We Can Do This the Easy Way or the Hard Way

Randy Nordschow opens his most recent Chatter piece with a brief rumination on the quandary of what to call what we do. Randy rejects “contemporary classical music” and “new music,” both well-worn but hardly descriptive. I like to call it “written music”—music whose essence lives in a score and relies on human-to-human performance to be heard—but this unfairly excludes improvisers and fixed-media composers. If, as I posit, we’re trained in the production of scores, though, why not take Randy’s suggestion that The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Music Composition could be a constructive starting point?

When I was 15 or so, I read Classical Music for Dummies. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship: This tome became my diving board into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of revelatory musical experiences. But it also offered a fledgling composer practically aglow with adolescent hormonal imbalance a number of intellectual short-cuts, some of which have taken me the better part of ten years to move beyond. Encountering that paramount toxic fiction of postwar music—the idea that “difficult” music was obviated by more “emotionally direct” music—at a particularly immature 15 years of age can really mess with your head. If you’re like me, you buy it hook, line, and sinker (1999) until it becomes clear that there’s cultural capital to be gained by rejecting it, at which point (2001) you become a zealot of the opposite persuasion. This is a transformation you can undertake with virtually no genuine critical thinking required.

I am 100% in favor of democratizing the composer’s toolbox. Whoever wants access to the kinds of technical resources I assume the Idiot’s Guide® contains should be able to get it. As one of those graduate students Randy mentions whose brain cells are tied up in low-yield compositional bonds, I’d be the first to agree that elevating the prescriptions implied by Straus and Forte to gospel status is unwise. But composing is not easy, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply wearing blinders against the thorny and often paradoxical problems that necessarily accompany art-making. So by all means, make the IG® your class composition textbook—just remember that the tough questions in response to which Ivy League wonks like Joe and Allen toiled are still out there. No single volume can equip you to answer them.

6 thoughts on “We Can Do This the Easy Way or the Hard Way

  1. mryan

    I also like the “written” definition of new music. We essentially come from the tradition of the score, where most other forms of music come from the improvised tradition.

    On art, and it being “hard” though: there is no virtue in hardness. Writing for the score doesn’t have to be hard; it may be a lot of work, detailed work, but I hope it would be a joy rather than a burden. Some of my best music has come from when I relaxed and just let the joy of creating take me.

    Also, it doesn’t hurt to remember that “Art” is an ‘art’-ificial construct of our imagination and is largely defined by the individual. I rejoice in the music of the experimental tradition and many other traditions as well. I’m glad to see that there is wonderful music of all types and kinds and levels of sophistication for people of all types and kinds and levels of sophistication. It’s the people that matter – our music is for someone out there, you can bet on it. The problem is finding them.

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  2. jpips

    How is the writing of new music different from writing other kinds of music? Does the physical action of putting pen to paper (or mouse to window) qualify a piece as “new” music? Do other musical styles write things down?

    mryan, how do you decide how sophisticated a particular music or musical work is?

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  3. philmusic

    “..I’d be the first to agree that elevating the prescriptions implied by Straus and Forte to gospel status is unwise…”

    Colin I don’t mean to interfere with your revelry here but the books you mention are not music composition books at all but merely works about non-tonal analysis.

    On that line I think most folks would get a lot more out of George Perle’s books.

    Phil Fried, who studied with Joe and George

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  4. mryan

    “How is the writing of new music different from writing other kinds of music?”

    To me anything new is new music, that’s why I think the term is useless.

    “Does the physical action of putting pen to paper (or mouse to window) qualify a piece as “new” music?”

    Again, it is a useless term, but . . .

    There is a very definate tradition (or attitude) among a certain set of composers who write something down and expect you to play what they have written. They don’t intend it to be a guideline. It is a powerful tradition that belongs to that of the chant, choral, opera, symphony, chamber music, etc. lineage. It is such a powerful tradition that it has been borrowed by the other main tradition in the last 100-200 years; the oral / improvistional tradition.

    “Do other musical styles write things down?”

    Of course they do, but the techniques for writing music down were created by the sacred music and concert music tradition and then borrowed by the oral tradition because it is such a powerful tool. Much in the same way film composers will often borrow experimentalist techniques they did not create for the sake of effect (not from a desire to make something new).

    Of course, there is a hybrid tradition as well, one that mixes the two traditions freely. Things like renaissance and baroque improvisation to Jazz, etc.

    The world is too connected, too complex to define everything. If anything, I think future historians will view this as the age of the great fracture where definitions in style or tradition will become essentially meaningless and pieces of music will have to stand or fall on their own merits without being attached to a camp. Camps are quickly disappearing. We’re losing the security blankets of the “them and us” mentality. Thank heaven!

    “mryan, how do you decide how sophisticated a particular music or musical work is?”

    Personal experience, just like anyone else . . . why do I need to decide for anyone else but me? Beauty or interest is in the ear of the beholder. Almost everything is bound to appeal to someone, even if it is just its creator. Why must we codify music? Why can’t we just listen and when we enjoy what we hear be the champions of that music and say, “Hey, hear this, I think its wonderful!” If we’re teaching, why can’t we take that approach? The textbook is on its way out as well. The open source textbook is the future.

    Some music will last, most of it won’t. We won’t have much influence over that. So why not just enjoy music? Why must we seek to seperate ourselves somehow from the world of music as a whole with imaginary definitions? Pride?

    I think we worry too much about it. Why does it matter? Seriously. Why?

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  5. Matthew Peterson

    Dear Mryan,



    Obviously it does matter, otherwise you wouldn’t be writing on this site and arguing your point of view. The interaction (sometimes clash) of ideas and opinions has fueled the world of music for at least the last 1000 years.

    I told myself I wasn’t going to write on this site anymore, but sometimes it’s a great way to consolidate recent thoughts.

    I think it’s interesting how many of these “chatter” sessions boil down to discussions about “art” and “beauty:”

    Also, it doesn’t hurt to remember that “Art” is an ‘art’-ificial construct of our imagination and is largely defined by the individual.

    Firstly, I don’t think it helps to think of art as “artificial.” I think that art is our human attempt to manifest our mental reality in the physical world. So, art is reality, but it is always being translated – from the mental realm to the physical in its creation, and back to the mental in its perception. The translation is the tricky part. That’s why we’re composers, not imaginers or philosophers. In my opinion, music is so mysterious and so powerful because there are often several layers of transformation and translation and we don’t understand them all. Take an orchestra piece: composer (creative, mental, writes code), conductor (interprets code, translate to visual and verbal), musicians (interpret code, translate to sound), listener (who knows what the hell is happening here – not me).

    And you can apply this to any music. But the point I hope to make concerns how (I think) music, art, and beauty are all lumped together, sometimes unfairly to composers and our craft. I think it ties into the topic of learning composition that Colin gracefully continued with in this article.

    While I agree with your points about posterity and composition (whether his or her music will last is not a constructive thing for young composers to worry about) I don’t think that “personal experience” really has a whole lot to do with the judgements on sophistication of art. Here’s where I finally make my point.

    Art has nothing to do with “beauty or interest.” In my view, the imaginary perfect work of art is a world unto itself, just as my perfect composer is a law unto his or herself. Art strives for inner perfection. So, I think that art is judged as to how well it fulfills itself as a whole. How we judge that fulfillment differs in degrees, and there is no supreme rule arbiting the artistic “perfection”, because each work of art is different. But music’s role as art is one reason theorists and musicologists exist (and is probably why Straus wrote his book – to serve as a guide to analyze art). This is why we study form and music theory, care about “golden mean” in Bartok and Bach, etc. Can all this be “heard”? Yes, and no. I think that the most artful music is written so that it sounds like it wasn’t written. To me, Bach’s best fugues, Beethoven’s best symphonies, etc., sound like they couldn’t have existed any other way (although I know they could have – but would they be as good?). Now, improvisation can also be art; the best improvisations, to me, often sound like they could not have happened any other way. And in many ways, improvisation’s artistic worth can be judged along similar lines to written music, now that we have recordings as “texts” for analysis. I think that informed analysis, then, is “how…you decide how sophisticated a particular music or musical work is.”

    Now I’ve gotten the easy/long third of my point over with, and here’s the hard/short second third: beauty is subjective and has nothing to do with art (as I defined art above). However, the greatest music is often both Great Art and sublimely beautiful. But some people hate Bach! Some people hate Feldman! And they have every right to. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    That doesn’t mean beauty isn’t important, or that beauty is so subjective that to try to write a “beautiful” piece that reaches other people is folly. To paraphrase Colin, it is never easy to create art. But I think that for too long, too many composers have taken the easier of two paths: creating art without considering, or by actively thwarting, the possibility of beauty. Introducing emotionally honest art, passionately moral art, spiritual art, or beauty in an effective way is so difficult in our cynical times. (We lost one of literatures few champions for the lost art of moral writing, David Foster Wallace, to suicide a couple weeks ago, so I’ve been thinking about our “difficult path” a lot.) It’s far easier to coldly circumvent beauty or any of the above, knock it down with sardonic irony, or dishonestly dismiss anything that touches us as “cliche” or “sentimental.” The last thing many artists want to do is admit the greater difficulty inherent in creating beautiful art, or even admit beauty’s possible relevancy in troubled times. Writing artful, yet beautiful music is a path of hard decisions, subtlety, and vulnerability. Far easier to take comfort in fabricated stone walls of “personal taste” and artful ugly music. Doesn’t mean writing artful ugly music is wrong; it is only if it is dishonest and the composer has crises of conscience (as so many did in the late 60′s, through the 70′s, early 80′s, and many continuing to this day). By the way, if you want to hear some powerfully beautiful Swedish music, listen to Sven-David Sandström’s High Mass, Henrik Strindberg’s Neptuni Åkrar or Per Mårtensson’s Trio.

    Art (check), Beauty (check), MUSIC: all music has a purpose and a right to exist. Even if it’s really, really, really bad (I’m writing from Sweden – think of the music-factory pop with the famous Abba created “Swedish Sound”. I’m exposed to different manifestations of this peculiar Nordic version of hell every day.)

    So what does all this have to do with learning composition? Simply that these are my well-thought-out opinions after EXACTLY five years of composition (Mary Ellen Childs Composition I at St. Olaf College – killer class), and they have helped me write my latest (and I think best) piece, which I finished yesterday. All our opinions, and our music, matters; these are the forces which will propel music whether our music, ideas, or persons are ever remembered. New students of composition should know that studying music – recordings, scores, performances – of all kinds, can help us figure out who we are, and who want to be as composers. Rigor, hard work, good craft, and studious analysis will help us become the best composers we can be, especially in a world of YouTube-amateurism, relativism, and feel-good individuality. But creative independence, open minds, lots of beer/wine/spirits, procrastination, philosophizing, true personality (too many composers out there that are boring people), and risk-taking can also make us better composers (and people).

    It’s funny to me how much people let perceived binaries rule their existence, falling into ideological camps. Some will forsake craft as unnecessary to art (usually because they’re a lazy dilettante with no eye for improvement), or who discount risks or “emotional music” (usually because they’re dry and boring people who can’t understand why no one likes their music). But I suppose the music world needs these people too. Life wouldn’t be interesting without a lot of apologist sheep for every stance.

    Every once in a while, it’s fun to write a ton of words on this site, usually loosely pertaining to the topic (I tried to keep it relevant, honest). I hope that no one read this whole thing, if so, I’m deeply sorry. I’m on an island in the Baltic for a year, so I figured it would be safe to write all this without having to worry about anyone coming to punch me.

    Last word: it’s good to be a composer. Be courageous with your beautiful musical art.

    I’m Matthew Peterson, and I approve this message.

    Reply
  6. marknowakowski

    mryan: I’ve never believed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Rather, I see beauty as an absolute — an expression of the divine, if you will.

    Just because it’s not beholden to a relativistic point of view, however, doesn’t mean we don’t have individual perspectives. In this light, as artists (as well as consumers of art), I think we’re constantly striving to clarify our particularly unique perspective on an absolute focal point, this mysterious thing called beauty.

    In speaking of bad music (we all know it when we hear it, whether or not we have the courage to label it as such is another story), I think we are dealing with composers who don’t interface with beauty on a clear level (be it commercial indifference or spiritual malaise or over-intellectualization.) We can only return to the works of the past as our guide: was Mozart merely stating an artistic opinion, or revealing something beholden to a luminous perspective on an absolute beauty?

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