Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

9. Confronting Compositional Demons

PAUL LANSKY: The thing that I constantly come back to in my own music and in teaching composition or just working with composers is getting people to really be honest with themselves and to really do something not only that they like but that has a lot to do with who they are. I think one of the dangers in studying composition is that you don’t compose the music you want, you compose the music your teacher wants and so the model I often use, especially with advanced undergraduates, is as you’re sitting there composing, try to imagine who it is that’s peering over your shoulder and as you write something, who is it whose opinion you’re questioning when you write it. I think everyone has this problem so, in a way, a large part of learning to compose is learning to exorcise the demons that are sitting on your shoulder while you’re writing. And those demons are substantial. I mean, everyone has got those and everyone has got to learn how to do without them, so what I sometimes do and what I encourage other people to do, is to write music, not to please those demons but to piss them off. [Virgil laughs] and so you write something and say such and such is going to hate this, but that’s O.K. because I really like it.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Yeah. Is it like John Nash with the figures walking along next to him?

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, yeah.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: And you just kind of say, yeah, O.K. “Hi.” [laughs] There you are.

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, that’s right! So but I think this sort of thing goes back to a lot of things that happened in the ’60s in the convergences of so-called rock and concert music or art music, is that lots of people started to listen in different ways and it’s been a really exciting moment.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Well, I certainly couldn’t agree more. Going back to that seminal moment when I came into your class and was just talking about production, essentially…

PAUL LANSKY: It was my undergraduate seminar that you were talking about.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Right, right. And it turned into my dissertation basically, which seems to have written itself pretty much. I mean, we had a good run of it…

PAUL LANSKY: You know how to write, so…

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: And that was another thing that was in the air that I hadn’t really considered, but it’s turned into a class at Northwestern, which has been very successful and I plan on doing it again in the future and it really again brought together different elements that I had but hadn’t really put a name on them and so I wasn’t able to use them consciously the way it is possible now in that we can listen to production as composition.

PAUL LANSKY: Right.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: And I think when you’re talking about cultural modes of listening, one of them is, “Well, gee, maybe the greatest interest in a lot of these songs isn’t the chord progression necessarily, or that’s one level of it, but then there’s the whole way in which it’s put together, the whole orchestration of it.”

PAUL LANSKY: Actually, mainly I think because of the Radiohead thing, I’ve started to listen to some stuff that I probably wouldn’t have listened to otherwise and wasn’t that aware of. It’s partially because I’ve just been barraged with mail. I get 4 or 5 letters every day about this and people are always saying have you listened to such and such and what do you think of this? And one thing that was really interesting to me about the Radiohead issue was that I think the piece that they used my sample in was sort of symptomatic of a crisis that they were going through which is not that unfamiliar. That is one of those compositional crises, you learn to do something well and you don’t want to simply rehash the same piece over and over again. My benchmark for a second-rate composer is someone who writes a good piece and then rewrites it again and again. And as a result of that, I started to listen to certain other aspects and notice things that I thought that I was good at and didn’t necessarily really want to return to engage, so extensively, like the whole issue of harmony was something that I spent a lot of time on. My Idle Chatter pieces are in a way sort of, you know, in a way you can describe them, I’ll say this, as a theory teacher’s wet dream [both laugh] so, you know, I just really indulged myself in writing these suspended ninths and sliding circles of fifths and tritone substitutions and do all those kinds of things and then I heard this piece that Radiohead did and not only was it not in any key, it was just in one chord and it was really hard to tell, you know, a little bit of G-minor, a little bit of E-flat. They were simply sort of dwelling in one place and that was an interesting kind of moment for me because I think that I learned how to sort of rethink some aspects of composition that come because of the convergence of technology and computers—audio technology and computer technology. I learned that there are focuses on sounds and different ways of listening that mirror this…you get my drift?

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I got your drift until that last comment. I didn’t quite understand. Did you mean that there was a way of listening to something that was more of a sound field than a tonal progression?

PAUL LANSKY: That’s right.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: That’s funny, you know, it’s an interesting conversation for me because, you know, I’m becoming aware of things that I brought to the table when we were working together and thinking of myself as the student and thinking that I brought things to you that complement things that I got from you because I’m now more interested in harmony, which is something I never really engaged in much before; didn’t find very much need for it. But I’m really interested now in having pitch collections that might make a certain chord together and sort of throwing those out into a piece and letting them take their course but then also controlling where they might go. So, you know, a lot of your composition seems to me, works with this kind of controlled random thing where you set up a certain set of conditions where you say, this could happen or that could happen, but you don’t just let it go, as you say, in Idle Chatter for example. There are very specific things going on so you know, I think, that the first level of becoming aware of algorithmic composition is, “Oh, look, we’re going to do things that are random,” but stopping there is only half the story. And it seems to me that the push and pull of harmony, the tension and release that’s already built in that people already can respond to, is a great mechanism.

PAUL LANSKY: But I think that also brings up the whole issue of the power of technology that, in fact, in the studio, you’re now confronted with the ability to create lots and lots and lots and lots of notes and do it very easily. And the level of intervention that you engage as you do that is really critical and important. And in a way, teaching students about studio technology is different from teaching them about traditional composition in that in traditional composition, teaching somebody to write a violin sonata or something like that, you’re teaching them how to put together familiar shapes so they actually have to sum things up without the benefit of a music processor. Well, when you’re working in the studio, you get into the situation where you can do so many thousands of things very easily that you lose sight of what critical judgment means and I think in the course that we taught there were lots of moments when what we were doing more than anything else was not teaching students how to do things as much as how to have more fine control over the things they were doing.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Certainly. I couldn’t agree more. The editing seems to be the very important process, right?

PAUL LANSKY: In a way you can actually use editing as a metaphor for composing when you come to studio technology.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I think one of the big challenges in working in the studio, especially now with everything networked, is to not simply take pre-made pieces, put three of them together. Now of course, I mean, the danger there is to be called a reactionary, right? “Well, why wouldn’t you want to try that?” Well, the thing is to me again, accessing all the different levels that are possible, drawing from both—let’s call it traditional composition and studio technology—really to me makes the most interesting music, the music to my ear that sounds the most complete because to my ear, because the temptation is just to simply loop a sample and just to let it go. I mean, you could say, I suppose somebody could write a violin sonata and simply copy a famous composer’s violin sonata.

PAUL LANSKY: They do it all the time.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Exactly. I suppose the same process happens there, but I think the idea of the ability to manipulate notes and not necessarily to really put them down on paper, even if you say, I want this group of notes to have this set of possibilities is a fascinating way to go and combine well with studio technology.

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