Monday, April 9, 2012

Re: Ora Ensemble

Having recently finished my composition for the Ora Ensemble, I thought it'd be nice to think back on the compositional process for this work. 

I put this piece through extensive revision, and it was probably at an adequately "completed" length many times. However, it just wasn't convincing, and I'm still not happy with the final product. That is, however, how it goes sometimes, and I'm thankful that, whether or not a piece is a success, it is nearly always a learning experience. I definitely learned a lot.

One of the first things I realized is that writing 12-tone is not something I'm keen to do again in the near future. I recognize its validity, but I didn't particularly enjoy the process. I think there are other aspects of my composing that I'd like to strengthen more before I tackle it again.

12-tone fugues don't work. Mine didn't, at least. It was definitely a fun exercise, but I wasn't pleased with the resulting music. I modeled the idea after the 12th of Ligeti's Ricercata (Homage a Frescobaldi), because I really liked what he had done with the idea.
What I realized, however, is that Ligeti's "subject" is far more than just a collection of 12 different pitches. He organized them in a very specific way, which is part of what gives rise to the endlessly falling sense of this particular piece. I tried to model my subject and countersubject after his patterns, but I realized that what he had written was not so easily transferable to another subject. So...scratch that idea.

Although I didn't like what I came up with initially, I did like the idea of atonal counterpoint, so I kept some of the material but discarded much of it.  I tried treating the "subject" as a collection of short motives which could then be used independently of the complete row. I actually really like this idea, and it led to some interesting results, but I didn't think it worked within the context of this piece. I think this is something that I'd like to experiment with in a short piece of music, just to explore the potential of the idea.

The end result for the middle section (easily the most difficult part for me to fill) is a more of a textural experiment than anything else. The row exists somewhere within, but it'd be a challenge for anyone (including me) to try and find it. I was inspired by a piece a contemporary composer wrote for a similar ensemble size:
I didn't have much time to write this, so, again, I think there's more that I can do with the idea, but there are some neat moments. I guess what I'll have to remember is what the neat moments are and how to be more consistent with them in the future.

That's about all for now. There's a reading on Wednesday, which should be exciting. It's always a treat to have professional musicians read one's music. My teacher, Kristina Szutor, performed my piano pieces in a student recital this past Sunday, and it was such a great experience. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

12- tone it is!

I am to write a piece for the Ora Ensemble, a chamber music group consisting of piano, cello, flute, and sometimes, violin. It's going to be great; at least, that's the plan. This is a somewhat larger piece to tackle than any of the three that I recently completed for piano, and I've been wrestling with just how I'm going to create cohesion in a larger work. It's not that much larger (maybe 5-6 minutes), but it's enough that I can't get away with having simply one or two clever ideas. I'll have to have at least....three.

Writing any piece of, well, anything requires answering a few very important questions early on. Fortunately for me, some of the tough ones are out of the way. Which Ensemble? Check. How long? Check. Form? Che....wait...Harmonic Language? Hmm...OK, so I have some decisions to make. 

I've been reading a lot of this book lately:

It's really fascinating, especially in how plainly it deliberates on such a wide range of topics, from planing to pointillism. I've found the chapter dealing with the 12-tone method and serialism to be quite thought provoking. Here's a really great quote from the text:
It should be evident that any work using 12-tone processes will be as musical as the composer who creates it. In no way should the use of this technique serve as a crutch. 
Reading this now, it seems self-evident. However, I've found that I often tend to think of 12-tone music as process-only, and that anyone could write a good 12-tone piece. I've since mended my ways, because if my brief experience as a composer has taught me anything, it's that  process alone simply cannot create effective music.

A short while ago, I thought I had come across the Nirvana of process-music in that of Ligeti, because, in my naivety, I gave a cursory glance at one of his etudes and deemed it "understood,." I then proceeded to write what I thought would be effective music based the very superficial assumptions I had made about that etude. What an error! Thankfully, there's no such thing as time wasted when it comes to writing music, because, even if it sucks, it's a great learning experience. Just to save face, I now recognize that Ligeti's music is anything but process driven, and that has dramatically increased both my appreciation and and enjoyment of it.

I read so many interesting ideas in that chapter, that it would take too long to go into detail about it. Suffice to say, I have chosen to write this piece for the Ora Ensemble in this language, because I believe it represents an important part of the contemporary musical landscape. To add further specificity to this decision, I am going to write a piece that emphasizes its lack of tonality, as opposed to, say, Dallapiccola or Berg, whose music can often sound strikingly tonal in spite of their method.

I had something I wanted to write regarding logic and effective communication, but I'll have to think about it some more. It's time to go and make some decisions...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Inner Ear

Having just finished writing a piece for a Percussion ensemble, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between what I imagine and what I write down. When writing for piano, my current process is something along the lines of 1) have an idea, 2) write down sketches, 3) go to piano for feedback, 4) if necessary, make adjustments.

Right now, there is a LOT of 4) in my process, because I think there's a disconnect between what I envision and what I realize. This is to be expected, considering my composing experience is quite little. I imagine that, as I gain more experience, the two will become closer, and the feedback loop between them more efficient.

Coming back to the percussion piece, I realized as I was putting the final touches on it this evening that I really have no idea how it's going to sound. I mean, sure, I know what the instruments sound like, and I've organized them in a way that I think will be effective, but because I've had to rely almost solely on my imagination, I feel quite disconnected from what I've produced. Will those fast repeated figures groove the way I thought they would? Will that swell be as effective as I want it to be? These questions will only be answered when I finally hear the piece performed. Then I'll get my feedback. Until then, I'm having to trust that I've done something evocative. If not, I'll learn something (many things), which is great. If it IS effective, I'll learn that many of my aural presumptions were correct, and they'll go in the box of compositional tools, and that's also an exciting thought.

In general, I think it's healthy to try and write away from the medium for which one is writing, BECAUSE it places us in the uncomfortable position of having to rely exclusively on our imagination. The great thing about playing an instrument is I can go and check if what I've written jives with what I want to hear. I don't ascribe to completely eliminating the instrument as a composing tool, but, in my limited experience, sitting down with a pencil and a sheet of staff paper is far more liberating than sitting down at a piano.

Here's an interesting article on orchestrating. It's kind of related, but I think it's great, so that's a good enough reason for me to share it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Reflections on Composition

As this is the first official post in this blog, I feel that it's appropriate that I touch on a few things. I am doing this for a couple of reasons. First, I have not been nearly as active as I intended, and second, because I have a lot to talk about!

First off, I'm glad with how the composition class is going, especially now that everyone is far more willing to speak their mind with respect to their own work and others. I don't know about my colleagues, but really invite criticism of any kind. I won't necessarily take it to heart, but I believe that, as an aspiring composer, it is important to be aware of how my music affects not just those who like the same things that I do, but also those whose personal tastes don't overlap with my own.

 A big problem or me is development, or, rather, being able to fully realize a specific idea - to expand it into something more than a two or three bar catchy motif. I had been experimenting recently with creating rules to help guide my composition, as if I could somehow eliminate my own lack of imagination from the equation. I actually wrote what I consider to be a pretty effective piece based on fairly strict compositional limitations (only pitch classes used throughout the duration of the piece). However, when it comes to harmony, I feel like, without the strict guidance of an already saturated tonal universe, it is difficult to find harmonic unity. I quickly realized that, even with stringent rules in place, and some rhythmic creativity, I could only go so far. Ultimately, I had to face the fact that, if I am to write music, I am going to have to be creative, as scary as that sounds.

With this in mind, I'd like to share some brief thoughts based on a talk I had with our recent Newfound Music guest composer, Karim Al-Zand. I shared many of these concerns with him, and was relieved (and somehow, not surprised) to find out that I was not the first aspiring composer to fear writer's block before I had even written anything. When I brought up my ideas with respect to "rules," he agreed, to an extent. He qualified this by saying that it's important to constantly be involved in the writing process, and to listen for directions the music feels like it wants (or needs) to go that I may not have anticipated. So, while I believe that form and internal logic are essential to composing (at least, MY composing...for now), I have to recognize and respect that music can easily pull me in directions as a writer that I can't anticipate, and it's important to investigate when this happens. In other words, the form that I have in mind for a piece of music when I start to write it might not be the form I end up with, and that's an exciting thought.

I'll conclude this with a totally awesome and relevant quote that I recently read:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass

Aint that the truth! At least, for me, it definitely is. I actually find a great deal of comfort in reading this, and I hope that others may also.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Inaugural Blog Post

My name is Joe Campbell, and welcome to my composition blog! There's nothing here yet, but that doesn't mean there won't be in the near future!