semester course, and so the objectives are more a matter of trying emulate certain aspects of his style, including learning how to write a fugue. 

  7. For our course, Composition Seminar, the outline usually states that the focus will be on writing "post-tonal" music. My reasons for this include the following:
    • For most of the past century, the majority of highly-regarded classical composers (and yes, "highly-regarded" is a problematic term, since informed scholars can disagree as to the relative merits of any given composer; I am referring to the composers we learn about in textbooks and more recent composers who do not yet appear in textbooks, but whose music is widely played and celebrated) have been writing post-tonal music, and, since this is a composition course for contemporary classical music, I strongly believe that students should learn explore at least some of the many techniques for writing post-tonal music;
    • The requirement to explore post-tonal techniques often results in students moving beyond their personal comfort zones, meaning that for many, writing tonal music is comfortable and safe, while writing post-tonal music is less so. I believe that moving beyond our comfort zones in a safe, supportive environment is where we often learn the most.
    • It also seems likely that, if students were not challenged to move beyond their personal comfort zones, then some would be unlikely to explore post-tonal techniques, which I would regard as a glaring omission in their development of composition skills.
    • I think many, possibly most, students may not fully understand what is meant by "post-tonal" music, and think the term is the same as "atonal," or even "12-tone" music. It is much, much more than this; it is a remarkably open category; the only thing it isn't is tonal
      • I pasted below a sampling of scales, techniques, and idioms associated with post-tonal music; the options are both plentiful and varied. Not only that, but the list is in no way complete; there are many other approaches to post-tonal composition beyond those listed. In addition, there are approaches that haven't been conceived yet, just waiting for someone like you to think of them.
    • I am of the firm conviction that writing post-tonal music can improve the quality of any tonal music students may write in the future. For students that embrace the challenge of writing post-tonal music, it opens their creative options to include techniques and sonorities that they otherwise might not have considered when writing tonal music.
    • Many composition students have indicated a desire to write music for film or video games. For such students, the more techniques they know, the more effectively they will be able to score for film (or video games, although I confess to not knowing much about this genre of music).
    • I have tried different approaches to the teaching of composition over the past 30 years, and this method works, if students are willing to buy into it. 
    • There are over 20 student comments on a previous blog entry I wrote on this topic, all of which are positive. Many express an initial discomfort with trying to write post-tonal music, but conclude with views similar to this one: "Intro to composition has completely opened up my ears to accepting tonalities that I otherwise would not have heard beauty in!"  
    • One of the most compelling reasons I advocate writing post-tonal music is that when I have allowed tonal composition, the results have generally been disappointing, albeit with some pleasant exceptions along the way. Possible reasons for this include the following:
      • It is very hard to write tonal music that (a) sounds original, and (b) doesn't sound like a poor imitation of some tonal music composer.
      • Despite having taken four semesters of tonal harmony and analysis before starting the first semester of composition seminar, as well as one semester of counterpoint for some, many students who have chosen a composition major did not do particularly well in these courses, and, unsurprisingly, their tonal writing has often been problematic (forbidden parallels, poorly resolved sevenths, doubled tendency tones, odd chord progressions, clearly wrong notes that the student was apparently unable to hear despite playing the file numerous times in Finale or some other music notation programme, etc.).
      • Our ears are so accustomed to tonal music of the highest quality that when we write tonal music of significantly lower quality (as our first attempts almost invariably must be), it just does not sound very good. Again, to be fair, there have been exceptions, but not very many.

  8. None of this comes from an elitist, "Who Cares if You Listen," antipathy towards tonality and love of "academic" music, whatever that might be. I grew up playing rock and folk music, then studied jazz guitar for a few years, and only began studying classical music in my 20s. One thing led to another, and I eventually got a doctorate in composition and became a professor, but I never lost my love of rock and many other kinds of music as well. I remember very well my first reactions to Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and even Bartok… Much like the protagonist in Dr. Seuss's famous book, Green Eggs and Ham, I did not like them, Sam-I-Am!

    Fortunately, I had teachers that (a) helped me to better understand the music I didn't like, so that I grew to not only gain a better appreciation of that music, but to actually enjoy it as well, and (b) exposed me to compositional approaches that I either knew little or nothing about. Therefore, as I see it, an important part of my role as a composition teacher/facilitator is to challenge students to consider compositional techniques, approaches, and possibilities that they may never have tried before. Usually, in trying these new things, students find some they like, but whether they like them or not, they can develop a better understanding of new (to them) techniques.

    This is where the "composer's toolbox" analogy comes in; the more you know, the more techniques and approaches to composition you have tried, the better equipped you will be to express your uniqueness through music, and the better equipped you will be to write for stage, film, television, or video games, should you ever have that opportunity.

    Most of us want to express something deeply personal through our music; we are better able to do this with a wide array of compositional techniques and approaches in our toolboxes than a limited selection. If you were a writer but your vocabulary had only 100 words, it seems likely that you would find this limiting your ability to express the subtleties and deep thoughts you might wish to express; if you had a vocabulary of 60,000 words, it seems likely that you be better able to express yourself in an effective but nuanced way.

    Most of the music I have written in about the past twenty years is in some way tonal, with a number of exceptions as well. It is clearly where my heart lies, but I don't think I would find it very interesting to only write tonal music. But I could not have written any of the tonal-based compositions that I really like unless I had spent years trying to get good at post-tonal techniques.

    Most students appear to have little interest in my music – not complaining, just observing – but if you would like to listen to a few of the tonality-based compositions I wrote just to see where I am coming from, here are a few links:

    Dream Dance (A wild, virtuosic, perpetual motion joyride; 2007)
    Domenico 1° & 2° (Two sonatas inspired by Scarlatti; 2009)
    Last Dance (Juno nominated slow tango, called "haunting and beautiful" by Jon Kimura Parker; 1999)
    iPad Riff Recontextualized (Based on a Steve Reich riff appropriated by Apple for an iPad commercial, 2010)

A student in our class made a great point yesterday about uniqueness not being something we need to strive for, because we are already unique; what we need to strive for is mastery of a sufficiently-large selection of skills so that our uniqueness is not restricted by our lack of skill.

Here's what I wrote about uniqueness in "If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take), a blog post from May of 2014:
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.
This brings us to the second and third questions at the top of today's post, which touch on what I would consider to be an artistic imperative: An artist is obliged to express themselves in whatever way they believe works best. I strongly support this. However, as I wrote above, part of my role as a teacher, as I see it, is to get students to try new things, thereby giving them more tools with which to express themselves. Besides, there are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music; in this one, I ask them to write post-tonal music, which opens the door to a seemingly-infinite range of possibilities.

I have given explanations of why I usually require post-tonal harmonic language and practices in previous posts – links below. The third one in particular addresses this issue, and has generated a high number of comments, all positive (so far!).

Other posts on this topic:
Express Yourself? 
"If you can name it, don't use it" (3; my take)
Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant! 
Atonality = Noise?Jess Blenis Guest Blog on Atonality

Here's that list I alluded to earlier of post-tonal techniques and compositional approaches; hopefully, you will agree that there are lots of options to choose from, and it's not by any stretch an exhaustive list! This too is borrowed from an earlier blog post (Jan. 2010):

  1. Modes of limited transposition (Messiaen’s term).
  2. Non-Messiaenic modes of limited transposition (e.g., modes that repeat every 2 or 3 8ves)
  3. Non-Western scales (e.g., pelog, slendra (Indonesia),  Hejaz scale (middle east, and flamenco; AKA Phrygian dominant scale, Jewish scale), Indian scales, etc.).
  4. Octatonic scale (A.K.A. “diminished scale;” this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  5. Pentatonic scales (i.e., anhemitonic (e.g., CDEGA), hemitonic (e.g., EFGBC), hirajoshi (e.g., ABCEF), etc.
  6. Whole-Tone scale (this is also one of Messiaen's modes).
  7. Any other made-up, or synthetic, scale.

  1. Added-Value Rhythms.
  2. Additive Rhythms.
  3. Cross Rhythm.
  4. Eastern European (asymmetrical; 2+2+3, 2+2+2+3, 3+2+2+3, etc.), West African, and other world rhythms.
  5. Free (“timeless”, no sense of pulse).
  6. Isorhythms.
  7. Jazz (?).
  8. Mixed meters ( 3/4 | 5/8 | 2/4 | 7/16 |, etc.).
  9. Motor rhythms (continuous motion).
  10. Non-retrogradable.
  11. Polymeters.
  12. Polyrhythms.
  13. Polytempo.
  14. Rhythms or phrase lengths based on Fibonacci (or other) Numerical Series.
  15. Tempo fluctuations (i.e., sudden/gradual tempo changes, metric modulation).

  1. Various programmatic moods, such as aggressive, pretty, wistful, playful, demented, nervous, sad (various kinds), numb (catatonic), angry, fearful, etc.
  2. New jazz, third stream.
  3. Fusions; combining popular music genres (rock/electropop/trance/hippety-hop, etc.) with various post-tonal art-music devices.
  4. Minimalism (repetitive (trance-inducing); sparse and static (trance-inducing)).
  5. New simplicity.
  6. Borrowing/adopting elements of music from other cultures: Japan, Eastern Europe, India, etc.
  7. Expressive (romantic) versus Non-expressive (mechanistic).

  1. Any systematic (or non-systematic) approach to harmony not rooted in tonality.
  2. Clusters.
  3. Extended and non-tonal tertian harmony (e.g., Scriabin’s “mystic” chord).
  4. Extended instrumental and vocal techniques (multiphonics, prepared piano, etc.).
  5. Graphic notation.
  6. Hindemith’s approach to harmony (from The Craft of Musical Composition).
  7. Indeterminacy, aleatorism, controlled aleatorism.
  8. Klangfarbenmelodie, texture-based organization.
  9. Microtones.
  10. Mixed media.
  11. Modulation.
  12. Motivic unity; set theory (post-tonal); using a limited number of specific intervals.
  13. Music without melody.
  14. Nihilism, Antimusic, Decategorization, Biomusic.
  15. Non-Tertian harmony (secundal, quartal, quintal).
  16. Planing.
  17. Pointillism.
  18. Polyrhythms.
  19. Polystylism.
  20. Polytonality, polymodality.
  21. Quotation.
  22. Saturation (e.g., Ligeti's "Atmosphères," industrial music).
  23. Serialism (pitch).
  24. Serialism ("integral," or “total;” creating series of dynamics, articulations, registers, timbres).
  25. Spectral music.
  26. Any combination of the above.

Postscript – My responses to two student comments:

A student writes: "as a composition student, I feel that I should not be told to not write tonal music."

• Do you feel you should not be told to play classical music by your applied instructor? I suspect not, so why suggest that your composition professor should not impose restrictions on what you write? See points 1, 2, 3, 4 above. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding on why I impose technical restrictions on what students write in my composition courses.
The same student writes: "if [my music is] tonal-ish sounding and it's decent sounding and I am enjoying what I am doing, then shouldn't I be allowed to do so? After all music school is supposed to be fun after all and if I am told that I can't write what I want to as a composer that's kind of a drag."
• You are allowed to write (and of course enjoy!) whatever you wish when composing purely for yourself, just like you are allowed to perform anything you like – country music, heavy metal, folk, hip-hop, etc. – on your own or in bands (as a lot of our students do; they play gigs in bands downtown on weekends), but, just as your applied instructor has the right to limit the stylistic choices in the music you perform for credit, your composition instructor has the same right to restrict stylistic choices.

• The suggestion that music school is "supposed to be fun" needs to be examined. I'd like to think that there is some fun to be had in any course I teach, but I suspect my colleagues would disagree with your statement. I would suggest that music school is supposed to be a place where professors teach you new things about music, and students work hard to learn these things. Again, there is sometimes fun to be had, but that's not the overarching objective of music school. When I was a student, there was always a great sense of satisfaction when I felt I had learned or accomplished something in music school, but it invariably resulted from a lot of hard work, which, while I didn't mind it most of the time, I would not really describe as fun.

- - - - - - -
A different student writes: "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write tonal music” [quoting my blog]  I disagree with this point. There are lots of university courses in which we interact with tonal music (ex. history), and there are lots of university courses that have us writing shadows of tonal music, with exercises in harmony and counterpoint classes that are intended to improve and demonstrate aspects of that music. However, I cannot think of a single university course (never mind “lots” of them) that requires students to write full, original, tonal compositions."
• I did not write, "There are lots of university courses in which we require students to write full, original, tonal compositions." Quite obviously this would be false, although there is a course being introduced in the 2016-2017 year that will lead to the composition of a complete, classical-style sonata form movement, and I highly recommend this to anyone wishing to write "full, original, tonal compositions."

• I do not see how one can disagree with the statement that there are several courses that require students to write tonal music; these include the four semesters of harmony ("Materials of Music"), 16th-Century Counterpoint, and 18th-Century Counterpoint. Counting only these courses, it means that in 6 of the 8 semesters of a 4-year degree, students can take courses with a strong tonal music writing component. Perhaps a better way of stating my point is this: In almost every course that involves writing music at our university, the harmonic language is tonal; I would assume that this is even true to some degree of Jazz Theory, since jazz theory is mostly an evolution of tonal music theory. There is only one course in which the focus is on selected post-tonal techniques ("Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music"), and I'm not sure how much music writing goes on on that course, as opposed to analysis, which is its usual focus.

• Is this a good balance or not? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on one's views of the value of developing skills in post-tonal music for composers; I have listened to a lot of contemporary classical music over the past thirty-five (or so) years, which has informed my view that this is not an adequate balance between tonal and post-tonal skills in the training of composers, which is why I advocate and facilitate the development of skills in post-tonal music.  

• Incidentally, I have frequently supported students wanting to write music based in some way on tonality, but the condition I impose on this is always the same: Explore ways of doing something new and different with tonality, or figure out how composers (such as Debussy, Górecki, Penderecki, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Wolf, etc.) who pushed tonality to its limits or in new directions did so, and borrow or adapt some of their techniques.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (®Jan/2016)

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. Entries relating to class business – reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc. – are omitted.

Links are loosely organized by topic to facilitate browsing.

→ Exploring the Creative Process; Struggles and Solutions ←
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (includes section on "writer's block")

→ Planning ←

→ Playing With Expectations; Musical Dichotomies ←

→ Composition Techniques 

→ Form in Post-Tonal Music ←

→ Atonality; What's in a Name? ←

→ Winning and Losing; Judging and Being Judged ←

→ Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music and Marketing ←

→ Composition Issues (10-part series that started this blog) ←
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in assessing compositions that emerge 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 is 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 / More is more
7.2. Always leave them wanting more / Give them what they want
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot / There's a sucker born every minute
7.4. There can be too much of a good thing / If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.
8.1. Three models for the role of a composer
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

→ Composition Projects ←

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Potentially-Hubristic Folly of Planning

"Creativity is very messy," writes Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman in a Scientific American article entitled, The Messy Minds of Creative People (December 24, 2014).

Well, yeah…

The process that leads to the completion of a composition, or indeed anything you create, is, at least in my experience, rarely linear.
  • There are ideas that don't go anywhere.
  • There are ideas that go somewhere, but not where you want them to go.
  • There are sometimes too many ideas.
  • There are sometimes no ideas, or at least none that seem to be any good.
  • Finding regular, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to compose can be challenging. Kind of like searching for the Holy Grail, or finding a match for all those single socks that dryers produce.
  • When you finally find a block of time in which to compose, the creative well sometimes appears to have run dry. This can lead to…
  • Frustration. And in such large quantities!
  • Every now and then, however, something goes right, which is sweet indeed! However…
  • We may come to believe that what we considered brilliant, or at least pretty darn good, is neither, and in fact may very possibly be complete garbage. (To be clear, it is unlikely to be garbage, complete or otherwise, but the brain sometimes turns on a person.)
  • There can be positive feedback from others, encouraging you to keep doing what you're doing.
  • There can be conflicting suggestions from others, such as:
    • The piano writing is unidiomaticvs. Nah, the piano writing is fine… A good pianist should have no trouble with it.
    • A single motive that permeates every bar of the entire piece? That is PURE GENIUS, my friend! vs. That pervasive motive is fine for a while, but you get pretty sick of it after about the twentieth time you hear it, and by about page five it makes me want to jump off a building! Seriously, dial it back a notch or six; less is more.
    • That middle section makes no sense to me, vs. That middle section is my favourite part!
  • There can be a little voice in the back of your head suggesting that you really have no idea what you're doing, so why keep doing it?
  • There can be self-flagellation. Figuratively, ideally. Otherwise, that would just be weird.
  • There can be happy, joyous times. Oh, what a splendid idea this is! This peppy little minuet will surely get the powdered-wig set dancing! La!
  • There can be self-shaming: Oh, why did I ever think that a peppy minuet was a splendid idea? Hipster kids nowadays are mostly into the bourée, while emo kids are all about sarabandes, at least when they're not listening to the Pavane pour une infante défunte… I feel so ashamed!
  • On good days, there can be the briefly-held and hubristically-based belief that the composition process is really quite straightforward, as long as you focus on executing the plan.
  • There can be a growing sense that your plan isn't working, accompanied by a feeling of increasing dread.
  • There can be creative paralysis upon realizing that not only does the plan not work, your entire piece is basically dead in the water, gone belly up, defunct, bankrupt, demised, passed on, is no more, has ceased to be, expired, gone to meet its maker, a stiff, bereft of life, resting in peace, pushing up daisies, its metabolic processes are now history, it's off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin' choir invisible; basically, what you've got is the compositional equivalent of an EX-PARROT!! [adapted from Monty Python, Dead Parrot Sketch]
  • There can be complaints and seemingly-unrealistic demands from performers of your music.
  • Upon completion of a composition, there can be a sense of accomplishment so profound that, incredibly, you decide to put yourself through this messy process again and begin a new project. 
All of which brings us to the idea of a plan. Here is a cautionary tale, based on a true story, but with abundant and egregious liberties taken:

Chapter One

Once upon a time, there was a student named Sammy (not her/his real name; if you are a student named Sammy, this is not about you. Sorry).

Now Sammy had always composed fairly intuitively, and, while it had often been a frustrating process, it had worked out reasonably well, and s/he was making slow, steady progress.

One day, Sammy got a notion that it would be a good idea to work out a plan for her/his next piece.

Many composers start with a plan, some of which can be really detailed. Insanely detailed! Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez: I'm looking at you, dudes!

A detailed plan could provide many benefits — it could smooth the composition process, since you would always know where to go next within the piece; without a plan, we often struggle when we finish a section because we're not sure where it should go from there. Lots of times Sammy had started pieces intending to take them in a particular direction, only to have the piece go in a different direction! Compositions, like cats, often do not go where we want them to go. A plan would definitely help put Sammy in control of her/his composition, and not the other way around!

Not only that, but a plan would likely result in a work that was well designed, consistent, and organic. No more of this ten-different-ideas-within-the-same-piece nonsense!

A plan could be the key to taking her/his music to the next level.

Chapter Two

And so Sammy began work on the plan. S/he used set theory to work out a pitch system that produced beautiful, non-tonal sonorities.  Actually, it took a few attempts before Sammy was satisfied with this, but the eventual result was most satisfying indeed! When Sammy played arpeggios from this pitch-organization system for his composition class, they were impressed! Sammy's composition teacher was impressed, and immediately thought of cool and wonderful things that could be done with Sammy's system.

Chapter Three

 Sammy worked out related pitch worlds for different sections of the piece. Sammy also worked on the structure of the piece, eventually (again, after several unsatisfactory attempts) arriving at a series of overlapping arch shapes that were a thing of beauty. Approximate durations were assigned to each section, and as well to each subsection. The vertical axis represented intensity, which rose and fell in a series of cascading waves, eventually reaching a climax at the golden mean.

Chapter Four

There may have been more additions/deletions/modifications to the plan after that. Sammy's composition teacher does not remember.

Chapter Five

But Sammy's composition teacher does remember feeling increasingly uneasy as the weeks rolled by and no significant work on the actual composition was presented to the class. Semesters are about twelve weeks long in Canada, the land where Sammy and Sammy's composition teacher both live, and with about half the semester gone, all Sammy had to show the class each week were further tweaks to the plan. To be fair, however, Sammy had sketched out bits of several sections as well. This in no way reflected any malingering, dallying, dawdling, or dilatoriness on Sammy's part; constructing a detailed plan takes a lot of work, and Sammy's teacher understood this, having read about it in a book once.

Chapter Six

Sammy was beginning to feel the crunch, what with the semester half gone and all, and decided to take the leap. The first section took longer than expected, because Sammy wasn't satisfied with the results he was getting. The first section! And already it was starting to feel like herding cats! Why must cats and compositions be so willful? Sammy wondered.

Chapter Seven

Well, friends, I gotta tell ya, Sammy was (and probably still is) a diligent and eager beaver. Literally. No, not literally… the other one… figuratively? Yeah, that's it. But you already know this, because a good portion of chapter five was devoted to Sammy's general lack of dillydallying. And so Sammy, ever keen, put her/his back into it and herded them cats! Which is to say, s/he completed the first section, and was satisfied with it. As were all those who heard it, and they praised Sammy.

We were now about two-thirds of the way through the semester. "Hmm," thought the composition teacher.

Chapter Eight

The process continued as previously, which is to say that it was considerably less smooth than anticipated! Aspects of the original plan — which was quite lovely! — were modified, or even scrapped. The existential angst that Sammy had hoped to avoid was not avoided, and, what's more, it now grew from "I'm not sure where to take my piece in the next section," to "There are aspects to my plan that don't seem to be working, and I am NOT sanguine about this!" And indeed, Sammy was not.

Chapter Nine

And so it came to pass that time marched inexorably on, as is its wont despite our best efforts to the contrary, and small compositional triumphs were mixed with periodic setbacks and occasional blows to the psychic solar plexus, which means that some setbacks were worse than others. Sammy stuck with it, and eventually pulled the rabbit out of the hat, which is to say s/he finished the piece, more or less, by the end of semester.

"More or less" in this case means that Sammy was not fully satisfied with the finished product, as getting it done involved several compromises along the way — sections that didn't quite turn out as hoped, but with no time to make them tickety-boo because it was necessary to move on to the subsequent section in order to finish by the deadline.

The Moral of the Story

Were the challenges faced along the way the product of a faulty plan, or are such challenges simply inherent to the creative process?

Undoubtedly you, as a perceptive reader, already know the composition teacher's view on this, because the title of today's blog kind of gives it away. That, plus opening this blog with, "creativity is messy." And then following that opening with a list of things that make the creative process messy.

However, the composition teacher hastens to clarify his position by saying that while the creative process is indeed messy most of the time, even for so-called geniuses, this doesn't obviate the potential benefits of a well-constructed plan. Should Sammy write more plan-based compositions, it seems likely that Sammy's ability to craft functional plans, with built-in contingencies for when things get messy, will improve. One key is to understand that most plans have to be changed once the actual work of composition is underway.

That said, however, it's probable that for any substantial creative project, things will get messy along the way, with or without a plan, and part of being a composer involves learning to accept this, deal with the inevitable difficulties as they arise, and push past them.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry 
(Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire: "To a Mouse," 1785).

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Exploring Music with No Melody, part 2

In part one, we compared a ridiculous number (20) of definitions of the word, melody, and came up with our own, functional-but-flawed definition (a sequence of notes), eventually arriving at the question at the core of these music with no melody blog posts:
 Does good music require a strong, singable “tune” in the foreground? 
In part two, we conclude this discussion, look at / listen to a variety of works in which a foreground melody is not a primary organizing principle, and end up with a description of a composition project for my students.

Discussion of the above question:
"In the foreground," means that the "tune" is front and centre, the musical aspect that most prominently gives the composition its identity. When we think of Yesterday (the Beatles song), Jingle Bells, Mendelssohn's Wedding March,  or Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, we may think of many facets of these pieces (instrumentation, rhythms, our emotional responses to them, etc.), but it is likely that the aspect of these compositions that first pops into our head is the tune. 
This turns out to be a fairly easy question to answer, because there are, perhaps surprisingly, numerous good compositions whose most prominent and memorable aspect is probably not the “tune."
Here are some of them; the first two have audio clips beneath the music examples, the remaining ones are all videos, some with scrolling scores:
J. S. Bach, Prelude 1, WTC I, BWV 846

L. van Beethoven, Symphony 7, II: Alegretto (pno. reduction)

Schoenberg — Farben (#3 of Five Pieces for Orchestra, also called "Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord Colours"; 1908)

A. Webern, Variations for Piano, op. 27, II

Glenn Gould's performance of the Webern is above; if you haven't heard it, I strongly recommend having a listen (and watch the hand crossings in the second movement, which starts at 1:31). It's very short, as is the case in all Webern music.

Next is another short one, Ligeti, Etudes for Piano, Book 1, No 2:

Howard Bashaw, Prelude no. 5, "Dita Correnti" is next; again, watch the pianist's hands:

Next is Messiaen, Petites esquisses d'oiseaux:

And after Messiaen, it makes sense to listen to some Toru Takemitsu music. This is Riverrun:

Morton Feldman, Piano And String Quartet (it's an hour and 20 minutes long, so get comfortable!):

Philip Glass's music very much belongs in this discussion; this is Glassworks:

These are just some of many compositions that don't have a melody, or "tune," as most people understand those words, as a prominent, foreground feature. There's also an entire genre of music in which this is also the case, which is called Spectralism, music that uses sound spectra or tone colour as a fundamental organizing principle. I wrote a blog about spectral music music a few years ago; click here if you wish to learn more about it. That post also has more music videos by other composers to check out.

In spectralism, as well as in all the above examples, composers found ways of drawing our attention to musical aspects other than melody. These aspects included continuous motion broken chords (Bach, Ligeti), repetitive arpeggios (Feldman), a focus on musical colour and/or sound masses (Schoenberg, Messiaen, Takemitsu, spectralism, Feldman), pointillism (Webern), arpeggios with interjected bird call emulations (Messiaen), fast, angular writing with repeated motives (Bashaw), static minimalism (Schoenberg, Feldman),  and pulsed minimalism with oscillating figures (Glass).

Composition project:  Write three short pieces for piano and one other instrument, in which melody is not a predominant feature. Each piece should approach this challenge in a different way. You can borrow techniques from any of the pieces cited above, or cited in my Spectralism blog, or from any other pieces, or you can come up with your own original solutions to this challenge. The harmonic language cannot be traditional tonality, but this does not exclude the use of traditional sonorities.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Exploring Music with No Melody, part 1

Does good music require a melody? Does the melody have to be something memorable that we can sing or whistle after having heard it? And what exactly do we mean by “melody?”

Let’s take these questions one at a time, but in reverse order:

1. What is melody?
Compare these definitions of melody:
    Oxford Dictionaries:
  1. A sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying; a tune.
  2. The aspect of musical composition concerned with the arrangement of single notes to form a satisfying sequence.
  3. The principal part in harmonized music

  4. Dictionary.com:
  5. Musical sounds in agreeable succession or arrangement.
  6. The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.
  7. The principal part in a harmonic composition; the air.
  8. A rhythmical succession of single tones producing a distinct musical phrase or idea.

  9. Merriam-Webster.com:
  10. A pleasing series of musical notes that form the main part of a song or piece of music.
  11. A song or tune
  12. A sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds; tunefulness.
  13. A rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole.

  14. More from Dictionary.com:
  15. A pleasing succession or arrangement of sounds.
  16. A rhythmically organized sequence of single tones so related to one another as to make up a particular phrase or idea.
  17. Structure with respect to the arrangement of single notes in succession.
  18. The leading part or the air in a composition with accompaniment.
  19. A succession of notes forming a distinctive sequence; tune.
  20. The horizontally represented aspect of the structure of a piece of music.
  21. The perception of pleasant arrangements of musical notes.
  22. A rhythmical succession of musical tones organized as a distinct phrase or sequence of phrases.
  23. Musically satisfying sequences of notes collectively
Well, the range of definitions is impressive! The closest thing to a common denominator in these definitions is that melody is a sequence (or succession, or series) of notes (tones, sounds). [The word sequence in these definitions simply means succession, not a musical sequence.]

I find it both surprising and odd that so many definitions include words like satisfying, agreeable, pleasant, and pleasing; it seems problematic to attach an emotional response to the definition of melody. 
If a melody is musically dissatisfying to someone, does that mean it's not a melody? Melody can be described in many ways — satisfying or dissatisfying, good or bad, aimless or purposeful, pointillistic or linear, chaotic or predictable, sparse or dense — without changing the fact that it is still a melody. One person's "bad" or "dissatisfying" melody may be another's "good" or "satisfying melody, but in either case, it's a melody. Subjective terms do not belong in the definition. 
My feeling is that a sequence of notes is a somewhat functional, albeit imperfect, definition of melody, because it allows debate on the relative merits or satisfaction-level of melodies without invalidating a melody or entire composition just because we don’t find it pleasant or satisfying. 
The problem, unfortunately, is that this definition — a sequence of notes — doesn't really tell us very much; is any sequence of notes a melody? This is debatable of course, but I suspect most people would say, for example, that a succession of pitches randomly selected from the 88 notes of a piano, with random durations, spaces in between, and dynamics, is not the kind of musical line we associate with the word melody. But perhaps for some people it is.
2. Does a melody have to be memorable?
Again, a problem with this question is that “memorable” is a subjective term; what I find memorable, you might not, and vice versa. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, is memorable. The melody to Scriabin, Prelude, op. 74 no. 2  (below), although very beautiful, perhaps less so (this is very short – only slightly longer than a minute – so, if you don't know this lovely miniature, please have a listen):

There are types of music, such as pop or musical theatre, in which it is particularly important that the melody be memorable.  More generally, it seems likely that most compositions that we enjoy have memorable melodies, but, at least in classical music, the entire piece is not likely to be equally memorable.
Symphonic development sections, for example, don’t need to be memorable; they just need to take the listener for a ride (sometime a wild one) to places where fragments of melodies sound familiar, but are used in unfamiliar contexts and often unstable harmonies.  Most people probably find it challenging to leave a symphonic performance humming the development section, but we don't hold that against a great symphony. For music geeks like me, classical development sections can be enthralling to hear and study, even if more memorable (and more complete) melodies come in the exposition (first section).   
3. Does good music require a melody, memorable or otherwise? 
Well, here we have to backtrack a little; if the question is, does good music require a "sequence of notes," then it seems that the answer is usually yes: Good music typically has notes, and they are typically in a sequence of some sort.  (Well thanks, Captain Obvious, you may be thinking…)
But even here there are exceptions, such as John Cage’s 4’ 33” (Spoiler alert: It has no notes), and non-pitched electronic music, particularly musique concrète
So let’s revise this question, because doing so will get us closer to the objectives of the composition project at the end of part 2 of these Exploring Music with No Melody blogs:

3®. Does good music require a strong, singable “tune” in the foreground? 

— See part 2 for the continuation of this discussion, with lots of music videos.