Monday, November 19, 2007

Who Composes, 2

Not nearly enough people, in my book.

Look at it this way: there are drawing classes available to children and adults of every skill level, from beginning to student to professional. Everybody knows that drawing is a skill that most people can become at least somewhat good at; that drawing can be a source of continuing pleasure throughout life; that you can start at one level and progress as you learn more about your tools and your eye.

I'd like to see classical composition taught the same way as drawing: as a craft, or as a learnable skill. Instead, composing is surrounding by a golden aura of genius and prodigiousness, the legacy of a 19th century world view and, perhaps, those youthful composers Mozart and Mendelssohn. Either you're a brilliantly talented genius or you're nothing - how easy it is to forget that Leopold Mozart raised his son with music lessons from an early age, thus nurturing the inborn potential the child had. There are middle ways! As you work with music, you learn how to structure a piece, how to balance an ensemble, how to write a melody, how to compose for different instruments. All you have to do to realize the truth of this is to look at how far Verdi and Wagner came from their first to their last works.

Certainly pop and rock have figured this out; look at the thousands of kids playing guitar or bass, many of whom taught themselves to play, many of whom go on to start bands in their garages or basements. If we can change our attitudes about the nature of composition and start teaching it as a skill that can be learned and hones over time, we will have more composers; we will have more listeners who listen with skill; we will have more people playing instruments alone or together.

Speaking more personally, I never thought of myself as someone who might learn how to compose until about a year or so ago, when it dawned on me that I'd heard enough music and looked at enough scores that I could put together, on the one hand, a pastiche of a Donizetti aria, and, on the other hand, an original vocal trio, with orchestra, in a loosely Expressionist style. I haven't done either and probably won't (time, etc.), but it was quite a shock to me to realize I could.

(Elaine Fine and I have had an interesting email discussion of this topic, and I hope she'll post some of her thoughts as well.)


Alex Shapiro said...

What a refreshing essay!

I completely agree with you, Lisa, and have been ranting about this for a long time to anyone who will listen. The elitism and arrogance in believing that only certain, trained people can-- and deserve to-- compose, is ludicrous. That's why software tools like Garage Band are great: they put music-making in reach of everyone. And in turn, that brings people back to a more immediate, existential way of being, by which they can just enjoy the process rather than think that they have to come up with an end result that's brilliant. Oh, how many pro composers wish they could enjoy that freedom!

I feel the same way about playing music, for that matter: who says that everyone has to be good at it? How about the sheer joy of just picking up an instrument and making a cool sound out of it? This is what I love about showing people the piano: slap your hands down anywhere and enjoy the unexpected resonances and sounds. No education necessary! There are no wrong notes.

Digital photography has given something similar to mere amateurs like me: I can take mediocre snapshots of things that have meaning to me, and simply enjoy the moment. Then if I choose, I can share them with people around the world on my blog and perhaps someone else will resonate with them, too. My photos don't have to be "good" for that to occur, any more than music has to meet a particular standard to be communicative to others. For proof of the latter, just look at all the niche-finders on the music side of the aptly named MySpace. They receive lots of encouraging comments about their offerings.

I laugh at professionals who warn that the above examples pose a dire threat to Real Art. What these people fail to see is that by opening up the world of creation to everyone, we'll not only nurture a greater number of talented artists, but we'll inspire a remarkable number of future concert-goers and art lovers. It's all about affinity: once someone can relate to what artists do because they've tried their hand at it as well, they're much more likely to want to stay connected to it somehow. Hooray.

Anonymous said...

An example for this was set in Hungary starting in the 1950's. (I'm not sure if it continues today.)

Inspired by the earlier writings of Zoltán Kodály, the national school system was organized to include music in day-to-day education. Starting at the preschool age, kids learned to sing in tune, then sightread and eventually take multipart dictation and compose by, say, 3rd or 4th grade. It was treated as just another part of education, and not as some glorious career path.

I agree that composition should be taken down a notch and taught more widely to kids of a younger age, but it would need to start with the basic skills, and that isn't even being taught properly.

There are many schools around the U.S. that teach music according to Kodály's principles. It would be nice if we could build on that.

Elaine Fine said...

Though I agree with both you and Alex about the benefits to emotional musical health that composing (and playing) without worrying about whether something is "good" or not can bring, and I feel that everyone should be given the tools to write music. Unfortunately in my experience the notion that everyone can write music doesn't really "play" in the real world.

I have always encouraged students during my 30 years (!) of private teaching to write music of their own: a single phrase, a warm-up exercise, and I always encourage them to improvise duets with me. The improvisation they really take to, but the writing down of what is in their heads (or what they have just played) and the skills that it takes (like rhythmic and pitch notation and actually remembering the phrase for a long enough time to write it down) is something that I have found very few students have been able to do, and of those that have been able to do it, it gives very few of them pleasure.

This is what, I believe, makes composers a self-selecting group. People who enjoy writing music write music. People who don't enjoy writing music are in the majority: the musicians among them are the people who enjoy playing music that other people have written. It's kind of like a food chain.

I think that it takes a certain dedication (and a certain amount of obsession) to write down the musical stuff that runs through your head. Even with the skills necessary, there is a great deal of trial and error (and in my case error is always dominant) involved. I would never dream of showing some of the dreck that I have written (and put away in a drawer) to anyone, but it is because of that dreck that I have stumbled upon some good stuff. I think that the ability to tell dreck from non-dreck is what makes me keep going as a composer.

Composition, for me, is the process of realizing music that I want to hear. It means writing down the music that goes through my head, bringing out the music in a text, using a lot of intuition, making a huge number of choices, making a huge number of mistakes, and finally being satisfied when something sounds the way I want it to sound.

I guess I'm a but of an elitist when it comes to music.

Alex Shapiro said...

Good points, all, Elaine. And choosing to do something traditionally doesn't make you an elitist :-). Since the bulk of my writing is for traditional Western acoustic instruments, like you I spend a lot of time notating. I agree that it ain't for the faint of heart! My reference to Garage Band is that, like most electronic music, it enables anyone to create sounds-- some of which might even be called music (!)-- without needing an education to do so. I think this is very freeing.

Most people are not going to want to be professional composers, and so I think that for them, the need for musical literacy is less important than the need for easy expression. I have to say, even though I write notes as fast as I write English (and with as many spelling errors), I'm hoping to stick around long enough so that technology enables me to hook up a few diodes and cables to my brain, allowing the initial impetus of everything I hear in my head to pour out onto the page, fully orchestrated! There's a constant battle for attention between the sheer creativity of the right brain, and the left brain's need to mathematically and instantly translate that creativity to others so that they can perform it. The latter process inherently interrupts the former. Electronics, needing no performer, can offer a welcome break!

Anonymous said...

One of the marvels of the computer age is how many people found it easier to write once it became easier to edit. I know several people who couldn't conceive of writing documents without cut-and-paste, and who go into chills when some of us recount that correcting errors involved interrupting your train of thought, rolling the paper up the platen, applying white-out, drying it, and rolling the paper back into place and this time remembering that I comes before E.

I similarly found composition easier once the tools were there to let me write down a score with as much ease as writing a letter, though there are times when a pencil and a stack of manuscript paper still works best.

Today's creators of music may lack the training we wish they had, but some of them discover solid principles on their own. Cage's musical collage begat sampling in rap music, which now permeates a lot of pop and alternative music on all levels. Some of today's music, with its inner references and heckling sound effects almost sound like a web page brought to life.

Henry Holland said...

Mr. Shapiro, is, I'm sure, aware of notation programs like Sibelius and so on, but I think he's envisioning something more along the lines of something you'd see in a Dr. Who episode! :-) There's a documentary about Robert Moog and in it he talks about routing the sound of his glorious synthesizers directly in to the cerebral cortex. If only....

I've played bass guitar in prog rock bands and written the usual dopey 4 chord (some even in minor! ) songs but I got ambitious about three years ago. I had this big orchestral piece swimming around in my head; more an arrangement than anything ("flutes and 1st violins will do this, horns in F do that" etc.), but it was a start.

So, I got some 18 stave score paper. I wrote out a tone row and then did the I, R and RI versions and then divided those bits in to 3 and 4 note segments. Using the row, I wrote a melody, making sure there were no leaps of augmented 13ths or similar Xenakis-type things. I like my tone rows to be hummable! :-)

Having sketched out the melody, I then used the 3 & 4 note bits of the row permutations to write the harmonies, the counter melodies etc. Whatever sounded good on my little 5-octave Casio electric piano, I used. Using my copy of Rimsky-Korsavkov's orchestration book, I orchestrated as I went along--no rough sketch for this aspiring Birtwistle!

So, for three days I was totally immersed in this process, working on it at work on my lunch break, staying up 'til 2:00 am etc. I was *possessed*. Then.....

I realized I didn't know the first damn thing about writing an orchestral piece that lasted more than two pages of a full score! D'oh! Development, transitions, all that: I had nothing. Still, it was an interesting experience and I certainly felt the mania that some composers describe when writing a piece.

My opera based on E.M. Forster's Maurice will remain unwritten, alas!

Elaine Fine said...

It seem that Mr. Holland has found the very fight that composers face every day. I feel hoplessley inadequate when I begin a project, and the only way I manage to get through the intimidation of I feel is through sheer will. Eventually when I "win" and get something worthwhile on paper, I am really happy. It is worth the fight. Having identified the beast, I would still give Maurice a try, but I would start with a libretto before working out material.

By the way, Alex is best referred to as Ms. Shaprio.

Anonymous said...

Composing is hard:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ahahah, that Mencken quotation is fantastic, except that, honestly, I think he is wrong. I just don't believe it's that much harder to learn the basics of or achieve greatness in music than in the other arts he names. Goodness knows, I have seen a lot of very bad writing....

[More comments later this weekend.]

Elaine Fine said...

Competence is within reach.

Greatness is, for most of us, just out of reach. We can see it. We can even almost taste it, but we spend most of our lives (after learning, forgetting, learning again, reconsidering, becoming discouraged, becoming inspired, and feeling worthless) trying to bridge the huge (and ever-growing as we grow in awareness) gap between competence and greatness. In the visual arts like painting and sculpture, competence masks itself as greatness by way of precision. Precision in music (and there's lots of it) doesn't mean that it is great art. Like music, precision and competence in written language doesn't equal art. I have seen a lot of bad writing, but I have seen a lot of really great writing too. I encounter great writing (and great writing in many forms like poetry, prose, non-fiction, fiction, plays, screenplays, technical writing, and journalism, to name a few) far more often than I encounter great music, so I would have to agree with Mencken.

Anonymous said...

What Mencken says about non-music professors:

all the solemn hocus-pocus of the professors who presume to teach it

applies all too well to many music teachers, especially at the college level. Music is a friendly cousin to mathematics, and I think that has misled many to analyze music as a science instead of as an art. Music lends itself to more repetition than art, but less than architecture. Other than that, there are as many ways to make good and great music as there are good and great musicians.

The "rules" are a path to making a pastiche. Having something to say is the path to making art. (At which point, granted, the craft can help make a good piece great.)

Anonymous said...

(Ugh. That middle sentence should read:

Music lends itself to more repetition than prose, but less than architecture.


alex said...

What an interesting discussion! However, I must demur on some of the assertions that Ms. Fine makes.

While her observation that she sees more great writing than hears great music seems to be the accepted wisdom, I'm curious to know what kinds of music she is restricting her observation to, if any.

Along the lines of the garage band comparison, I think that most people who could be interested in composing in a classical style are, in fact, composing in a more rock or pop, etc. one.

A friend of mine showed me a composition he made on his cell phone. It was fairly simple in that he basically just put together instrumentation based on sort of pre-composed motives, but the order and such were really quite good and fit a certain style.

Also, this is in comparison to writing which is something that cannot be avoided and has been taught to children since the very beginnings of school (not necessarily how to write competently, but all the tools are there in a way that it is emphatically not for music). So, I don't find the argument in favor of composition being harder, based on students asked to write simple things and writing poorly, to be very compelling. To me, it would be like asking students in their 2nd or 3rd year of learning a vastly different language (say a polynesian one or an asian one if their native tongue is more a romance or germanic language) to write comparatively simple things.

The vast majority of the examples aren't going to be very good, and I think it would be a mistake to write off such students as unable to do competent work in the field as a result.

Alex Shapiro said...

Greetings again from the other Alex here,

I think generalizations get in the way of our perceptions with both writing and composing. It's technically easier to compose a three-chord rock groove than it is to compose a chromatically dense, contrapuntal, and rhythmically complex symphony. It's technically easier to write a haiku than a 600 page novel. All this being said, writing something that's actually GOOD is, in any style, very hard! It's that extra layer of judgment, subjective as it is, that further defines these things.

I'd rather hear a good rock song than a plodding and unimaginative symphony any day. And while it's fairly simple to write a very average and uninspired song, it's very, very hard to write a really good one! My hat is off to all the great songwriters.

Perhaps we would all agree though, that in the end, anything any of us can do to encourage artistic expression and enjoyment among people who do not consider themselves to be artists, is an excellent idea. If only more people had such an outlet, I suspect we'd have a happier, saner world.

Lisa Hirsch said...

What a great discussion! I'm finally caught up enough to comment.

I agree with every word of Alex Shapiro's first comment and almost all of Elaine Fine's first. I ddin't say anything about the emotional musical health benefits of learning compositional skills! I just believe more people would compose if composition were presented differently, as a learnable skill. Michael Walsh is right that the basics need to be taught from an early age if people are going to become at all skillful with them. Elaine, I am sure you are right that most people don't have that inner need, or drive, if you will, to compose, to write down what they hear, and of the ones who do, few will become great masters. I don't think that makes you an elitist.

I tend to think that if I were composing, I'd do it on paper. I have spent too much time admiring composers' manuscripts and searching for information on them to want to do it any other way, plus I like the visceral connection with what I'm doing. Writing did not get easier for me with the advent of computers, but learning to type, on a manual typewriter, certainly made it easier than hand-writing. Hmmm.

Elaine, what does "precision in music" mean to you?

Mike, it's easier to do mathematical theory or analysis than to write well about structure, coherence, melody, etc. Schenkerian reductivness: so 20th century.

I agree with lower-case-a alex (wellsung?) that it's hard to compare competence or greatness in music with the same in writing: as he/she says, most people learn something about writing when young and have many, many opportunities to practice writing. Professionals have editors, too, and I cannot overemphasize the value of a good editor to a wirter. How many composers have editors who review ever word and comment on every page?

Hooray for upper-case-Alex's last paragraph!

Elaine Fine said...

Precison in music for me would be having adequate technique to do the job of writing in a "correct" and satisfying manner (regardless of style). Precise writing follows practical rules (good voice leading, good phrasing, functional use of orchestration techniques, writing within comfortable ranges for instruments, appropriate use and exploitation of form). Stamitz, for example, was a precise composer. His music is really very good, but I can't think of anything he has written that I would call great (and I'm even a violist). There is a lot of Renaissance music that falls into the wallpaper category: nothing to write home about; but then there's music by Issac, Josquin, and Palestrina, and when you hear it or play it or sing it, you immediately know what the fuss is all about.

By the way, Lisa, I think it is about time for you to set pencil (with a good eraser) to music paper and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

Lisa, your comment on mathematical analysis reminds me of Tovey:

... like making an exhaustive chemical analysis of a plum-pudding and omitting to ascertain that the cook had boiled it in a cloth

So, yes, that sort of analysis is easier, and also less helpful.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Elaine, I've been pondering that definition of precision for a few days now, and I'm wondering about whether it's even a useful word. What you're describing sounds to me more like "correct" music than "precise" music. I think of precision more in terms of how a work is performed than how it's composed.

I believe I've said this before, but I find Palestrina a crashing bore to perform, however well-composed the music is. I wonder if it suffers from Renaissance-speed syndrome, where all Renaissance music seems to be performed at the same damn tempo.

Setting pencil to paper: well, we'll see. :)