Saturday, September 25, 2004


There is so much going on here, so many different balls that I'm trying to keep in the air, that I am trying to confine each journal entry to one particular area. This one is on composition.

I just went to a collaborative pianist's recital. There is a collaborative piano major here, although I found out tonight that there are only 5 of them! No wonder they are always so busy! It was quite splendid - works by Pizzetti, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Malipiero, who were all Italians working in the first half of the 20th century. What really made the performance was the performers - the pianist (whose concert it was) was excellent and the singers were as well. The two sopranos especially were just captivating.

Going to concerts generally puts me in a composing mode. I sit there and my mind drifts around to all sorts of good ideas that I could use as seeds of a composition. This reminds me of something Dr. Young said in class...he was talking about how many of the great composers would improvise, and how they always needed something to start with, some material to get their brains flowing...he said that Mozart or Chopin would play a little Bach first, and then from that get a few ideas and dive into an improvisation. The general idea is absolutely correct - whenever I go to a concert, I usually come out inspired. However, tonight it made me want to take out a couple of songs I wrote in college and dust them off and improve the accompaniments. I dug them out when I got home, and they're in more complete shape than I realized...which makes me wonder if someone actually performed them on a concert and I'd forgotten? Anyways, I'm still pleased with them, and if I get some time, I shall do some more work on them.

This composition class is interesting because it's demonstrating to me just how mathematical a project composition is. We're going on a sort of musical-history-composition tour...we started out writing a Gregorian chant, then some Notre-Dame organum, then a few lines of an isorhythmic motet in Machaut's style. (I was called "a virtuous example of isorhythm and melodic coherence" this week. ;) We also have to do all these counter-point exercises with various rules imposed (no parallel fifths, rules about melodic shape, etc.) that are quite fun...but highly mathematical. And since the goal of each piece is to produce something in the style of what we are imitating, I'm not trying to produce a great tune, I'm just trying to do things correctly, and get all the pieces to fall into place. This means that I am having a much easier time than I expected composing away from the piano. In fact, my method has become compose the piece lounging on the couch, go to the piano, polish it up, type it up, hand it in. And when I play it through at the piano for the first time, it sounds pretty good, even though I had composed it not thinking of sound so much as following the rules laid out for construction (what intervals I can use, what shape the line should have, etc.) Whereas at Williams, probably b/c our compositions were ensemble-based and not style-based, I always had to be at the piano, b/c I was always trying to come up with melodies and harmonies that I liked. It's rather fascinating that adopting a mathematical and logical approach to composition (which I had previously disliked on the grounds that music is meant to be heard and should have its roots in sound) has actually produced very pleasing exercises. (This doesn't mean I like Carter any better than I did before, though.)

I like this method of working out exercises in different styles following a historical timeline. The idea is that we are building a compositional toolbox - every style adds something (e.g. rhythmic modes, isorhythm, double leading-tones.) And then if we ever get into a place where we have to compose something without restrictions, we'll have something to work with. Dr. Young (whom I very, very much like, by the way) mentioned a Stravinsky quote in class that really hit the target for me. I don't remember it exactly, and neither did he, but it was something like, "If someone asks me to write them a piece, I'm at a total loss, I don't know where to start. If someone asks me to write a piece 4 minutes long for 3 saxophones and harmonica in 3/4 time in the key of Eb, I'm immediately overflowing with ideas, and can't wait to get started."

I wasn't able to find this quote online, unfortunately, but I found a similar Stravinsky quote (only more high-falutin'):

"My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit. "

Next up: a Binchois melodic line.

The one piece I'm dying to write right now actually had its inspiration in Choral Literature. We were talking about chanson, and how they were all about courtly love...and everyone started giggling, b/c "courtly love" sounds so very much like "Courtney Love." I am now absolutely and firmly determined to write a French chanson about Courtney Love. I am now accepting proposals for texts...French only, please, and they should follow the formula of praising the beloved and talking about how remote, unavailable, and inspiring she is. Adopting a forme fixe poetic style would be much appreciated.

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