Saturday, March 29, 2014

Aesthetics and Analysis

Last week I did some posts in the form of lists. The internet loves lists and they tend to provoke lots of commentary. One comment on the post about over-rated composers talked about analysis and it makes me realize that it would be good to clarify some distinctions.

Analysis in music is the practice, skill or process of examining how the music is put together. The needed skills are usually the ability to read musical notation and an understanding of harmony. The typical kind of analysis one does as a music undergraduate is to do harmonic analysis of things like Bach chorales and Mozart sonata movements. What you do is label each harmony with a Roman numeral that indicates its function. You also use superscript Arabic numerals to indicate the inversion of the chord. Let me do a phrase from a Bach chorale for you to show how it works.

Click to enlarge

UPDATE: Just noticed a mistake. The chord on the second beat of measure 3 is not a I6, of course, but a I 4/2. But it is probably better to see the bass note as a passing note. It gets a bit complicated when you have simultaneous different passing notes. The E is on its way to the F#, the G is held over and the B is passing. So the "real" chord on that beat, shorn of decoration, is ACF#, a viiº6.

First, a couple of apologies. Finale, the music software I use, is perfectly capable of doing all the funny little symbols you use for harmonic analysis. But, alas, I have a Spanish language keyboard and that particular font does not quite work with it. So, for example, all the little Arabic numerals, which are supposed to be superscripts, come out subscripts. And I can't do either the symbol for diminished chords (all the vii chords in the example should actually be viiº chords) nor the figures for seventh chords. For example, the second beat of measure six should actually be a ii6/5 chord, but I can't get it to show. So bear with these minor omissions!

How harmonic analysis works is you first determine the key. In music from around 1600 until nearly the end of the 19th century, this is pretty easy. The piece above is in G major. With one sharp in the key signature your choices are only that or E minor. But it is not E minor because in that case there would be some D#s here and there. So, G major. This means that the triad on G, spelled GBD, is labeled "I". If the B is in the bass, then it becomes I6 to indicate first inversion. If we see the notes ACE, as in the second beat of measure six, then this is a chord built on the second degree of the scale. As it will always be a minor chord, we use lower case: ii. Again, if the C of the chord is in the bass, we indicate first inversion with a superscript "6". A chord with an added seventh in first inversion is indicated with two figures stacked 6/5 (which I wasn't able to do, sorry!). Why these numbers? If you look carefully, you will see that they simply record the intervals above the bass note. For this reason they are called "figured bass" numerals.

As you can see, harmonic analysis is a fairly mechanical process involving identifying the chords and their inversions. There can be a lot of subtleties to it, such as passing notes, suspensions and so forth. There are three basic harmonic functions: the tonic, the pre-dominant and the dominant. Harmonic analysis helps to identify these functions. You will find in all the music of  the Classical era, and much of the Baroque and 19th century as well, that harmonic function is pretty clear. Every piece will end (and usually begin) with a tonic chord. Every phrase will have some sort of cadence, either full (as in the end of the above example) or half (as in measure 4 in the example) or deceptive (meaning that the cadence goes V to vi).

Phrase structure is another thing you can analyze and that is more complex than just harmonic analysis. You need harmonic analysis to analyze phrase structure. If you look at the above example, it is a phrase in two parts. The first is four measures ending in a half cadence. Then there are three measures ending with a full cadence. This makes the phrase irregular, because the standard would be eight measures. The second half is compressed. Composers often vary their phrases by both compression and expansion which is why we can find thirteen measure phrases sometimes.

On the next level we come to the overall form of the piece. Reading Wikipedia articles on things like Sibelius symphonies you might think that formal analysis is pretty much hit or miss, because they always say stuff like this theorist thinks it is a sonata, the other theorist thinks it is a rondo and the other guy just throws up his hands and says, "Dude, Sibelius was really jammin' on this one!" Kidding about the last one. But you do get the impression that formal analysis is pretty subjective, little more than a shot in the dark. I think this is mistaken. Formal analysis works pretty well in repertoire like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It works less well with Sibelius or Shostakovich because I think that we haven't quite figured out what they were doing. It took a long time to figure out what Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were doing and it is early days yet with 20th century composers.

Aesthetics in music is an entirely different kind of procedure and to understand the difference it helps to be familiar with what has been known for a couple of centuries as the "Is-Ought Problem" in philosophy. The basic idea, as laid out by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, is that there are two different kinds of statements: those dealing with relations between ideas (1+1=2) and those of matters of fact (today is the 29th of March). Unfortunately, this leaves a whole other category of statements, called "prescriptive" or "normative" statements, floating around without foundation, at least according to Hume. The reason being that you can't get from an "is" to an "ought" logically. Thus comes one of the fundamental problems in ethics. Aesthetics has very much the same problem, which is why some people see ethics and aesthetics as related. Incidentally, I wrote several posts about aesthetics and used David Hume as my starting point. Here is the first one.

Hume writes about aesthetics as an empiricist. One develops a sense of taste through experience and learns to distinguish high quality from low quality. Yes, there are differences in aesthetic quality that, while they are experienced subjectively, certainly have objective status. Bertrand Russell answered regarding the same problem of relativism in aesthetics by saying "I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it." In the aesthetics of music you could say that "I cannot see how to prove the existence of objective aesthetic value, but I am incapable of believing that the only difference in quality between Bach and Justin Bieber is that I like one and don't like the other."

Analysis and Aesthetics

So analysis is basically an objective process though there can be disagreements over details. In the case of modern composers, the basic fundamentals are still being fought over among theorists, which is why we see so much disagreement. But there is general agreement over, for example, the analysis of a Haydn string quartet because, in the last two hundred years, theoretical understanding of Classical style has become worked out to the point of being, more or less, objective truth. The objective truth of, say, the formal structure of a Sibelius symphony, is still being figured out. We can all look at the first measure and see, yes, that's an A quarter note, but the significance or function of it in the overall form is not so clear yet.

Aesthetics, on the other hand, has to do with good and bad. It, like ethics, is prescriptive or normative, that is, it involves a judgement as to quality. But there is no clear and easy route, as Hume says, from analysis to aesthetics. Analysis is about matters of fact and the relations between ideas. It deals with the matter of fact of things like G major and cadences. Analysis uses certain definitions as to what a key is or what meter is. These are true by definition. But the problem of trying to get from analysis to aesthetics is just like the problem of getting from "is" to "ought". Just because you can do something is no guarantee that you should do something. I can do something to harm a completely innocent person, like punch them in the nose. But I should not do so! Similarly, a composer could, perhaps, write a piece using every single possibility of invertible counterpoint. But this does not mean he should. It is the easiest thing in the world to write a piece of dry, boring, but correct counterpoint that no-one would want to listen to.

An aesthetically good piece of music is one that is charming, delightful, profound, moving, expressive, dynamic, energetic, languid, doleful, effervescent or a thousand other adjectives. Sometimes it can be several of these at once. Just exactly how a piece of music can do this, while another piece is dreary, boring, irritating, annoying, bullying and tiresome is the magic of music (and every composer's challenge). But I think that it is pretty easy to show, by demonstration, that some pieces have a high aesthetic quality and others have a low aesthetic quality. How we come to aesthetic judgements on music is a subtle process involving knowledge and experience and listening skills.

Well, that was long and I hope, not too tiresome! Now let's listen to some music. Here is Mitsuko Uchida playing the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major by Mozart:



27 comments:

Bridge said...

Nice post. I have some thoughts however:

There is validity in Hume's words, but to me analysis is not only a question of "what?" but "why?" For example, the mere fact that a perfect authentic cadence is used at the end of the chorale phrase is not really significant in and of itself. It tells us effectively nothing. What's interesting to know is why Bach used it? Probably many reasons, but most obviously to effect a close, to tell the listener that the phrase was over. Analysis is to me very much a process of reverse engineering, but if you only map out the elements without regard for the purpose, it is an exercise in futility. The ultimate goal is of course to find out what the composer was thinking. This is very much a matter of aesthetics and subjectivity and I find it a mistake to separate analysis from aesthetics. It's sort of like a chef reverse engineering a dish (probably with the help of a recipe, much like our scores) and finding out that in its preparation only a gram of sugar was used. The chef could from there on out alter his recipe so as to comply with his newfound knowledge and carry on his life none the wiser. But he hasn't learned anything valuable from his analysis, he just knows that a gram of sugar is to be used. Obviously, more interesting to know is why only a gram is required. He might find it worth his time to experiment. Make a dish with two grams of sugar, a dish with none or even a dish with ten grams. What he would find out, and this is obvious to most people, is that the dish lacks color without the sugar and has too much color (which ironically makes it colorless) with the sugar. From this he can infer some lessons. If he wants to be very precise he can measure the sugar to mass ratio of the dish, and could then develop formulas which he can use to get just the right amount of sugar for any dish no matter what size depending on what type of dish it is, cue exceptions etc. The point is that dry analysis helps no one, and there are examples of it being harmful as impressionable minds tend to latch onto absolutes and abstracts. Of course, there must always be a certain subjective side to it. What the chef thinks is "just right" can be too much or too little to somebody else. I for example often overindulge in spices and black pepper. To me it's just the right balance but to other people it just suffocates the food itself. But does the fact that the majority of people share an opinion make it any less subjective? The overwhelming majority of human beings prefer cooked meat because our digestive systems are not equipped to handle raw meat, but there is nothing objective about cooked meat. We perceive it as right only because it is right for us. A lot of things can be right depending on your upbringing and other factors - there really isn't any such thing as objectivity. I'm starting to wonder whether my little tangent actually accomplished anything - It seems to have raised even more questions.

Bridge said...

After I wrote this post I took a look at the blog post you linked. Really loving it, I am definitely going to read all of Hume's essay - it seems quite fascinating.

Bryan Townsend said...

Analysis has been called "composition in retrograde" which is just a musical way of referring to "reverse engineering". So yes, on the one hand, you are trying to figure out why a composer does such and such a thing--that is, what is the musical function of such and such. But there are conventional things composers do, such as close a phrase with a cadence, and less conventional things. Bear in mind that a composition full of the conventional is probably a dull piece. As I keep saying, great music is unusual, unique music. So analysis, even inspired creative analysis, of which there is some, is not quite the whole story. Because analysis, being basically about the facts of the piece, does not quite come to grips with the quality of the piece. Analysis tends to tell how how the music is like other music. It is more difficult for analysis to come to grips with what makes the piece unique. A good piece of music, and I am tempted to say all great pieces of music, has a unique quality to it. It is great in some uniquely specific way. I often call this sort of thing magic. But that's just because I don't think there is an answer you can put into words.

Bridge, I think you just let your metaphor run away with itself!

But I don't think the ultimate goal is to figure out what the composer was thinking. We can't. And it doesn't matter. The thing we might want to figure out is what we are enjoying in the music.

Bryan Townsend said...

David Hume is probably one of the most brilliant thinkers who ever lived...

Bridge said...

Perhaps not, but isn't that virtually the same thing? It is entirely possible for an amateur to create something compelling, but it takes a master to create something great. The master weighs all of his options and considers each element carefully - it certainly is useful to attempt to divine what such a composer is thinking. Obviously, I don't mean literally finding out what he was thinking, only discovering possible motives and the way said motives were satisfied. This is the same as finding out why we enjoy the music if you consider that a piece of music is only enjoyable because the master intends it to be so. Again, subjectivity plays a role.

Composition in retrograde is a nice expression, although I like how Edgard Varese described it as "decomposition." Intended in a negative way as he was evidently not a fan of analysis. Anyway, perhaps it is just my desire to conflate analysis with interpretation but I can't agree fully with your post. As I described in my metaphor, I consider analysis without deduction to be pointless if not destructive. It is possible to come to grips with what makes a piece unique precisely by comparing it to other pieces or standard convention. After all, there is no "unique" or "trite" in a vacuum. You can point to specific elements and say: "This is different from this in such and such ways" and describe the possible reason and ultimate effect of the difference. That's actually valuable information. Those are personally the types of analyses I like to read/watch - the more subjective the better, within reason of course. Even if I end up disagreeing, it still leaves you with more to think about than "here a modulation to the subdominant occurs" with no added info.

Bryan Townsend said...

There is really not a lot I would disagree with in what you are saying. But I suspect that you are talking about an ideal kind of analysis. For a lot of theorists, they are really hoping to find underlying structures that they can point to as being fundamental: the "laws" of the musical universe. There is a bit of the scientist, I think, in most theorists.

Nathan Shirley said...

Or the pseudo-scientist.

There is a very fine line, many fall off the deep end. Even with Mozart and Bach. I would say it is actually akin to the world of psychology, there might be some good work being done here and there, but much of it either just brings up the obvious, or misses the point entirely.

Bryan Townsend said...

Composers, as a group, tend to dislike the activities of musicologists and theorists. Well, they also often dislike other composers as well. They do like some performers, at least the ones that perform their music!!

That was all meant to be humorous!

Composers have the unique task of setting sail for the unknown. They really aren't interested in after-the-fact explanations. Who, really, can come close to explaining where the 17-year-old Schubert got the idea for his early songs like Erlkönig? Or where Haydn's Op 20 string quartets came from? Or Beethoven's Symphony No. 3? Or Sibelius' Symphony No. 4?

But there are so many things that people like Rosen and Kerman and Taruskin have noticed and pointed out that I still think that we can be grateful for what they do do.

Nathan Shirley said...

Absolutely, I just think they are few and far between.

I (as a composer) have always disliked the phrase "composition in retrograde." To me it represents how off the mark and overly simplistic most theorists view the act of composition, and also why they fail as composers and teachers of composition. There might be some good in it, but it is extremely naive to think you can simply turn the process around and have a fundamental understanding of the creative process.

The creative process is an elusive thing. And there are likely an infinite number of ways it can play out. However I do believe there are some basic elements of this process that can be taught. And it doesn't start with analyzing the chord progression of a Bach chorale. If you look at the vast amount of bland or just plain terrible music that comes out of academia stillborn, then I think the problem becomes apparent.

People like your friend who you often quote saying something about only putting down the notes that sound good, composers like this are few indeed in academia.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, analyzing the chord progression of a Bach chorale may be how you teach music theory, but it is not how you teach composition.

So how do you teach composition?

Nathan Shirley said...

Anyway I think that was basically what you were getting at with Schubert, ect. I just wanted to point out that there are ways of fostering and perhaps even guiding creativity.

As for your first point, I'm reminded of something that Rostropovich said in relation to Shostakovich (who he worshipped). He said that performers are like prostitutes, they have to play whatever someone puts in front of them. But composers have to learn to hate!

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh! Well said.

Bridge said...

"Oh yes, analyzing the chord progression of a Bach chorale may be how you teach music theory, but it is not how you teach composition."

In my opinion, by, well, analyzing the chord progression of a Bach chorale with the subtle difference of asking purely "why" questions rather than "what" questions. Harmony is not the only aspect though worth learning if you want to be stylistically congruous. However, asking questions like: "Why these chord in particular?" and the answer might be "Because they yield strong root movement and express the key." After you know the reason you can intelligently subvert the principles according to your own desires. Say you want a weak chord progression that doesn't express the key, well, you know how to do that without stumbling around the piano for hours. Creativity, if there is such a thing, can't be taught, but craft can which is equally if not more important.

"I (as a composer) have always disliked the phrase "composition in retrograde." To me it represents how off the mark and overly simplistic most theorists view the act of composition, and also why they fail as composers and teachers of composition."

That might be and often is true, but I don't really see anything inherently wrong with the expression. It's inaccurate, as most speech is, but it communicates a particular idea. There is also the fact that composition is often taken to mean the craft of composition, of form, and not "the creative spirit" or whatever you wish to name it. One might be reluctant to call avant-garde freewheeling composition in real time, even though that is arguably what it is. Composition implies, well, composition.

Anonymous said...

Hi;
I'm a regular reader of your blog,though this is my first comment.I'm not trained in music theory,so i'm interested in your posts on aesthetics,popular vs high art and so on.I do like some pop music myself,but i'm quite entertained by you mocking a pop star occasionally.I also like the discussions your posts tend to provoke,so that i can learn & understand about motivations/ideas of the great classical composers.
i would like to know your thoughts about film composers writing concert music.Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings) and John Williams (Schindlers List) have tried to write concert music ,but the reception has been lukewarm.If possible,please do write a post on this.Is it that film composers simply cannot let go of their movie music tendencies and write truly great concert music or is there some good attempts by film composers in concert music.

Thanks
Damien

Nathan Shirley said...

How do I teach composition? That is going to be hard to answer briefly, but I'll try to put it in a nutshell-

It is preferable the student be a pianist, but if they are at a sufficient skill level another instrument could suffice.

The most crucial element in my teaching is improvisation. It can even be taught to young beginners, in fact it's ideal. But I don't mean the common jazz improvisation most people think of. The problem with the way jazz improvisation is often taught (there are many ways) is it is actually too structured for the purposes of composition. They tend to teach it with the goal being a polished performance. So even though freedom is encouraged, what ends up happening is most people tend to play certain things that sound good over and over in slightly different ways, always afraid they might play something stupid, or screw up the rhythm or play some notes that really sound bad. There is no time to really explore ideas when you are performing. There is no time to revisit good ideas to rework and perfect them.

So instead I encourage students to stop as soon as they develop an idea that interests them, to then take that idea and manipulate it, try to hear where it wants to go, hear what might come before it, what sounds good underneath it, etc.

Along with all this I train their ear. They have to develop the ability to hear things in their mind and find them on the instrument as they improvise/compose.

As their ability to internally hear music and improvise grows, I teach them notation. I have them start with very short compositions first (and stick with them for a long time) so that they can begin to get a feel for musical form. As they compose I teach basic music theory as it's relevant. For example, if they have a parallel 5th and it sounds out of place, I'll explain what it is, but then I'll also improvise some examples of how to avoid it, and also some examples of how to use parallel 5ths to good effect (and have them try to improvise their own).

I always try to push them to improvise where they are not comfortable. I like to push them into improvising in different keys, tonalities, with melody in the bass, in counterpoint, polytonality, etc.

I start them very simply, using a pentatonic scale, often with a drone in the bass. Even 5 year olds can catch on quickly. But as they do I like to throw them curve balls, which is what really starts exercising their creativity. For example as they get comfortable improvising in a certain tonality and they've developed a little melody, I'll pick a note which is very foreign to what they are playing and I'll have them incorporate that note in a way that they actually like... it could mean altering the harmony, expanding their phrase, modulating, etc. They often hate it at first as I try to pick really dissonant notes, but as they adapt to these notes it often leads them to interesting places, and they grow more adventurous.

Nathan Shirley said...

As their ears develop and their improvisational skills develop, they begin to gain the ability of improvising in their heads. This leads them to being able to "hear" harmony and multiple voices, but also manipulate them in real time. This is much faster, more efficient and more natural than having to think through the mechanics of theory, making a guess, trying it out, making another guess, trying it out... instead you have an idea in your head, you very rapidly manipulate it in your head (or with the aid of an instrument) in any number of ways until it is perfected, then you write it down. This also keeps the music from being disjointed, the student can see the bigger picture as they are painting it.

And as they progress I like to always keep aesthetics at the forefront. So I ask questions that make students really think about why they placed this melody here, if it might be more interesting elsewhere. Is part of a passage awkward, is the harmony inconsistent, is any spot of less quality than any other spot, and if so, why, and how might it be improved or perhaps thrown out?

Just as it's important to teach musicians how to understand the thought process behind practicing problematic passages, so that they may better discover their shortcomings and more quickly find remedies, it's also important to teach composers how to understand the thought process behind composition, so that they may discover what slows them down, what makes them more likely to discover beauty. Though the process is usually much less concrete.

The greatest composers were also very impressive improvisers. Most developed the ability to compose in their heads, but I would contend that what they were doing was improvising in their heads as they composed. Improvisation is the composition process. And instrumental improvisation is a great tool to aid that process. Beethoven went to the extreme of cutting the legs off his piano to better hear it in order to compose as he went deaf. Even Mozart is recorded to have preferred composing at the piano.

But I will add, it's a lot harder to teach composition than simply teaching someone how to play an instrument!

Bridge said...

No doubt. I agree that the most glaring deficit in composition pedagogy is improvisation. I think one needs to be careful when laying out methods for teaching improvisation though because there is no one way. Everybody's brain works a little differently and what is effective for one might be destructive for another. There ia also a delicate balance between structure and a free flow of ideas, it's of course not one or the other (just like composition.) I'd agree that improvisatory courses tend to be too focused on structure and scales or worse yet purely clichés but naturally it is not preferable to avoid these entirely. Having practical/theoretical knowledge simplifies things considerably and helps with organizing musical phenomena. It's possible to learn composition and become great without any theoretical background but why reinvent the wheel?

Bridge said...

By the way, I listened to your Images collection - highly enjoyable. I especially like your harmonic language, it reminds me a little of Debussy and Satie for some reason, among other things, not that there is any overbearing similarity. It's obviously well written for the instrument as you are a pianist, but it's also admirable how the pianistic writing is not allowed to devolve into pointless virtuoso fluff. It's dense without being bloated, I guess I could say.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Bridge: yes, I think that one of the most important functions of teaching music theory is as a means of teaching the craft of music.

@Damien: Welcome to the Music Salon! Thanks for your appreciation of my comments on pop music. I haven't thought a lot about film music and film music composers, but you might have given me an idea for a post, so keep reading.

@Nathan: thanks for that very detailed description of how you teach composition. I have a feeling that this is a fairly unique approach. Has it developed for you over a number of years? Have you used it with a lot of students? Conservatories I have taught at typically do not teach composition and universities tend to have, at least when I was there, a small group of composers committed to a modernist approach. They were often involved with electronic music to some extent. But I guess this is always changing. It would be very interesting to have a look at the composition programs of some of the leading schools...

Bridge said...

If I may offer some input, I have also noticed along with Damien that the attempts of film composers to write for the concert hall have been somewhat lackluster. The reason why is obvious, the concert hall is an entirely different discipline from film music. A good film score has a magical quality to it because the film's aesthetics are effectively subsumed by it - a very curious phenomenon. Writing music that is magical in and of itself requires a completely different approach and it may be that film composers are simply too used to the former approach and have too little experience with absolute music. Just a humble suggestion.

I'm happy to be able to mention one striking exception: the great Miklos Rosza. His pure classical music is arguably better than his film scores, which are already formidable. Here's his violin concerto:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VTqGpdt2og

It's grandiose and definitely reminds of his scores, but not gimmicky or vacuous.

Nathan Shirley said...

Glad you enjoyed my music Bridge. I wrote Images about 13 years ago, shortly after dropping out of college.

I didn't mean to give the impression that I neglect teaching theory. I typically teach my own take on basic theory in parallel, but separately from improv/comp (unlike ear training). I only directly combine the two here and there, as I see the student will benefit. I also certainly do not neglect musical form, but I do leave it out of the improvisation instruction, especially early on. The reason is because I want the student to first focus on smaller details, phrase structure, melodic shape, harmony, texture, rhythm... the basics. If they bypass this then they start to think of improvisation as an end in and of itself. I like them rather to think about form with a more lucid approach, where they collect and refine their ideas through improvisation, then stop, step back and think about structure making some tentative decisions based on their material, then go back to connecting and developing their ideas through controlled improv while keeping in mind the structural architecture they have in mind. But it is more a separate process.

I might make it sound like a very rigid system, but this is just the rough outline of it, it's very flexible and can change at any moment as dictated by the music and student.

Nathan Shirley said...

Bryan- I taught most of my piano students this method back when I taught full time. Some only had a general introduction to it, but many were interested enough and went deeper. These days my main focus is as a composer. I only teach on the side, but I teach less piano and more composition. Some are beginners, some are college students, a couple are professional musicians.

And yes, I've developed this teaching method over at least 10 years. Although it's older than that as I based it on my own composition process which I did instinctively when I was about 10. I'm always refining the method of course.

From the little I've managed to read, it seems related to the approach many of the old masters would have used, but there just doesn't seem to be enough documented to know to what extent. But it's interesting to remember that not only did the famous composer-pianists improvise, but just about all musicians did prior to the 20th century, and most composed a bit on the side too. How many classical musicians today compose? How many improvise? I think that's more than a coincidence.

Nathan Shirley said...

While composition departments have become much more open minded regarding tonal music, there are still some crucial flaws.

Improvisation is only taught in jazz departments, and then in a very narrow, performance geared way. Aural skills are taught, sometimes poorly, sometimes fairly well, but from what I've seen, isolated from the piano and especially from improvisation. Composition is often taught privately, which is good, but more in a critique only fashion, usually neglecting the composition process because it is so little understood. So composition lessons turn into more of an academic survey of compositional styles in the 20th century. Also high level proficiency as a musician is not only not required, but inadvertently discouraged by the course requirements for composition students. A composer who is not an accomplished musician is like an artist who cannot draw... yet such composers are everywhere. And finally theory is taught in a very abstract way, removed from instrumental instruction, skipping over the basic physics of sound, obsessed with voice leading and yet leaving most students without the actual ability to HEAR how these voices interact or what the various common cadences actually sound like and why. Form is often skimmed over with far more emphasis on chord to chord relationships.

I can't count the number of professional musicians who went through all the standard theory and yet still have no real understand of its point or how it really relates to actual music. What a disservice schools are doing to music theory! Some graduates even come out resenting Bach because of all the mindless, music-less analysis they were put through. Can you imagine music schools turning students off of Bach?? And it's this that serves as the crooked backbone of music composition in academia. Can you tell why I dropped out after going to three such music schools?

I didn't mean to get so carried away when I started that! No more posts from me for a good long time, but thanks for letting me get that off my chest!

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan, it is good to get carried away now and then. This thread struck a nerve for you. I spent a lot of my life teaching guitar and in some ways I resent the energy spent in those years because it might have been put to better use. Through no fault but my own, I avoided accepting the full challenge of composition for most of my life. Your approach is quite fascinating and I might experiment with it a bit. I'm not sure what my approach is: basically ideas just come to me and I struggle to find their realization. It is not really instrumentally based.

I've been listening to some of your Images as well. This is very fine music! It doesn't remind much of Debussy, nor Satie. More perhaps of Mussorgsky and Messaien...

Bridge said...

Bear in mind I was only talking about the harmonic language which reminded me vaguely of Debussy and Satie. The pianistic writing bears some superficial resemblance to Debussy's but it's not that similar. I definitely don't hear any Messiaen in it though.

Nathan Shirley said...

Actually the one thing that got me carried away was reading "composition in retrograde"! I hadn't heard it in a long time, and it brought back a lot of bad memories... what I might imagine war flashbacks might be like!

Glad you've both found some of my music. Interesting to hear the ideas of influence. I wrote this almost as an Homage to Mussorgsky and his Pictures at an Exhibition. Each "image" was inspired by a painting. As a side note, the last piano professor I had refused to work with me on Pictures at an Exhibition (so I studied it on my own), they thought Mussorgsky's writing for piano was poor and not worth wasting time on!

Bryan Townsend said...

"Composition in retrograde" was a phrase used by a composition teacher of mine. But, as I recall, we had an in-class debate about it. He was a pretty good guy and didn't try to inculcate his ideas in me.

Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the most interesting piano pieces from the whole 19th century.

It is amazing and dispiriting how huge the effect of mediocre or bigoted teaching is on the very impressionable young mind.