Friday, August 9, 2013

Meeting People Is Easy

It is a weird feeling to summarize your personal / musical history for someone. To gloss over those moments that shape and define you and speak of them plainly as if reading through a shopping list. It is weirder still for that person, after having heard your meager distillation and your most recent attempt at creating art to pinpoint one of your largest artistic unawareness and bring it to your attention – to make known that which was previously hidden.

I cannot help but reference Stephen King's Duma Key in which the protagonist is a painter described as an American Primitive. Perhaps it speaks to my education – my woeful fumbling, my grasping at seeds to make plants. Perhaps it is more philosophical, and is as such as a professor recently said to me, “it's called 'being on the right path'”. Perhaps it is. But I digress.

It is even weirder still, to, after having had your inadequacy made known to you, to experience that feeling several times within the span of a few weeks.

Recently, I had the great fortune to be able to meet with several prominent and well-respected professionals in my field, and their experience and wisdom not only provided perspective, but also foreshadowed possible directions for my art in the future.

My music could be serialist, unstructured, neo-romantic, trans-popular classicist (let's see that one stick,) or any number of styles or flavors. But I cannot help but wonder why a composer should choose any one particular medium? I've considered myself eclectic for a long time, but it was only recently that I realized how pedantic my approach was – caught up in the minutia of “classical” tradition and the dissociation between different compartments of myself.

What then is a composer to do? Reconcile these languages? Abolish them completely?

In a couple of recent lectures, composers were asked who their audience was – who they were trying to write for or appeal to. I think this is a very good question, but in truth, I feel that this question only address half of the quandary. The other half, and perhaps more importantly may be the question: How is this audience listening? In all honesty, the more I think about the latter question the more I begin to realize how determining answers more directly affects how and why I do what I do.

Audiences today listen very differently than I imagine they ever have before, and I believe that the composer's role in society is once more shifting and adapting to the current culture. A couple hundred years ago, many, many composers were essentially entertainment directors for the courts or aristocracy – employed by nobility to keep the wealthy sated and not bored out of their wig-covered heads. Eventually composers began writing for themselves, for the future; erecting themselves as monolithic entities, towering giants, and titans of industry that no mortal could compare. We refer to them now as the venerable Grand Masters of composition. I'd like to see Bach work with Max MSP.

That said, those composers knew their role in society and they knew their audience. What remained was having the technique, the character, and the je ne sais quoi to elevate them above their contemporaries – the esoteric artists that make us graduate students feel smart when we reference them casually in conversations.

The fin de siècle saw the integration of electrical technology into popular culture, and it is from that point in history that I contend the unwashed public and the “composers” diverged in the yellow wood.
The Classical period was about objective beauty; the Romantic about the ineffable. The 20th Century saw a new kind of composer: the composer-scientist.
At some point, composers, in their infinite wisdom, began to use their hindsight to determine that music must progress forward, and in the pursuit of this forward motion (along with the desire for prestige, respect, and security in the canon,) composers searched for new sounds. Thanks to the mass dissemination of sounds, concepts, ideas, and schools of thought traveled more quickly and widely that I would venture to say any other time in history.

I was recently in a class where forty (forty!) highly-educated and bright, learned composers had literally no idea which decade of the 20th century a given piece fell into – myself included. This listening exercise to me was shocking – especially when we found out they were all written within a four-year span. But I digress.

I believe that composers, for the first half of the 20th century, were able to carve out little plots for themselves, plant their flags, and wait for settlers by “pushing the envelope,” “expanding horizons,” and other clichés you normally hear on tv. This Madonna-esque shock-and-awe approach seemed to work effectively, just think about the “ism” avalanche that we all now have to suffer through:


blah blah blah blah blah we could go on for years. Right now you're probably counting on your fingers and shaking your head at all of the others I didn't include. Well, good for you, maybe you can use those facts to make some friends. OH SNAP!


It was our fault I think. Yeah, us musicians. Us composers who think we're so smart and dictate the course of art / music in culture. Before tv and Honey-Boo-Boo, a Strauss waltz was known as popular music. Can you imagine Strauss wearing a schoolgirl outfit or leather jumpsuit and singing with autotune? Yeah, me neither.

I want to take a moment to sincerely and profoundly apologize for putting that image in your head.

So at what point did scaring audiences with our crazy sounds stop being fun and start being the secret password to get into our esoteric club? At what point did orchestras become historians and keepers of the past? At what point did “new music” become a dirty term with fart jokes? At what point did people begin telling their children that there was no money in music and that they should become a patent lawyer? At what point did development of the human soul take a back seat to materialism and consumerism?

How many more generic and rhetorical questions can I ask before I get annoying?

So what are we doing with ourselves? How do I know what to write if I don't know how my audience is listening?

Technology – television, radio, movies, video games, the internet, etc etc, has broaden and pacified aural tolerance to such a point that (I venture to say) that the age of composer-scientist is passing. I don't know if there is any more shock-and-awe at our disposal. We know what fire is. We know what bread tastes like. We know what the iPhone does. Blah blah blah scandal is an old hat – an old, outdated axiom; a rusting archetype; a rotting dramaturgical arc. (yay made-up words!)

So what is our audience? How do composers make their mark? How do we get anyone to pay attention?

A visiting lecturer once said in passing that audiences are accepting of “new sounds” if you put them in the soundtrack of a scary movie. And though it was meant as a humorous jab as well as commentary, it began to make me think critically about what that meant for a composer's role. If the composer-scientist from the 20th century was “progressing” music forward by continually searching for new sounds, would it then not seem logical for the following progression to be the ability to know when and how to use those sounds effectively? By no means am I saying that all new sounds have been discovered or that music is now stale, but I think the emphasis is changing. I believe that long gone are the days where a select few intelligent artists can change a culture's aesthetic zeitgeist so monumentally as has been the case for the past 400 years or so.

I believe that fame, success, or whatever you want to call it needs to be differently than the way Beethoven & Co. understood it so many moons ago. The world now is much larger. Ideas, beliefs, and human experience now transcend time and space effortlessly. I don't believe non-musical audiences are the unwashed sheep we think they are.

I can't help but think about Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares – where he goes into a restaurant and the chef thinks his / her food is great and perfect, but there are no customers. Is it the role of a composer to be jaded and cynical? If we are in fact endowed with the responsibility of creating meaningful art that transforms us, are then we not also imbued with the responsibility to share it? Can we share it by being esoteric and elitist? Can we share it by hiding behind awards and honors and thinking of ourselves? These are not judgments, but observations.

Obviously, these are concepts that I am wrestling with, and I suspect that other young artists like myself are also thinking about. At our age and inexperience, it seems like there are always more questions than answers.

I have begun developing answers to some of these questions, but that I think is subject for another time and another entry – Lord knows this one is long enough.

I suppose the take away from these musings / ramblings (if there is such a thing,) is that our priorities and experiences not only inform our aesthetic, but our audience as well. Sure, we may be content to be American Primitives all of our lives, but our fumbling personal growth will be stunted by our awareness and our desire to belong.

Until next time, stay classy.

- August 9th, 2013

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A New Perspective

I recently watched a masterclass with John Corigliano in which he talked about his process for writing a very large clarinet concerto for the New York Philharmonic.  For him, he described his process as mostly taking place before he wrote any music.  Corigliano stated that a sculptor does not conceive of the rest of the sculpture after seeing what the first finger looks likes.  The sculptor has conceived of a complete idea, sketches it, and only proceeds to cut stone as the final process.

I realized today that this metaphor did not become truly real for me until I equated it with painting, which is kind of funny, since I don't paint.  Many composers and musicians have likened notes (pitches) to different "colors."  I have realized that my current method of composition is similar to what Corigliano described, only, my method up until now has been more stream-of-consciousness - typically working from left to right.  The more I think about this, the less that I think this is correct.  It is true that it is not incorrect, but I feel as though I would be missing out on an otherwise elevated understanding about the craft of composition.

Too many people (myself included) get caught up in the notes - which notes are chosen and what those notes might sound like.  This is exactly like a painter who is completely caught up in how the colors work together.  The apex of this trend was in the 1950's - 70's with the almost ubiquitous popularity of serialism - the orderliness of the colors predetermined.  At the time, it was considered (and probably still is) considered one of the highest intellectual arts.  Composers such as Milton Babbitt supported much of their career by doing this type of work.

That said, if stripped to the barest essentials, it is really not much more than composers using algorithms to create strings of musical data.  Profound meaning can still be derived in this way, much in the same way that your computer can hold all of your family pictures.

I am beginning to realize that work with the notes is exactly like choosing what colors / pallettes to use.  Why would you start painting unless you know what you were going to paint?  I have told people before (whether they wanted to know or not) that the hardest part for me is knowing what I want to do.  Once I know, the work with the notes goes pretty quickly.  Up until now, I have not really had a process of developing this part of the compositional process.  I have mostly just stumbled my way around until I found something that I liked.  For this reason, my writing has been quite inconsistent and unpredictable.  It lacks focus - partly because I am not interested in conventional forms, and partly because it is the majority of my experience in composing.

What I have up until now considered the "pre-compositional process" I now realize is in actuality the majority of the process, with the actual musical notes being the last part.  As of this post, I am currently working on a research paper that further develops these notions of compositional process, and my aim is to codify the experience of the process for me so that I can be more efficient and more consistent.

This all means that it is important to have a thorough understanding of theory and compositional pedagogy, so that the gestures sketched by the composer can be articulated much more accurately by the pitches and sounds and techniques chosen by the composer.

I now realize that I spend the majority of my time focused on the last 20% of composition and neglect the roughly other 80%, sometimes stumbling my way through it by accident.  Why should I waste all of my time fussing when I am more interested in the gestures that make up a piece as a whole?  Why should I spend my time focusing on a cacophony of minute voice-leading rules when the gestures themselves are more important?

As Corigliano put it, "an architect doesn't design the rest of the building based on what the cornerstone looks like - they conceive of the entire thing before they begin building."  I feel as though composition should and can follow this same process.  I feel that to do so would not only make my writing more consistent, but it would also help me conceive of my ideas, it would waste less time, and my pieces would have more architectural support.

I have often wondered about my sporadic moments of clarity.  For example, a few weeks ago I sat down and wrote three minutes of orchestral music in a couple days.  I did not write anything related to that piece for the next three weeks.  Up until now, I considered those little "Mozart moments" happened randomly and that I should appreciate them when I have them.  I now realize that those moments of clarity are really just that: they are clear conceptions of the architecture of a piece.  the work goes quickly because the architecture is intuitively understood; the ear and the brain lead the composer through the necessary notes the way the eyes of a painter guide the brush and survey the progress of the work.

I think that this possibly contributed to Mozart's success.  He lived in a time when much music was written to fulfill an accepted template.  Undeniably, Mozart was genius - even with the established conventions of form.  However, I believe that part of his genius was the spontaneous development of musical architecture in his mind.

What was once considered to be some odd, inhumanly magical ability to conjure up notes from a sputtering well of creativity is now something that I think can be practiced and mastered.  I believe that it is possible to compose the majority of a piece without writing a note of music.  I also believe that musical ideas and inspiration stem from the limits and confines of architectural composition.  I believe that if a composer struggles with notes then they do not have a wholly articulated concept needing to be expressed.  I believe that practicing the pedagogy in this way eliminates the need for inspiration (though it is always welcome!)  I believe that it generates consistency of production and also leads to a more coherent (especially in my case,) piece of work.

I have also realized that unlike other disciplines, I do not know of or practice any compositional warmups before I write.  Musicians warmup their mouths, instruments, and bodies before they practice or perform.  Why is it that I do not also do the same with composition?

In order to improve my skill and elevate my work to a higher level of integrity, I must begin this new practice of understanding.  I must develop a daily routine of exercises to perform before I write so that my writing sessions are that much more productive and fruitful.

It will be interesting to see how my compositions and my process change as a result of this change in perspective.

Until next time, stay warm.

    - February 26th, 2013 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Concept of Sound

How much time do you suppose you spend wondering?  How much time do you spend dreaming?  Do your dreams linger; following you into the day; taunting you as you find ways to destract yourself?  Where do you let your mind go?  Where does it wander?  Does it move at all?

Do you ever ask yourself in a moment where you expect truth what are you doing with your life?  How about what will you do with your life?

I have been thinking a lot recently about why I do what I do; why I like the sounds that I like and why I am where I am instead of somewhere else.  We all get depressed and feel useless when we read biographies of musicians that debuted with the NY Phil at 12 and bounced around the most prestigious music schools before getting a bazillion dollars and being hoighty-toighty with all of the famous people around today.

I have been thinking about why I exist here in this time in this place instead of somewhere else and a different when.  I have been thinking about why I prefer the sounds of quartal and diadic harmony over tertian harmony, why I can't seem to stop writing slow music, why most of my compositions are written in a stream-of-consciousness style versus a typical organized form.  I have been thinking about why I am afraid to write for percussion, and how every time I finish a piece I don't ever think it's good enough to submit to a competition.

I have been thinking about how to create a career that allows me to be self-sustainable; to be a composer and to write music as my profession; to make a living doing so.  I have been thinking about what it means to be a composer here in this time, and what it means to be successful.

I have been wondering about all of these things because all of those things are a part of me, and in my own experience, I can't write music that I do not put myself into.  Like I mentioned in my first post in this blog, I was once told by a composer that my music was very personal.  It is amazing to me how astute that observation was given the brevity of the time that I met that composer.  It was something I had never realized and something that had never been articulated until that moment.

I consider what I write to be an extension of myself; that to hear something that I write is for people to become known with a part of me that is very personal and vulnerable.  People hear my thoughts; my best thoughts at my attempts to create a meaningful work of art.  My feeble, small attempts at creating something meaningful that hopefully someone someday will find meaning in.  It isn't out of ego or hubris that I pursue this purpose; that I think that I am somehow more divinely enlightened than the majority of humanity and that all of my thoughts are profound and should be awed.

I do it because I have a desire to create; to contribute in my small way to hopefully making the world a better place; as infinitesimally small as that change may be.  If just one person is inspired to pursue their own path of creativity for this purpose, then I suppose my work has achieved its own purpose.

Is a concept of sound determined by the technique chosen?  Is it the result of mastering a single technique or compositional approach and becoming the best in the field at that particular thing?  Is that why we study the famous composers that we study?  Is concept of sound more than that?

I was asked recently by a composer, What is your goal?  Who do you aspire to sound like? and I didn't name a single living composer, and my answer - I could tell - missed the mark.

In the book Duma Key, by Stephen King, the main character becomes relatively famous in his area for his paintings.  The local art critics described him as an American Primitive because he was doing all sorts of wonderfully artistic things without realizing what he was doing.  At this point in my life, I feel as though I am exactly like this main character.

I have been studying music composition for eight years now - five of which I was self-taught.  When I began taking formal lessons, my teacher would often make remarks about certain things I was doing in my work when we met for lessons.  Most of the time I wasn't sure what she was talking about, but I didn't want to seem like I was being caught off guard, so I nodded my head and agreed with her; pretending I really did know what I was doing.  The truth is, I just followed my ear and my intuition the entire time.  The majority of what I learned about composition during my undergrad came after it was mentioned that I was doing it in my work.

I have realized that the reason why I write in a stream-of-consciousness style is that when I was first learning it, I didn't know anything about forms.  It's hard to write a sonata when you don't know sonata-allegro form.  It's hard to understand about correct voice-leading when you teach yourself what the chords are and you're stumbling through theory textbooks.  I write in a stream-of-consciousness style because it also fills my preference for artistic aesthetic in that I agree with Mahler in that music should begin in one place and end in another.  I believe that my music should reflect life, and that like life, sometimes the most beautiful moments only happen once - one of the reasons they become so beautiful.

I have realized that I prefer quartal and diadic harmony over tertian harmony because very first compositional scribbles were for guitar, and I sat in my bedroom for marathons of guitar playing, improvising, learning songs by ear.  Those harmonies sound natural to me because it is with those harmonies that I began defining my musical ear and my artistic sense.  I was playing in a jazz combo one time, and the leader of the combo (a freelance jazz bassist) halted the rehearsal during my solo and rebuked me in front of the group for not using scales; for improvising with fourths and seconds.

I like non-functional voice leading because I wrote chorales everyday for six months and got bored with the little theory that I knew.  I didn't know anything about figured bass, tonicization, chromatic mediants, modulations to something other than the relative minor, etc.  So I made up my own voice leading and of course it sounded bad, but that's half of the fun.  In order to know what sounds you want you have to know what sounds you don't want.

So is a concept of sound a culmination of things that we do well that we know we can make sound interesting?  Is a concept of sound an awareness of sounds you don't want because they won't fit the artistic aesthetic for that piece?

A few months ago I read a quote by Benny Goodman in which he said that kids would rather look for awards rather than spending time at home practicing their instrument.

I have realized that in order for me to improve as a musician I need to drop the pretense and regard of pretending to know what I'm doing; to stop pretending to be knowledgeable with what little experience I have; to be honest about what it is I am and am not familiar with; to see out the things that I do poorly and work to improve on them; to continually learn new techniques and approaches that will constitute a more comprehensive approach to what I do - a more comprehensive understanding of the aesthetic I am trying to fulfill - a more comprehensive and clearly defined concept of sound.

Ever since I was asked who I wanted to sound like, I've been thinking of the techniques I know and the things I like to use and etc.  I would say that metaphorically this is like learning all of the notes in a piece of music on your instrument and then saying that you can "perform" the piece, or that you "know" it.  This is a very facile and an incomplete, rudimentary understanding of performance. 

I now know that it is so much more than that - it is the reason why you write; it is the result of your foundation with music; it is what you are doing with your life right now; and it is also a precursor to what you are going to do with your future life.  Since I view my music as an extension of myself, I have realized that beginning to work on having answers to these questions is to be developing my concept of sound - that it is more than just the music itself.  I realize now that I had a rudimentary understanding of sound and compositional approach.

I am currently working on a string sextet for the Pheonix Art Museum, and I haven't written a single note.  I am currently in the pre-compositional stage where I am doing some research and familiarizing myself with the artist and his work in order to make my own work more informed.  If you had asked me a few years ago if I ever thought I ever had anything in common with a New-Mexican surrealist, abstract landscape artist?  I probably would have said "no."

Now that I have done all of this wondering, I think that I'm ready to approach this sextet with a fresh perspective, my orchestration book, and a textbook on 20th century composition techniques.

For anyone reading this, this is a reminder that the learning always continues.

January 13th, 2013