Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hell Mouth

It isn't often that we have an opportunity to read the inner thoughts and musings of an internationally recognized top-tier composer. John Adams' new blog, "Hell Mouth," does just that:

This blog is a must-read, if only because it allows us a chance to further understand Mr. Adams' unique perspective of the world. I have enjoyed reading each and everyone of his posts, and invite all of you to do the same!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Form vs. F1

How to manage the pacing and form of your Sibelius composition.

It is amazing to me how quickly this Fall season is passing. Just this past week, we had our first tule fog here in the San Joaquin Valley, meaning that Fresno's relatively mild Winter is just around the corner. Only three weeks ago, we had 100+ degree temperatures. To me, that just seems like bad pacing. Surely it wouldn't have hurt to spend a bit more time in Autumn, with its seventy-odd degree temperatures, clear smogless skies, and beautiful mountain vistas.

Believe it or not, this mindless diatribe about the weather is actually relevant to my discussion today about musical form. For me, musical form is directly related to two distinct topics: pacing and musical contrast. Like the seasons, a good piece of music should contain distinct, tangible changes from section to section in order to be identifiable as new sections. Likewise, the pacing of each section should be adequate enough to ensure that the listener has had "just enough of the good stuff" (as opposed to the aforementioned Autumn that simply wasn't long enough!).

Before I go too far on this topic, I need to confess something first: I am not a huge fan of ABA structures. This standard approach to form - one of statement, contrast/development, and restatement - is, in my opinion, overdone. Clearly, there is a good reason for the prevalence of this structure, as a typical ABA piece will allow for a consistent and transparent, albeit overused, musical rhetoric. However, for me personally it is far more interesting to develop a musical rhetoric that avoids this model. AB structures, for instance hold a tremendous amount of rhetorical possibility by simply omitting any sense of return. Each section becomes its own individualized journey, leading you to various "points of no return" along the way. This does mean that your individual A and B sections need to be larger and more fully developed by comparison, though, and that is where we come to the topic of pacing and form.

Probably the single BEST use of MIDI playback is its ability to give the composer a very quick and concise understanding of the music's pacing. Even though the timbres and balances of playback are not the best representation of one's music, the sense of pacing that one gets from MIDI playback is surprisingly accurate. Using playback, it can very easy to tell whether a section of music is too short, too long, or "just right." This helps out the composer immeasurably when trying to shape the form of the piece, as it can be very evident when it is either time to move on to a new section, or when the previous section needs further development.

The key to this, though, is practice. Understanding one's own musical pacing is a learned skill, and in order to improve this skill, a composer needs to constantly check and double-check whether or not their is ENOUGH music. More often than not, the young composer errs on the side of rushing through a section, rather than having too much. In fact, it is quite difficult - although not impossible by any means - to have TOO MUCH music in a section. Finding the pacing "sweet spot," that is the point where the section of music feels just right, is as much a learned skill as learning to compose on the whole or learning to play an instrument. Playback will help with this, but the composer must develop their own sense of musicality in order to truly be able to comprehend what they are hearing, and thus make good choices as to the amount of music that is needed in a given section.

Oddly enough, knowing how to compose a well-paced section of music is actually the beginning step in learning how to create a good form in Sibelius and Finale - not the end goal. Once this skill is developed, the composer is suddenly armed with a tremendous amount of resources available to them. The composer can INTENTIONALLY CHOOSE to shorten or lengthen a section for emotional effect. It is quite jarring to establish a well-paced section of music, only to intentionally cut it short - interrupt with another section of music. Likewise, the composer can stretch out an already well-paced section to the point where it becomes monotonous to create a sense of obsession or endlessness. It is at this point that the composer is able to take control of their own form, and break free of traditional conventions like ABA or simple song forms.

Sibelius and Finale are incredibly good tools for this process. As stated above, the composer first needs to be able to develop their own sense of pacing - either with or without the assistance of MIDI playback. Afterwards, the composer can then use tools such as "Copy/Paste," and the "R" key (Sib.) to establish repetition as a point of rhetoric. As I discuss in my prior blog posting "Rinse and Repeat (July, 2009), repetition on its own can be a great tool as long as enough variation is included in the process. Using these tools of repetition, the composer can chop up, extend, interpolate, fragment, and otherwise completely disassemble and reassemble previously created sections of music to create a related, yet still-contrasting musical section. Essentially, this allows for the composer to develop their music using the tools natively embedded in music notation software.

Eventually, though, true contrast is needed for a piece of music to continue forward. This can be done one of two ways - through continuous development, or through the introduction of contrasting material. Either of these are valid methods, as they both allow for the creation of a true "B" section - that is, a section of music that is motivically and harmonically distinct from the "A" material. At this point, I often choose to mark this point in my Sibelius score, usually with a double-line. This helps to identify the new section as separate from the old - a point where the music goes in a new direction. Other elements - tempo, dynamics, texture, etc. - will likely change as well to help reinforce this new section.

Taking a step back from this process, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to comprehend the entire form of a piece while looking at only a few measures at a time. It is at this point that the composer needs to literally get a "bird's-eye" view of their entire piece, either physically (through print-outs) or virtually (by zooming out on the computer screen). I (as well as many of you readers!) give a few suggestions on how to deal with this in my post "The Big Picture (July, 2009)." I'm not going to rehash my comments, but rather simply state that it is important to find a method that allows one to get a hold of the entire piece in one viewing - literally, all at once! Even if the notes are indistinguishable from one another, seeing the shapes, the relative "darks and lights" that come from black and white notes, and the presence of space in the piece are all incredibly useful in understanding how the form of one's own piece works. Once this has been done, decisions can then be made about if any one section needs to return further, if one section predominates too much, or if the form even makes any sense!

Having said all this, I would like to return to my initial comparison of pacing and the weather. Although we may differ on what kind of weather we prefer, one thing that most of us recognize is that too much of any one weather pattern - regardless of whether we like it or not - can become quite oppressive over time. Likewise, a weather pattern that is here and gone in too short a period of time can feel unsatisfactory and fleeting. Musical form operates the exact same way. As the composer, one should take the time to allow an enjoyable section of music to go on for just enough time so that it feels satisfying, but not so long that it becomes oppressive.

Now, if only we could have some more rain.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Better than Festivus?

I certainly like to think so! The Fresno New Music Festival is about to kick off, starting this Thursday, October 15th and continuing until Saturday October 17th. Concerts featuring the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, the Fresno State Saxophone Quartet, and the Los Angeles based chamber ensemble The Definiens Project will all be taking place on the Fresno State campus. Our featured guest composers this year are Don Freund and Adrienne Albert.

As the festival director, I will be incredibly busy this week. So (here it comes...), the Electric Semiquaver's regular blog posting won't be back until next week. I hope to be able to post with greater regularity beginning with next week's post, which incidentally will be on applying and understanding FORM within Sibelius/Finale. Until then...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Texture are Crunchy!!!"

How music notation software can both assist, and completely destroy, musical texture.

It seems that one of the most misunderstood concepts in music theory is what is meant by "musical texture." More often than not, when I ask students about the texture of a specific piece of music, I am often greeted with a well-intended, but completely inaccurate response along the lines of "The music is soft and rubbery," or "Beethoven created crunchy music!" (I kid you not - these are REAL quotations from papers I have received).

So, before I go any further, I would like to point out that texture, in the context of music, specifically refers to the number of musical voices along with their relative functions to one another. Specific textural terminology include "monophonic" (one voice), "polyphonic" (multiple voices), "homophonic" (same voice), "heterophonic" (different voices), etc. These terms can be further divided into several sub-categories. For example, a polyphonic work is often assumed to be contrapuntal - however, any piece of music that has an independent melody, countermelody, and a corresponding accompaniment can fit this definition as well.

Now that we have our definition out of the way, lets move on to how music notation software directly impacts the composer's understanding of musical texture. Allow me to begin with an assumption (always a dangerous thing!): It can be assumed that, when composing polyphonically, there may come a point where even the most gifted of pianists would be unable to play every simultaneous line of music present in a given orchestral or choral work. Ligeti's use of micropolyphony, for example, would be impossible to perform on a single instrument due to the sheer number of voices occurring at any one time. Additionally, the very nature of these lines existing independently of one another would make it impossible for one brain to process all of these lines at the same time. Of course, this would never be the case in Ligeti's music - it isn't one brain, or one performer, that is tackling all of these independent lines, but rather several working together to create the music (of course, one could argue that one single brain - the conductor's - is holding it all together, but the conductor's role is not the same as that of the performers, and as such isn't processing the same information in the same way!).

However, in the case of music notation software, we are in fact dealing with one brain and one performer - the CPU. A single computer chip is capable of processing far more musical information than any single brain can (or should!) process at any given time. This means that, regardless of complexity, a computer will be able to play as many musical lines as its CPU, RAM, and Hard Drive will allow with flawless accuracy. This allows for limitless possibilities in the realm of contrapuntal density, including: canons at the 16th and 32nd note, infinite numbers of independent non-canonic lines, complex rhythms that exist in counterpoint with each other in the same instrument (different hands), etc. Using playback, a composer can audition and hear any combination of contrapuntal lines without needing to worry about PERFORMABILITY.

The obvious downside to this is that, although the computer might be able to play all of this, human beings often cannot. This goes beyond the relative difficulty of a single line of music - in fact, often it is the case that relatively simple lines of music can become unbearable difficult to perform when placed in counterpoint with one another. There are actually two problems here. First, in the case of instruments that are capable of playing contrapuntally (i.e. keyboard instruments), counterpoint composed in music notation software is often written in such a way that it becomes near impossible for one performer - one brain - to comprehend the music. Admittedly, this is true for music composed both in music notation software, as well as music composed by hand. Take for example...well...any Bach Invention. Each individual line is, by itself, not that difficult to perform. However, when placed together in realtime, the performance difficulty spikes! (Let's not also forget the Ligeti Etudes - specifically, Etude #1: Desordre - which I have been told by many performers requires the pianist to simply think of each eighth note as one event in order to successfully play the music!).

The second problem has to do with multiple performers playing multiple polyphonic lines in a chamber setting. For chamber music to be performed successfully, individual players in the ensemble need to listen to one another so that they can stay together. However, if everyone in the ensemble is playing something different, their ability to stay together is compromised. As the complexity of each individual line increases, the ability for the ensemble to stay together diminishes. Of course, if a conductor is thrown into the mix this becomes a moot point, but I shudder every time I think of string quartets, piano trios, and other mixed chamber groups of four or fewer musicians that had to be conducted simply to keep them together!

Another issue that should be addressed has to do with textural variety. As mentioned above, music notation software makes it quite easy to audition and hear simultaneous contrapuntal lines in a way that one might not be able to hear otherwise. However, this very same playback stutters and falls apart when attempting to make a single MONOPHONIC line sound palatable. Nothing sounds WORSE in playback than one line, completely isolated and lacking any support from its fellow virtual instruments. However, that same monophonic line - as performed by a real, living musician - can sound absolutely breathtaking! The end result is that, more often than not, music composed in music notation software relies upon too many simultaneous lines of polyphony, with little to no textural variety in the form of monophonic, or even homophonic, sections of music.

So, here are a few tips that I would recommend to any composer who wishes to avoid many of these issues:

• Variety IS the spice of life. Make sure that your composition has plenty of room for monophonic lines and homophonic "tutti" sections, as well as areas of rich, dense polyphony.

• When composing for a single instrument that is CAPABLE of performing two or more polyphonic lines, take considerable time to check, double-check, and triple-check your counterpoint. Make sure that the lines are coordinated in a way that is still performable for your player. Remember - difficult is ok, but impossible is not.

• When composing for chamber music that is without conductor, include sections where you pair up performers with similar rhythmic activity (in homophony) so that no one performer is ever completely isolated from the rest of the ensemble (i.e. in a string quartet, pairing up the violins for one line (in harmony) while the viola and the cello perform a different line). Solos, polyphony, and independence should still be used; just remember to provide unison moments in your piece where, should individual players get lost, they can get themselves back on track.

• A single, monophonic line will never sound as good in MIDI playback as it will with a live performer. Utilize these solos, and if you can't stomach the playback of the line - don't listen to it!

That is all for now - I am currently going through a very busy period in my schedule (as you might have guessed based upon the tardiness of this posting), so for now I will be continuing on a biweekly schedule. Look for my next post in two weeks!