Saturday, 17 September 2016

To compose is to be three times truly human

These three qualities are the use of language, tools and the ability to socialize. One aspect of the latter is the ability to evoke responses from individuals and groups alike. Music can draw enormous audiences, as can the greatest of speech makers, who extend the fabric of their argument with repetitions and devices which strongly associate with music, frequently extending the range of the voice to the point where the boundaries of speech and music are crossed.

On a more fundamental level we may substitute the term cooperation for socialization, and that form of collaboration enables us to manipulate raw material into art and share the tensions and resolutions within the ideas expressed. Such raw material could be Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the exploration of jealousy in “Othello” or the expression “God Save the Queen” in the Sex Pistol’s song.

Language is the oil which enables and serves our emotional expression, and musicians have developed many tools to extend the vocal utterances in the form of conventional acoustic instruments, from the reed to tortoise shells and guts as in the myth of the contest of Pan and Apollo, and more recently the electronically produced, ever variable sounds. One of the catch-22 aspects of language (both verbal and musical) is that despite its ability to reveal a great deal about our emotional states and our thoughts it is not the words or notes themselves that carry the meaning. Finding difficulty in continuing one’s musical expression may not be a matter of sorting out pitch relationships or working a given rhythm.

In recent blogs I have attempted to answer the question of what a musician does if he or she runs out of ideas in the composing process. There are many techniques of shaping the progression of a piece of music, particularly in certain styles of music, and many musicians hold opinions as to the content of best to weakest progressions, to the point that these drills become rules. However there is nothing to stop a composer from following one sound with any of an infinite number of alternatives if he or she has no fear of the audience response. One could quote a section of the Moonlight sonata, break the flow of the music and pour a glass of water audibly into a glass and then resume playing. There would be a variety of reactions, mostly negative. I once played a work by Kagel that involved a rather unique approach to pedaling the piano, the response of the audience, and the academics in the hall, was severe.

It seems we have conventions for the use of language, socialization and the use of tools, and there is a cost to tackling and breaking these conventions. We manipulate others by making them responsible for their actions, but we are usually gracious enough to direct our judgement to intentions rather than accidental or unintended outcomes. If I had stated at the start of the performance of Kagel's music that I intended to perform a work which demanded considerable pressure on the sustaining pedal there would have been a very different outcome, possibly including my removal from the auditorium.

In the very human act of composing we play between constructing a succession of event and providing these with the impression of caused reactions. There are a vast number of ways of linking events, and rather like the man who spins plates on a stick the greater the number of associations the greater the chance of failure to ensure continuity. Many composers prefer to work within restrictions, these are often inherent in the style of music and instruments used, as would be the case for writing for gamelan orchestra. Selecting a scale, mode or key instantly imposes some restrictions, particularly in the short term, but possibly in the larger scale construction of the work too. Rhythm can be restricted to cyclic patterns, as in varieties of dance music or Indian tala. Some composers like Morton Feldman restrict themselves to specific dynamic ranges.

As humans as highly responsive to change, establishing one state and then rapidly moving to another has become a well-established method of retaining the listeners attention. So one obvious response to the question of what to do if stuck musically is change direction! As is so often the case Cage takes a different viewpoint, suggesting if you find a certain action boring stay with it long enough and it will become interesting. If this concept seems unappealing it is clear that many musicians who have been drawn to the organ work ASLSP disagree.

While considering the process of conjoining events, whether to give the impression of causation or separation I drew up a table of ways which I use to extend or make more continuous the musical argument. Some require a lifetime’s work to explore fully, as in the use of one chord to another, as in my own work on the hexachords present in the Bridge piano sonata, where, in my opinion there are good and less good progressions. Many of these events are easy to apply, particularly if using electronic sounds, but as with all language a well-crafted sentence may require considerable work.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Where to go next – part 2.

Following on from the blog about causation I wanted to consider how events link and react to each other on different levels and parameters in music. Is there a lexicon which determines what happens in a second event following the first? If there is, is this lexicon part of our “hard wired” expectations or determined by rules established over a given period of time?

When using the tonal system there are a number of expectations and conventions which simulate causation. In my early education examiners awarded marks for correct use of cadences, avoiding parallel fifths and many other issues all of which probably cemented the idea that there was a perfect example of progressing from A to B. There are strong figures which are regularly used, with rising scales the leading note regularly moves to the tonic, it sounds and feels like a natural progression. The perfect cadence isn’t the only way of finishing a work but it is regularly used as is a leap of a minor sixth falling to the fifth. Sequences aid the ear to hear a longer term event and are satisfying provided they are well executed and not over used. Many readers will be familiar with Schenker and his ideas about longer term unity in tonal music, for those new to the idea this short account may be of use:

Let us not forget that rhythm also creates expectations and has regularly used designs, repetitions of dance rhythms are familiar to people of all cultures, larger scale phrases and rotated blocks of events establish patterns which makes music accessible to all.

Music from the 20th century set out rules for composition which is another way of saying that there are expectations as to how music progresses from one event to another. There were numerous suggestions as to the method of constructing 12 note music from ways of generating musical figures to the degrees of tension between events, a later variation on the collapse of a 2nd inversion chord to a root chord. Structure or the long term planning of music became a feature of composer’s discussions about their music, some providing detailed notes to demonstrate the degree of logic and mathematics applied to the music. I recall Peter Maxwell Davies discussing his mathematical planning and saying that it would be possible to find “errors”, but that in his view what was written should be taken as the composer’s intention.

If a piece of music is determined by an imposed order does the question of “where do I go next” arise? Pitch construction and rhythmic design, even register and articulation of pitches can be part of a design, so theoretically a composition could “work itself out”. It is still a composition, it may be musical and it may be shared and enjoyed by others. If such constructions can be put together why do composers intervene in processes?

One consideration is what happens after the process is worked out? Having established and exhausted one idea the options are to conclude the work or extend its content by variation or contrast. One needs to consider is such an event caused by the first action, does it arise from the original idea or is it a dramatic gesture, for example introducing a change of mood or tempo? Some composers adopt a programmatic element to their music, let us take the Stations of the Cross as an example. The 14 images or activities have been used by a large number of composers using tonal examples through to contemporary styles and popular music. The actions or images progress from the Last Supper through the agony in the garden to laying Jesus in the tomb and the resurrection. The fact that the progression is one known to many and can be shared is important in the consideration of action and reaction.

Recognising that it is possible to plan a section or entire piece of music in which events unfold as a process we should accept that humans respond to design and order, sometimes abstract as in Islamic art and sometimes arising out of an external programme of events. Humans react differently to a design as we can observe in the “carbuncle” comments in architecture. Sometimes we have to learn how A progresses to B, without the historical link we make little or at least less sense of the innovation. This raises the question of whether the listener has a responsibility to the artist to be educated in the progression from one state to another.

Any rule given to enable a steady or even a beautiful progression from one event to another can be broken. If we hear a phrase like “I won’t never not do that” some of us will take offense at the construction and some will find the potential for its use, perhaps in a comic manner; I refer to this particularly as grammar is supposed to be “hard-wired”.

When composing with materials outside the conventional language of music, e.g. types of noise or sampled natural events, there is still the possibility of experiencing problems with the flow of the product. The exhaustion of the ear with a given sound might demand a different event and finding one that is agreeable might be difficult. Agreeable is a subjective term so do we require a set of aesthetic values to provide the next stage, such as the Japanese values discussed in a previous blog? If we wanted to test ourselves on how long an event can be sustained within a context one might use the synthesiser sounds from “on the run” in Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. Are the ostinato figures perfectly proportioned to get the maximum effect? Given the number of sales of the album one might use an economic rather than aesthetic argument, but then again one might consider the passage as a development from the long opening track of “Atom heart Mother” which creates more interesting and complex relationships, as does the alteration of the synthesiser tone to recorded footsteps and the introduction of the clocks in the later album, all of which may be regarded as a well-designed progression.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

"Where to go next when I have run out of ideas".

I was recently asked this question by a composer:

“How do I know where to go next when I have run out of (musical) ideas?” Like so many simple questions it is full of complex issues. In an earlier blog I discussed the musical roles and activities that can now be associated with the term “composer”. There are so many ways of generating, assembling and playing with sounds that thinking in traditional terms such as understanding harmonic progressions will no longer suffice to respond to the question.

What do we mean when we say we have run out of ideas? A process is under way, certain projections have been made based upon the composing intention and the flow of the process is disrupted. Let us say that I wish to grow certain plants in the corner of my garden. There are a number of factors which may assist or hinder my plan, the amount of sunlight, the quality of the soil, the quantity of water available, the presence of other plants and so on. The success of the project may depend on luck, observation, experience, cultural attitude or scientific knowledge or a combination of these.  The more informed we are about the environment in which we work the better our chances of success, but there are no guarantees as the number of variables are large. Some people are considered to have “green fingers” while others can complain that plants don’t survive under their care. This type of thinking has parallels with art in general which makes some people take the attitude that natural or innate talent is required and many attribute ability to genetics. Whether the skills are part or wholly dependent on external factors the processes may still break down or function less well than our initial projection(s) had suggested.

One way of approaching this is to change the question to “what structural problems will I encounter when composing?” To respond one could provide examples of well-structured works, encourage study and imitation and hope that the student will then move on to better formulations and results. This approach is the basis of traditional music education but with changes in technology and methods of sound production and with a wider acceptance of what audiences will tolerate and enjoy it may be time to think outside the box, or at least ask a wider range of questions.

Given that the methods of approaching playing with sound are varied one less rigorous approach could be to gather the material to be used, live with the collection and become familiar with their characteristics, reject some material, reformulate associations before attending to the assemblage, this is an acknowledged process for many composers, but sometimes the less exact processes can lead to reasonable if not inspired outcomes.

If we examine the first part of the question “How do I know where to go next…” we are treading on the ground of causation and correlation. For the purposes of this blog we are considering the musical relationships between objects and events. While playing through the third Arne sonata today I stopped playing after the first part of the Allegro and asked myself what would I do with the material presented? The manoeuvres which Arne selects are entertaining, witty, and delightful, these qualities demonstrates his musicianship and his ability to choose well. So the question needs to be refined again: “How do I know where is best to go next?” In a recent blog I presented the fanciful idea of a supercomputer being given a task of rewriting a development section of a sonata having been given the exposition and rules of procedure. The mechanics of such an idea are fascinating in their own right but when we throw in the assessment of best choice a whole new world of possibilities and difficulties are raised.

While considering causation a list of terms indicating the creative action may be of some use, these are refined to terms best applied to music:

make, create, effect, produce, influence, construct, compose, stimulate, initiate.

The act of creation may bring into play, events, outcomes, developments and a wide variety of results.

While playing the Arne sonata I could take into consideration the development of a number of ideas in relation to each other. Rhythmic figures, harmonies, melodic fragments are all fused into a larger scale identity which is then processed as a single unit to be changed by a recognised formula, e.g. a change of key. However as matters stand in contemporary music the structures and grouping of materials are very different, in some music the relationship between events are highly regulated and in others deliberately disassembled.

If we play a little with Aristotle’s ideas on causation we can identify that our knowledge of objects arise in his terms from formal, material, efficient and final causes. With the focus on music we are dealing with how sounds arise from raw components or constituents, elements or ingredients, forming the structure. We need to appreciate how the sounds are intended and planned to create the final product accepting that music should be determined by its form, arising from pattern, control of its parts and style. In order to achieve this we must be aware of the components and their reactions. Later we may present the reason for the entity’s existence: why is it there, what purpose does it serve?

This helps a little in our quest to answer the question, that is to say, when at a point of crisis in composing music we may ask some relevant questions:

Are the components used appropriate to the task?

Is the form of the work clear? Is there a direction to the product and is the composer using the appropriate constituents to articulate its direction?

Are there sufficient components to achieve the direction, or possibly too many.

Was the purpose of the music well defined at the start of the process? Has the purpose been modified during the process, if so does it need revisiting?

While all this discussion may be of use in practical terms I have found the following procedure most helpful, if the process is not flowing it has become too complex. If the music is too complex the most likely cause is a lack of clarity in the composing intention. If it comes down to the point of I can’t find a B to follow A it is less likely to be a problem of syntax than purpose, but that is a personal point of view.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Musical cues, melisma, masques and misdirection.

Melisma comes from the Greek: μέλισμα, melisma which today we would think of as melody; from μέλος, melos, its plural is melismata.
Melismatic singing presents a long flowing line of melody and is the opposite of syllabic singing where each syllable in the text is joined to a single pitch. It is also one of the best examples of a musical cue for heightened emotion, love and passion. We cannot trace the first uses of melismatic singing, but as it extends speech into a wider pitch range we can assume that it was used to accentuate the emotional content and articulate the importance of a given word or words within a text. If we take Qawwali singing as an example of music that is some 700 years in its development we can hear in the impassioned poetry the use of melisma to great effect in the recordings made by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
As a musical genre Qawwali is akin to the Hindustani classical tradition of India. It uses the designs of raga and its metric patterns, talas. Its formal structure is similar to khava, a song genre. The music alternates metrically even choruses and vocal improvisations by the soloist who makes full use of melisma while the accompanists hold onto a regular beat.

The melismatic element takes place in the “ghazal” section which translates simply as love song. The text is influenced by Sufi philosophy which itself plays with the concept of intoxication through wine and pain arising from the loss of one’s lover. These can be taken on the literal level or taken as the higher aspiration of divine union with God, even down to the tavern as the place to find enlightenment. Performers like Khan can be seen as being “intoxicated” with the beauty of the text, and possibly hypnotized by the rhythmic beat of the clapping of the group. In terms of melisma as a cue it is important to recognize the interplay between what is said in the text and the manner in which it is delivered.
While ghazal identifies with the divine later music gradually drew on more secular texts, moving through Chivalric romance with its high ideals, through to the present day where love has yielded in many cases to sexual content. The melisma in this context is not restricted to popular music, the “Dulcissime” in Orff’s Carmina Burana is a remarkably beautiful example of the extended voice where the soloist abandons herself to her lover:
“My darling love, now I’ll give you all I have”.

If we take a historical look at cues in Western music the Baroque makes great use of prompts. We begin with associations which may be heard in Renaissance music, ascendit having rising scale figures and descendit falling scales. Developing this to include such devices as the interval of a ninth to indicate loss, anger, horror or desire is not surprising when we consider the Baroque development of opera and or staged works (masques). A school of theorists were at work on the use of cues thought of as the doctrine of the affections. Readers interested in this period may wish to explore the work of Mattherson, Werchneister, Printz, Merburg, Schiebe and Quantz. Their philosophy was that music should depict human emotions and show states of mind. There are a number of devices for reflecting these moods, wide leaps, tremolo, rapidly repeated notes, pizzicato, chromaticism and dissonance. With the growth of instrumental music we are also experiencing the use of the extended voice which takes us back to the earlier discussion of the extended range of the voice to express heightened emotion. There is a specific catalogue of instrumental associations, the timpani are heroic while trumpets and drums have martial associations to imply courage. Trombones are indicators of melancholy and violins love, while the horn for rather sadly is associated with portentousness.

Cues function like tags on your photos and videos in drawing attention to salient features and make your composing intentions clear to your audience. The following paragraphs examine ways of making the best of cues and offer some music examples that have benefitted from their intelligent use.

The use of quotation brings together two or more styles of music where the contrast acts as a major input to shock the listener. George Crumb does just this in the second movement of his “Black Angels”.

Direct quotation can be substituted for parody as P.M. Davies does in many of his works e.g. inserting foxtrots or reels into otherwise cerebral music. Later in his career he uses folk elements in a less acerbic manner, as in Kettletoft Inn, making use of Northumbrian pipes. At the close of the blog reference is made to deliberate miscuing as heard in “Rosenkavalier”.

Today there are many opportunities for associating images with music. We know from earlier blogs that visual inputs are stronger than aural ones. This arises from early memories of the human face, which is so powerfully imbedded that it is impossible to draw a circle and insert three lines without forming a face. We read images rapidly and create a wealth of associations. Words also promote internal visualisation so the combination of word and image can direct the listener's attention directly into the intentions of your composition. Perhaps you are old enough to recall the scene from "Yellow Submarine" where "glove" becomes "love" at 1 hour 12 minutes into the film:

The creative use of scores as visual cues in "Ludwig van" by Kagel provides further examples of new approaches to image and music.

The emotional power of music lies in its ability to create expectations in the listener. These expectations can be created through form, contrast, selection of instruments, vocal resources etc. Traditional formats are powerful structures because of their ability to create and deny successive outcomes, blending old and new promotes better contact with the listener. Henze’s First movement to his first symphony illustrates the point clearly:

Music is formed from a complex succession of cues, knowing how to blend them the composer’s art. The character of intervals is one of the most significant methods of creating a cue, and recent research shows that the different effect of (e.g.) the major and minor third is recognised across all cultures.  The blog “Deciphering musical codes” gives a guide to which cues feature when examining our musical intentions.

      To specify one work that makes excellent use of intervals is close to impossible but for the sake of completion Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” will be offered:

We have also seen from previous blogs that exposure to patterns leads to increased preference, even where the listener actively dislikes the music on its first hearing, this is known as the “mere exposure effect”.

Use inputs that are infused with tags, tremolando indicates suspense even fear and does playing up to the bridge of string instruments.

Some attributes of music are universal, tempo particularly so, rapid movement = joy, slow speeds = sadness. This also applies to register and dynamics. When rehearsing your music consider that even small changes of tempo, accelerando and rit. have a greater effect on the listener than many composers recognise.

Everything comes from the voice is an expression I came across when studying Indian music.  Our brains certainly believe that and melodies are extensions of the pitch and cadence of speech. Contour is aided by tone and register, consider the slow movement of the New World Symphony as to association with the voice in what is labelled “musical contagion”.

Contagion brings together movement and emotion, so dance rhythms make us respond physically and affect our involuntary responses (breath, heartbeat etc.).

Let us consider one successful work, Ravel’s Bolero for some of the above qualities.

It creates expectation through repetition, its climax is powerful because it denies (closes) the rhythm with a wrench. It has been set as a ballet and even as an orchestral work in its own right has visual connotations of place and time. The musical cues are reduced through the process of repetition but are made all the more powerful by the use of tone and register. Ravel’s orchestration creates a number of tags, the saxophone part becomes a character quite different to the flute, and for some the crescendo might offer the tag of menace behind the work as a whole. For me the version for two pianos is the perfect example of how tags work in one format and not another. Three options are given to examine your own responses, please let us know your views.

2 piano version



Mixed cues
Strauss Rosenkavalier waltzes. The opera and suite demonstrate that composers can create music which sets out to deliberately misdirect the listener, I offer the following as an example.
Set in mid-18th-century Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier was composed as a comic opera indebted to Verdi's Falstaff and Molière's satires. The most popular offshoot of the opera is the Waltz suite worked (by many different musicians including Strauss himself) from the opera more for financial than artistic purposes, but nevertheless hugely popular. Many nit-picking commentators have labelled the music "anachronistic" missing the point that Strauss, a master of musical cues, created a perfect example of how to play with our sense of expectation, creating nostalgic music, most appropriate in light of his anticipation and experience of the remarkable changes occurring even in the first decade of 20th century music.
The musical conventions used by Strauss are closely related to the action of the opera and not used as a frame for the entire work, the opera was never intended as a “period piece” composition even though there are older styles of musical action (choruses, arias, and duets) embedded in the more natural unfolding and disruption of the action.
Misdirection is a valuable tool in many aspects of entertainment, Strauss develops an approach in Rosenkavalier that reflects such thinking and directs it towards a wide range of emotions, not just nostalgia.