Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Things to Consider when Composing (6 of 9)

[From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
VI. Creating tension between familiar/unfamiliar, expected/unexpected
On the one hand, people find comfort in the familiar…

     • Once we (as listeners) are familiar with a given opening to a composition, we tend to like to stick with it for a while to see how it will evolve. When it comes back (possibly varied) later in the piece, recognizing it can give us some satisfaction, possibly because it gives us a sense of closure
On the other hand, people become bored with the "same old, same old" after a while.

     • People's attention spans have limits, and the mind can start to wander during overly repetitive or aimless compositions. You need to introduce unexpected or unfamiliar elements from time to time to keep people interested.
     • Most music is in some sense A-B-A form (where "B" = any brief or lengthy departure from "A"). Also, there is usually repetition within the A or B sections themselves; there is comfort in the familiar.

     • Standard forms do not include A-B-C-D-E… form, probably because most listeners would be experiencing information overload by around sections C or D. Unless your aim is to confuse your audience, re-use, develop, extend, transform, etc. your musical ideas!

     • True, but there is also no A-A-A-A-A-A… or A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A… form, probably because the audience would slip into a catatonic trance from boredom. Interestingly, Theme and Variations (or Chaconne, or Passacaglia) is A-A'-A"-A'"… form, which is obviously very repetitive, but it succeeds as a form because the listener focuses on the way A is varied each time. Its structural repetitiveness is why some regard it as the least interesting form in music! (Even this form, however, can support the creation of masterpieces of the highest order; Bach's Goldberg Variations and Chaconne are considered to be two of the finest works in the history of music.)
     • People just love sequences because they are so repetitive!
     • Would sequences be as popular if each repetition started on the same pitch? If the repetition is so great, why is there the "rule of 3?"
     • Minimalism is repetitive. That's why people love it. Minimalism is repetitive. That's why people love it. Minimalism is repetitive. That's…
     • Minimalism isn't everyone's cup of tea. Some people can't stand how repetitive it is. Also, even in minimalism things change. Slowly. [What's minimalism about, anyway?]
     • Ostinati. Many composers absolutely adore them! And with good reason! They're repetitive!
     • Study the use of ostinati in The Rite of Spring. How long do they go on? Is it ever too long? Overly-long ostinati are a great way to wreck a good idea!
Conclusion: Try to create some form of balance (or tension) between old ideas/new ideas, the expected/the unexpected, repetition/variety, and the familiar/the unfamiliar if you want to engage the listener for the duration of a composition. Can you think of other elements that need to be kept in balance? (stability/instability, tension/release, etc.)
Perhaps one of the keys to great art is in the way that it leads us along a path between the expected and unexpected (and between the other dualities discussed) in a way that feels "just right" to the observer/listener. It is a fine and elusive line, but there would presumably be a surfeit of great art if it were otherwise. You have to figure out for yourself where that point lies, and it will be different for every composition.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home