Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Question of Difficulty

Investigating the role that music notation software plays in the performance difficulty of a new piece of music.

Well, it seems that my regular weekly posts on "Sibelius Composition" has once again been hit by the tardiness bug. However, better late than never, right? This week, I would like to open up a discussion on the role that music notation software MAY have in increasing the performance difficulty of new compositions. I say "may," because in all honesty I'm not 100% sure that this is an issue that stems directly from the notation software itself.

Let's set the record straight: new compositions labeled "difficult" by performers is not new. We all know the story of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, which was considered so excruciatingly difficult at the time it was composed that Mozart himself claimed that it was a "joke," to see just how far he could push the instrument. Today, it is the most widely performed concerto in clarinet literature. Throughout the 20th century, compositions of a wide variety of difficulty (ranging from "mildly challenging" to "WTF! FML! HOW DO I PLAY THIS??!?!?") have been created both by hand and within the computer, all with varying degrees of success and/or failure. I myself have often been accused of writing music that was "too difficult," but often the end result is still very satisfying for both the performer and the audience alike.

Some of the more overt reasons for this increase in difficulty have to do with the composer's desire to expand what is considered "possible" by musical instruments. This exploration of "extended techniques" (as they are often referred to) frequently leads to new compositions that, on the surface, seem to ask the impossible of the performer. Sometimes - they are impossible. Other times, however, what appears to be un-performable turns out to be quite workable after the performer spends considerable time practicing the new technique.

Of course, this issue of difficulty presented above has NOTHING to do with music notation software. In fact, on some levels the exploration of extended techniques has been minimized as a direct result of composing on the computer. The limitations of the software often make the prospect of developing (or even recreating) an extended technique daunting, due to the notational challenges inherent in asking the player to do something that isn't standard. This is a bad practice on the part of the composer. Composers should NEVER feel chained by the program, nor should the composer ever choose not to explore an extended technique simply because he or she can't figure out how to get the program to notate it. The decision making process must remain in the mind of the composer - not the software. (Incidentally, I am reminded at this point of many arguments that I have had in the past as to whether Finale or Sibelius can handle extended notation better. Suffice it to say, I strongly believe that BOTH programs can handle these notational challenges given enough patience, creativity, and Tylenol.)

But, I digress. Getting back to the topic at hand - the main area of difficulty that can be directly attributed to music notation software isn't one of timbre, but rather of RHYTHM. The bottom line is that it is incredibly easy - perhaps too easy - to create complex rhythms that, while completely performable by MIDI playback, are next to impossible to perform by a living musician. Complex syncopations, rhythmically intricate counterpoint, nested tuplets/quintuplets/septuplets/etc., and constantly shifting meters and metric patterns are all completely possible within music notation software. Sometimes, these rhythms occur completely by accident by the composer (usually due to the unintentional shifting of the musical material by one eighth or sixteenth note). Sometimes, they occur because the composer becomes attached to the vitality that these rhythms seem to present themselves when played PERFECTLY by the computer (with absolutely no tempo fluctuations whatsoever). Other times, these rhythms are EXACTLY what the composer wants, without any regard to the possible difficulty that such rhythms may present.

It IS arguable that many of these aforementioned techniques are in fact completely performable by those musicians who are used to counting these rhythms. In fact, I have been told on more than one occasion that the increase of these complex rhythms have actually contributed to the improvement of rhythmic understanding and virtuosity by a select group of outstanding musicians (often those who are new music specialists). As mentioned above with regards to timbre and the exploration of extended techniques, these are not unique to the world of music notation software. Many composers - Brian Ferneyhough for example - have been exploring extreme rhythmic languages completely outside of the world of music notation software.

Nonetheless, one cannot argue that the software does play its part, and that regardless of whether or not there ARE performers who can play this material, many cannot. So - what is the composer to do? If you view yourself as a "rhythmic pioneer" of sorts (such as Ferneyhough), you should change NOTHING. Keep writing complex rhythms, accept that the work is difficult, and seek out the best of the best to play your music (in many regards, I wish I could have that luxury!). If you are concerned about the level of difficulty your rhythms present, though, here are a few tips that may help you:

• Count out your rhythms as you write them. If you yourself have a difficult time accurately counting out your rhythm, it is quite possible that your performers will have that difficulty as well.

• When applicable, use standard terminology to assist in tempo changes, rather than using "written out" ritards and accelerandos. (i.e. Writing out rit. and accel. instead of using feathered beaming).

• Avoid combining multiple levels of rhythmic complexity (for example, layering in counterpoint two separate lines, both of which use nested tuplets AND syncopations).

• As mentioned in prior blog entries, avoid using "extreme" tempos - they won't sound nearly as good in practice as they do in the computer.

• Try not to add in "unnecessary" rhythmic variation. This is admittedly quite subjective, and will require a delicate touch on the composer's part to ensure that there is plenty of necessary rhythmic variation to keep the music interesting, and not a single note more!

• Remember that most performers will add in some "give and take" to their own rhythmic interpretation. Don't feel like you have to change up your rhythm because the computer playback's interpretation seems "stiff."

Of course, you may also choose to ignore all of the above and simply go for it! After all, the expansion of today's rhythmic language is part of what makes contemporary music exciting! Just...not necessarily easy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik" v. 2.0

Observations on new music blogs and the growing trend of the "composer-as-music-promoter" on the internet.

(note: This is not a researched article, but simply the observations of one composer trying to find his place in the world of new music.)

"We are all Robert Schumann." That is the thought that continues to bounce around my head as I type this blog entry. It was Schumann who first (or perhaps most famously) took on the double-life of composer and music journalist. In his journal, Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann acclaimed those fellow composers whom he thought were worth his praise, and slaughtered those whom he believed were compositional hacks. While his actual tenure with the journal lasted for just a little over ten years, his reputation as a music promoter and critic would be known well after his death, and in some regards would even exceed his reputation as a composer.

Re-reading this short description of Schumann's journalism career, I can't help but wonder how his career might have fared differently had he lived not in his own time of musical virtuosos and private salons, but instead in our time of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Would we have had an emerging-composer series featuring the unknown-at-the-time, but soon-to-be superstar Johannes Brahms? Would we have had tweets and status updates from "Shoe_Man" along the lines of "Disgusted by musical hacks - why aren't we hearing more Beethoven?" Would we have seen "fail" videos featuring Liszt and Wagner, edited in the most unflattering of ways?

Of course, Schumann doesn't live in our age. He doesn't need to.

Schumann's legacy is today more present then ever, upheld in the form of contemporary music blogs created and contributed to by today's generation of composers. These blogs cover all the bases when it comes to the world of new music. New music reviews, interviews of up-and-coming young composers, articles outlining the "state-of-our-art" (this one included), podcasts featuring the opinions of new music performers, and even parodies of other new music blogs are all readily available on the internet today.

The fact that so many of my generation of composers are turning to the internet as a vehicle for critiquing, discussing, and exposing the world of contemporary music makes me wonder: at what point did becoming a composer mean also becoming a promoter of new music? For what reason do composers choose to engage in this seemingly selfless act of "community promotion?" The answers to these questions are not clear at all - in fact, to try to answer either question without first conducting interviews and researching the motives of my fellow composers would be both inauthentic and negligent on my part! However, I can answer these questions with regards to my OWN perspective - why I choose to assist other composers through my blog (and through the Fresno New Music Festival,) as well as why I believe that more and more composers will continue to join this online community of artistic promotion and self-reflection.

A cynical reply would say that I pursue all of these activities because, in fact, they are indeed self-serving. One could say that I direct the Fresno New Music Festival simply to broaden my network of connections and grow my career as a composer. Likewise, one could say that I use my blog as a "mouthpiece" to the new music world, inevitably linking my name with the pedagogical approaches that I write about. Both of these replies are not without merit - I would be lying if I wasn't aware of the benefits that my composition career gains as a result of pursuing both of these activities. However, that would only a small fraction of the story. The fact is, the amount of time and work that is required to direct a festival, contribute to a blog, and maintain a full-time professorial gig (not to mention parent a two-and-a-half year old and compose!) is astounding, to say the least. If my goals were only self-serving, there are many other avenues available to me that offer both greater benefits, and take less effort on my part. As a composer, I know all too well that the creative endeavors that I pursue, I do not do for money or fame.

A better reply would require one to closely examine the culture of the new music community. The contemporary music world is incredibly small, and in the past has been more-or-less isolated from the "mainstream" of classical music (assuming that classical music HAS a mainstream). Every now and then, a single composer or new music performer breaks through the "parchment ceiling" and manages to become relatively well known in the classical community. This is unfortunately an all-too-rare accomplishment, and is usually associated with a large award or fellowship, as well as an orchestral premiere with an A-list orchestra. These conditions do not occur often, and for those of us who work in relative isolation (for example, Fresno) it is an almost impossible scenario.

I do not mean to sound overly pessimistic, but it is important to have a realistic outlook as to how our community has existed before we can start to examine why these recent online trends have exploded in the way that they have. If "necessity breeds innovation," then it is easy to see why the contemporary music community has embraced the blogosphere. This group of music pioneers is creating both awareness and opportunity, not just for the individuals who participate in it, but for all composers and contemporary music performers. They are using this great tool as a a way to shine a bright beacon on all of our artistic endeavors and accomplishments - both large and small. They are bringing greater awareness of our community to the rest of the mainstream public. More importantly, they remind us that we are all a part of this larger community, even when we feel isolated and removed from it because of location or circumstance.

Two blogs in particular - The New Music Box and Sequenza 21 - are doing an exceptional job at "shining this beacon." Both of these sites endeavor to highlight the accomplishments of all composers, as well as provide a proverbial seminar for composers to help communicate with each other in a way most of us have not been able to do so since our graduate student days. In addition, new websites are popping up all over the internet that are likewise devoted to organizing the "online new music community," such as the United Kingdom based site Dilettante. I am personally heartened by all of their efforts, and in turn am eager to provide my own contributions as I do so today.

Returning to the example of Robert Schumann, it is interesting to know that part of his own motivation for founding "Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik" (in English "The New Journal of Music") was also to shine a beacon on his "contemporary music community." Granted, he also wanted to use his journal as a way to lambast the compositions of those whom he deemed as substandard composers. Still, in the end his journal did champion the accomplishments of many of his contemporaries - Chopin, Berlioz, and Brahms to name a few. Schumann strongly believed in using the journal as a way to celebrate the works of his fellow composers, very much in the same way that we in the online new music community do so today.

I am constantly reminded of lessons in the past, where I was told that "no composer other than yourself would help elevate your career." I am happy that this particular lesson has turned out not to be so. Many composers do in fact want to help each other out, to see our community thrive, and together become recognized for the great art that we contribute to our society. Working together, we may be able to avoid seeing more articles on the "Invisible State of New Music," or on the failing classical world as a whole 50 years from today.

The days of composing in isolation are over. We can no longer afford to ignore each other as we toil away in our studios, disconnected from the rest of the world. We can no longer treat each other as "competition." We must engage with each other in the form of support AND critique, and in turn engage with the rest of the world. The internet community provides for us a unique and awesome vehicle for doing this. With continued effort, we all might one day be able to transcend the "parchment ceiling" and bring our entire community to the forefront of classical music.

"We are all Robert Schumann" now.

For the birds?

A brief music video featuring a composition by, well, birds!

The following video is an interesting exercise as to how and when inspiration might strike. Credit must be given to my student Patrick for bringing this to my attention.

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Truth be told, I can't tell whether I'm reminded more of Messiaen for his many bird-inspired compositions, or Debussy for his use of minor-minor 7th arpeggios. Maybe both?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Notation for the Traditionally-Challenged

Dealing with non-standard notation in Sibelius/Finale.

Many of my previous posts have been operating on the assumption that when one composes directly into Sibelius or Finale, it is likely that the composer is using standard notation most of the time. After all, these programs are designed to facilitate the use of standard musical practices FIRST; anything which might be considered non-standard in practice is logically less of a priority for these programs, simply because of the fact that they are considered to be *non-standard*.

For example, all music notation software - including "lite" versions of software such as Finale Allegro and Sibelius First - easily allows for the placement of notes, standard simple and compound rhythms, expression markings, articulations, common time-signatures, and tempos with few problems whatsoever. However, if the composer wishes to create a musical gesture that is out-of-the-ordinary (for example, an aleatoric "box" where musical fragments are repeated out-of-time over a set number of seconds) the composer may need to wrestle with the program for quite a while before successfully creating the idea. Don't misunderstand me - these programs CAN handle all sorts of alternative notations with a surprising amount of flexibility. However, creating these often involves "breaking" the program on one level or another, and is almost always a time-intense exercise in patience, diligence, and comprehension of the program's reference manual. (Oh - and don't get me started on graphic scores - that is a whole other issue on its own!)

The problem that needs to be addressed is what to do when the composer chooses - either out of frustration or possibly even laziness - not to go through with their original non-standard idea simply because it is too hard to do. Composers that I have worked with in the past often refer to this as allowing the program to dictate your composition to you. This cannot be allowed. Regardless of how the composer chooses to notate an idea, the composer should be free to implement it in anyway they see fit - whether it is standard or not (of course, whether it is WISE to notate it one way or the other is a different issue altogether. Wow - that's my second aside in two paragraphs...).

A common solution is to write out your idea by hand first, so that when you are notating it into the computer you force yourself to recreate your hand notated idea. This method usually ends up with the composer succeeding in recreating their hand-written idea after many hours of consulting forums, technical support, and the help menu. However, since this blog is about composing directly into notation software, I would like to propose a couple other ways to deal with this particular issue should a composer choose to create their idea that way:

• First rule: DO NOT use playback here. Most alternative notations are used to create sounds and rhythms that can't be handled through standard notation. Unfortunately, neither Finale nor Sibelius are built to handle the playback of most alternative notations (with a few exception here and there) since that would require the program to be able to be taught how to interpret them. Using playback here can actually be harmful to the creative process, as repeated listening of an "incorrect playback" may color the composer's perception of what they've written, eventually leading the composer to change or even scrap what they have created.

• If you must insist on having an audio playback as a way to hear your progress, make an audio mock-up of your idea in the sequencing software of your choice.

• Get accustomed to "breaking" the program so that you are aware of all the different ways that Finale and Sibelius can handle alternative notation. In Finale, get to know the Special Tool box backwards and forwards. In Sibelius, get to know the Properties box, as it will be your best friend.

• Try creating a Schenkerian diagram in either program. This is a great way to teach yourself how to remove barlines and stems, change the size of noteheads, extend beams, and place "invisible" notes to enforce non-standard spacing.

• Experiment with percussion staves. They are programmed to handle multiple sounds and notations on a single instrument, and are great tools to use for graphic representations of sounds.

• For power users - make your own fonts! This way, you can simply bring in your newly created font and place the notes as easily as you would standard notes.

• When all else fails, get to know a graphics program. Both Finale and Sibelius allow the importation of graphics into your scores, allowing for all sorts of alternative notations free from the constraints of the program (Yes - this isn't actually composing into our notation software, but it IS still at the computer!).

There does seem to be a trend that, with each successive version of Sibelius, more and more alternative notations are becoming integrated into the software. Flutter-tonguing, for instance, is a technique that is now completely integrated, even switching patches automatically when called for. Quarter tones, jazz "scoops and falls," and other non-standard articulations are becoming quite common. This is a good trend, and I hope that over time more and more non-standard practices continue to be integrated into the software.