Monday, November 10, 2008

I've moved this blog to...

If you happened upon this blog and is wondering why I no longer post here, I started a new blog in August of 2008 aimed at my music composition students, and, more generally, anyone interested in music composition. A lot of the early entries in that blog were ported over from this one, often with very minor revisions, but there are dozens more recent entries too.

You can get there via this link: Clark's Composition Class Blog.

Another reason to visit the newer blog is that many of the posts have received comments by students, many of which are very thoughtful and thought-provoking, and there are also links to each student's own compositional E-journals. I hope you consider visiting the new blog!


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Funky Flute Groove Experience

This morning I finished editing the guitar track to my most recent composition, Funky Flute Groove Experience.

The above link will take you to the programme note for this piece, but briefly, I wrote it for Christine Gangelhoff (flutist) and electronics, to be performed at the most recent Newfoundland Sound Symposium (July, 2008). Christine and I had asked a local DJ/turntablist (DJ Russtafari) to be involved in this too, but we learned a few weeks before the performance that he had moved to Korea, and, incredibly, was not planning to commute back to St. John's for the performance! What's up with that?

Another part of the original plan was to have me play guitar on the piece, but, as the performance date got nearer, I started getting cold feet because (a) I don't perform much, (b) I'm not a very good guitarist, and (c) I was spending all my time composing the piece and had no time to learn a guitar part!

Christine, who had been expecting to perform FFGE as part of a trio (with DJ Russ and myself) called "Urban Sound Collective," was now facing the prospect of playing solely with the electronic accompaniment, and was a tad disappointed. Kind of hard to call yourself a collective when there's only one performer, I guess…

I therefore decided, in a moment of compassion/rashness, to follow through with my original plan and create a guitar part for the piece (which was otherwise about 95% finished), and to (gulp) perform it too. I second-guessed that decision a few times, but the happy news is that it all worked out okay; the part I came up with sounds fine to me, and I wasn't nervous at all while playing it (probably because it was largely improvised, and the rest was memorized). And, as it turned out, we were able to find another DJ/turntablist in Deb Sinha, who was here for a performance during the Newfoundland Sound Symposium, who very graciously agreed to step in at the last minute and did a fine job. And so Urban Sound Collective was a trio after all, and all went well! Or, if "well" is overstating matters, then at least nobody was injured during the performance, and it has been my experience that one cannot ask for much more than that in matters pertaining to the performance of one's music.

I guess the fact that I took a risk and didn't have it blow up in my face emboldened me to try recording the guitar part myself. I had never edited digital audio before and so was somewhat apprehensive about the process, and the fact that I was using a 10-year-old Mac G4 that crashes about twice a day did not inspire confidence. It took a couple of hours to get everything set up — I was temporarily stymied because I don't have a microphone preamp (necessary to boost the signal strength from 'mic level' to 'line level'). The microphone (used to pick up the guitar amplifier) had been connected directly to the digital audio processor (MOTU 2408MkII) but I couldn't figure out how to boost the signal, so I routed it through my mixer and applied gain to the signal there. As I said, it took a while, but once things were set up properly the process of recording was very straightforward.

I ended up spending a ridiculous number of hours recording and editing the guitar track though… you can move individual notes a few milliseconds (or a lot of milliseconds) forwards or backwards until they are exactly where you want them, but it's a painstaking (and simultaneously amazing) process. I took several runs at the guitar solo (in the last two choruses of the minor blues that occurs around the middle) and the rhythm still feels a bit loose in spots, but I eventually left it as is because it didn't feel too out of character for the piece.

As I mentioned, I finished editing the guitar part this morning, so here it is if you want to have a listen (and if you do, please leave a comment!):

•N.B.: If there is already music playing on this page, you can turn it off by pressing the "pause" button in the mini-MP3 player on the top of the right column on this page → → →

DreamDance Picture

Clark Ross: "Funky Flute Groove Experience" (2008)
Clark Ross, guitar (Gibson ES-335→Laney amp);
all other sounds made by Korg Trinity V3 synthesizer


Postscript: I submitted this to, where it has received comments from members of that on-line community. Click hereif you would like to read them.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

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

In my last entry I discussed Kandinsky's theory that the artist "must express what is peculiar to oneself," proposed as one of the three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value, and I suggested that this may be an impossible challenge to meet since I cannot think of any human attribute that is not shared. In trying to come up with a related set of principles that I felt I could agree with, I came up with:

1. Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.

Before I go on, I want to sneak in a second principle, one that was also mentioned in my previous entry:

2. It often causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way (Perspective).

And, while I'm at it, I'll add a couple more:

3. It speaks to us; people (but not all people, necessarily) feel a connection to it.

4. It often touches on the mysterious.

I think that #3 is self-evident (but I'd welcome input from anyone would like to suggest otherwise!); most of us value an art work because we feel a connection to it. I think this is where the notion that "art is in the eye of the beholder" comes from.

I touched on the quality of mystery in part 2 of this series. What I'm getting at is the idea that it is one thing for art to grab our attention, and it is another to hold it. There needs to be something there that makes us want to continue our engagement with the art, and perhaps that thing, or at least one element of that thing, is mystery. The Mona Lisa is a good example of this. What the heck is she half-smiling about? It's a mystery, but maybe if we stare at it long enough…

5. It often touches on the sublime.

Maybe #4 and #5 are two aspects of the same thing, but I made a separate entry for 'the sublime' because of the number of times I have heard people refer to God in reference to art; for some, great art is evidence of the divine, or at least of the way divinity is expressed through human creations. An art work that is highly valued is often said to be greater than the sum of its parts, and perhaps this is because it touches on the sublime, a quality that is difficult to quantify.

6. It usually demonstrates technical excellence.

I throw "technique" into the mix because it's one of my pet causes as a music teacher. The better your technical skills, the better equipped you are to create the kind of art you imagine. Are there 'great' works of art with poor or even average technique? Perhaps; both 'greatness' and 'technique' are qualities that are debatable (although the former more than the latter, I think), but it seems to me that most art referred to as 'great' also demonstrates excellent technique.

Kandinsky's second "mystical necessity" is that the artist "must express what is peculiar to one's own time," and that is something I think is undeniable. What makes it particularly interesting in our time is that post-modernist art often draws on the art of periods other than our own, but in a way that usually is distinguishable from the art of earlier periods. I do this in some (or much?) of my own compositions; "Dream Dance," for example has sections that evoke (for me, at least) the music of Bach, Haydn, Phillip Glass, Scott Joplin, and Gershwin. In my programme note for the piece I call it an example of "Poly-stylism" because of this, but a composition that mixes styles in this way could not have been written in any period other than our own.

Here's the way I'd put it:

7. It is recognizably of its own time.

Kankinsky's third "mystical necessity" speaks to a transcendent quality in art, which he calls "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."

He rather goes over the top here, does he not? In any event, I think I understand what he means, and I mostly agree with it, although I think it is important to add tha but it's hard to think of art that is felt to be meaningful to "every individual, every people, every age," etc. The Taj Mahal might come close to this kind of pan-cultural ideal, but for the most part, it seems to me that art's appeal tends to have a strong element of culture-specificity. The art of Beethoven, Kandinsky, and yes, even yours truly are not held in equally high regard in all parts of the world (or even within western culture), and, conversely, it has only been in the last few decades that many people in our culture have begun to appreciate and value music from non-western cultures.

Here is my wording:

8. Its appeal transcends some cultures and periods.

And that's all for today, and, probably for my Kandinsky-inspired discussion as well!
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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Kandinsky's 3 "Mystical Necessities" for Art (2)

(For part 1 on Kandinsky's theories, see previous entry)

Let's examine Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value.
The first is a concept that I suspect most would agree with: An artist must express something personal through their art. Kandinsky goes even further, however, by writing that what the artist expresses must not only be personal, but "peculiar to oneself."  
But what is unique to any of us?  I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure that there is absolutely no attribute that I possess that is not also possessed by other people.  We (or at least most people I know) like to think of ourselves as unique, but I would suggest that it is the combination of traits we possess that makes us and others feel that we are, and it is this combination of traits that makes up our personality.
I'm fine with the idea that there is a connection between one's personality and one's artistic creations, but I'm proposing that it is impossible to "express what is peculiar to oneself," because nothing is.
Just for fun, I'm going to flip Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity' to:
1.  Every artist, as creator, must express what is universal.
I'm not sure I agree with it 100%, but it seems to me that it is true of much artwork of lasting value.  I recall reading at some point that most songs are love songs.  If true, the reason for this would seem to be obvious; love is something that we've all experienced, and something that affects us profoundly. It is as close to a universal experience as there is.
But so are basic bodily functions, and you don't hear too many songs about being hungry, or needing to pee.  You may conclude from this that there is a vast, untapped market for songs relating to bladder control (the "I had to pee but the teacher wouldn't let me" blues, for instance?), but my own take is that a quality in addition to universality must be present for my above statement to have some validity.  
What to name this quality?  Perhaps 'poetry,' or 'mystery,' or simply 'something that causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way.'  And perhaps this quality, whatever you wish to call it, is tied in with the personal, which would bring it back to the territory covered by Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity.'
Speaking of which, I don't know about you, but whenever someone says you "must" do something,  my natural inclination is to refuse and/or do the opposite.  I am not a fan of imperatives, I guess, which is probably part of the reason I became a composer.  So when I read Kandinsky's three 'mystical necessities,' I notice they are all 'must' statements and right off the bat there is a part of me that bristles at being told what I must do.
My amended wording of #1 would be something like this:
1.  Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.
And perhaps mysterious too, but this is getting long, so I think I'll leave it at that for today.
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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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