Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.
Lawrence Dillon has posted the 111 most influential works since 1970. Check out his list and let's talk about it.
posted by Jerry Bowles
Thursday, April 14, 2005
To be honest, I don't even remember all the stuff I once knew about theory. I don't think I ever got beyond second species counterpoint, nor do I recall exactly what that means. I haven't written a key signature in over two decades, and this will likely stay that way.
That said, I do find it of intellectual interest to learn a bit about how a piece is constructed and architected. It's kind of how I used to like to read through mathematical proofs in college. Seeing how Webern wrote all his complex canons is mentally appealing, but it would be no more than an intellectual exercise had Webern not made something expressive and beautiful in the process. Same with Feldman. His music is extremely complex from a structural perspective, yet he admitted to no significant methodology; his music appeals to me on a purely aural and emotional level. The fact that it was so amazingly architected is secondary; it's nice, but doesn't matter to me in terms of whether or not I like the music.
I do think one can learn something as a composer from studying how others developed their pieces. But it needs to be kept in perspective. It's neat how Messiaen constructed his Mode de valeurs et de intensities (I apologize if I misspelled the French). But that doesn't mean anyone can just copy the method (in this case, total serialization) and write a piece that works as music. I really like that piece, but other "totally serialized" works leave me cold. Methodology is not everything; there is no cookbook recipe for writing a compelling piece of music or developing any other form of art.
posted by David Toub
Theory and Practice
I would love to start a conversation about music theory and its utility. What is it good for? What constitutes a “good” analysis? Does theory “help” you compose, or does it help performers deliver a satisfying interpretation of a piece? Should it even bother with one or the other?
Right now, I’m studying Klumpenhouwer networks and Perle-Lansky cycles. These are interesting, and the work of David Lewin (an ex-teacher of mine), Henry Klumpenhouwer, Philip Lambert and others on this subject is, in its way, brilliant. But I find it frustrating that when one applies a K-net to the score one finds the beautiful isography that’s been expressed often represents a pretty convoluted way of hearing a passage – one that requires a fair amount of massaging of the composer’s music. Does strong isography really help us hear atonal music? Should it, in order to be good theory? Or is it enough for music theory to just present elegant, abstract models consistent within themselves? Is how we “hear” a piece, then, too personal for the realm of theory? I’m torn.
posted by David Salvage
What's New is Old Again
The classical tradition, and especially the 20th century tradition, and even more so the downtown tradition, make a heavy emphasis on originality and "progress." The "greatest" of the "great" composers are often called great not only for their brilliance but for their advancement of the genre, and composers who work exclusively in established forms and styles are often scored as derivative (take John Williams as an example. He's actually a masterful composer with excellent melodic, motivic, and harmonic sense, but because he picks styles and raw materials from different composers as appropriate for the movie he's writing for he has no cred in the academic world.) So to a certain extent we're all programmed to explore new territory as much as we can, and I certainly do the same. My goal in writing any new piece is to do something I've never done before -- in the end it still ends up sounding like me, but I hope that with this strategy my pieces will all have their own identities.
At the moment I'm simultaneously writing two pieces. In one, a trio for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, the newness is primarily that I haven't written for this ensemble before, and I have to find ways of getting the kinds of sounds that I like with only three instruments, and no strings (I am madly in love with strings). In the other, I'm in the early stages of experimenting with producing a layered saxophones, pianos, and electronics piece as if it were a rock album instead of a classical album -- extensive cutting and pasting and fixing, and composing with prerecorded sonic fragments rather than writing out the whole piece and then recording it.
But I do think that we emphasize total originality to an unreasonable extent, in that there are great composers out there whose greatness lies in mastery of existing forms and styles rather than in the invention of new ones.
To some extent, I hope all my pieces explore something that is unfamiliar to me. I don't like to duplicate myself, even though pattern repetition can be a good thing. Some works have been particularly challenging in that they were very unfamiliar to me at the time.
I was never really trained as a pianist (my instrument was a violin, which is great but not terribly useful for composition), and when I went to music school it was assumed that "since you're a composer, you of course must be a pianist." So I was placed in classes with mostly pianists, and had to do the same fun things like sight-read Bach chorales in four different clefs, transposing some staves on the fly as asked. For that reason, I was initially self-conscious of any works for piano. I knew how to write for strings, but really had to prove to myself that I could write for piano. I have since written several works for piano, and I'm not at all uncomfortable anymore with that challenge. But initially, it was an unfamiliar medium to me. I just got an old (ca 1980) piano score of mine revamped and dumped into Finale and PDF, and by that time I was much less uncomfortable with the challenges of writing for piano. Unlike that older 12-tone work, more recent pieces were reflective of my own interests in music with repetitive structures.
Going from 12-tone music into "minimalism" (bad term but I'll use it) also represented something unfamiliar. I was really familiar with a lot of new music in the 70's, but feeling comfortable with it as a composer takes awhile. I didn't delve into it until I felt I could write music that sounded like me, rather than copying others in that idiom. I think that's a challenge we all face.
I'm also thinking of someday writing an opera, which would be extremely unfamiliar territory for me. I'm just not a big fan of operas, with the exception of several 20th-century works (Wozzeck, Lulu, Moses und Aron, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Il Prigionero, etc). I think it's good, however, to do something new and unfamiliar. It makes life a lot more interesting, and change is generally a positive thing.
posted by David Toub
If You See Someone, Say Something.
[A picture of Corey headed uptown]
I realize that my recent postings seem disenchanted and negative, so I’m shifting gears to something a little more upbeat.
One of the pieces I'm working on right now is Born and Raised - a song cycle for amplified flute, amplified vocals, and electronic instruments, commissioned by Margaret Lancaster and performed by her (flute and vocals) + yours truly (vocals and electronics).
The piece is still in-progress, and Margaret and I are having a lot of fun working together. Both of us have the vocabulary of traditional training, but we are also comfortable exploring atypical approaches to notation, performance, and interpretation, so Born and Raised incorporates what I hope are novel and interesting modes of performance.
I admit that I’m probably not doing anything wholly new, but what might be familiar territory for others may be unfamiliar territory for me. It has been my experience that when people are confronted with something unfamiliar, they either dismiss it or find idiosyncratic ways of dealing with it. The idiosyncracies can produce fascinating results.
By way of illustration, I present scores and mp3s of “Eulogy” and “Thoroughbred Girl in a Bastard World” – two songs from Born and Raised (still a work-in-progress) for your entertainment (click here).
My questions to interested readers and listeners are:
In what ways have you explored "unfamiliar territory" in your own work? What were the results?
(I realize the creative process itself could be considered "unfamiliar territory," but I'm interested in specific challenges or specific problems. I hope this is clear.)
posted by Corey Dargel
Monday, April 11, 2005
The Academy Has Accepted Your Music
You all remember, of course, that John Adams gave a remarkable speech castigating the Pulitzer Prize committee for not awarding innovative composers like Meredith Monk, John Cage, and Steve Reich. But of course he accepted the award anyway…
If a composer I thought was innovative won the Pulitzer Prize in Music, I would question my definition of innovative. The Pulitzer Prize in Music does not award innovative work. To put it reductively, the first award to a woman was made in 1983 to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and the first award to an African-American composer was made in 1996 (!!) to George Walker.
It will be at least thirty years before the Pulitzer Board accurately represents the musical trends of 2005. The diminishing interest and response generated by this year’s announcement is (I hope) an indication that composers and the people who care about them are finding better battles to fight.
Now for the fun part:
Here is some interesting information about the Pulitzer Jury Process gathered from the Frequently Asked Questions section of the website http://www.pulitzer.org/: [The boldface emphasis is mine.]
The music jury, usually made up of four composers and one newspaper critic, meet in New York to listen to recordings and study the scores of pieces, which in 2004 numbered 82. The category definition states: For distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.
The jurors in letters, music, and drama, in appreciation of their year-long work, receive honoraria, raised to $2,000, effective in 1999.
Beginning with letters and music, the board, in turn, reviews the nominations of each jury for two days. Each jury is required to offer three nominations but in no order of preference, although the jury chair in a letter accompanying the submission can broadly reflect the views of the members. Board discussions are animated and often hotly debated…
[The following sentences may apply primarily to journalism categories, but not necessarily.] Awards are usually made by majority vote, but the board is also empowered to vote 'no award,' or by three-fourths vote to select an entry that has not been nominated or to switch nominations among the categories. If the board is dissatisfied with the nominations of any jury, it can ask the Administrator to consult with the chair by telephone to ascertain if there are other worthy entries.
Steve Reich's music has been nominated every year for the past three years. I think it's rather evident that the board does not care for Steve Reich's music.
Even if the jury members change from year to year, the board members probably will not. If a jury was comprised of progressive people who made progressive nominations, the board would probably just shoot them down.
The Pulitzer committee can never hope to pick a piece that pleases everyone, or even the majority -- so it often opts for choosing the piece that offends the fewest.
To me, the problem is the scope of the award. The Pulitzer Prize in journalism is given in a bunch of different categories: international reporting, national reporting, explanatory reporting, feature writing, editorial writing, editorial cartooning, to name a few.
Rather than raising money to record the One Great Work of the year, I would support raising money to create the kinds of categories that would accurately reflect the diversity of new music. Failing that, I would recommend that we stop wishing that the Pulitzer could mean more than any single award possibly can. The situation we have is as if you had only an Oscar for Best Movie Person, and all the directors and actors and screenwriters and technicians, etc. argued about which of them was most deserving.
posted by Lawrence Dillon
More Pulitzer Chitchat
The thing about the Pulitzer is that, as we all know and as many people have explained in various fora, it has the highest profile both inside and outside of the new music world and is thus a marvelous PR vehicle. Not having researched the issue enough to feel qualified, I'm not going to make any claims on the artistic merits of the prize (that composers whose work I love -- Reich and Rakowski for instance -- have been finalists multiple times is for me both heartening and discouraging; I have no opinion on Stucky, not knowing his work) but I have a few followups.
First -- Who out there thinks that by-and-large Pulitzer does a good job? Make your case.
Second -- Kyle, I take your point in the comments section of my last post. Stipulating for the sake of the argument that I would agree with your assessment of the prize, yes, running a kick-ass PR campaign in support of an artistically bankrupt program is self-defeating. Our efforts would be better invested in any of several other options like giving robust support to a different prize that is more useful, running festivals, or campaigning to get different judges on the Pulitzer panel.
Third -- To everybody out there, who do you think should have won? Lawrence Dillon has been running a greatest-pieces-by-decade discussion; what is in your opinion the greatest piece of the year.
posted by Galen H. Brown
who has a lock on the prize?
Kyle Gann recently posted something on the Pulitzer prize in music that echoes my sentiments. I think it will be a rare day when a composer who is doing something really innovative (what would be called a "disruptive innovation" in the business/IT world) wins a Pulitzer. Some composers on the face of it seem more likely to eventually win the prize, just as some seem very unlikely (Charlemagne Palestine, Meredith Monk, etc). That's just how it is. Awards are generally conservative in nature, and we either all need to accept this as a working rule and move on, or else work to bring such award committees into the 21st century. The addition of Muhal Richard Abrams to the Pulitzer committee is a good first step, but fundamentally inadequate given the makeup of the remainder of the committee. It's time for more new, diverse blood to join the Pulitzer judges. And yes, it's about time the Pulitzer in music became a more broad-based award. There are other valid forms of music besides what is inaccurately described as "classical." That doesn't mean the award would/should go to J Lo. But isn't some jazz worthy of a Pulitzer? I'm not sure the world would end were that the case.
posted by David Toub
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Pulitzer Recording Endowment
I love Frank Oteri's idea about having recordings of Pulitzer winning pieces made close on the heels of the awarding of the prize to capitalize on the media attention. I don't think diverting existing funds is going to fly, however, so this would need to be done with the establishment of a new endowment at the very least, of not a larger corporate structure. Here's a first draft of a way to handle it:
Ideally either the Pulitzer people themselves or the Columbia music department would provide the structure, human resources, and fundraising program since Pulitzer is run by Columbia anyway. But I don't know that the Columbia development office would be interested in using its resources for a project like this since it doesn't obviously benefit the institution or that the university as a whole would be interested in branching out. So plan B -- A 501c3 organization (I'll name it here "Pulitzer Recordings") is founded by concerned parties and makes a partnership arrangement with Pulitzer so that it can use the Pulitzer name. A fundraising effort is made by Pulitzer Recordings to raise enough money to establish an endowment. Every year when the prize is announced, Pulitzer Recordings assembles an ensemble of appropriate proportions and makes a professional recording of the winning piece (if the endowment is large enough, also recordings of the runners up). Pulitzer Recordings then releases the CD -- profits are split between the composer, the ensemble, and the Pulitzer Recordings Annual Fund. The Pulitzer Recordings Series is available by subscription so that if you sign up you automatically get the new CD shipped to your house (or your university library) every year and your credit card is automatically billed -- the goal of this piece of it is to establish PR as The Way To Get Your Annual Dose Of New Music.
The chief barrier here is financial, but I would bet that this organization would have a lot of sex appeal to arts-oriented philanthropists. Major organizations like Meet the Composer might be interested as well, not to mention the NEA. There are any number of details to be ironed out and questions to be answered (what if the composer doesn't want to give PR the right to record the piece? How large does the endowment need to be to support the required flexibility of the organization given that one year PR would be recording a string quartet and the next an opera? What about when pop music starts winning and BMG or Sony or whoever doesn't want to allow a rerelease of the album under the PR brand? What sort of staffing and annual operating expenses are we talking about? And so on.) but here's a starting point. My day job is in development, so I have easy access to people who are smarter about this sort of thing than I am if anybody thinks this is worth pursuing.
posted by Galen H. Brown
Del Tredici in Portland
Last night here in Portland I heard the DaPonte String Quartet perform the newly-commissioned String Quartet (his first!) by David Del Tredici. Rather than attempt to launch a full scale discussion of the piece now I'd just like to urge anyone who's in NYC on this Friday to drop by Carnegie Hall and check it out.
It's a very ambitious, large-scaled (just over 30 minutes) work with deliberately odd proportions that are meant to evoke Opus 130. Rather than a fugue Del Tredici concludes his quartet with a perfectly relentless 20-minute Grosse Tarantella. Besides being a tour de force of quartet writing, the piece embodies many of the issues of style, history and influence that are often touched on here. I hope we'll have a chance to discuss it.
posted by Tom Myron