Thursday, December 27, 2012

What's it all about, Claude?

As the semester is coming to a close, I can't help but wonder what exactly it is I'm doing.

I mean, really, what am I doing?  In a year and a half, I will have a piece of paper that says that I'm a "Master" of music.  Why is it that the more I learn about this stuff the less and less I feel I know how to do anything?

I am at a point now where if someone asked me how I do what I do, I would probably say something to the effect of, "well, I just write things down that I hear and it's mostly just guessing."

I would love to say that I have developed a revolutionary notation / pitch system and ink out  intensely visual graphic scores; or even more traditionally notated scores that eschew volumes of obnoxiously complex music.  But when I see time signatures in "28/64" and nonuplets tied across bar lines with lightening bolts and giant ink-block squares, I can't help but ask myself: But Why?   

Is there a clearer, easier way to notate that?  I often wonder if my notation is too conservative, but as a good friend and clarinetist pointed out about a piece I wrote for him, something can still be exceptionally difficult - even with traditional notation.  Even still, taking a more mature approach, I have heard it said that notation reflects the sounds that the composer is after; that if a composer wants sounds that can't be articulated with standard notation, then it needs to be adapted or created appropriately.  Perhaps the real answer is that I need to experiment with more sounds.  

One of the reasons why I love learning about music history is that you are given brief meals into the works and styles of composers - almost as if each composer were a type of soup.  You learn about their techniques, stylistic traits, influences, and personal lives, and I love taking things that interest me about each composer and then putting them into my work.  The most recent example of this is a piece is just finished entitled A Crossing Of Ourselves in which I use cluster chords among other things after having spent some time with Henry Cowell this semester.

Another thing that I enjoy about music history is that as you move through music history, your definition of music changes - broadens - accordingly.  Since learning more about the music of the twentieth century and the dozens of different directions that music has zoomed off in - each person being able to find success - I can't help but wonder where music begins and where music ends.  This is especially true when you look into works by the New York School composers - John Cage, Earl Brown, Morton Feldman, etc, and even more modern composers like John Luther Adams (not the one you're thinking of,) John Zorn, and others.

So as I reflect on the passing of this first semester and the first quarter of my graduate degree, I can't help but wonder how I can eventually be considered by the university to be a "master" of music when I'm not even exactly sure what music is or isn't to begin with.  I write it after all, shouldn't I at least know what I am or am not writing?

To be honest, I think that this is actually an even harder question to satisfy than trying to answer "Why do you write music?"  I come back to that one from time to time and my answer always changes.  If I don't even know what it is for sure, how can I articulate to someone why I do it?

Now is the part where you say, Well now you're just being silly!  Everyone knows what music is!  We hear it on the radio and in concert halls and in movies and video games and elevators!

Well, that's true that you hear it in those places, but I'm going to get a little Fight Club-Tyler Durden here and say that where you hear music doesn't define it.  Neither does when you hear it or how you hear it or why you hear it or what you hear.  If you can consider everything from "silence" to someone plucking an amplified cactus to be considered music, then what isn't music?  How do you define something that can't and isn't defined by what, when, how, where, and why?  This is something that I think would drive journalists nuts.

Even though I don't think music can be defined in this way, I do think that music can be illustrated by examples from each of those things.  For example, putting parameters in like where = concert hall and etc, can help establish expectations.  Perhaps therein lies the tool for defining what music is - to balance an intangible, abstract concept by defining it with an intangible, abstract concept.

Perhaps it is here in this swirling mass of amorphous, abstract conjecture that I can begin to formulate conclusions about what it is I'm actually trying to do here; which I assure you is more than just creating sounds that bounce off peoples' faces.

Or is it?

It will be interesting to see how I feel about this in another twenty or forty years.

                                                                                                                                                                                    December 8th, 2012

Schoenberg, you card

There is a story that the Schoenberg family was traveling somewhere, and decided to top at a roadside pie stand. (Why aren't there more of those?)  Anyway, the stand had a small radio, and in the midst of eating (what can only be assumed as delicious pie) Schoenberg himself heard one of his pieces played on the radio.

He decided that he enjoyed the stand so much that his family would stop by there every time they went traveling.  And he did.

When they were older, his children were asked what it was like to grow up in the Schoenberg household - the one that killed good ol' fashioned melodies and harmonies.

The kids said that it was just like any other place.  They like their dad's music - they grew up with it, and they grew up whistling and humming his tone rows.  This is sort of like howmy mom makes the best everything.

Really though, my mom does make the best most-of-things.  Other people's moms probably make good things, but mine makes the best, and it's been independently verified!

What does this have to do with anything? 

Well, the point is that even the cookie-monster himself still needs and wants a friend.  Schoenberg was a guy who had a family, did what he thought was right, and wrote a lot of music.  Too often is he vilified for ruining all that we hold near and dear about our favorite tunes; too often is he wrongly associated with dead-ends in musical maze-dom; associated with influencing the intellectualism that dominated the middle part of the last century.

No, I don't think we hate Schoenberg as much as we think we do.  In all honesty, I wonder if the people that we really don't like are the people that came after - The Imitators.  Ooh, I think I smell a new Stephen King book!

Yes, these people are the ones that fancied themselves intellectual, wrote a lot of black-note-fever-inducing music to elevate their esotericism and causing general back-patting to be done by them and everyone else who wanted to look smart and esoteric too.  These same denizens that make the eyes of audience members roll and their tongues loll as they fall asleep to the incomprehensible squeak-fart-bleep-bloop music that spews non-sensibly out of performers' instruments.

And that's where they get you.  If you don't fall in line or think it's cool then "you don't get it."  You're obviously not smart enough or not musically well-read enough.  So, embrace that weird music if you think of yourself as a good musician.

Is there a point here?  Are you selling something or are you preachin' pal?


As a composer, and a young, technically feeble and undeveloped one at that - I can chiefly say that this has been a strong pull for me ever since I've learned about music history outside the lineage of Rock & Roll.  For me, my history began with the Beatles and 'Stones and continued through the European trends until we arrived in the 80's and then Metal took over; followed by Rap, Blues Traveler, Third-Eye-Blind, and an assorted mish-mash of iconically 90's artists; only to be replaced by Boy-Bands, mostly-naked girls, and as Thom York puts it "fake plastic love" of the 21st century.

I am sometimes sheepish when people ask me what my 'influences' are because in all honesty, I didn't grow up like Charles Ives harmonizing minor-seconds over a piano melody and lighting my cats on fire and catapulting my younger sister into a vat of maple syrup.

I didn't grow up like Mozart being groomed by my dad and then exploited for years and years by that same person only to turn out a genius but socially-inadequate-and-repressed adult.

I didn't grow up like Bach (you know the one I'm talking about) whose family would get together at parties and then make fun of people they didn't like in IMPROVISED FOUR-PART HARMONY WITH CORRECT VOICE LEADING.  I'm not making this up.  You can't make this up.

When I hear music, I almost never find myself herrumpfing loudly to myself, "Well yes, this part does  sound a bit like late Schubert and this part here does sound a bit like early Messiaen."  I can withdraw overt similarities - especially if I'm listening for them - but if I'm listening to music, I'm listening for the content, the affect, and the delivery.  I'm not really interested in playing connect-the-dots with who-influenced-who, and I find it quite interesting that so many learn-ed musicians are so quickly to pigeon-hole one another into perceived archetypes.

I feel the same way when people ask me, "What type of music do you write?"  

To which I astutely respond, "Whatever pops into my head."

Okay okay okay, I get it.  But what does this have to do with Schoenberg?

Well, to answer your question Italic Question Guy, Schoenberg resisted the pull by many many other popular composers of his time to further develop what he considered to be a "crass" harmonic language.

Schoenberg disliked the direction of harmony - he displayed contempt for augmented-sixth chords and many other of the fancy chords second-year theory students learn about.  Schoenberg felt that if you were going to use traditional harmony, you should not piddle around with it and see how many ways you could twist it before it became too absurd.  For him, he thought it was time for a new approach.

You see, it is highly illogical to think that he woke up one morning and thought to himself, "Gee, I wonder how I can ruin music today?"

Indeed, looking at his early work (see: any of his early lieder, String Quartet No. 1 in Dm, etc) young Schoenberg wrote in what is essentially the same sort of harmonic universe that the likes of Mahler, Dvorak, late Strauss, and others lived; that sort of post-Wagner nebula of swirling harmonies.  Furthermore, if you were to go through his catalog or "ouevre" if you're a fancy European, you would see that the majority of his work is tonal.  That's right.  Tonal. 

The guy most known for being an Atonal-obnoxious-face actually wrote more tonal music than not.  In fact, even when he was developing his  twelve-tone system, it's not as if he swore off The Good Wholesome stuff forever; he continued to write theme and variations, folk songs, and pieces for band - band throughout his life.  Band.

At a time when it was popular to be fussy, Schoenberg decided to simplify things.  He wanted to "emancipate the dissonance" by treating all twelve-tones equally.  He didn't like the term "atonal" and probably never thought of himself as being that way; since in effect, it means the opposite of what he was actually trying to do, which was to emphasize all tones.  He preferred to think of himself as pan-tonal which is a bit more accurate if you think about it.

Have you thought about it yet?

Are you still wondering if I'm leading you somewhere?


As young musicians, we deal with something that the older, established ones do not - having to establish ourselves.  While that does come across like a yuk-yuk observation, it is chiefly an important one as this career of art - whether we kid ourselves or not - is decidedly a social one.

For composers, we have to be cognizant of not allowing ourselves to get sucked into things we think we should be doing because we see other people have what we think as success.  Approaching music that way feels wrong and it comes out as false and you will know it and your audience will know it and they will remember that you spent their time on something false.

For performers, we have to be aware of that fine line of tradition and innovation.  Unfortunately, technology has played quite a detrimental role in the world of performing.  When people don't get auto-tune, they get angry.  Even non-musically related; the bombardment of electronic social media has begun to intercede the minds of young musicians; distracting them from meaningful experiences.  Some people are more interested in their phones than meeting a real, live, professional composer and learning from them.  

For educators, it means not falling sway to the glitz of sugar that is pop-music.  It means refusing to program arrangements from Glee for your band or chorus concert.  It means not tanking your job so that your administration will hire a second music teacher.

In this sense, we must be like Schoenberg; make decisions; following what we do regardless of what others think and external "success" because we know it is the right thing to do for no other purpose than to do it for its own sake.  (Instead of Pete for example.)

And still, we must do this with the understanding that no matter the end result of our lives, people will attempt to pigeon-hole us into shapes that easily fit into their back pockets so they can take them out and show everyone how smart they are.  Pigeon-holed in the sense that Schoenberg was - for ruining our good fun; pigeon-holed like so many of the other important composers of history; who are often defined word-of-mouth by people who actually aren't familiar with their entire catalog.

Lastly, we must not pigeon-hole ourselves with expectations of what kind of musicians we are and will be.  My compositional voice is not Wagner + John Lennon or  Berlioz + Monkees - George Gershwin.  My voice sounds like me, and I don't know how else to describe it.  If I did, I probably wouldn't bother writing music.

We musicians are in the field of music because we are passionate about it.  To dilute that with notions of what we should be doing and what is popular?  or how can I be innovative? or how can I push the mold? will only cause us to deflate ourselves, and that is no fun for anyone.

So thank you Schoenberg, you card.

                                                                                                                                                                                    November 9th, 2012

I'd like a different boat, please

Sometimes you have those awkward conversations with people where you might not be able to find the right words.  Sometimes it leads to you saying something embarrassing or revealing a bit more about yourself than you would have liked.  Sometimes it's hilarious.  Sometimes it's offensive.  People are usually forgiving though, and will at least give you a couple chances to get things right.  No matter how you begin, at some point you have to make noise.

I begin a lot of these entries in a goofy and mostly unrelated way until I find the thing that I actually want to talk about - and this one is no exception.  However, I like to think that I'm artistically relating this introduction with the thing that I actually want to talk about.  I am after all, an ar-teest.  

Or at least I think I am.

I find that many of my pieces begin the same way that I write journal or blog entries - that the beginning material may or may not end up being built into the underlying foundational organization for the rest of the piece.  This is a bit unique for a couple of reasons: 

number A.) Contrary to most music, the first thing you hear is not the most important thing.

number B.) This correlation between my music and my personal writing is indicative of the "personal nature" of stuff that I write - that I have a tendency to treat music as much of a means for inner-monologue as I do using words.

This is unique to think about!  I realized several months ago that I rarely if ever go back and revise the first section of a piece, though I will extensively and heavily revise the rest of it (as opposed to extensively and lightly revise.)  I also already know that I like to mirror music with people - especially philosophical approaches on what exactly the stuff is that makes us full of stuffing.  Perhaps it is my understanding of people that makes me treat a piece like another person.  Perhaps I like to give the music a few opportunities to make an impression on the listener; like the wait wait I'm not really a weirdo taste that I try and keep out of your mouth.

For those of you astute enough (can you use "astute" in a sentence without sounding pretentious?) to notice, there is a piece that I've posted that is currently in progress.

The working title is "Across, may I be ferried" and it is a very different project that something I have worked on before.  In short, it is basically a 10-12 minute dramatic scene with two vocalists and an instrumental ensemble of some sort.  Without revealing any magic tricks, it involves action, romance, and tragedy - it's really like an energy-shot of story-telling.

Okay, I'm intrigued, but so what? 

Well Mr. Rude-pants, (who has rude pants?) what makes this project unique is that it requires original text.  A Libretto.  For those of you out there in the grim reaches of space, a libretto is the text written specifically for the use of being set to music, and it is most commonly found in the context of operas, oratorios, one-acts, scenes, etc.  Thus, there is a difference between a libretto and a poem, since a poem was not originally written to be set to music.  As Bob Dylan would say, "If I can sing it, they're lyrics.  If I can't, it's a poem."

Well, the good news is that I already have a story, but I need / needed to create characters, write prose that is engaging, direct, and clear while being aware of the pacing.

Insofurther, (yeah, definitely a made up word,) you (I mean me) need to determine which parts are declamatory and which parts are emotive, the former lending to the progression of story plot while the latter lends to the development of the characters' feelings.  Given that I only have about 10-12 minutes, it is difficult to properly set up, develop, and intermingle not only the characters themselves, but also create conflict and resolution within the structure of the plot.

Once this is completed I'll actually begin setting the music; incorporating all of those little gems and Easter Eggs that composers love to put into music to pat themselves on the back.  (We are all so clever!)  These little gems and things invariably end up becoming the things that help you remember the names of different composers, so that when you take your music history test you don't fail.  

So the next time you do well on a history test, you're welcome.

As of this writing, I am still in the libretto-creating process.  One of the many reasons this project is challenging is because it requires a good sense of pacing - not only to align properly with the text, but to also conform to the time constraint.

Regardless of how I start, I find that the compositional process (for me at least) is an ever-evolving one, and I think that my music reflects that.  I am very interested and excited to see what happens with this project - what turns out to be effective and what does not.  It's all a learning process right?  Hopefully listeners will give me a few chances.

So, the next time you listen to a piece of music that you don't like, try thinking of it like something awkward said by someone you just met, because if it was an awkward thing said by someone you knew but didn't like, then you really wouldn't like it, and then we'd be talking about Country, and that's just not fair to anyone.

                                                                                                                                                                                       October 17th, 2012

Everything Must Go

I recently read a blog entry by a well-known contemporary composer that discussed the issue of beginning.  Even now I find myself stuttering with my hands and erasing erasing erasing each attempt to begin this entry here; looking for that perfect beginning - or at least something that I'm comfortable with.

Perhaps beginning something is a problem because we don't really understand where we began - sure we were present at our birth, but we weren't self-aware.  We are conscious that humans had to have come from or developed from somewhere or something at some point; after all, if that weren't true then I wouldn't be able to type this entry.  

Okay, okay, I know - really unnecessarily philosophical.  Well, as I sit here eating my turkey and pickle sandwich, thinking about my projects and feeling guilty about not posting blogs, I find myself reflecting on struggles that we experience as musicians that inhibit us from developing our potential.  For example, beginning something.

For composition at least, the process is unique because of the psychology that goes into writing.  In order to give you a context, let me put down a basic psychological framework that composers (or myself at least) usually take into consideration when writing a piece of music:

    - Must be interesting
    - Must be fun to play
    - Must be intelligently written for the instruments
    - Must be educational for players
    - Must be accessible to the audience
    - Must be interesting for analysts
    - Must convey an artistic statement
    - Must create new and interesting sounds
    - Must develop and expand the craft of the composer
    - Must be unique to separate it from the vast music of history
    - Must be cognizant of balancing aspects of music to reflect and express intent of composer's artistic expression

And the list goes on.  Whether or not the above list is actually true remains to be seen - that is just a portrait of how I perceive the expectations of what an artistically fulfilling piece should be.  If one or all of those items are not met, is a piece still worth the time of someone else?  Do people respect art that nothing of yourself was put into?  Do you respect a piece less if you know it was written in an hour or an afternoon instead of thinking it had taken months to complete?  How does that influence or degrade the art?

I wonder what the music would sound like if it accomplished none of those things above.  Right now you might have in your head:yes, but what about all the ugly music being written today?  Well, even "ugly" music hits pretty much all of the points listed above, except perhaps being accessible to the audience.

If art is dependent on contrast (which arguably, I think all art is,) then perhaps the trick to understanding and appreciating art is the ability to provide a context or a framework for the contrast.  Take for example monochromatic painting, though the work is in of itself providing no contrast, it greatly contrasts other works of art, which makes it art.  The same thing may be applied to minimalism.  Also in the blog referenced above is the discussion of the Hegelian Dialetic - a process of developing contrast into similarity.  Again, why is it that the Sonata form continues to be so popular?  But I digress.

Something that prevents us from appreciating the context of the art or the art itself occurs when we have contrast between the art that we are experiencing and the expectations that we have of what the art should be.  This is probably why a riot broke out when Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps was premiered; and yes, I used the french name for extra snoody-ness.

As a young composer with little experience I find myself reflecting on the concept of expectations.  We teach music theory through the lens of history - that is why we can tell the difference between 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century harmony; we have expectations.  I quite often wonder what sort of expectations other people will have of me and whatever it is that I come up with.  As a young composer I often try to remain cognizant of how my music might be perceived.  If it is too traditional people may write me off as being boring.  If too non-traditional, people may write me off as being too esoteric and unappealing.

Fortunately for me, I don't yet have the luxury of having complete strangers be interested in performing my stuff - I am mostly relegated to asking my friends if they'd be willing to play something.  This is something that I am very grateful for, since my friends already know how to put up with me, that increases the likelihood that they'll bother to look at something I wrote for them.

Now that I am somewhere different and far away, I find myself without friends - something, as I just pointed out, which is pivotal for the fledgling composer.  Now before you get all sympathetic, things are changing.  You eventually meet more people and make more connections - something I have begun to do.  What it is interesting here is that if you want something played, you have to track down people yourself.  If you don't know anyone, you're supposed to just go up and ask strangers if they'd be willing to play for you - hopefully making friends in the process of course, haha.

What I find humbling and gratifying is to receive so much support from my friends back home.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, music has always been a very personal thing - especially writing music.  I put a lot of myself into each thing that I write.  I believe that to improve you need to put in your absolute best effort, and so I have.  I have tried with everything I have written so far to use what I have learned to explore and celebrate this art form that we all enjoy.  But it makes me feel so vulnerable when it is read through or performed for others, as I view the music as an extension of myself.  To receive support from family and friends is rewarding and humbling, and I remain appreciative of that.

In thinking about the process of beginning, I wonder if the point is to do so without fear; to not be strangled by the myriad perceived expectations of others.  When you're beginning something, it seems that everything must go - to dissolve those expectations, the anxiety of originality, the self-doubt, the fear, and to just enjoy something for the sake of doing it.

Every now and again I ask myself: Why do I write? To which myself responds: Why aren't you wearing pants?  

Last night I asked myself that question -about writing, not about the pants.  Usually this is a gateway for lots of philosophical thought and pondering and hypothetical arm-waving and generally a lot of nonsense usually at the helm of trying to come up with something that was simple and profound that made me sound ultra-smart.  Last night none of that happened.  The question was asked, and for the first time in a very long time I thought to myself: Because I love it.  And really, that's all the reason you need.  

I have realized that over time I became gently dissuaded with personal expectations, but now I am slowly learning to let them go; to let everything go and just enjoy the process - something that has definitely stayed with me since first discovering my passion in high school.

Though the subject that I happen to study may be music, I would venture that the concept of expectations bleeds into many other careers as well - certainly politicians can relate (though it may not be the best example.)  How about teachers?  How about soldiers?  How about scientists or hard laborers?  What about performers?  What about audiences?  How do we play into the expectations of others?  Are we defined by others' expectations?

And the rhetorical-question train just keeps chuggin' along...

Do we actually begin, or do we just become more aware of something that's already going on?  Certainly that is how I kind of picture the beginning of my life - like one day the lights just turned on.  Scriabin described the process of composing for him to be something akin to lifting a magical curtain and seeing mysterious and wild things - though he was kind of a whack-job.  For me personally, it's usually just a series of ideas that pop into my head that are very clear, but don't necessarily contain music.  For example, I'll be working and I will have an idea of a texture that I want in my head, or I know that I want "high flutes" or "trombone something" in a given place and then I'll do that - very similar I guess in process to someone cooking something, tasting what's in the pot, and then throwing more junk in.

I am sure that Beethoven would agree that regardless of how we start, what truly matters is that we go somewhere.

                                                                                                                                                                                        August 30th, 2012