Friday, July 25, 2008

Kandinsky's 3 "Mystical Necessities" for Art (1)

Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) is one of the best-known 20th-century artists (he is regarded as the originator of abstract art), but he did not begin painting studies until he was 30. Kandinsky had previously studied Law and Economics at the University of Moscow and was evidently very successful, because he was offered a professorship (chair of Roman Law) at the University of Dorpat (Estonia).

And I thought I was a late starter… [ 3 ] ←

In addition to his accomplishments as a painter, he was also a theorist with strong convictions about the role of art and the artist in society, and more painting-specific issues such as colour theories (he believed that certain colors have an affinity for certain shapes; see more here).

My friend and fellow composer John Oliver recently wrote a blog ("Artist's Statement") in which he cites Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value: The Personal, The Ephemeral, and The Eternal. This topic—the role of the artist—fascinates me, and it's something I try to get my students to think about, so I will follow my own advice about not getting too hung-up on originality (from my July 19-21 blogs) and reproduce John's Kandinsky quote below:

     1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to oneself (element of personality).
     2. Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to one's own time (elements of style ...)
     3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space).

I will also add another quote from the same booklet, entitled "On the Spiritual in Art" (the publication date of which I have seen listed as 1910, 1911, and 1912 at various places on the Internet). Kandinsky also wrote:

Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated.

Okay; lots to think about there, but this is getting long, so more later!

  • [ 3 ] I decided to become a musician after finishing my BA (humanities) degree. The decision was a rather odd one, in retrospect, because I could barely read music and couldn't play any instrument particularly well. Recognizing that my severe lack of musical skills could get in the way becoming a musician, I began the formal study of music (rudiments) in my twenties, and continued on weekends, evenings, and off-hours while working at a variety of jobs (bus information operator, stereo/electronics sales, department store sales clerk) over the next 15 years, leading eventually (and improbably) to a doctorate in composition. [ ↑ ]
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    Wednesday, July 23, 2008

    Things to Consider when Composing (9 of 9)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
    IX. Aren't these modern times? Can't we try to come up with a completely new approach to composition? Who made all these rules, anyway? A bunch of dead white Europeans? Ever heard of World Music? Rock? etc.

         It is good to try new approaches. Take your inspiration from wherever you find it, be it hip-hop, Persian music, commercials, movie music your dishwasher, etc. Never feel constrained by the shackles of history or tradition. 
         On the other hand, history has a lot to teach us, and there are usually reasons for why things were done the way they were for centuries. Everybody gets to decide for themselves how (or whether) to balance old and new approaches to writing music.

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    Things to Consider when Composing (8 of 9)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
    VIII. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?

         1. There are at least three models for how composers see their roles:

              (a) Master of the Universe model (AKA the "Control Freak"). Some composers see themselves as "masters" or "controllers" of everything they compose. They make a plan for the piece, and they use their skill and mastery to make the music follow the plan.

              (b) In Touch with the Universe model. Other composers adopt a more mystical approach; there are countless potential musical ideas floating around out there, waiting to be brought to life by a composer attuned to them. This kind of composer sees her role as the medium through which some of the infinite thematic possibilities can be given the spark of life.

              (c) Sometimes the Master, Sometimes the Mystic model. Well, this is probably where most composers fall. Sometimes a person may feel a sense of mastery over their craft, while other times they feel like they are caught up in something bigger, like riding a wave, hoping to go along with that wave for as long as they can.
              Interestingly, the same points of view can be found in different people's attitudes towards parenting; some people seemingly attempt to plan their babies' entire lives before they are even born, while others pay close attention to the growing child in order to try to learn what kind of person they were sent by the universe (or God, or Vishnu, or the Great Mother Goddess, etc.), and try to serve as facilitators who help the child become the person that s/he was meant to be.

         2.  (a) Basically, how you see your role as a composer determines how you proceed. If you see yourself as the Master of your music, you are likely to have made a plan before beginning; when your idea has run its course, you simply follow your plan and move to the next stage.

              (b) Those who adopt a more mystical model might choose to listen to the musical idea over and over to o determine where IT "wants" to go, or if it has said all it needs to say.

         3. I happen to think both approaches have merit. The value of starting with a plan, even a loose one, cannot be overstated. It is also a very good idea to listen repeatedly to the music at every step of the plan to see where it wants to go; you almost certainly will have to change the plan as you go.

         4. Sometimes (frequently, in my case!) we get stuck because our composition is not turning into the kind of piece we had in mind when we started. Perhaps we had intended to write a fanfare, and we discover we are actually writing something with a more subdued, soulful character. Or perhaps we were asked to write a short, relatively easy work for a friend, and what we end up writing is long-ish and rather challenging.
         There is no simple solution when this occurs; you could (a) stop the piece you are writing and begin again, (b) keep going with the piece you are writing until it is finished, and perhaps then begin a new composition that is more in keeping with the original plan, or (c) determine where your plan began to go awry, and 'fix it' from that point forwards. I have done all three, and your options often depend on other factors, such as an imminent deadline, how far along you are in your composition (if you're not very far into your piece, then option (a) would might be your best choice; if you're almost finished, then (b) would be more feasible, for example), the purpose your music is meant to have (if writing for film, for example, you don't have the luxury of option (b); you have to evoke the mood or character that would best fit the scene, and if that's not happening, then you have to keep at it until it does), etc.

         5. Getting stuck is common, so perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it is a normal part of the creative process, so try not to make too much of it when it happens!

         6. Sometimes, the solution(s) you come up with to being stuck end up being the the most inspired part of your composition.  It may sound corny, but it's true:  

    Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

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    Things to Consider when Composing (7 of 9)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]
    VII. More dichotomies to ponder…
    When in doubt, err on the side of restraint; less is more.
         • Thwart audience expectations periodically by varying or otherwise manipulating familiar musical materials.
         • Avoid becoming overly predictable.
    Sometimes, going completely over the top is ok; sometimes, more is more!
         • If you're always holding back, it can seem like your music is a big tease! At times it can be good to really wallop your audience with excess. [Can you think of any examples?]
         • Some predictability isn't necessarily bad!
    Always leave them wanting more.
         • This is associated with the theatre, the circus, and, indeed, any form of communication (or entertainment) involving an audience. Sammy Davis Jr. (and many others, I think) called it "the first rule of show business." Although many art music composers may prefer not to think of themselves as "entertainers" (the word has a derogatory association for some, who perhaps think being an "entertainer" is akin to being an organ-grinder's monkey, jumping around with a tin cup), the concept is a useful one for composers of any style of music.
         • BTW, I think it's a fine idea to consider your audience when composing, but never pander!
    Always give them what they want.
         • Another show-biz saying, seemingly antithetical to ←. It seems sound though; if you refuse to "give them what they want," you are perhaps "giving them what they don't want," in which case you shouldn't be surprised if not many people like your music.
         • While a useful consideration, it is probably not the key to creating great art, however. It is a justification for pandering to the lowest common denominator.
         • Nevertheless, there's no reason to completely ignore this advice, even if you are trying to create good or great art; I'm pretty sure most composers considered the audience, but balanced this with their need to be true to their art.
    Don't treat the listener like an idiot.
         • Don't assume a lack of intelligence on the part of the listener. Bach's music is filled with clever and sometimes arcane connections, the discovery of which has been delighting those who study or play his music for years. If every connection or musical gesture were painfully obvious, the music wouldn't be regarded as highly as it is.
         • Similarly, Beatles songs often have a musical cleverness that would seem unnecessary or even pointless if you are a musical snob who regards pop music as a "dumbed-down" art form. It's obviously not pointless; Beatles music is regarded by many as the absolute pinnacle within the genre of pop music and they are possibly the best-selling band in pop music history, which would suggest that their inventiveness has been appreciated by hundreds of millions of people!
    There's a sucker born every minute.
         • P.T. Barnum came up with this saying, and he obviously knew what he was talking about; in his day, and for many years afterwards, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was one of the top acts (in terms of popularity and revenue) in show business. If you make your compositions too intellectual, few people will understand them or be able to relate to them.
         • You need to make musical gestures obvious to listeners; too much subtlety is likely to escape their notice.
         • "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public" (H.L. Menken, who also wrote: "Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.")
    There can be "too much of a good thing."
         • Similar to the previous sayings, all this means is that you may have come up with a musical idea that is brilliant, but if you repeat it ad nauseam people won't think it's very brilliant any more. Show some restraint, even with great musical materials!
    If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
         • This is another way of saying, "don't orphan your musical ideas;" i.e., stick with them until they've had a chance to grow and develop more fully." This was discussed in part IV.
    Finally, you can always try the George Costanza Approach: Go against your every instinct!

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    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.

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    Tuesday, July 22, 2008

    Things to Consider when Composing (5 of 9)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

    V. How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions (may be used in combination with one another)
    •…with different dynamic•…selected motives (i.e., a, or b, or c, etc.)• …a + b +b' (or a+b+a', etc.)
    •…in a different register•…truncate• … continue with similar intervals, i.e., la-do-ti-fa, la-do-ti-fa-mi-so, la-do-ti-fa-mi-so-di-re, etc.
    •…with different orchestration•…invert, retrograde, retrograde inversion• … reorder same pitches, i.e., la-do-ti-fa, do-ti-la-fa, la-ti-fa-do, etc.
    •…with different harmony•…insert/subtract rests• … combine previous two, i.e., la-do-ti-fa, la-ti-fa-mi, so-fi-la-si-ti-la-fa-mi, etc.
    •…in a different mode•…reorder, interpolate (insert), substitute• … using similar or different rhythms.
    •…with different counterpoint•…make nonretrogradable• … make sequence
    •…with different texture (i.e., pointillism, thicker, thinner, etc.)•…rhythm• …turn into a transition (how? Discuss…)
    •…with different accompaniment figure•…shift rhythmic emphasis, rotate• …add dissimilar materials
    •…in a different tempo•…augmentation or diminution of all or any portion• … gradually change character.
    •…in a different meter•…mode• … create a dialogue
    •…in a different key/transposition•…articulation• …reverse roles (melody/accompaniment)
    •…with overlap•…selected intervals• …continue linear contour

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    Things to Consider when Composing (4 of 9)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

    IV. The pros and cons of development
    (pro) Do not abandon your babies!
         •Think of your musical ideas as your children (or, if that is too mind-boggling, your pets!). It is your job to help them grow and develop; be a responsible parent/custodian/pet-owner!
    (con) Don't let ideas overstay their welcome!
         •Not all musical ideas need to be developed to their maximum potential. There needs to be a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar. (See below for more on this:)
         •Growth is of fundamental importance to the European classical music tradition. It is essential to extend, develop, or otherwise 'grow' your musical ideas thoughout the course of a composition.     •Is growth of equal importance to other musical traditions? Could a person write a good, extended composition that totally disregards the growth principle?
         •How to grow: After you have identified musical ideas you have created (label them idea 1, idea 2, (2.1, 2.2 for variants) etc.), try to extend them. There are many, many ways to do this (see next entry), but the starting point is to want your ideas to grow. Yes, just like the 'How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?'joke…
         •(i) Composers all limit the growth of any idea, probably because to do otherwise would make compositions sound like academic exercises. (ii) Consider Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Is it a model of economy of means? If not, is it 'bad'? What about M's Pno. Cto. #21?

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    Things to Consider when Composing (3 of 9)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

    III. Getting a Better Understanding of your Musical Ideas

         Inexperienced composers often don't realize the potential of their musical ideas, finding it easier to come up with a series of unrelated musical ideas rather than work out the implications of existing ones.

         There are several things you can do to help gain a better understanding of your musical idea(s). These include:

         (1) Live with it for a while; play it repeatedly both in actuality and in your mind.

         (2) What's it about? Or, put another way, what is its musical character (dreamy, angry, intense, scary, peaceful, hopeful, sad, despairing, naïve, humorous, dance-like (this has numerous sub-categories; slow dance, fast dance, graceful, stomp, etc.), sneaky, playful, etc.)?

         (3) Does it change character? If so, is this okay? Why? If not okay, then fix it.

         (4) What is its function within the context of the piece (i.e. to start with a "bang," a slow amorphous introduction to-set up what is to follow, to create a sense of timelessness, etc.)?

         (5) Structural Analysis: Does your musical idea break into phrases? If so, how many? If not, are you sure, and why not? How long are the phrases? How are the phrases related? Are they balanced? Is there a non-tonal equivalent to question/answer structure, or to authentic, half, or deceptive cadences? Are there pitch centers? If so, what are they, and how are they related?

         (6) Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis: Since we are probably not dealing with functional harmony, classifying the harmony can be a challenge. Consider using Set Theory; look for vertical and linear sets, see how they relate to one another, try interval vectors. What does all this tell you? What intervals seem most prominent? In general terms, are your materials related to one another, or are they quite different? Are you using non-traditional modes or scales?

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    Things to Consider when Composing (2 of 9)

    [From a 9-part handout for my introductory composition class.]

    II. How do you develop compositional craft?

         1. Study the music of others.

              (a) Study music of different genres; try to understand as many styles of composition as you can (but don't feel you have to fully understand all genres, or indeed any genre, before you begin composing; the study can be a lifelong process).

              •How many compositions have you studied in detail?
              •What types of compositions have you studied in detail?
              •How much of your knowledge of music comes from history textbooks or other secondary sources, and how much comes from your study of specific compositions?

              (b) Include lots of 20th-Century and Contemporary music in your studies. It has been my experience that a great many students who have some interest in composing have no (or limited) interest in the concert music of the past 80 (or so) years.

              •Discuss; is this generally true? Is it true for you? If so, why? Is there anything wrong with this?

    (c) Study (or at least listen to) at least one piece by at least 6 of the following composers. When you find works that are particularly interesting/moving etc., study/listen to more works by that composer. Find out more about them via web searches or other means.
    John AdamsLouis Andriessen Bela BartókLuciano Berio
    Pierre BoulezJohn Cage Ka Nin ChanAaron Copland
    George CrumbMario Davidovsky Morton Feldman Brian Ferneyhough
    Philip GlassGerard GriseyChris Paul Harman Charles Ives
    Helmut LachenmannGyörgy LigetiWitold Lutosławski Olivier Messiaen
    Tristan MurailJohn OswaldSteve Reich George Rochberg
    Clark RossKaija SaariahoGiacinto ScelsiAnne Southam
    Karlheinz StockhausenToru TakemitsuGiles TremblayAnton Webern
    John Weinzweig Christian WolffBernd Alois ZimmermannWalter Zimmermann

              (d) Think like a composer (part 1) while you listen or study. Ask yourself why something (a composition, a section, a musical gesture) works or doesn't; does a given musical idea or section go on too long, too short, or is it just right? Does it speak to you? Why or why not? What qualities in the music help you to connect with it? Sometimes we like a composition right away, and other times it takes a while for us to warm up to it, but we may end up liking it a lot. Why?

              (e) Think like a composer (part 2): Learn what is idiomatic or non-idiomatic for instruments and voice types; make note of textures or orchestration techniques that are effective / captivating / beautiful / disturbing, etc. Many composers keep notebooks, not only to write down their own ideas as they come to them, but also to jot down anything that they find striking in the music of others. Some musical borrowing is not only "okay;" it's good! (It is also a time-honored method of composition pedagogy.)

         2. Compose as much as you can.

              •Composing is exactly like performing; the more you work on it, the better you become.In fact, if you are musical enough to be admitted to the School of Music, you are musical enough to become one of this country's best composers if you work hard enough.

              › While it is true that many people who take an introductory composition class do not wish to become professional composers, one of the benefits of learning to think like a composer is that it can inform the way you play, teach, or research music.

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    Things to Consider when Composing (1 of 9)

    [From a 9-part series for my introductory composition class.]

    I.   Originality and Quality of initial musical ideas
         Everyone who has ever played a musical instrument or sung has probably come up with their own musical ideas (a melody or melody fragment, chord progression, rhythm, etc.)
    at some point. Sometimes, this gives rise to the impulse to create a complete musical composition, but I have had many people tell me the did not follow through on this impulse because they felt their initial musical idea was 'not good enough,' or 'unoriginal.'
    f this has ever happened to you, I would like to suggest two possibly radical concepts to consider:

    The quality of these ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that might emerge from them; and

    The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

    While it would
    probably be a better plan to start with a high quality, original idea, a good composition can start with an uninspired, not-particularly-original idea!

         •Consider 1 & 2; can you think of any examples?

         If true, what the above statements suggest is:

    The way in which your musical ideas are extended and developed into complete compositions matters more than the quality/originality of the ideas themselves.


    Composition is a craft. The harder you work at developing your craft, the better your ability to compose the kind of music you'd like to hear.

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    Things to Consider when Composing (outline for 9-part series)

         This is a handout prepared for my introductory composition class, posted here in case anyone might find it useful, or have any suggestions for improvements. Its main objective is to provoke thought about issues that come up when composing, and to engender discussion on these issues. There are usually no right or wrong answers to the questions posed, but some may find benefit in considering and debating them.

         Here are the 9 sections, and how they break down; each is a separate blog entry:

    I.  Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
         1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
         2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.  Shocking, isn't it?

    II.  How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
         1. Study the music of others.
         2. Compose as much as you can.

    III.  Getting a Better Understanding of your Musical Idea
         1. Live with it for a while.
         2. What's it about?
         3. Does it change character?
         4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
         5. Structural Analysis.
         6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

    IV.   The Pros and Cons of Development

    V.  How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions

    VI.   Balancing the Old with the New, the Expected with the Unexpected

    VII.   More Dichotomies to Ponder…
         1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
         2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
         3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
         4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
         5. The George Costanza approach.

    VIII.   I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
         1. The three models for composers' roles.
         2. Mastery or Mystery?
         3. The value of a plan.
         4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
         5. Don't obsess!
         6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

    IX.   Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it

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    Monday, July 21, 2008

    Originality and the Collective Unconscious

    My theory is that, on some level, artists tap into what Jung called the collective unconscious, referred to as "a reservoir of the experiences of our species," [ 2 ]← for the sources of our inspiration. The ways in which art becomes realized differ according to culture (both musical and sociological), experience, means, personality, and multiple other factors, but I think at the deepest level we're all drawing from a common well, which is perhaps one way of explaining why many of the same feelings or moods are expressed in art repeatedly.

    It doesn't surprise me when I hear similarities between two musical compositions; given the restrictions of the tonal music system and the structural limitations of most pop music, what surprises me is that blatant rip-offs don't happen more often.

    The whole concept of originality in art is complex and, I think, often misunderstood. It is often a factor that enters into the evaluation of art, which means it is perceived to be of value, but the reality is that if people started creating works that were truly groundbreakingly original, few people would like them, because there would be nothing there that they could relate to. There has to be something familiar about art for most of us to like it. And yet, if art is too familiar, we tend not to like it because it feels like a cheap imitation of something else.

    So, some originality = good; too much originality = Weird!

    By the way, I am not arguing against weird music. In fact, I'm all for it! Sometimes, anyway. I'm just saying that the more original the music, the more alienating many folks will feel it to be.

    My feeling is that while originality in art is important, it is probably not a good idea to become overly concerned with it. The main goal for an aspiring composer is to develop craft, which simply means a musical vocabulary, so that we can say what we want how we want. And since we are all inherently similar and disimilar, the result will be both somewhat original and somewhat not, which is okay. If the composition is well crafted, it will hopefully speak to some people, and possibly many.

  • [ 2 ]Jensen, Peter S., Mrazek, David, Knapp, Penelope K., Steinberg, Laurence, Pfeffer, Cynthia, Schowalter, John, & Shapiro, Theodore. (Dec 1997) Evolution and revolution in child psychiatry: ADHD as a disorder of adaptation. (attention-deficit hyperactivity syndrome). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 36. p. 1672. (10). July 14 2007. [ ↑ ]
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    Sunday, July 20, 2008

    Originality a Detriment in Art?

    I think originality is an essential element in art, but in yesterday’s entry I was suggesting that there are many cases of great art where the degree of originality is arguably not very high, but this does not detract from the art’s value or its impact on us.

    Today I will go a step further and suggest that originality and the impact art can have on us exist in a kind of inverse relationship; that is, a groundbreaking, highly original work of art is less likely to move us than a work that uses techniques and conventions with which we are familiar, albeit in an original way. Or, put another way, if someone makes up a beautiful poem in Klingon language, most of us are unlikely to be moved by unless we know Klingon. Which, alas, I do not.

    But first an explanation of why this topic interests me.

    I post my music at, a site where anyone who wishes to can upload their music for the purposes of getting feedback from others. I like it a lot; it is very welcoming to people who make the effort to be involved, which I suspect is true of all on-line communities.

    In addition to written comments, you can also vote on the others’ music (although some artists choose to disable this option for their submissions, preferring to receive comments only). The voting system goes from 1 to 10 in four categories, one of which is “originality/creativity,” which is explained as follows: “Has this artist created something unique or pushed the musical boundaries?”

    The answer to this question is clearly “no” for every piece I have ever heard there, including my own music, if one understands “unique” to mean "highly unusual or rare," "the single one of its kind," or "radically distinctive and without equal" (definitions I found at Fear not, gentle reader; I do not therefore go around MacJams giving scores of “1” in this category. I do what I suspect most voters do; I give high scores to music that doesn’t sound too much like a blatant rip-off of something else, and medium scores to music that does. Being Canadian, I am unable to give low scores.

    In any event, the existence of this voting category at MacJams got me thinking about the meaning of “originality/creativity” (which I see as two separate categories, by the way, but that is a discussion for another day) and the importance of originality in the evaluation or creation of art.

    The other reasons that this topic interests me are that (a) I am a composer, and it’s an issue that is on my mind whenever I write music, and (b) I am a composition teacher, and an idea that I try to communicate to students is that being overly concerned with the originality of something one is writing is dangerous, because it can lead to extreme self-censorship, i.e., not continuing any of one’s musical ideas because, upon reflection, they are not original enough.

    On the other hand, I would like students to at least be aware that at least some originality is essential if one does not wish to write music that sounds like somebody else's. As with so many other things in life, it comes down to a question of balance.

    Tomorrow I will post a slightly edited comment I made on the subject in a MacJams forum discussion about a year ago, and then I promise I’ll move on to other topics!

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    Saturday, July 19, 2008

    How Important is Originality in Art?

    How important is originality in art? I think most people would agree that it is an essential ingredient; if an extremely talented painter were to create a version of the Mona Lisa that was indistinguishable from the original it might sell for a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars, whereas if the actual Mona Lisa is as close to priceless as possible for a painting. Two identical works of art; one original, and one a reproduction, but the first is much more highly-valued than the second by virtue of its originality. The Mona Lisa's (and Da Vinci's) iconic status doesn't hurt either…

    But there are cases where a lack of originality seems less crucial to the value ascribed to a work of art. Many artists have created numerous variants of the same thing, or similar things -- consider Monet's approximately 250 paintings of water lilies (as well as his London Houses of Parliament, Poplars, Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and Mornings on the Seine series), Degas' extraordinary penchant for dancers as a subject (more than half of his vast output of paintings, drawings, and sculptures is devoted to the activities of the ballet dancers and dance students), or Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of flowers — all highly regarded, but, thematically, not particularly original.

    If you enjoy visiting art museums when you travel, there is a reasonable chance you may have seen Rodin's "The Thinker," his most famous work, and one of the most-recognized (and most-satirized) sculptures ever. The original was 27.5 inches high, but there are over 20 additional casts of the work in various sizes, most of which were executed by his apprentices, as I understand it. Their lack of originality does not prevent them from being prominently displayed (and hence valued) in museums around the world.

    The paintings in Monet’s Houses of Parliament series are both similar – each is of the same subject, from the same vantage point, and on the same size canvas -- and dissimilar – each view represents a different time of day (which alters the lighting) and a different atmospheric conditions (hazy, foggy (or smoggy), different cloud formations). The point, as it relates to originality, is that Monet did not attempt to paint a series of completely different (and therefore highly original) paintings; he wanted to paint the same thing repeatedly in slightly different ways, and we value each individual painting highly nonetheless.

    These examples, and many others, would suggest that the role of originality in evaluating art is sometimes relatively minor.

    Stravinsky is supposed have said “good composers borrow, great composers steal,” [ 1 ]← which is itself an adaptation (or theft?!) of T. S. Elliott’s “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” from Elliott's essay on English dramatist Phillip Massinger (1920). It is a clever line, the merits of which are of course debatable, but for me the point is that artists are influenced by one another, and part of the way we discover our own artistic voices is by emulating or appropriating, to varying degrees, the work of others.

    Music if filled with elements common to different composers within an historical period and sometimes across periods. When we study tonal harmony, we learn that in the "common-practice period" (roughly 1700-1900, in Europe), there were guidelines governing the way in which chords progressed. These guidelines have numerous restrictions as well as some freedoms, but the fact that there are guidelines of any sort means that originality in chord progressions was not highly valued.

    Other common elements from that period include the widespread use of a limited selection of musical forms, chief among them sonata form, as well as rondo, binary, ternary, and theme & variations, the use of Alberti bass accompaniment figures (although it had numerous variants), an extremely-limited selection of cadence types (virtually every composition from that period ended with an 'authentic' (V-I) cadence), phrase lengths and structure (although numerous exceptions can be found), and writing for commonly-found ensembles such as the string quartet.

    And yet, despite the restrictive nature of these common elements, thousands of wonderful works were written. There is originality to be found in all great (or even good!) works to be sure, but, as with Monet’s parliament paintings, the differences are often fairly nuanced.

    •More tomorrow!

  • [ 1 ]Although there are numerous attributions of this quote to Stravinsky all over the web, I have not come across any that actually cite a source for it. Did he actually say this? Or is it a sentiment that hacks the world over like to attribute to a famous composer in order to justify theft of intellectual property? [ ↑ ]
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    Friday, July 18, 2008

    Well, it only took me a little over two years, but I have finally figured out how to get my account up and running. The challenge was that I was trying to set it up so that my blog would be hosted by my website, and it turned out to be a far more complicated process than I had anticipated.  Complicated for me, anyway; sufficiently-so that I abandoned the attempt back in June of 2006 when I created my account.

    I have been posting intermittently to my blog in the interim, but after posting about a dozen composition-related entries there over the past few days it occurred to me that if anything goes awry at MySpace -- if their servers go down, or someone somehow hacks into my blog, or the like -- all of my blogs could be lost, which would displease me profoundly.  

    This prompted me to investigate once again, because it seems like it might be safer to host my blog entries at my own website.  Who knows, maybe this is delusional thinking, but it's what got me to spend a few hours today (with my daughter's help!) trying to get this blog up.  

    In case anyone was wondering...

    In any event, I'll be posting my composition-related blogs from MySpace here over the next few days, and I hope people enjoy them.

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