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.

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