Sound in Theory

Last week I listed a few guidelines I’ve picked up for a healthy, lustrous contemporary music situation with plenty of shine and bounce. What I didn’t do was issue any prescriptions for composers themselves. However, I came across a terrific phrase the other day that captures something British students of composition are asked to do and American students of composition often aren’t: Theorize your practice.

Depending on where you are and with whom you’re working, it’s possible to study composition in the United States for years and years without having to engage in the kind of critical thinking that’s assumed over here. Let me clarify, by the way, that when I use the word “theorize,” I’m not talking about pitch class sets and formal diagrams, low-level jetsam that—it’s increasingly clear to me—no one but old American university composers gives a damn about at all. (I’m still glad I know about pitch class sets, but I don’t kid myself anymore: Nobody cares.) Rather, the burden of theorizing one’s practice makes it incumbent on the composer to articulate his or her music’s experiential mechanisms and defend its cultural relevance. “Why do you have to write this particular music at this particular time?” seems to be the gist of it.

The obligatory disclaimer must be issued here: There are lots of American composition programs that expect rigorous critical rationale from their students, and probably more than a few U.K. programs that don’t. Moreover, I can’t claim to make a truly neutral comparison; my educational experience in the U.K. has been at the postgraduate research level, whereas I’ve attended American schools for both undergrad and grad degrees. So maybe my sample is too asymmetrical, or maybe Brunel is just an atypical university—this is entirely possible. As I finish my commentaries (sort of like program notes intended to be read by other composers) for my thesis portfolio of compositions, I can’t help but wish that my curricula in the States had demanded similar exegetical materials. Not only would I have gotten a lot out of writing them, I would have loved to read my peers’! Let me exhort anyone reading this who happens to hold the reins to a composition program in the American academy: Hold your students culturally accountable. It’ll do them good.

14 thoughts on “Sound in Theory

  1. Matthew Peterson

    Hi Colin,

    I understand the importance of us composers learning how to talk about our music clearly, honestly and intelligently to listeners of all levels. There will be situations where almost all of us (job interviews, seminars, etc) will need these skills. No one could argue against the merits of U.S. composition programs encouraging students to talk about their music for this reason.

    But I think your exhortation for American composition teachers to hold students “culturally accountable” comes off as a little pompous.

    In many cases, having students defend their music against questions about cultural relevance may be putting the cart before the horse.

    I think students (especially any undergrad) should be allowed, and encouraged, to write. Just write. As much music as they can. We both know that good composers, and good student composers, are self-critical enough (sometimes overly, cripplingly self-critical). And if a student is writing mediocre music because of blatant ignorance of current trends, important works, etc, a teacher can help with these things (as long as the student has talent, a desire to learn and improve, and a work ethic – but most schools seem to check for these things in the application process).

    Becoming a good composer can be a long, hard journey. I think there’s a solid argument for allowing students time to discover who they are as composers without too much questioning, pressure, or cynicism. Writing music can be hard enough.

    A side note: perhaps if you wanted to hear about your former classmates’ personal thoughts/exegesis on their own work, you could’ve just asked them.

  2. colin holter

    I get where you’re coming from, and I agree that bombarding undergrads with questions about Adorno or Deleuze is probably counterproductive. In fact, I think that the music I wrote as an undergrad – most of which is not great – suffered from too much thinking about what kind of music I should write and not enough about what kind of music I wanted to write, or (for that matter) could write. But I also think it’s never too early to start thinking about some big questions so long as we don’t let them overpower our creativity.

    A side note: perhaps if you wanted to hear about your former classmates’ personal thoughts/exegesis on their own work, you could’ve just asked them.

    I did, and we had many engrossing conversations about just that. (What else can you do after 8pm in Champaign-Urbana?) Having to put my thoughts in order on paper has brought me to conclusions I probably wouldn’t have reached in casual conversations, however, so I think I still would have gotten something new from reading my friends’ commentaries.

  3. Matthew Peterson

    I completely agree with you about the common student problem you described: I think perhaps I’m finally being honest with myself about what type of music I want to, and can, write. Yet the suffering period is good, because it pushes us to try a lot of different things and step out of our comfort zone both as creators and listeners.

    I think that composition teachers can help us learn to confront the “big questions” by talking about their own compositional experience and their own work. I had a teacher at Indiana University who did this very well in master classes. It was truly inspiring. And of course, afterwards we got together at Bear’s bar and talked about music (because it was Bloomington IN).

    The ability to put notes on paper is what has made our concert music tradition so rich. Perhaps you’re right that we should try doing the same with our thoughts. I’ve long thought I should keep a journal for personal musical and philosophical thoughts (but friends, beer or the outdoors has usually claimed the extra time).

    In a related thought, the dean of the Gotland Composer School (Sweden), Mattias Svensson, recently shared his regret during a lecture that composers have largely abandoned the field of musical theory and hermeneutics (I think this was after some talks on Hindemith). Obviously this field is now dominated by university faculty in theory and musicology. It’s a good thing in many ways, and probably necessary due to the current compositional diversity. But perhaps elucidating our own thoughts and beliefs in writing (which usually forces a person to be completely honest with themselves) can help us be better composers. I know I would often appreciate having less demons and nagging doubts getting in the way of putting notes on paper. Maybe it’s less a responsibility to culture than to ourselves.

  4. pgblu

    But I also think it’s never too early to start thinking about some big questions so long as we don’t let them overpower our creativity.

    Whose creativity? If you’re talking about the students’ own creativity, what do you do if the things they read or hear do hamper that creativity? Just “Don’t worry about that right now, where’s the double bar I asked you for?” More broadly, how do you even know whether these questions are the thing that’s hampering their creativity?

    Also, what good is creativity if it’s only possible by stepping around certain questions like so many cowpats?

    Franco Evangelisti gave a lovely written account of his problems with creative work, concentrated on that instead of composing, and it’s one of the smartest things he could have done in his situation. Title of the account was “From Silence to a New Sonorous World.” Admittedly it’s potentially a little depressing too… Does anyone know, btw if that’s been translated into English?

    Sorry, this is such a complex topic; it would be good to see some examples of the kind of practice-theorization that you are speaking of.

  5. jchang4

    I agree with Matt in that I think it’s more important for younger composers to just write stuff. You can figure out the philosophical side later, when you’ve grown-up a little. It’s only scary if you never actually get to that point, where you’re thinking about “cultural relevance,” etc.

    But some of it is just going out and doing what you think you need to do. Why wait for a school to tell you that you need to start thinking about how you’re going to talk about your music? Why not just go ahead and do it?

    To take my own personal experience as an example: I wrote my own program notes (which I ended up not sharing cuz I was too self-conscious) for my final Masters recital. It wasn’t a requirement, but I felt like I needed to do it. (I also just wanted to do it, go figure). So I took months to do the research and writing and endless revising, and I just did it. People will think that’s crazy because I didn’t get any credit for it (especially since I never showed it to anyone) but I think it makes me a better musician. And I’m all about becoming a better musician, and just a better person in general. And I’m gonna do what I think needs to be done in order to get there, to that better place, regardless of whether or not someone else requires it of me.

    I guess, ultimately, it’s about thinking “outside the box.” If you have a greater awareness, these sorts of things will just occur to you. Like, why wouldn’t a doctoral candidate in composition be thinking about “Why do I have to write this particular music at this particular time?” Seriously?! You’re serious enough about composition to get a doctorate in it, and yet THAT thought has not yet occurred to you? I don’t mean this as a personal attack on you specifically, but I just think that that’s the sort of question that doctoral candidates in composition should be thinking about all the time. And if you haven’t started thinking about it yet, then now’s as good a time as any.

  6. gregrobincomposer

    1. I care about sets!
    2. I wonder if any applied instrument teachers say, “Just play, philosophy and technique can come later.”
    3. Composers have always been trained with rigorous methods and norms of operation. These norms eventually become tools for expectation. I think reading philosophy and such is far better for them then their ttyl, idk text message poems.
    4. These norms of operation set up a palette for a student to work with. It gives them technique. Once they can manipulate music out of restraint than they can learn about musical freedom.
    5. And as I tell all my friends, Freedom is never free. From constraint, comes discipline. Discipline will lead you to your voice.

  7. Matthew Peterson


    I’m glad you care about sets.

    Your analogy-argument in number two doesn’t hold water.
    I was a serious double bass student before I started composing. I don’t know exactly what you mean about “philosophy” as applied to being an instrumentalist. My teachers evaluated my playing, showed me ways to develop my technique, and I had to achieve the rest in practice.

    The key to my becoming a better bassist was quality practice, every day. I didn’t like practice. The key to becoming a better composer was writing, every day (if possible). I liked writing. That’s why I switched my focus. We both know that playing in a practice room isn’t the same as disciplined practice, and composing processes also can benefit from structure.

    But learning how to bring one’s one new music into existence, as sound or code, is VERY different from learning how to be a quality interpreter and performer of existing music.

    Concerning 3 and 4, what “rigorous methods” and “norms of operation” should young composers be trained in? And what do you mean by “ttyl, idk text message poems?” Are these things young composers are creating?

    I agree that reading philosophy is a fine pursuit for any human being. Philosophical knowledge may correlate with, but does not cause, great music. Great composing creates great music. I think knowing how to tell a good story or how to dance helps you compose more than being a philosopher. But maybe that’s because I like sharing good stories and shaking my tailfeather a little bit more than I enjoy reading Nietsche.

    Concerning five, I was taught that writing every day is a disciplined approach to composition. Since you admit that discipline leads one to his/her voice, it seems like this is a valid path. Therefore, young composers should be encouraged to learn how to write as much as possible, and sometimes that means letting them “just” write (and the philosophy and technique will come with it).

  8. jbunch

    I think some people are predisposed to think that what Colin means by “theorize” or “consider the cultural relevance” of your work means “defend it against a conniving band of academic test-tubers. If that’s true, it’s highly unfortunate. It’s important to separate how your favorite composers polemicize and publicize their works, and how they create them technically. Just because someone’s program notes say that they value the role of intuition above conscious pre-orchestrational choice making doesn’t mean that both of you agree on what the intuition is. Saying that you value intuition over “bean-counting” or systematizing, etc. is itself an expression of a kind of critical reflection. However, much of the time, when someone makes that statement, they intend it to mean that they oppose making critical assessments of the meaning of their work. As you can see, this is unavoidable though, and since we all must do it, why not take it seriously and avoid mediocrity and bad simplicity? But this is only peripheral to the conversation anyway.

    The call to cultural and aesthetic critical reflectivity is not at heart a call to defend your work from the exterior challenges of others as much as it is a way of solidifying and foregrounding the nature of the commitments that you are choosing to make. The assumption of course, is that pre-reflectivity is naive (and naivety is not seen here as a positive value). In the largest sense, this strain of thinking sees music not primarily as an instrument of purely unaffected innocent experience (“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”), but as a potential field of discourse. Recognizing the inherent difficulties of talking about music in this way, rather than seeing it as an alien invasion upon the pleasures and the muses, I think rather that it can become the source of a more powerful, authentic, and sincere form of artistic invention.

    The reason why it seems like this doesn’t happen as much in the US could be anything from the fact that it is a vastly larger country than any single European country – there are more composers, and for as many as there are that don’t find this type of engagement helpful, there are many that do. Furthermore, I don’t think the majority of professional performance institutions see the role of the composer/performer interface with the audience as one of a forum for dialectical exchange. Their work, as they imagine it, is tempered by the reality of economic viability. Or maybe they just don’t believe music exists for sake of communicating ideas – seeing it instead as a carrier of the passions, of the sheer enjoyment of sounds, etc. This point cannot usually be debated – it is a credo. Like other faiths, there is a well developed set of polemical mechanisms to render the very language of the discourse incommensurate – to insulate them from the challenges of exterior positions. Colin’s belief (which in this case, I share) has it’s own mechanisms. There is no reason to expect things to be any different.

    In deference to the critical reflexivity Colin advocates – I agree with Josephine that this should be a given in the experience of more seasoned students of composition/the pros. Most of the program notes I read are either attempts to express the aesthetic relevance of the work (either to defend it, or to offer advice on the proper care and handling) or conscious and obvious attempts to avoid doing so (itself the evidence of a kind of reflection). Maybe the problem is not that “theorizing” is not done, but then when it is done, it is naive in itself, not well thought-out, or merely the reflection of the composer’s own prejudices and ignorance (which carries its own unintended, added level of meaning to an attentive reader).

  9. jbunch

    Regarding Greg’s fifth point…
    Sorry to cheapen this whole conversation for the hell of it, but Greg, I must say that when you wrote “freedom isn’t free” my mind went directly to Team America: World Police…

    “Freedom costs a buck ‘o’ fiiiiive.”

  10. philmusic

    “…Therefore, young composers should be encouraged to learn how to write as much as possible…”

    Well you’ve got Sri Chimnoy, on one hand and Mahler, who mostly composed in the summers, on the other.

    Tough choice huh?

    Phil Fried, check his blog on blogspot for a related topic.

  11. gregrobincomposer

    As far as norms of operation go:

    Although I do not necessarily think there is one set of norms, I do make students conform to a set to learn how to create from limitations.

    I might have them write a piece based on a 4 note set and only its transpositions. This piece might only use tongued notes and flutter tongue. I might have them compose using only certain like articulations between different instruments. I call these norms. Norms because they are my self imposed restraint on them. Once they can demonstrate an ability to create from a given color palette, then they can think more of their voice.
    These “norms” in my mind create discipline. This combined with score study and hours of listening can lead them to their voice.
    I hope this clears up my notion of norms.

  12. rtanaka

    It seems pretty clear to me that the looking music from the “bigger picture” approach has mostly moved towards the disciplines of musicology and ethnomusicology. During the last few decades composition has moved towards theory (to the point where the two things are often combined into one program) and in many places there seems to be an attitude floating around that composers shouldn’t really be worried about the after-effects of their ideas because it’s not their job to do so. I would say that the intellectual climate in most compositional programs nowadays tend to be fairly Platonic in the sense that they tend to prize ideas over its resultant effects.

    Most of the intellectuals interested in classical music has migrated to musicology at this point, because it’s their job to contextualize music into its political, social, and philosophical ideas of its time. It’s too bad that there’s such a huge divide between musicology and composition right now, because they two fields need each other in order to survive. The divisions are largely arbitrary as well, since there’s really no reason why a musicologist couldn’t learn about composition and visa versa.

    Personally I don’t think it’s ever too early to start thinking about the bigger picture, although if you’re stuck within a confined environment it may be hard to gain an attachment toward bigger social causes, which seems to be largely triggered by personal experience. I think, though, there’s a period where students have to just write whatever they want for a while, just so they can improve and get feedback on their technique. Sometimes you have the opposite problem of running into people who have great ideas but don’t know how to express them effectively, which is equally depressing as listening to those who have great technique but no ideas.

  13. Matthew Peterson

    Re: Behind door number one:

    Sri Chimnoy? Mahler?

    Seems like you sure cherry-picked these!

    I’ll substitute “J.S. Bach” for “Sri Chimnoy.” And I think that Mahler chose to compose in summers partly because he had a demanding career as a conductor. When he wrote in the summers, he wrote every day, and he wrote a lot of music.

    Re: Norms of operation

    I first began writing music in Mary Ellen Childs’ composition I class. The first project she gave us was to write a four note piece in a week. Writing this piece, I was immediately hooked on composition, and have been ever since. I agree that these types of projects are IDEAL for young composers. But adhering to norms and limitations as you described, and endeavoring to write as much as possible, are activities that are far from mutually exclusive. Thanks for defining your “norms,” and I’m happy that you take this approach to teaching young students. It worked so well for me.

  14. philmusic

    Its interesting that you did not chose Telemann, or Gretry as your example.

    The point is quantity does not guarantee quality.

    Phil Fried


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