Thursday, April 19, 2012

How Do You Teach Composition?

Isn't that an interesting question? It's obvious, right? You teach harmony and counterpoint and one day the student just starts writing original music. No, wait... Well, you do teach harmony and counterpoint, I suppose. But why? I mean that's all historic, obsolescent. No-one writes fugues any more and I read somewhere that harmony, tonal harmony at least, was all over. Isn't it all atonal now? Wasn't dissonance, uh, "emancipated" in the musical civil rights act back in whenever it was?

OK, so you can't actually teach anyone to compose. Silly idea. But then what are all these composition teachers getting paid for?

Let me be serious for a moment. The idea of teaching composition is a bit odd, which doesn't stop anyone from doing it. And of course you start with basic theory and teach harmony and counterpoint because that is how composers have learned to be composers for hundreds of years. But it seems odder now than before because in the 20th century there were so many fractures and breaks with the traditions in music. Many of the composers of the 20th century, when they didn't regard themselves as the summit of historical necessity, thought they were breaking entirely new ground. Schoenberg managed to think both, simultaneously! Many 20th century composers, like John Cage, seemed to come to what they came to by completely ignoring every tradition and rule of composition.

So how do you teach composition in the 21st century? I think that since most of the musical traditions seem to be still there, despite the best efforts of the avant-garde to erase them, we should still teach harmony and counterpoint. You really can't teach someone to write 4:33 of silence, so don't bother. I also don't think you should be teaching anyone a specific method or ideology of composition, which I think a lot of composition teachers did in the 20th century. The Darmstadt summer courses, which were an important center of composition just after the Second World War, did this with a vengeance. There was but one Truth in music: serial composition and Webern was the prophet! Heaven help you if you were not a zealous dodecaphonist!

Here are some wacky ideas I have had about teaching composition, embodied in the form of some exercises:

  1. Write a parody of a minuet by Haydn or Mozart. You could copy one aspect, such as phrase structure or harmonic structure and write entirely new themes. Or you could use the same themes and create a new phrase or harmonic structure.
  2. Write a song in style of John Lennon around the mid-60s (i.e. Help or Rubber Soul --pre-psychedelia)
  3. Write a piece for solo wind instrument using ideas from either Gregorian Chant or gospel (or, both).
  4. Write a piece in 13th century hocket style.
  5. Recall a visual memory of a landscape or an event or a moment in time and write a piece that reflects or captures it in some way.
  6. Write a piece in the style of your favorite dance genre: pavane, gavotte, waltz, polonaise, mazurka, polka, can-can, jig or dub-step.
  7. Write a piece to appeal to a member of the opposite (or same) sex.
  8. Write a piece in the style of Philip Glass around the mid-70s.
  9. Write a theme and variations on it.
  10. Write a piece that cannot be written in conventional notation and explain why.
Just a few exercises that ought to spark something. Some of these I have tried, but others I haven't.


Nathan Shirley said...

Great post, and some very good ideas for composition assignments (especially for students who have had a couple years under their belts).

One very common problem with composition at the college age is that many students don't have much experience composing, so they're starting at step one. Also, many teachers (even with the best intentions) teach composition as though it's born out of musicology.

Improvisation is where composition naturally begins, whether on an instrument or in the mind. This is often completely neglected today.

Long ago just about all musicians were also composers to at least some extent. They were taught to write music from a young age as they learned to play and read music.

I used to teach private piano lessons and always incorporated composition in, no matter the student's age. I still teach composition privately but not piano.

I like to focus on aesthetics and form, and then when I see a deficiency, I address it by teaching specific theory or recommending they work on a specific composition exercise or improvisational exercise (nothing beats learning counterpoint like learning to improvise in counterpoint).

Anyway I could go on and on about this so let me just end with a lecture I gave not too long ago about teaching composition to piano students. It focuses on beginners. The lecture is a bit rough, it needs to be condensed and certain parts need fleshing out, but it gets my main points across. WARNING- it's nearly 100 minutes.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan! Composition has always seemed to me a very natural and obvious thing to do, so part of the oddity of it is why doesn't everyone interested in music try their hand at composition? Thanks for the link to the lecture. I watched the first part--beginning with your improvisation (I assume?) on piano. I promise to watch all of it when I have more time.

You bring up improvisation, which is a significant point. I have always had a bit of an awkward relationship with improvisation. I began as a popular musician because that was the only model for me. Piano lessons at a young age didn't take. I started playing bass and six-string guitar and almost immediately found myself in a band. Everything we played was 'improvised' in the sense that we learned (or semi-learned) tunes by ear and played them by ear. We also engaged, a la Cream, in lengthy improvisations over basic blues and other progressions. Sometimes these would go on so long that we would forget what song we started with! In time I grew dissatisfied with this ad hoc music-making and when I discovered classical music I taught myself to read music with a sigh of relief. Ah, thank goodness, I thought, now I can be done with all this redundant noodling and just write down and play the musical essence without all the folderol.

So that's my problem with improvisation. I associate it with random noodling at great length. On one occasion I did some 'classical' improvisation with a viola player and it was fascinating, but I felt keenly the limitations of the guitar in terms of harmonic richness and modulation. Wandering into the key of E flat isn't easy!

Nathan Shirley said...

The only thing more boring than playing in a jam band is listening to one! Many jazz improvisers fall into a similar trap, they build up a repertoire of little figures and licks which become all too easy to play over and over in random order. People become both complacent AND too conservative as they're terrified of making mistakes. Fear and Laziness are the prime enemies!

Classical improvisation is pretty much a lost art. But ALL musicians used to do it. It declined in the 19th century and died in the early 20th.

I think there are two separate types of improvisation- 'Performance Improvisation' and then 'Composition Improvisation'. The first one is what most people think of, and this is the type which so easily turns bad, or at least bland (but certainly doesn't have to). 'Composition Improvisation' is different, here the goal isn't a polished performance. Instead it's working with raw creativity, constantly stopping, re-working, experimenting... with breaks to write down the perfected chunks.

That's the main point I need to clarify in the lecture. And you are correct, it starts with an improvisation.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was just going to leave you with the last word, Nathan. But I did want to say thanks for the term "composition improvisation" because that is something I do from time to time. I'm just trying out a sound or something. There is an odd way of producing a chord in artificial harmonics that I discovered about thirty years ago and just used in a movement from my third suite for guitar. I came across that in a "composition improvisation" (which I always used to think of as "fooling around").