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