Monday, April 8, 2013

Having Fun: For Composers and Listeners

I've just been reading an unusual article at the NewMusicBox called "Have Some Fun" about music composition. The author, Rob Deemer, gives talks to students and educators in which he often recommends composing music. Here is why:
The main gist of my presentation has been to encourage music teachers to begin to compose, something most of them have never tried outside of an occasional theory homework assignment. I explain that there are many reasons why composing can be helpful to educators, from giving them a much stronger context through which they can interpret the works of others to improving their skills in sight-reading and rhythmic comprehension. And with such a foundation, they can better work with their own students who want to try their hand at writing music.
But I also tell them that they should do it because it’s fun.
Makes perfect sense to me. Actually, the idea that people grow up never having tried to write poetry, or short stories, or plays or, if they are engaged in the musical world, compositions, seems odd to me. How could you possibly be 17 years old and not have written tortured existential poetry? Or is it just me?

When I was in my late teens, it seemed as if more people did actually try these things than do now. Perhaps we live in a more disciplined age or perhaps everyone is just told to be more career-oriented. I can promise you that writing tortured poetry is not likely to have immediate positive effects on your career. But on the other hand, it may help your writing skills, which may have an effect. Is it really the case nowadays that even music students and teachers have to be encouraged to take time out for creation? Is it more necessary now?

I suppose that the two main things militating against people having fun with music composition are first of all the current educational environment where various ideologies and practical considerations simply rule it out. Writing a piece of music will not impress that Ivy League admissions officer, but joining a charitable or 'progressive' organization will. Writing a song or a sonata will not put money in your savings account or impress the chicks. These are the ideological and practical considerations. But another, equally significant barrier is the very seriousness of serious music. The more seriously you take music, classical music at least, the less likely you are to compose for fun. Bach composed for the glory of God; Beethoven for the glory of Humanity. What do you think you are doing?

Some composers obviously had a lighter approach and we can hear a kind of effervescence in their music. I'm thinking of people like Haydn, Mozart, and occasionally, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. A composer like Mahler seems to have been incapable of anything other than heavy seriousness.

My feeling is that sometimes it is more admirable to be able to write something sparkling and light than it is to write something dreary and ponderous.

Getting back to that essay, yes, more people should compose music for fun, as a hobby, as a diversion. It will lead to more insight into music as there is nothing quite so revealing of music as the attempt to compose it. Here is the Kontras Quartet with the first movement of Haydn's Quartet, op 33 no 5:

And here is the Quatuor Mosaiques with the first movement of Haydn's Quartet op 20 no 3. Incidentally, the great English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey said about these quartets that "Every page of the six quartets of op. 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance... there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much." The achievement was basically the creation of Classical style that was to be exploited to such great success by Mozart and Beethoven. So this music is both fun and serious!

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