Coming To Terms With Music Composition

There are some answers that have stared you in the face from the very beginning of your search, but sounded so simple that you dismissed them. The questions that have fueled my search in the world of music — for what can define beauty, what is music, and what purpose does it serve? — have often led me to form unsatisfactory answers along the lines of “it depends”. Liberality and open-mindedness: I do not belittle these things, though they are what propelled me as I underwent the mental changes necessary to modify my taste and theories in music, and lived without a strict set of rules. Not the rules presented by common practice tonality, but in a wider sense, rules that could universally govern music as it has been heard since the beginning of time. As I attached myself to this school of “musical agnosticism”, I would dive more deeply into the sounds of what I believed to be historically significant musics of all kinds in the late twentieth century, in search of reason, or some principle or another that could support what these people who fascinated me were writing, justifying my progression in this field of study.

Perhaps had I not first gained a testimony of the solid principles regarding my faith in God, I may have recently simply dropped my faith in all things, seeing no solution to such philosophical questions. I know that may be unfair, considering that perhaps all people at one time or another have also asked these and that is reason enough to believe that the answers do not exist. However, I know that some things are concrete, of science, mathematics, and nature. There is beauty enough in these true things that give me hope for the future.

Things that emanate hope, love, and faith. Music and sound with identity, neither plain nor ridiculous. Music that holds within it life. These traits would do well in every new composition.

Can the modern composer begin his studies without feeling that we currently live in a time of such absolute freedom and lawlessness, that beauty is simply perception? Where is the standard for beauty and passion? Perhaps there is not a decisive line, but stand back and see if there is not a threshold that can be exceeded. Can randomness, atonality, and experimentation be used other than to signify randomness, atonality, or experimentation? One listening to these unimaginative forms would without difficulty point them out. We live in a “century of death” as Bernstein declared, in which the underground world of classical music pushes itself further and further out of sight. The populace should not have to turn to film score compositions to find new creations with life. They alone do not hold the key to greater music. A new century is still on the rise. Time grows ripe for music to experience a true rebirth.

I think anyone wishing to pursue this course of study already knows the answers to the most simple questions. Any success can only come with passion and self-discipline, and with or without the aid of fellow peers and professors, nothing else will bring about results. You will find that, just as with everything else, music cannot be taught. It must be developed, through rigorous self-discipline, diligent effort, and earnest and sincere practice.

Had I not personally investigated the matter? Had I not once been convinced that the truth was somewhere on the earth? I wondered time after time, as I sat there in nearly empty recital halls reserved for concerts of new music, where was this wealth of wisdom that could fuel such innovation. I have seen and heard enough for my own tastes to toy with the works of the philosophies of modernism. Therein have I found so many examples of beauty, smothered in twentieth-century stipulation for free originality. I know that my views are disputable, as I was once one who would argue against such. I cannot say that I know more than anyone. But I am not afraid to say that I believe that this world deserves something more.

I want you to give me a master of melody and color, one who can weave themes of fine personality, detail, and development. Each new creation born as the most beautiful spirit of its time, that will leave no eye dry. Every note filled with power to justify its existence. With love, always, as an essential ingredient. A true master; there are some who qualify, but there must be more. Who will take up this mantle?

Critique of Enthusiasm: Missed Opportunities

Despite its negative nature, I was looking forward to be struck by some powerful Elder Holland-type chastisement this Priesthood Session. I wasn’t entirely disappointed, but of course this session has likely affected others in a much different way than it has me. Elder Bednar did share a telling story from his childhood: his father, not being a member of the church, once asked Bednar that if we truly had God’s authority restored in our church, then why did the men in his ward constantly have to be reminded to do home teaching, callings, duties? If they held the authority, why did they continue to act similarly to those who did not?

I am reminded of a phenomenon I’ve mentioned seeing since I’ve been to BYU. What appears to be a lack of support among peers may just be somebody else’s business in your mind. But I’m consistently astonished at a seeming lack of interest in attending concerts, particularly ones that are offered for free.

These may not just be concerts. There are master classes, recitals, lectures, galleries, even background music that don’t cost any money but rank at a comparable caliber. One of my roommates performs in the Jazz Legacy Dixieland Band and invited me to a gig they were playing at SLAB Pizza. When I got there I waited and called some friends to get them to come, to no avail. While I sat there alone I thoroughly enjoyed the music (and the pizza). I love settings like this, especially when there is an audience. But the audience was sparse, which I guess is reasonable considering everyone’s musical tastes.

What about recitals? Most performance majors give a final recital per junior and senior year. This is what their years of work and study have led to, and turnouts are still fairly limited to a relatively few friends and people required by MUS101. The Guest Artist program even brings in professionals and professors from all over to perform and give master classes. What an excellent, free opportunity! Shouldn’t the auditorium be filled? As for new and electronic music concerts, I can’t blame the general public for not having any desire to attend them, but it would help if our music school were interested at least.

Then there’s the SoMSAC, which has provided numerous opportunities for music majors, many of which I’m sure I haven’t even been introduced. I had heard some initial interest in a Repertory Orchestra in which any willing participants would meet on a consistent basis to read through orchestral repertoire together and for a conducting major to have the opportunity to conduct them. Maybe I’m strange in that I’d like nothing better than to read through fresh music in an ensemble. Isn’t that the fun of being a performance major anyway? I was worrying about parts and doubling until I arrived and realized that I needn’t even have bothered. Where were all the people? I was certain that there were multiple people anticipating this group. Yet there were no more than seven people in the rehearsal room during that entire hour, and I played my part without any semblance to the full orchestra experience. Maybe next time, we concluded.

One of my favorite institutions of SoMSAC this semester has been the Concerts at Noon. Every Friday at noon music majors sign up to perform for an audience, which is good practice for those preparing pieces for auditions and competitions. And each week there are various excellent musicians performing these recitals at no cost, which I find ironic for only one reason – all of the empty chairs placed in front of them. To as many of these concerts I have made, I have been confused, surprised, to appear to be one of two people in the audience not performing. Were I to perform, I would hope that there would be at least some people there to listen.

Could that be the problem? Are concerts then not meant for the enjoyment of music? Would you really only go if it were your friend performing, so you could cheer them on? I refuse to believe that I am the only person that will take any chance at listening to excellent live music at little or no cost. If that isn’t the case, then someone clue me in and explain the greater balance between enthusiasm and duty. It reminds of the Washington Post experiment featuring Joshua Bell under the guise of a street performer in a DC subway. Similarly, among other things, the social situation or formality may have something to do with it. (Is a costly, well-dressed performance really worth more than one put on for free?)

I don’t mean that all people should rise to the occasion and go listen to things they don’t love. Go to concerts that you do love. But there are so many opportunities that go amiss either due to poor advertising or actual lack of passion for talent that isn’t dressed in a concert hall. I don’t feel as though I have the right to say I love music more than you, but I’d certainly like a reason not to think so.

Originality

First of all, I just came from a piano recital by my friend Mac, which was fantastic. Congratulations to him! Anyway, yesterday in Composition we listened to the music of Aaron Jay Kernis. It was a string quartet, a contrapuntal mixture of tonal runs with atonal sprinkles, what I’d like to call “Beethoven with some wrong notes.” Maybe the only strange thing about it was that such a style was out of place where the paradigm runs on new music, although hearing my Adagio in class felt quite the same. And it was not something from which I expected Dr. Thornock would expect us to take influence. Indeed, it was mentioned in class that it sounded like Beethoven, and to this he responded that this was what he did not find appealing. “If I am going to listen to Beethoven,” he said, “why wouldn’t I just actually listen to Beethoven?”

To this I turned my head. Composers take influence from what was previously there, it is extremely difficult not do so. But I saw where he was coming from. Not just Beethoven, but every composer whose name has transcended up to this point was an innovator, someone who was writing in a style specific to himself, and it was radically different from any of his peers. People like Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Messiaen wrote in original and highly personal manners of expression, and it was because of this that music has been driving forward throughout the centuries.

Coincidentally the generalization of historical eras has been on my mind. I think that bunching the Baroque-Romantic eras as a “Common Practice Period” is highly misleading. Especially because after that, we no longer generalize music as a whole but as music of the 20th-century or modernist. This has always struck me as great classical composers writing during the CPP and after that, art going haywire. But as we study history, there are hardly enough composers to generalize so many of them into groups reflecting a certain style, as every significant one had their own. Bach does not sound like Handel. Wagner definitely does not sound like Verdi. I wish to argue that highly tonal modern composers such as Copland and Shostakovich developed fresh new styles that reflected themselves personally. What made me begin to respect Schoenberg is his response to George Gershwin’s plead for lessons in composition, along the lines of, “I would only make you a second-rate Schoenberg, and you are such a good Gershwin already.” Ravel declined the same request along similar lines. I’ve also recently been researching the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen: his music takes influence from Stravinskyan harmonies and American minimalism, however with these he infuses his Marxist political ideas, which makes his style both fascinating and original.

If music has taught me anything, it’s that absolutely anything can sound good when you know what to listen for (does that apply to politics?) I don’t think the point is that we want our own music to be different for the sake of being different. Innovation is absolutely what makes art great, but that doesn’t require experimentation. There is always new material to be worked with. Do I think Kernis sounds like Beethoven? Not really. I am not opposed to writing music emulating that of others before us. After all, Beethoven is no longer writing music. That does’t mean if he is our favorite composer, that our favorite new music must die with him. This does however bring to new light a modernist mentality. Microtonality, minimalism, postmodernism – these developed in the same way every important past composer thought, and I think for that it could be helped that all music can be enjoyable, because as Berg once stated: “Mr. Gershwin, music is music.”

The Concert Experience

Last night I attended a Utah Symphony concert for the second time. This one I was particularly excited about: a program dedicated to Russian music! An especially attractive menu item was Shostakovich’s popular Fifth Symphony, which followed exciting performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, conducted by Andrey Boreyko. I had never before heard of Liadov, and as I read in his biographical information, his apparent indolence despite intelligence relatively hindered much output. The piece itself was gorgeous, a very imaginative and atmospheric tone poem. Then Conrad Tao, a child prodigy in piano, violin, and composition – and still younger than me – performed the famous piano concerto. Watching his virtuosity and talent was awe-inspiring (as is the case with seeing all such things live) and was so well-received that he came back out and encored with Liszt’s Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody. Symphony 5 was saved for last, which was fantastic to hear in its entirety for the first time with all the brilliance that it deserved. I’m still amazed at Shostakovich’s ability to develop the same themes with such contrast between movements.

This is why I love listening to concerts live! In essence, all of the mere humans on-stage work together to create something in time. They each make it their own, and you get to be there, watching it all take place, watching a feat that has never in time been done before. And with such refined skill, while remembering that these are people, as you and I are, they reinforce the truth in exhibiting the hard-earned rewards of lifetimes of practice and perseverance. But the importance of the energy and passion that the performers express through their instruments, and the conductor through his gestures, makes the live experience truly worthwhile. Because that’s when music really comes alive. Every note played is brand new; surely even a mistake made here or there is excusable in its reminder that the challenge in producing the output that you receive is real and is happening in real time. Any studio recording cannot hold a candle to this experience; multiple takes and digital manipulation does no justice to the talent of the performers. Indeed, recordings are useful in bringing a product to those who have no other means of being in the audience, among other things; however they are meager substitutes in comparison.

To poor college students, it is indeed a handful of more money to be an audience in a professional concert than the free concerts you may not even want to see. But especially to you who study music, you are denying yourself a future career when you do not support the organizations in which you may hope to end up in the future. You cannot refuse to support that which you have even the slightest hope in being supported later, especially in jobs that hold little value to a majority of your peers. And along with that, it’s a rewarding experience each and every time, so if you haven’t made use of the ticket booth, go check it, I’m sure there’s something waiting for you there.

Remember the Sedulous

I was introduced and re-introduced to some prodigious child musicians of our time this morning. I began to think of how society idolizes the supernatural, or seemingly so. How interesting it must be to have a gift from birth, to be born with a destiny! It all sounds glorious, doesn’t it?

There are natural gifts of lesser importance, such as absolute pitch, and then there are composers who don’t have enough time to write down all of the beautiful melodies endlessly channeling through their brains. To the rest of the world, life just isn’t fair. As struggling artists, many of us wish that we were born with such a guaranteed lifestyle, guaranteed fame, guaranteed money. Thousands of students learning the principles of music in order to do something with it pray for even one brilliant idea in the course of their lifetimes.

Yes, it all does seems a bit unfair. But ultimately, that sort of attitude defeats the purpose of life. Everyone wants life to be easier, but what would really be in it for you if you didn’t have to put in effort and training to get to the point you are at? Musical gifts are extremely valuable, but people given these abilities have just as much a chance to incorporate genius and improve upon what they have as the rest of us. And really, it is that work ethic that we should appreciate. So many composers struggle in finding the right notes, but after they believe they have done so, both the masterpiece and the amount of effort required to achieve it can be admired. We all do not have the photographic memory of Shostakovich or the young fingers of Mozart. But we have our own sedulity, and we have all the time we need to reach our full potentials. Creativity doesn’t come without sheer force of will, and it is up to us to search it out.

We can take this time to look back at all the geniuses who were destined to be great, and that is absolutely no problem. But also remember to take into account those who trained hard and enacted full diligence to be up there with them.

Should You Study Music on Your Own?

This afternoon, I volunteered to participate in a focus group by an anthropology major who designed questions for music majors. Initially, there was only me and another man, who was working on a Master’s Degree in vocal performance, along with the anthro major (we were later joined by two more music majors). After introducing ourselves, we were asked the question “Is a college degree necessary for your area of study?”

In short, the both of us answered no. I spoke first: not only is a degree unnecessary, but because a profession in music all depends upon the time you put forth in that field, which a school will not provide, it would actually be better to develop your talents out of school. Aaron Gervais writes an interesting article illustrating this viewpoint.

I’ve actually found joy in discovering compositional techniques on my own. I remember when creating the primary melody in “The Tour”, I had no knowledge of cadences and harmonic relationships. In fact I knew so little theory back then that I look back and it baffles me that my melody still works, because for the most part it didn’t change. However, not knowing how melodies end, I played some chords which resulted in my writing a ♭II-♮VII-I cadence. It wasn’t at all satisfying, ending an otherwise tuneful melody with a tritone. Then it occurred to me that by simply raising the penultimate note a semitone, the ending suddenly became a concordant progression. Though I still didn’t understand it, I had by chance finally ended on ♭II-V6-I: an imperfect authentic cadence. I wasn’t aware of the vocabulary, but after finally discovering the importance of the tonic/dominant, I began to use it extensively. At that point I began to look at famous works of art, and this pattern seemed so evident, so clear. I felt that I had finally unlocked the definition of music, and in many ways it’s true; nothing defines tonality like a PAC.

The purpose of this is to show, however, how one defines his own intelligence by what he discovers for himself; that is, this special topic is not a chapter in a theory textbook, but is a personal discovery that remains a characteristic of his music. This discovery is actually a reason why I do not want my music to become “academic”, or written experimentally or for the purpose of school. Schools seem to lay out all the tools available and let the composer choose the subject, and as a result the purpose of music is defeated. Picasso was not given a number of styles from which to choose, only to decide on cubism. Composers are given the choice to imitate traditional rules in music, or to try something completely new, and in the process music becomes unorganized, unplanned. There is a reason why performers are not always enthusiastic about playing the graduate student’s composition, and I feel that it has something to do with their education in school.

Some of you will shout hypocrite at this moment, and as this has been on my mind, I agree that this is ironic in my case. But there are many good reasons to attend a university: the performance opportunities, the connections to professors and colleagues, and of course the standardization of curriculum. It’s not all a bad thing, music school. But I still stand by the idea that you get the most out of what you learn on your own.

Not All Dissonances Are Beautiful

There comes a time after you’ve listened to enough music that the term “dissonance” has pretty much lost its meaning. Technically it is defined as a combination of tones demanding resolution, or simply are inharmonious. But I’m aware of a great number of people who are under the impression that dissonance is beauty. By definition, that’s basically contradictory isn’t it? I mean there’s always underlying beauty in the eye of the beholder. However, I think it’s necessary for us to get the bigger picture.

Throughout the Common Practice Period, there have been cycles of complexity and simplicity in art music. Nonetheless in general, since the beginning of our knowledge of music, the idiom has grown to produce some of the most complex – and very much dissonant – compositions to reach our ears, particularly in the last century. The ears of our generation have become accustomed to the extended chords of impressionistic music and the altered chords of jazz, which would naturally sound extremely dissonant to those living in centuries past. But in our time of living, composers have been putting together harmonies that are purposefully dissonant and stretch the limits of discord even further. Sure, stacked extended major chords produce clashing tones and suspensions that are extremely beautiful in resolution. Elaborate chromaticism in chord progressions can expound upon emotional tension and create even more wondrous results. Then we reach the concepts of modernism and the deliberate move away from tonality.

Here there are things which take a trained ear and many compositions of which I am still not truly fond; pieces that are difficult to perform, direct, and listen to. The experimentation of sound lives on until this day, and while we are alive we will hear the best and the worst of these undertakings. I think it is safe to say that the focus of music in this century, backward from the CPP, is dissonance itself. It is also safe to say that great composers will not always resolve an ugly patch of pitches, and they want it that way. I’m not requesting that anyone realize this by seeking out modernism (although it would educate you), but be careful when you say that you enjoy hearing those delicious dissonances in an otherwise consonant piece, because you might end up discovering that all sorts of noise is considered music nowadays, and in this confusing world it can be difficult to call out the differences between what merits musical achievement and what just sounds repugnant.

Quirks About “New Age” Piano Music

Jon Schmidt. David Lanz. David Nevue, to name a few. I don’t know how they ended up where they are, but somewhere along the line they tossed some things together for the piano and labeled it “New Age” music. But first of all we need to define what exactly that means. According to AllMusic, New Age music “aims to induce a sense of inner calm” and is generally “allied with new age philosophies encouraging spiritual transcendence and physical healing.” Since categorization has its flaws, I’m very sure there are types of New Age that don’t fit in the category. However, if you’ve heard or read through music of the above artists you know what I mean. Perhaps the most popular of the genre of which I am speaking is Yiruma’s “River Flows In You“. Yeah, most of us played it when we were learning how to play the piano.

So what’s the deal with New Age piano music? Is it pop music? Though I tend generalize (a lot) with the term “pop”, if anything is pop, this definitely is. It’s simplicity – for the simple-minded. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with simplicity, I just don’t want people to get the wrong idea. And that idea is that this is a suitable substitute for classical piano music. Just because it’s got solo piano doesn’t make it classical guys. And it may go great under vocals in order to stay out of the way. But some of these guys put out album after album of their solo piano creations. Some of their melodies are worth listening to, but others are not worth the money paid to receive them.

I understand that meditative music is meant to be relaxing, inspirational, simple. I don’t see how it can satisfy one on any given day, but on the positive side there is indeed a spot for it when one is going crazy and has the need to meditate. And I can agree with it on the listening side of things; here I am strictly speaking of the compositional/performance side. I do know that a critical consideration of creating good music is to start with something simple and to build upon it. Sure, these pieces can build. But what is so wrong with actually playing a chord, with notes that are layered one on top of the other? That happens to be one of the many beauties of the piano. I’ll try one of these pieces for sightreading, but there is never a sense of fulfillment to me afterward.

Some of the first pieces I found I could write could be labeled New Age. I won’t release them – they proved to be a great stepping stone though. I thought I had it in me when I could arpeggiate my I-IV’s repeatedly. But it was much later when I realized that there is more to life than left-hand broken chords. If that’s the stage where you lie at this moment, I urge you to move onward! Don’t stop there; your journey is only beginning, but the rest is worth it.

You Are Creative

It is not uncommon that one has a friend who believes he was not born with any natural talents, or simply, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body”. Well I don’t believe in natural talents, and I certainly don’t believe in creative bones, but creativity is more of an exercise than it is a talent. Everyone who has a brain with a right hemisphere has it. It just needs to be worked with, shaped, and nourished.

It probably has something to do with a common misjudgment of one’s own abilities. But it all boils down to apathy of that desire to discover for one’s self. Maybe writing is something that “older” people do, or more intelligent people. No, every person can create something different, even if it is not up to the world’s standards. Hone it, and someday it will be.

I have often at points in my life questioned my own creativity. I’m not a child prodigy, so how would I know? I had a written a story fragment here and there, but nothing really complete. It all comes down to one word: discipline. In order to start writing musical compositions, blog posts, or school essays, I had to compel myself to write them. It won’t happen automatically; if you want to write a song, you better go sit down and start writing. Ideas don’t float around in my head all day. If I don’t continue to exercise the right side of my brain, I won’t get any better at it.

There is no “writer’s block” or “lack of creativity”. There is, however, a conscious lack of effort that hinders the creative process. Idleness gets in the way of the important things, such as thinking for one’s self. The brain is there to learn, think, and create. Creativity is not some form of intelligence that exists in solely a few people. It may not be that you are already a genius and can create whatever you wish either. You might think you are a small thinker, but you have your own ideas. Think, think, and think again, and soon you’ll find that you have the ability to make something that no one has seen or heard before.

In Appreciation of Quietude

We as people these days tend to get so caught up in things – work, family, friends – that we lose track of focus in our busy lives. For us as teenagers, we tend to deal with these problems with a pair of headphones. Some of us seek comfort in entertainment systems: video games, television, and movies. I often sit at my keyboard and make lots of noise.

And eventually, that’s what it becomes. It’s noise. If music could be defined as the organization of sound, then noise is unorganized sound. When the playlist is put on shuffle and at every song’s end, a new one begins, there is never an end. One can listen to music for hours; it is not uncommon for people to watch TV for several hours on any given day. In the end, what are we left with? Flashes of echoic memories, rushing around the brain like a slideshow on fast forward. One melody jumps into the next. One tries to concentrate on what the next person is saying, but doing so is difficult.

I’ve known people who are never without ear buds shoved into their ear canals. People sleep with headphones on all night. People read, work, and talk with music blaring straight into the brain. Music acts as their drug. It calms, soothes, and perhaps brings them on an emotional roller coaster they wouldn’t otherwise have.

I’d like to take this moment to say: take a break. There’s no need to be “obsessed” with your music. Try going a day without listening to your collection (or anyone else’s). Instead, try closing your eyes and listening to the person talking to you, concentrating on the words being said as if they were a wake up call. Music can serve as a distraction; it’s a form of entertainment, what else could it be? It should be enjoyed often, but do not overdo it. There are physical and psychological consequences to stuffing too much pressure into the ears. Let us take some time off for peace and quiet and save the music for the times when you can divert all your attention toward it.