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The theory of music composition is a broad, evolving set of ideas that is much influenced by musical style and perception. Theory follows practice; theory consists of generalizations and principles which have been, and still are, deduced from the practice of composers. I try to help students understand why certain concepts and ideas about voice-leading and counterpoint evolved, and how these ideas relate to three major considerations: stylistic and cultural aesthetics, the way the mind and ear perceive sound, and the physical properties of the tones themselves. The comprehensive study of harmony, counterpoint, form, orchestration, notation and music/recording technologies are essential to the development of a mature craft and that choosing a career in composition entails a commitment to these sub-disciplines. But it is also true that theory does not predict how music will be composed, nor is the purpose of theory to suggest how music ought to be written. Natural talent, coupled with intensive study and the gaining of new skills, is the best partnership for happiness and success in the arts. Music, like language, is dynamic, creative and progressive when it is open to new influences and when it finds a healthy balance between innovation and tradition. What keeps music alive isn't avoidance of the many different kinds of music in the world, but rather a commitment to discovery and excellence.
Music theory is not the actual craft of composing music, but rather a necessary foundation, like the scaffolding of a new building that will eventually be torn down but serves a useful and necessary purpose during construction. Theoretical studies help a composer to become at least partially objective and rational toward his own work. However, I believe it is neither necessary or possible to be completely objective towards composition because, as physicist Paul Davies has remarked, "...one man's irrationality is another person's creativity".
Craft is the evolution of the composers insights into the nature of music as well as the development of the composers own technical standards. Techniques and approach to composition are a somewhat objective process as well as a highly developed subjective sense of what the composer perceives as beautiful. I think a more difficult part of a composers craft is form. Only after gaining a certain mastery and understanding of counterpoint, harmony and orchestration can a composer begin to struggle with the complex task of creating musical structures that satisfy often contradictory artistic demands. Hopefully, as the composer’s career unfolds, he is raising his own standards as to what he wants his music to express and develops the tools to realize this expression. The tools of the composer reside in the imagination and by their nature are quite subtle. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to actually teach craft directly. It is possible, however, to influence, inspire, and help the student become a fair-minded and supportive critic of her own work. Craft is the place where originality does or does not exist, and the more well-developed the composers craft, the more likely there will be something original in the work. Craft depends on a solid theoretical knowledge, but must go beyond that. Craft entails an intimate knowledge of the composition the composer is working on: a knowledge of its motives, phrases and themes, harmonic content and progressions, cadences, and its ultimate form through repetition, variation and development. Additionally, there are many metric, rhythmic and temporal concerns that need to be addressed in composition. Orchestration, texture and layering require a deep sensitivity to harmony and to the infinite variety of harmonics that results from combining instruments whether they be acoustic or electronic. Even when the composer is partly conscious of these elements, there is still nevertheless much that is unconscious in regard to the choices the composer makes and why these choices are made. I stress the importance of what is known as deep listening, which is at the heart of all musical activity, whether it be listening to, performing, composing or recording music.
The 20th century, having come to its close, arguably has seen perhaps as much aesthetic conflict and stylistic diversity of any century in the history of western art music. The development of new technologies such as sound recordings, film, television, world-wide publishing and travel to almost any part of the planet, has allowed composers to be influenced by music they would have never heard just 100 years earlier. This exposure to a variety of compositional styles requires the composer to be open and unprejudiced to new and strange music, but at the same time requires the utmost in artistic discrimination and commitment to excellence. To be inspired and influenced by a musical style and then to integrate that style into one's own voice is no easy task, authenticity and sincerity are as important as imagination and technique. One has to have a voice, and sustain that voice through a lifetime, yet it changes as one's discoveries and aesthetic evolves over time.
Aesthetics involve meaning and sensibility. Music is a language of feeling, but music is not only a language of feeling but equally a language of patterns, textures, proportions and tonal relationships. The patterns inherent in a great piece of music, to my mind, are metaphorically suggestive of patterns existing on many levels of reality and point to an inherent order that permeates nature and cosmos. The composer infuses meaning into the composition and the listener experiences this meaning--if the process is successful. The compositions that have most influenced me are those pieces which are infused with great purpose, with ideas that seem to exist on multiple levels simultaneously, ideas that sound, and feel, unique, universal and inevitable. Great music exhibits but transcends originality, there is always something of the past and sometimes of the future, in a composition. The unique, the universal and the beautiful are distant goals. the longer the vision the further the goal.
When I was studying composition for my Bachelor of Music in Theory-Composition degree, one of the difficulties I encountered was that numerous composers and teachers of composition believed that serial music was the "serious" music of the 20th century. I understood their excitement about this modern development, but was often skeptical of music that was more often than not, clever, but not harmonically resonant with my tastes in music. What was weird to me was that some teachers wanted their students to completely abandon tonal music, while I believed, and still believe, that tonal craft is absolutely essential. Serial music had become the "politically correct" music, at least as far as academia was concerned. Are dodecaphonic, serial and set theories so "advanced" in comparison to earlier theories of composition, that they ought to replace earlier music theories, or are they an extension of musical knowledge and the contemporary composer's task is to understand the relationship between tonal and atonal theories? I have come to the opinion that the latter is true, and the attempt to divide music into "tonal" or "atonal" is a waste of time. Over a thousand years of musical insights have found their way into the theory of music. This theory results from studying many compositions by the best composers over many centuries. What some composers wanted to do in the middle of the 20th century was artificially narrow the practice of modern classical composition into the 12-tone method and 20th century theory and technique exclusively--and the disastrous result was that the so-called "rules" of dodecaphony and the serialization of musical elements became seemingly more important than the actual compositions and their expressive power as both ideas and sound. What is needed is a new chromaticism, one in which harmonic resonance and beauty are not sacrificed for melodic originality and the use of twelve tone scales. Every artist struggles against the pedantic in artistic expression, and no style is immune from weakness in expression. As a composer evolves and learns, these issues are worked out by each composer in their own artistic experience.
With regards to music, it might be said that there are generally speaking two kinds of beauty, intellectual beauty and sensual beauty. Intellectual beauty is found in the musical logic and in the way the composer creates form, the variations and development of the musical ideas within the composition. This kind of beauty is, in general, appreciated by fewer people than sensual beauty and it mainly exists in the domain of concert music and abstract composition designed to be listened to without extra-musical elements. Sensual beauty is found in the sound itself, in the nuanced expression and interpretation of music, and in the emotion the music evokes in the listener. Unlike the scientist who must continually verify theories with evidence in the external world, artists can only verify results by comparison with their subjective ideals and expressive goals. But like the scientist, a composer is involved with experimentation and trial-and-error processes. If the composer has humility, he will recognize when his experiments have succeeded and failed as music, one way to do this is to not confuse the fascination with ideas and their structures with the beauty of sound and its sensuous power to provoke an aesthetic response. They are both equally important. I sense that music is, at its best, an intervention, a medium between mind and matter, a revelation of order, harmony and pattern. Even if music is intellectually engaging and sonically pleasing, beauty itself is difficult to define and pin down--beauty can be frightening and upsetting, it can be soothing, joyful and reassuring, and it can be infused with sorrow, impermanence and transformation. Like life itself, music can be dark and light, dissonant and consonant, complex and abstract or an expression of simplicity, clarity and bold confidence. And of course, what strikes one person as beautiful can leave another indifferent. The most technically brilliant music can lack a certain magic, a groove, an intention. "Keeping it real" means know what is essential in music and what is not. Sometimes I entertain the idea that there is one one music, one ultimate source of vibration and energy. Every musician is learning to tune into that music and it finds expression through the uniqueness of human personality as it resonates universally to the inhabited planets.
Traditionally, production values involves the level of musical and performance skills by which composers intentions are realized in performance. This has been, until now, mostly out of the composer’s hands unless he is playing solo or with other musicians, or conducting an ensemble with sufficient rehearsal time. New technologies now allow the composer to think more like a painter or a novelist—in both mediums the creator completes the creative process and offers it to the world. No further interpretation is necessary other than that of the viewer of the painting or the mind of the reader. A composer can proceed to create a finished recording utilizing computers, software, audio equipment, samplers and synthesizers to create a work that requires no realization by a large group of musicians. To be involved in this new medium, a composer must evolve a new set of "conceptual performance" skills in addition to the traditional skills required of composers. These skills involve synthesizer programming, MIDI sequencing, mixing, audio wave editing, signal processing and mastering. In the pop music world, the greater emphasis is on the interpretation of music, while the invention of music is almost always limited to short-form vocal music in which the dominant unifying element is most often rhythm. In the classical music world the division of labor between the creator and interpreter of music is clearly delineated with nearly no overlap at all. In the world of electronic music the musician has the option to pursue composition in any form desired, including complex texture and orchestration. But in this new medium the composer is also the interpreter of that music, which brings increased responsibility for how it ultimately sounds. Phrasing, gesture, articulation, and dynamics are as important in electronic music as they are in the acoustic world. What the conductor does in live performance must also be done in mixing when making recordings in the studio. The composer, rather than notating highly detailed scores complete with instructions regarding phrasing, articulation, dynamics and numerous other directions to the players, programs the MIDI sequencer accordingly. The uniting of the composition and interpretation of music is one of the most satisfying approaches to music-making, as both the creative and interpretive aspects can be given equal weight, hence contributing to the development of a well-rounded, mature musician. Though this unifying of musical invention and musical interpretation is nothing new, the ability to create complex scores with many timbres and to maintain control over the "performance" is a consequence of computer-based composition and interpretation. The capacity to edit at any stage of the creation and/or production process is one of the major contributions of the computer in regard to musical invention. As long as there are evolving machines, there will be new musical instruments evolving with and from those same machines. This has been true throughout the history of musical instrument technology.
Making music with electrons is no less natural, nor less expressive, than making music with wood, metal, bone, animal gut or other materials. Electromagnetism is one of the basic forces of the universe; it is all around us and even within our bodies electromagnetic energy is present. The technology is relatively new but I am reasonably confident that high art will be made in this new medium as artistic talent and genius of the past was inspired by the evolution of previously new technologies. Whether electronic or acoustic, music is about moving sound through air.
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