Thursday, May 22, 2008

Where Do These Notes Come From?

When I was a composition major at Oberlin Conservatory in the '80s, my teacher and I occasionally butted heads over what I should be writing. It seemed to me that he considered a lot of what I was writing was somehow not valid because it couldn't be dissected into numbers and forms that he understood.

He was (and is) a good composer, but he is in many ways my opposite. He believed very strongly in the value of a good tone-row, note selection based on numerology, mathematical calculations, and other things that I regarded as having little to do with music. His way of composing worked for him and served him well. However, he was unable to recognize the same in me. Perhaps it was because I had trouble expressing my process to him.

On one particular occasion, I had been working on a trio for alto flute, bassoon, and harp. I brought some sketches into my lesson to show him, and we went over them together. He was paying good attention and seemed somewhat satisfied with the sounds as we recreated them at the piano. After getting an earful, we turned to the written sketches for a little analysis of what was going on.

My teacher pointed to one passage that caught his attention and asked "where do these notes come from?" I really couldn't figure out what he was asking me. "Are they based on a recurring set of pitches?"

Meekly, I responded "they sound good." He could not hide his disappointment in my answer. I honestly believe that he would have been happier had I answered that the notes were based on the Dewey Decimal System. He was so entrenched in his own process and the precision of his notes, that he had no need for notes that simply "sound good." And the sad part is, I bought into it. At least for awhile.

I should point out that the notes I used were not completely random. There was indeed a process of selection I used, but it relied only partially on pre-existing harmonic content, and quite heavily on intuition. I found myself at a loss for explaining this to him, almost embarrassed for using the most creative part of my brain. I recognize that my answer was insufficient, but asking me to explain further would have been of more value than the immediate rejection I received.

Since that time, I have learned to allow more and more intuition into my writing, and with less and less leftover guilt from my lessons. I have come to realize that sometimes the best way to unleash the creative part of my brain is to stop listening to the logical part. Or at least relegating that part to a much smaller role.

During sleep, all parts of the brain remain awake except for the logic center, which shuts down for the night. Without our daytime logic continually censoring our thoughts, we are free to explore our dreamtime ideas, letting them flow without blocking out the ones that don't initially make sense.

Many great artists were inspired by dreams. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed to have dreamed the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in its entirety. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan came to him in a dream as well. Poe, Dali, Ingmar Bergman, Paul McCartney, Beethoven, and Billy Joel all also credit their dreams as a source of inspiration.

I should mention that I'm not a big fan of pure automatism either, except as an exercise to bring forth fresh ideas. In my mind, this goes too far in the opposite direction to be valuable as the sole source of a piece of art. The step that is missing is that of the final filter of artistic sensibility. Whether the notes come from a dream or from the I-Ching, we must always give ourselves permission to bend them, break them, and turn them upside-down. While some proponents of automatism may consider the editing of dream-inspired art to be self-censorship, I hold the opposite position. To deny ourselves creative license over our own inspiration in an attempt to retain a sense of purity or honor to a system, even if that system is a dream, is what should be considered self-censorship. This is where our logic center belongs. As the final step in getting good music to the page.

When we find ourselves caught in this dilemma, we must ask ourselves: Is it more important for my music to "sound good," or "dissect good?" As for me, I will always choose the former.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Unrelated Ideas

Back when vinyl was the preferred means of storing and retrieving musical performances, I used to work in a large record store in DC. I would sometimes browse through the LPs and read information off of the back of the jackets. It was off of the sleeve of a 20th-century classical album that I read a quote that changed the way I think about music. I wish I could remember just whose quote it was, but I do recall it was on an album of women composers. My shakey memory tells me it was Ruth Crawford-Seeger, but if anyone recognizes it as someone else's, I would greatly appreciate the correction.

Music is the juxtaposition of two or more completely unrelated ideas.

It took me some hard thinking about this before it started sinking in. I believe the crux of the sentiment can be better appreciated when interpreting the word "juxtaposition" as an action rather than a state of being. That is to say that the ideas are unrelated only until a juxtaposition is made, whereupon they are forever related through artistic intent. After all, it is hard to say they continue to be unrelated when they are forever embedded in the same passage of music.

But how important is creating this relationship? Is it at the very heart of composition? Or perhaps at the heart of all artistic endeaver? Or is it just one tiny idea among millions about what it means to create?

I recently saw a television program on the phenomenon of synesthesia (the brain's accidental linking of two different senses). Professor V. S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego was one of the interviewed scientists for the program. Something he said brought up the memory of that quote for me.

When trying to establish a relationship between creativity and synesthesia, Ramachandran compares the creation of art to metaphor. In his words, a metaphor is "taking two completely unrelated ideas, and developing a link." I cannot help but notice he has defined art as a metaphor for metaphor itself.

I must completely agree with the professor, as apparently does the composer who wrote the record jacket quote. The brain is always making connections between things. It's the artist who searches for an interesting connection, and captures it for his audience.

In a way, a work of art could be considered a simple message:
Here are a few things you didn't know belong together.

I think I can get my music behind that idea.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Shouldn't We Value Age And Experience?

Is ageism alive and well and living within music institutions across the globe? When a composer hits 30 years of age, his opportunity in the form of composition contests is greatly diminished. By 40, he reaches a vast desert largely devoid of submission guidelines he meets. Why this is so is a mystery to me. Why are those institutions searching for new music rejecting what may be the largest and best developed group of composers?

The American Composers Forum publishes a list of opportunities available to its members, and include a printed version of this list in their bi-monthly newsletter Sounding Board. As someone who is always on the lookout for a good new contest, I regularly go through this list and mark those for whom I may consider submitting a work. More often than not, I do not qualify for those listings that would most interest me.

From their online list of current opportunities, I identified looked at the contests that were not restricted by region, school enrollment, or limited to women composers. Among what was left, I found the following age restrictions:

Maximum AgeNumber of Contests

So what's going on here? What purpose do these cut-offs serve? I do not begrudge those competitions which have the additional agenda of promoting women composers, those of specific musical heritage, or encouraging very young writers. These are worthy causes. But once we no longer are targeting the very young, why impose any age limit at all? Do we really have to exclude composers at the 35, 40, and even 50 year marks?

I believe this practice is a disservice composers in particular and the arts in general. Further, I submit that the organizations that place such limits are also hurting themselves. Shouldn't the main purpose of a composition competition be find new and exciting works? And isn't it counter to that purpose to omit from consideration any new and exciting works that may have been written by a middle-aged or older composer?

Perhaps those who fashion the rules of the contests feel that we older folk have "had our chance," and it's time to let someone else give it a shot. The problem with this view is that composers who continue to write should only be getting better at it as they age. I have been writing music since I was 12, but nothing I wrote before I turned 40 is as good as anything I wrote after that point. And I suspect that is the case with thousands of other composers who have committed the sin of getting older.

And what of those composers who got a late start? If we're trying to give newcomers a shot at a prize, where does that leave the composer whose inspiration started at 30?

It's interesting to note the sorts of competitions that do not tend to put age restrictions in their submission guidelines. If I confine my search only to small ensembles who are simply trying to increase the literature for their specific instrumental combination, I see none of these restrictions. I can only conclude that their primary intention is to improve the repertory to the greatest extent they can. On the other hand, those organizations who seemingly have the loftier goal of furthering new music in general are rife with this sort of ageism.

It seems very clear to me that the best way of furthering the cause of new music is to find the very best new music being written by today's composers. If composers get better with age (as they indeed should) ignoring new music from older composers runs completely counter to the cause. How can we find the best music being written if we are not listening to music from our best composers?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Stepping Stone As Roadblock

Recently, I posed the following question on a bulletin board frequented by composers:

Can having a solid knowledge of theory be a hindrance to creativity?

Little did I know how passionately some would feel about the subject. Many people even took the question as a personal attack against academia in general and music theory in particular. I found it necessary to emphasize my academic background and love of music theory, lest I be labeled a beginner looking for a shortcut to compositional merit or justification for a lack of background. Here are a few of the less supportive responses I received:

Almost every person I have heard say they don’t want to learn harmony etc. because it will hinder their creativity writes, in my opinion, very, very conservative music. The more you know, the freer you are.
If knowing theory is a hindrance someone's creativity, then he/she doesn't know really know theory very well.
Only amateurs or people with a very low creativity, can feel knowledge as an hinderance. It's not the denial of the set of tools created in centuries of human cooperation (theory) that make you a "better" musician.
And my favorite:

You don't write a lot of music, do you?

To be fair, there were many supportive responses as well, but I felt that the negative ones were so reactionary that the authors couldn't possibly have understood my question.

What I was attempting to get at was the conflicting roles of intuition and self-censorship in writing. The little voice on our shoulder telling us "open your mind, be free, just write some notes!" and the other one telling us "Too simple; too complex; too Mozart; not commercial enough; not innovative enough.... etc."

When I speak of knowledge being a possible hinderance, I am questioning what it takes to have a breakthrough. If we listen too closely to what we know, might we be spending too little time looking for the unknown? Is it possible to turn off, or at least somewhat quiet the analytical portion of our brain when we write, perhaps to let our knowledge guide us only at a subconscious level? This is something I strive for in my writing. Not to deny or discard any acquired theory, but to knock the accompanying little voice off of my shoulder. Perhaps to write things that are just outside of my own ability to analyze.

The development of music and theory took only one of an infinite number of possible courses during our history. The course it took left us with hundreds of traditions throughout the world, though most of us study only one or two of these traditions. But even if we could attain a solid knowledge of all of these traditions, we wouldn't have the merest fraction of all possible theoretical knowledge because there are an infinite number of valid possible musical theories. This should be the context for my question. It is not about denying theory, but whether or not believing too strongly that our theoretical knowledge is "enough" may stop us looking for new theory, existing or otherwise.

Knowing which tool to use is just as important as having the tool in the first place. But it's important to remember that the best tool for the job might be one we haven't invented yet.

Friday, April 4, 2008

On Ears And Correctness

There's an old saying that goes "When the map and the terrain disagree, the terrain is correct." This lighthearted advice should be self-evident, but we tend to put a lot of trust into a neatly printed color map. There is a part of our brains that insists that there must be something wrong with our surroundings, or that we simply haven't properly oriented ourselves. Is there a "composition map" we put too much faith into?

When writing music, we call upon all the theoretical knowledge we have to help us capture our thoughts. We constantly compare ourselves to the great composers past and present, and see our endeavors in comparison to theirs. We keep in our minds a vast storehouse of theoretical rules of harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. We know when we are "following the rules," just as we know when we break them. Even though most of us have little problem in breaking with the traditions of past musical practices, we can still establish for ourselves preferences in our writing habits that we unconsciously treat as unbreakable rules.

We also create new rules for ourselves on a very conscious level. Consider the notion of serial music and the 12-tone system as championed by the Second Viennese School. The 12-tone system was a reaction to a perceived problem in finding new function in harmony. The rules in their strictest form made it excedingly easy to compose a piece of music that had no obvious tonal center, while retaining enough structure to hold the music together as a cohesive whole. It was only one set of rules out of an infinite number of possibilities, yet many people latched onto it as a way to find new avenues of expression for themselves. Even today, more than 85 years after Schoenberg first described the system, it is still being used as the basis for some composers' works, as well as taught in university level classes.

In what may be seen as a great irony, the freedom that the 12-tone technique was meant to bring gave us one of the most restrictive set of rules of composition in several hundred years. Not that it necessarily has to be restrictive, but composer after composer have used it to tie their own hands. I mean to be in no way disparaging of Schoenberg or his idea, but I have to wonder why it has been used so extensively for so long when it represented only a very tiny slice of the space of new possible rule sets.

Obviously all of this is a great oversimplification. Many composers have used original variations of the idea, or borrowed from it only what was needed at a given moment. Some have used the basic rule set, but have had no problem straying from it whenever it suits them. Sticking to this or any other set of rules, or breaking and switching rules both are valid ways of furthering ones art. But this brings us back to my original point.

"When the map and the terrain disagree, the terrain is correct."

Let us look at this thought again, imagining a given musical rule set as our map and our ears as the terrain. Being in the realm of the auditory, it should be quite obvious that the ear should be our ultimate arbitrator in all things musical. As Duke Ellington once said, "If it sounds good, it is good." Or as I like to think of it, "When the rule and the ear disagree, the ear is correct." As with the original version of this saying, it should be self-evident. But is it?

We are first taught that parallel-fifths are undesirable. Later we learn that it's perfectly fine to break that rule as long as we know we are breaking it. Still later, we may be pressured into purposefully breaking the rule, when it no longer should have any sway on our decisions. We are put into a position of focusing on every parallel-fifth we write or avoid in the context of correct and incorrect. We know that there is nothing at all wrong with writing one, but we consider the right and wrong of it all the time, and have great difficulty in letting go of it, whether we acknowledge it or not.

There is no right or wrong in the music we create. Still more obvious advice, but knowing it and having it become the core of our artistic selves are two different things. When we can write a 12-tone piece and end it in a simple cadence to D-major with complete confidence, and without asking ourselves permission first, we will have given ourselves freedom from from the past without giving up its lessons.

Embracing Our Mistakes

No doubt about it, mistakes are a blessing almost anywhere you make them in life. When we learn from our mistakes, we become wiser and better prepared for the future.

But in art, mistakes offer another often overlooked benefit. When we learn to embrace our mistakes as we do our intentions, we open a new door for the subconscious to play a deeper role in our creations. It does not even matter whether there is subconscious "intent" at the root of the mistake, so long as we give a moment to let our subconscious mind wander, potentially finding new meaning in the mistake.

An obvious example is playing an unintended note in a melody. When writing a passage, whether on paper, in a sequencer, or improvising, we often deploy a note that is not intended. The usual response to this is an immediate correction; we erase it from the page, adjust the note in the computer, or replay the passage as we originally conceived it. Perhaps sometimes we come upon a "happy accident," and allow the new note to stay, but more often than not, we ignore the possibilities that come with straying from our original path. This is particularly easy to do if the wrong note is completely outside of the game plan we've been sticking to for the piece at hand.

But every single wrong note may be a new opportunity. It may be a chance to find new territory that our minds did not anticipate. Even the strangest-sounding, most out-of-place note might turn out to belong in our work if we give it a chance to speak to us. In my personal experience, it is these unintended notes that tend to shape the more interesting sections of my work. I find it invaluable to stop everything I am doing, and consider each mistake a question I must answer: Does it fit? Can it fit? Does it make this section better than it was? Is this sound something I can use later in this piece as a variation?

I have found such enormous value in this approach that I sometimes find myself wanting a new "mistake" to appear. It's at these times that I might begin purposefully becoming more careless in my note placement, or even trying to suppress my original intent, bringing myself into sort of a daydreaming state that is much less discriminating in initial note placement. Of course I become very discriminating when I get to the point of polishing and refining my music, but there is a lot to be said for a little intentional carelessness.

In the end, everything must be approved by whatever internal processes and filters we use to satisfy ourselves that the piece is complete. Knowing this safety net will always catch what doesn't work for us, we should consider as many opportunities as possible, even if the source of that opportunity is as mundane as a clumsy index finger slipping from F-sharp to F-natural on your piano keyboard.

Paperless Composition

A few years ago, I gave up composing on paper and began using the piano roll view inside of Sonar to write. I still use paper from time to time to jot down a quick idea, but I have found Sonar to actually be a great compositional tool, as well as simply a sequencer. It made sense for me for several reasons:

It is much faster to input
By entering notes either with the mouse or by playing directly on my MIDI keyboard I save a lot of time vs. writing by hand.

It is easier to edit
Note fixes, transpositions, retrograde, inversion, note-value doubling/halving... all of these are much easier inside of a sequencer. No more crossing out or erasing.

It helps me find new ways to alter material
In addition to the types of edits listed above, I have done some very satisfactory exploration of material alteration that is not easy to accomplish or even to conceive of on paper. I will get into more detail on this point later in the book, giving examples of what these processes are, and how some of my works have heavily relied on them.

It offers instant aural feedback
I can now instantly hear the changes as I make them. Yes, I can site-read music, and I can more or less hear a score in my head, so long as it isn't extremely complicated. But reading and interpreting through my brain isn't as immediate or as accurate as actually hearing the results as I write. And using realistic libraries such as the Garritan offerings, I can hear an entire orchestral passage as I subtly tweak the individual parts. This has led me on numerous occasions into territory I am convinced I never would have discovered without the aid of a computer.

It offers portability of material between mediums
Gone are the days of laborious score and part copying by hand. Nothing kills creative juices faster than the drudgery awaiting a composer at the completion of a new work. Now it is a simple matter to export the piece into a notation package directly from the sequencer, clean it up, and print it out. Going from MIDI to audio to printed score and back again has never been easier. Those who think of the modernization of the composition process as somehow "impure" or as disrespecting a long-standing tradition are simply missing out on a set of wonderful tools that could otherwise help serve their ultimate purpose: to create something new.