Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Not to Compose

This is a follow-up on the Transcendental Music post. Something every composer knows how to do is write a bad piece of music--sure, they try to avoid it, but they know how to do it. One of the easiest ways is to just toss in any kind of stuff without caring much whether it contributes or not. Inexperienced composers slowly learn what is gratuitous and what is germane. We have some very striking examples in film these days. How many recent Hollywood movies have been utterly ruined by just throwing in as many special effects as possible? Make up your own list. The same problem occurs in composition. The problem is to find some basic material and then work with it to build out a piece, though this doesn't tell you much! Look at any fugue by Bach for an example: there is a theme, a counter-theme and harmonic development. Nothing gratuitous. Of course, I am keeping to a simple example to illustrate the idea. There are great pieces that have a great deal more going on, but the more complex the material, the greater the risk of having the piece become directionless meandering.

As a listener I am alert to material tossed in for no particular reason, just as I become annoyed with a television show if I come to see that the writers just throw in stuff to amuse you without integrating it with the story or the character. So let's go back to that piece by Constance Demby and see where it goes astray. It happens in the first thirty seconds with those bells. Bells are not easy to integrate because they typically have a cluster of pitches instead of one clear pitch and that sets them apart from all the other instruments. Bells have a ceremonial connotation. But this is not a ceremony and using them like this is hoping to instill in the listener a sense of ceremony--without there actually being one. We keep hoping some sort of melody will emerge, but it does not. We hear small harmonic gestures, but they never gel. The bass line wanders without ever seeming to point anywhere. One almost longs for a cliched harmonic progression so as to have some kind of direction. Instead what we have is variety of tone color: string sounds, bell sounds, double reed sounds.

I am using a set of aesthetic musical criteria that probably have no relevance to this particular kind of music, but I'm unapologetic about it. This kind of music may have a useful function for meditation or relaxation that would be obviated by it having all the things I wish it had. It is probably perfect background music. But background music to an active listener is rather disturbing because you want to listen to it, see where it is going, but it isn't going anywhere! Listening to this music reminds me of the only time I spent any time in the hospital. I had a kidney infection and for some reason they gave me tranquilizers. Oddly, the tranquilizers made me a bit anxious! I realized that I was staring at the wall for quite a while, with no thoughts and found that disturbing because it was so abnormal. So very, very tranquil music also disturbs me because I think there ought to be something going on.

It's probably just me...

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