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#1544540 10/27/10 08:22 AM
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Each breakthrough in music entails the creation of methods which change the vocabulary of Western music. Plain chant consisted of a single melodic line, and rules which produced melodies of a specific character. Early polyphony (literally multiple voices) extablished rules of voice-leading which are still in use today. Palestrina's counterpoint differed from Bach's because of its pervasive sonority. Bach's later counterpoint infused dissonance in the form of pedalling, accented passing notes and suspensions. Madrigal composers introduced chromaticism and an early analogue to floating tonality. Purcel introduced tonal chromaticism by introducing a chromatic figured bass. And so on.

Faced with coming up with new systems, a good many composition students are stumped. This is not through any fault of their own, but rather demonstrates failings and weaknesses in the way composition is taught in many institutions.

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The fact of the matter is that many institutions do not teach composers how to break new ground.

Part of the reason is that the instructors often don't know themselves. Their range of study will often extend to the last thing they themselves studied, which becomes more and more out of date, the longer they've been out of university.

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However, just as composition can be broken down into a handful of specific components, so too can new music, even that not yet written, be laid out in a clear, unambiguous, easy-to-understand manner.

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My favourite teaching-tool, when it comes to composition, is the structure of existing music minus the motes. It's like building a bridge. As an architect presented with the task of building a bridge, you know what you're in for before you've even begun. Your first question is, What is the new bridge to span? What is the bridge to be made of? Do I use stone, wood, brick, steel, concrete, or can I try some new type of construction material?

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Taking control of the construction material of music is too seldom taught. For instance, we're all taught how serialism evolved and how it works. What we're not taught is that 12-tone rows are only one possibility offered by serialism. You don't need to use 12-tone rows.

But you do need to create a system, otherwise your compposition will be a structureless mess.

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This is precisely what happened in the early days of Be Bop in the jazz world. John Burks (Dizzy) Gillespe, Thelonious Monk and others had just about everything worked out- how the musicians were to realise their lines through the chord vocabulary, how the bass and percussion were supposed to work, and they had worked out the chord vocabulary and style and methodology of improvisation and arranging, but they lacked the most important ingredient of all- structure. Then, along came Charlie Parker, a Kansas City Blues musician, and everything suddenly fit into place and worked. Without Charlie Parker and the structure he brought to the table, there would probably have been no Be Bop.

This is just as true in the world of Classical music. It's one thing to have great ideas, but if structure isn't part of those ideas, you'll make little, if any, headway.

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In the preface of Walter Piston's book Counterpoint (at least, in the old edition I own), he criticises Western Music for being rhythmically lacking. This comment has always stuck out in my mind as being both profound and prophetic- profound because despite being such a simple, innocuous observation on the surface, it susses out a glaring flaw in the development of Western music; and prophetic because despite the number of very intelligent, very well-educated people working away in the classical genre, thirty-five years after first reading Piston's comment, the same observation could be made again; and this does not bode well for the future and the health of Western music.

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I don't feel like I need to come up with new systems. I start by just using the systems already in place, and often mixing and matching different systems that traditionally do not belong anywhere close to each other (the most common example being pop and classical). I would love to try to compose something based on a unique system that I created myself, but I'm worried about such a project becoming a pretentious mess. I think that too often, academic composers think they must ALWAYS break new ground, and that's where we get the hundreds of pieces written for falling bricks and flushing toilets. I want to create something real and unique.

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If you want to create something real and unique, Jared, you have to break new ground, otherwise your work won't be unique, nor will it be real, because the elements you're using are all borrowed. Classical composition is an art, and art must break new ground in order to be art, otherwise it becomes what's called "assembly-line art", an example of which is all those pastels of bulls and matadors on black felt that were done back in the 1970's.

The only way a piece of music can be a pretentious mess is if it is a pretentious mess. If what you're working on is the real deal, you'll have nothing to worry about.

The biggest mistake young composers and writers have to worry about is following bad advice. These days they're often told to "just go with the emotion". This is a mistake for a number of reasons. Composition is a trade that entails a collection of techniques. To surrender to emotion is to lose sight of the true objective, which is to master the underlying mechanics of what makes any art work. These mechanics give rise to emotion in the listener, which means that working entirely from a place of emotion will, at the least, dumb down the process of writing. This is the purview of pop art, pop music and pop fiction.

When working with a new system, you have to get excited about what your new system can do, the way a bunch of young guys working on a new type of race car or ATV get excited. They busted their arses on the mechanical end in order to achieve a goal- to go faster, to manoeuvre with more agility, to do things no prior vehicle was able to do. It's the same with writing music and books and painting. Your goal is to produce a method of doing things which bring sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement to every note you play.

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Another way of explaining it, Jared, is to relate my own experience with new music.

I'm old enough that I've heard new music by Khatchaturian, Stravinsky (his Symphony of Pslams was an event broadcast on TV), Shostakovich, Messian, Ligeti, and ohters.

It's not like listening to music today, where as a listener or a performer you're simply enjoying music you know, or a genre you know. In those days there was a "WOW!" factor. You weren't listening to music in the same way at all, as people do today. You were often on the edge of your seat in anticipation of the next new thing the composer was going to do, right in front of your ears!

(Sorry- couldn't resist)

You were caught up in real classical music, which was music, yes, but it was also an important historical event, and instead of reading about history, or seeing a documentary about it, you were experiencing it in real time. You were actually in it.

That presence, that excitement, is all but gone, today. I'm an advocate of getting it back on track before everyone alive forgets how.

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I agree with what you're saying, except that I differentiate between "real" and "non-borrowed." Nobody I know would be so silly to call the work of Bach entirely unique, entirely non-borrowed. But it is very real, very inspired, and most importantly, it's original. Originality doesn't depend on a complete lack of precedent. All real music borrows from other systems. Personally, I love creating hybrid systems, "fruit salad" systems, by mixing borrowed elements to create something new and fresh.

I think you are assuming that pop artists and musicians don't enjoy what they do. I agree that pop art/music/fiction is generally assembly line crap. But this isn't always the case. Throughout the ages, there have been pop artists, writers, and musicians who have broken barriers and moved forward. They were only popular because they had done something with a complete pop sensibility, appeasing a massive audience. I can think of tons of examples of musicians like this: Kurt Kobain, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, The Beatles, etc. All of these people borrowed elements, but they pushed music forward with fresh ideas.

I don't know what music you listen to, but I get that "WOW" factor, that inspiration and glee, from many musical acts today. Dream Theater never ceases to inspire me. George Winston brings tears to my eyes. System of a Down always got me on the edge of my seat with their fierce originality. Man, I hate genre bullcrap just as much as you do. I've dedicated a large portion of my career to breaking down silly genre barriers. If you want to reinstate classical music in today's culture, fine, but remember that what you are doing is incredibly non-unique and very much borrowed. Which is fine.

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Good post, Jared!

I'm not trying to reinstate classical music. I am, however, attempting to re-instill underlying classicism, which is something else altogether.

Miles Davis observed, in the 1960's, after observing an outdoor pop concert, that most of the musicians knew nothing at all about music. This wasn't an opinion on his part, based upon casual observation. He spent days mixing with the musicians themselves, who were very much aware of him.

His response was to create a whole new musical form called Fusion. Think about that a moment- one guy comes along and invents a whole new trend in music, which subsequently became a trend that generated a generation of performers and the people in the entertainment business who marketed them. That's one guy, armed with nothing more than a knowledge of underlying classicism.

The point being that the knowledge of underlying classicism is the knowledge of what makes music go, how it works, how to manipulate and create its components. There's a world of difference between that and someone bashing and thrashing around on a guitar, writificating and singifying.

Stravinsky was revered by jazz composers, partly because his bitonalism supplied much of the methodology needed, which jazz composers used to create their own vocabulary; and partly because his ostinato usage provided jazz composers with tremendous structural freedom in both written and real time. Ergo, what Stravinsky brought to the table for them went far beyond his music- it was the tools extrapolated from the existing underlying classicism.

The point being that the tools themselves are universal, regardless what type or form of music we're talking about. And people with a knowledge of underlying classicism can do something those without such knowledge can't do: they can progress.

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It's funny how everything I've ever wanted to say about modern composers, you've mentioned, Monk.

While I agree that the modern composer needs to look more into a new direction, we need to define the threshold in which elements of music can be recycled.

From my perspective, you start at the top level, which is the harmonic layout, e.g. scales, arpeggios, chords, etc. Furthermore, the harmony can be organized horizontally or vertically, which has more to do with the rhythmic scheme.

Then going down a level, there's the progressions. This tends to be a more deciding factor when it comes to originality. A simple 1-4-5 progression is almost laughed upon by any avid composer, regardless of the harmonic layout. While the progression can have an underlying simple root, it must have some twist or modification to be labeled original.

All of these contribute to the overall style of the piece.

Chopin was considered genius because his music was both unique and satisfying to the ear, a difficult combination to come by nowadays. There's really only two ways to reach that level of quality: study many different composers, taking desirable elements from each and making it your own OR use theory and experimentation to serendipitously make the next masterpiece. I'm sure the former was a common route for most composers.

My point is: inevitably we are going to take ideas from the past. After all, consciousness is just a product of it's environment, right? Hopefully, we're able to evolve like our musical forefathers did and not depend too much on the rigid boundaries of modernism.

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Heh- It's "Monks" with an "s", Pianoman, aka the Anglicised version of Monaghan. "Monk" is most often Jewish, whereas "Monks" is Irish. Not that I'd mind being the Jewish variety, which would place me amongst some notable types, like Thelonious and Merideth.

I-IV-V can be made fresh and new again, and can be utterly transformed by someone who knows what they're doing. And there's the rub- too few musicians really know what they're doing these days, and that includes the very well-educated.

It's one thing to know how to manipulate the constituents of music, and entirely another to know how it actually works.

In terms of going back over old music, many composers did just that. They carefully studied the manner in which music had evolved, then went back and rewrote the book, as it were. As modern as Stravinsky sounded circa 1914, for example, every note of le Sacre du Printemps was rooted in the Western musical tradition.

In the jazz world, the same was equally true of Louis Argstrong, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. They may have struck the listener as outrageous and ultra-modern at first listen, but a trained ear could hear echoes of the early elements the new music was comprised of.

That's quite a thing nowadays, that so many composers of classical music and jazz don't really know how their music works. They know how to juxtapose existing elements in order to get unfamiliar results, but don't know how to generate something genuinely new.

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Oh, yeah, regarding your mention of consciousness, Pianoman . . .

You're exactly right in terms of taxonomy, the basis of which is change being contingent upon the existing state of a thing. Things can't just pop into being, in other words. When it comes to evoluvtion, change is dependent upon the existing state of something, which is altered or modified. The same is just as true of human thought in terms of ideas. You can't just suddenly create something that never existed before. You have to work with what is, and that is what so-called "tradition" really is- working with what already exists. That's what the traditions of Western music, ballet, jazz, literature and art really are.

What makes each of these disciplines go is their underlying classicism, and in terms of underlying classicism, it's the same regardless the discipline. The same devices work audially, visually and conceptually. Even perceptually.

In other words, you can step outside of one discipline and borrow directly from another. I know this from being a writer as well as a composer. Musical devices often end up in my books, and literary devices often end up in my music. Characters, when working on an outline, can experience false endings and beginnings, can work in counterpoint to one another, as can plot elements; visual cues and auditory clues can be evoked via the construction of musical passages, conceptual and literary elements can be expressed musically.

Really knowing how music works means knowing Western music from its earliest beginnings, from the few early Greek modes, to the influence of Pythagoras in terms of systematising the modes in order to create the gamut, and in terms of the relationship between harmonics and the creation of scales, and most importantly, studying plain-chant in order to achieve an understanding of how voice-leading came about.

Even before Harmony existed, the rules we today apply to writing for more than one voice applied to writing for a single voice. The fourth fell to the third and the leading note rose to the root long before there were chords and the V7 to I progression.

Furthermore, one must understand the underlying mechanics of tonality in order to truly write non-tonal music. This is something modern jazz musicians fail to understand. You're not playing modal music just by noodling around on different diatonic scale degrees. That's not how modality works. Modes have a very different type of chord vocabulaty from tonality, and it is the scale plus the chord vocabulary that makes for a mode. The scale, standing alone within a tonal context, is not a mode because it's not behaving as a mode.

And so it goes.

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One question always to ask yourself is "How did composers of the past break new ground?"

The answer is pretty much straightforward for the most part. Stravinsky, for example, was looking for a "primitive" sound, and the dissonance derived from bitonality was the natural solution. He thought of dissonance as having a "primitive" sort of sound, but he wanted an ongoing dissonance, and not the type afforded by traditional western music in the form of pedaling, accented passing notes and such. He was looking for ongoing dissonance without resolution, or the possibility of resolution.

Purcell was looking for a way out of the melodic doldrums of tonality, and greater range of emotional expression, something complex and nuanced. The solution which afforded itself was obvious- choramticism, which was both nuanced and forced the melody in new directions.

In each case, what we call "progress" was a solution, either to an ongoing shortcoming in existing music, or to acieving an end, such as creating a "primitive" sound.

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Which brings us to the next stage- having an agenda.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. A sense of necessity in music is part of what it is to have a clear-cut agenda to follow. This, in turn, is what directs us toward solutions.

If you don't feel the urge of necessity, if you don't have an agenda, how can you be expected to contribute to Western musical progress?

For Purcell it was simple- music of his day was in a rut, expression-wise, and he felt a powerful urge to get out of it, to deepen and broaden the range of expression. Stravinsky felt a strong urge that was common in the early 20th century- that of expressing primal, primitive forces. It was a feeling that was experienced across the board, in the art, music and literature of the day.

Today there are deep social and musical and artistic urges, as there have ever been, but people are finding it far more difficult to access the specifics. Part of this is that we don't have a single dominant generational theme, as we did in the 60's as a result of the baby Boom. The subsequent generations have been less able to generate an impact on society as a whole simply because there has been no attendant population boom.

This means that there has been a societal shift towards the reactionary end of the scale. Far more people are reacting to stuff today than are doing stuff. Historically we're in a couch-potato, consumer-binge rut.

Herman Hesse and others had another name for it- bourgoise, a state they despised, for its inertia, its complacency, its lack of imagination, its hidden toxicity.

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Wow, talk about making music more complicated than it is.

Give me emotional music derived from the heart anytime over system (intellectual) generated music. Let your emotions guide your composing and your listeners will better connect to it. Unlike the spoken/written word, music speaks in arrangements of incomprehensible emotional tones.

Music theory will never explain the emotions a listener will experience.

John



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Gee, John, you've just tossed out classical music in favour of country 'n' western :^)

But I do confess that Stompin' Tom, Hank Snow and Jonny Cash are guilty pleasures of mine.

Actually, not theory per se, but compositional methods, do explain the emotions a listener will experience, John. That's largely what composition is about- coming up with methods which evoke emotion in as direct a manner as possible. The means to achieve that are purely technical.

I have to say that this is exactly the area where you lose many a student. Many resent the apparent calculated manipulation involved, and can't/won't believe that that's how classical music is actually written.

The emotional part is probably the greatest fallacy, and the least understood part of classical music by the layman.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say, however, and works like Richard Strauss' Zarathustra, though highly emotional, are not and never have been composed via purely emotional means. Zarathustra is an example of technical prowess at its finest, executed with great passion. It is a product of great discipline, as are a good many of Bach's works.

The emotion is there, John- just not in the way you're thinking of it.

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"Gee, John, you've just tossed out classical music in favour of country 'n' western" - gsmonks

Well, I'm far from a country 'n' western enthusiast, though I find some of the latter more interesting than some of the former. I mean; how many Haydn symphonies can be listened to before one becomes brain dead.

"The emotional part is probably the greatest fallacy, and the least understood part of classical music by the layman" - gsmonks

In your opinion. I'm far from a layman and totally disagree. This idea is usually perpetrated by the exclusive club elites that compose for the exclusive club elites.

BTW, when you speak of classical music, I imagine you mean serious music. In which case, I'm a serious music composer of the 21st. Century.

John


Stop analyzing; just compose the damn thing!
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