Category Archives: Composition

Blogs generally involving composition in some round-about way.

UMKC Composition Workshop

The past two nights have been close to sleepless in preparation for the UMKC Composition Workshop. Today is day one of the workshop, and so far it has been an outstanding experience, despite the sleep deprivation.

Today we were introduced to some of the composition faculty here at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Namely, Paul Rudy, Mara Gibson, and James Mobberley. They are incredibly interesting and open-minded. I can’t wait to get to know them throughout this week!

Shortly after the panel discussion with them, we watched a wonderful presentation from the trio Ensemble of Irreproducibale Outcomes. They are a group of composers that create innovative scores for themselves that allow the players in the group to improvise and generate different outcomes for each performance. If you’re ever able to see these guys live, don’t miss it!

To end the first day we heard an excellent performance of some 20th century music. My favorites from the night were Robert Pherigo’s performance of The Alcotts from Ives’ Concord Sonata and Michale Hall (viola) and Pherigo’s performance of Berio’s Naturale. 

More updates to come!

 

Does art for art’s sake further society, or is it merely emotional porn? And, why Tupac and M.I.A. are more important musicians than Mahler.

I did not blog last week due to a composition masterclass and concert featuring Brent Miller. This guy is doing amazing things for the new music community. Check out his organization, Center for New Music.

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Art for art’s sake. What is it? Depending on who you ask, you may get conflicting definitions. I will give my definition.

Art or art’s sake- the origination of materials in a given artists medium created based solely on the artists fascination with those materials.

For myself, this could mean coming up with what I believe to be an interesting rhythm and creating an entire work that liquidates every possible variation and permutation of this rhythm in a way that is aurally pleasing- first to myself and then hopefully to others. As a person who is passionate about certain humanitarian issues, how can I justify the emotional vomit that is absolute art? M.I.A., one of the most socially conscious rappers of our time, speaks about how artists often take for granted their ability to spread a meaningful message-

when asked about her experience at an art college:

“…By the time I left St. Martin’s, I could not justify myself being an artist at all, because I did not meet anyone there who was doing interesting art that was also getting through to everyday people. [Students there were] exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing. My life did not allow it: My mom was getting evicted, my brother was going to jail, I’d get my first phone call from my dad in twelve years confirming he’s still alive. So making ripples in the water, to aesthetically represent beauty, just didn’t make sense [to me].”

Full interview here

I think the point M.I.A. was trying to make was that artists have to be careful to not create emotional porn, to not create something that makes you and an observer simply feel feelings on a visceral level. Yes, M.I.A.’s music is great for an ass-shaking good time. But it also draws attention to some of the most important and overlooked (especially in the West) humanitarian issues our world is currently facing. If you have not seen the video for her track Born Free, watch it now.

Did you watch the video? Good. Now I am going to do some lumping. One could argue that art for art’s sake has just as much meaning (or lack thereof) as programmatic music based on the artist’s personal experience. For example, Mahler’s fifth symphony is said to have been inspired by his emotional state at the time it was written. During its composition, Mahler was madly in love with Alma Schindler and was also going through some health issues. Allow me to play devil’s advocate here, but who cares? Yes, Mahler was and remains to be revered as one of the greatest masters of his craft, but what has he done to better the world besides give us all warm fuzzies when we hear the Adagietto? M.I.A. has brought attention to 21st century genocide and ethnocide- what have you done, my dear Gustav? I am picking on Mahler, but the same could be said for many composers, especially those of the romantic era. And there is definitely the equivalent trend in the new music world of, as M.I.A. put it, “…exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing.” To put it in perspective, I saw Brent Miller play a piece for amplified water bottle last Wednesday. And I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool.

But maybe musicians should consider being a bit more like Tupac Shakur. Like M.I.A., the late rapper definitely knew how to lay down some sick rhymes and groovy beats, but he also had something to say. With his public appearances and lyrics, he brought attention to the plight of inner city blacks in the U.S. To my fellow artists, please be your own devil’s advocate and look at your body of work and seriously question what its purpose is.

A biased look at Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble

A biased look at Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble-

Seriously though, I am very biased. I attended Grand Valley State University (GVSU) from 2011-2013 so take my gushing with a grain of salt. Do your own research into their status.

The GVSU New Music Ensemble (NME) is a beacon for contemporary classical music in the mid-west, and the whole country. Their recording of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich was performed at the Bang on a Can Marathon in NYC, spent eleven weeks on the Billboard charts, and was featured in numerous media outlets including the New York Times and NPR. Their biggest claim to fame is their double album of remixes of In C by Terry Riley. Check out their website devoted to the juggernaut new music project. Composition professor and GVSU NME director Bill Ryan does an incredible job of showing his students the ropes of the contemporary classical world.

The GVSU NME also works with the composition studio at GVSU for an annual micro-works competition. For the one I took part in, each comp student was asked to compose 1-3 minute-long works inspired by the old-school magic exhibit located in an on-campus art gallery.

A couple weeks ago I made a trip back to GVSU to visit family, friends, and work on a new saxophone duet I recently completed. I also decided to sit in on a NME rehearsal, and I was nothing short of blown away by what they are up to.

When I walked into the rehearsal space, I was reminded of what my band used to do to my parents home during rehearsals- cables, microphones, and speakers scattered all over the place. They were working on an In C remix by Dan Rhode for an upcoming concert, accompanied by the kind of nasty bass and funky beats I have come to expect from my colleague. Even though I have seen a lot of rockin’ new music stuff in my time, I am always giddy when I hear classical instruments paired with electronics. Next they rehearsed a fairly new piece commissioned by GVSU NME called Wide Open Spaces by Armando Bayolo. Finally, they did a run through of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet. As you may be able to tell by their repertoire, past and present, this group has outstanding players. They may all be undergrads, but they are nothing short of professional. 

After each piece was played through, there was always a moment of silence. But after that very brief moment, all of the students began talking amongst themselves- discussing dynamics, texture, tuning, etc. Of course they would always defer to Bill, and he would sometimes give his always wise two cents, but most of the progress I saw in this rehearsal came from within the group.

If you are in the Grand Rapids, MI area on November 8th, I highly recommend you come see the GVSU NME fall concert.  This show is a preview of their spring tour of the American West. The show is FREE.

Also, if you are in the Mid-Michigan are on November 10th, their will be a concert of new music written by students, myself included, of the Central Michigan University composition studio.

Finale, Sibelius, and music making software are not crutches, they are emancipators of every human’s inner artist.

Finale, Sibelius, and music making software are not crutches, they are emancipators of every human’s inner artist.

It should be noted, that the majority of composers and instrumentalists (probably) do not have this geezer-ish attitude towards technology. But, there are some very important social and artistic points that need to be discussed with the advent of music software.

The first point- we exist in the post-industrial revolution, post-scarcity world. Before the Phonautograph (created in 1857), the only way the majority of the world could hear music was if they performed it by themselves or with family and friends. In the common practice period, those in the upper echelons of society could see a chamber or symphonic ensemble from time to time. And if you were royalty you could simply have composers and instrumentalists on staff to use them as you saw fit.

Now, imagine yourself as a nine-year old boy (or girl…well, probably not if we are talking pre-20th century), who comes from a family of Polish cabbage farmers in 1825. Most of the your time is probably spent…with cabbage. And dirt. Maybe you are lucky enough to be literate and you own some books, you would probably read those from time to time. But in your hierarchy of needs, you do not often reach a point where you can find time for creativity and the arts. It is likely that the only music you will ever hear is folk music passed down through an oral tradition. The lack of economic equality is an unfortunate part of human history, and it continues to this day. Because of this disparity, art was a priority of only a fraction of the population throughout most of human history. *

When I was studying music at Grand Valley State University, I took a course on 20th century music history. We only covered about 50 years if I remember correctly. The problem with classes on 20th century music is that there is so much material to cover. This is for multiple reasons- the arms race between super powers, European instability, the World Wars, etc. But this is just the standard political dysfunction present since the birth of civilization. I will assert that the most important factor when discussing music created after the second industrial revolution is technology.

Which brings me to my second point- the rapid advancement of technology over the last 150 years has played a significant role in bringing art to new demographics.

Now imagine you are a nine-year old boy from a family of farmers living in the early 1900’s. You have a rare afternoon of freedom and you and an older sibling go in to town to peruse the shops. In one of the stores you hear this strange and beautiful sound coming from some bell-shaped device, you ask the shopkeeper what it is and he tells you it is a song by Franz Schubert. This song moves you and you want to hear more. You keep going back to hear more artfully crafted music by the giants of composition. You hear Brahms, Mahler, Wagner, and you are hooked.

We take this kind of experience for granted now. We can hear EVERY piece of music ever recorded if we have the internet or access to a library. It is almost comical that a lot us will sit and read or goof around on the computer and use Vivaldi or Chopin as background music.

From a very early age I have been exposed to all kinds of music. Mostly popular music, but classical too. My family was by no means wealthy when I was an adolescent, but my Mother loved the music of Mozart, and thanks to the cheap and abundant resources available to most people in the 20th century I was exposed to glory of Mozart at an early age.

I played clarinet from 5th grade to 12th grade and picked up guitar in 7th grade and have not stopped since. In middle school and into 9th grade I used Windows Sound Recorder to record weird sounds from my guitar. However, the most important event in my life as a composer came to me when I was 14 or 15. My Dad purchased (not pirated, definitely not…that would be wrong) a sound looping/editing program called Acid. It was basically the coolest thing I had ever encountered. I could mix clarinets, trumpets, synthesized sounds, seemingly anything, and it opened up a whole new world for me. I would get on our families desktop PC whenever I could and create new pieces of music. No staff paper. No pen. Just me and a computer. Using a program that damn near anyone could get their hands on. I took some of these pieces I created to a girl I liked at the time who was going to Interlochen Center for the Arts and when I got her approval, I really thought that this was something I wanted to do.

Now I am 24 years old and in grad school, and I still love playing with music making software. I have sat for hours (literally, hours) and created soundscapes of static in Pro Tools. And now the embarrassing admission- sometimes I enjoy opening up Finale and composing. Composing with no idea in mind, just creating for the sake of creating. That happens less and less now that I have to be speedier with my process. Usually I’ll sketch out stuff feverishly on manuscript paper and create a visual outline and THEN open Finale.

For the minority who truly believes that Finale, Sibelius, Logic and Pro Tools are compositional crutches, I can only say that without these tools I would NOT be a composer. I am not a genius. I never will be. I need some sort of extrasomatic assistance often times and I hardly think that should count against me. For example, I may have a really great idea for a chord progression in a piece for clarinet and piano. Finale affords me the opportunity to hear that my great chord progression actually sounds like a cat walking across a piano. I can tweak it, trash it, or move on from it- but now I know for sure that it does not work. I am certain there are those who can come to this kind of conclusion using only their imagination, but I am not one of those people.

In my teenage years, I was almost completely dependent on software as a medium for composing. Maybe I would have been able to just use staff paper and come up with some groovy stuff in the same amount of time that I spent using software, but probably not. And I would argue that the romanticized notion of a melancholic composer stooped over his desk with pen and paper is quite an unnatural way to create music. It is merely a symptom of standardization of notation, which stems all the way back to the time of Charlemagne and his attempts at creating unity and conformity amongst the competing musical styles and notational practices in Europe. I believe it was Beethoven who said that composers must escape the prison that is the bar line. That is an important concept to remember. Bar lines can indeed be a prison. Notation in general can be confining. It is simply an organizing and record keeping tool.

Use Fruity Loops to create beats. Use Finale to check your scores. Use Photo Shop to create a picture, hell, use MS Paint. Even better yet, use spray paint to have your voice heard. Use everything at your disposal to say whatever it is you want to say. We are all artists in some way and thanks to technology, the chains of economic inequality have been broken, or at least loosened.

 

 

 

*I am making assertions based on my nowhere near scholarly understanding of history. Please feel free to refute any of my claims.

If you can play with Legos, you can compose music.

If you can play with Legos, you can compose music.

It may be more accurate to say, that if you can play with Legos you can do anything artistic. But I will provide my own personal love affair with Legos and the accompanying artistic implications.

I recently purchased a 22-inch monitor to connect to my laptop. Composing music on my 13-inch laptop screen was grueling to say the least, and sometimes composing in the shared Graduate Assistant office at Central Michigan University can be distracting. This large monitor now occupies much of the space that my speakers once occupied so I had to find a way to elevate my speakers to ear level. To me, the obvious solution was Lego. I’ll just build a couple of Lego towers to solve my problem. (Side note, there seems to be confusion about the plural of Lego. I like this article’s thoughts on the matter.  Here is a different take) So, as I am rummaging through my big bin of Legos that I collected from my toddler years to roughly age 20, something hits me- what I am doing in this very moment is how I SHOULD be writing music.

 
The best, but perhaps most embarrassing part, is that I have had this basically drilled into my head in my last two years of education but it is only now that I am truly beginning to understand the concept. During my undergrad at Grand Valley State University, I studied composition with new music master Bill Ryan. One of the first things he taught me was the outline method (I don’t know if that is what he would call it, but that is essentially what it is). This is the musical equivalent of outlining that we all learned in grade school English. You can first set the duration of the piece, then mark where you want tonal centers to shift, how you want overall dynamics to ebb and flow, specify the instrumentation density, etc. Then, you can zoom in on the first two minutes of the piece and specify all the parameters within that time frame, and so on. This method is extremely useful for when you have to write a piece but do not have that explosive artistic inspiration where you write feverishly for days on end. So how does this tie in to my Lego towers?

There was something that existed only in my head, and I devised a way to turn that idea into a tangible object. Is that not the essence of art? David Lang says “I take very seriously the idea that as a composer, my job is to make something in the world which didn’t exist yesterday.” What a beautifully concise job description of composers. A personal example of this- for a while now I have wanted to write a piece that expresses my feelings about Israeli apartheid. After my Lego epiphany, I realize all I have to do sit down and write out exactly the things I want to express about the situation, then maybe create an outline, and then begin coming up with musical ideas and applying them to my outline. This is exactly what an architect does. They are asked to build something which does not yet exist, they draw up a blue print, decide on materials, and the begin construction. (I am not an architect, so I hope I do no disrespect to the art form with my oversimplified assumption of what goes in to architecture.)

Trying to write piece of music using the rock ‘n’ roll method (i.e. coming up with an idea and building on that idea as you go based your own emotional responses to the connectivity of various themes) of composition is certainly not the most effective way to write a large-scale concert piece. I have used this method more times than I would like to admit, and with some success. But my recent attendance to a John Corigliano master class solidified my trepidation towards the rock ‘n’ roll method. He criticized of a lot of contemporary classical pieces and how often they have several peaks and valleys throughout the piece because there was seemingly no direction, no plan on what the piece was supposed to accomplish. I did not entirely agree with his assessment, which seemed aimed at minimalists and post-minimalists, but the point he makes is an important one. The most successful pieces are those with a POINT. What about absolute music? What about a Bach fugue? Well, did they not have a point? Yes, the point was strictly musical, but it was still a point. Bach would probably sit down at his keyboard, come up with a motive that he really loved and then spin out that motive in every way his 18th century mind could conceive, then, with all the musical brick and mortar laid out before him, he could assemble a fugue or an invention or a sonata.

 
I recommend everyone go out and buy as many Legos as possible for your children, or yourself, and the next time you need something to prop up your windows- build it. The next time you need a container for your pencils- build it. The next time you want to imagine riding in a spaceship that travels to different worlds- build it. Composers should try to think of their writing process as building with a specific structure in mind. The simple task of creating practical objects out of Legos is great exercise for your creative mind.