Sunday, July 5, 2015

Why I Am a Composer

But before I get to that, I need to give you a bit of background of why I was a songwriter/composer when I was 19, but why I was not a composer in my early 20s.

I came from a very humble background: prairie farmers going back generations and my mother was an old-time fiddler. I started playing electric bass when I was sixteen and soon joined a rock band. Every rock band needs a bassist and there aren't that many around. In a few years I was writing songs (music and lyrics) and taught myself music notation so I could write down arrangements for orchestral instruments. Somewhere in there I discovered classical music, previously unknown to me (no symphony orchestras in northern Canada, then and very few now). I soon discovered the Mass in B minor by Bach and read everything in the local library about music, which included some books on the 20th century: praising 20th century music fulsomely, of course. The logical next step was to enroll in the music program at the university. First I was in music education, but soon switched over to the music department proper. I did not think of myself as a composer, but as a guitar student, by the way.

There were student composers in the department and they put on their own concerts from time to time. One that particularly sticks in my mind was a kind of "happening". Oh, you should know that the year was 1971. At this happening, one fellow stood on a ladder and declaimed French café chansons while another fellow fried pork chops on an electric hotplate. There were some other things going on as well. For the finale they, in homage to French Baroque composers, presented several chickens in the form of an egg or two, a raw chicken in a plastic bag and finally a live rooster who gazed around with great puzzlement. We were just coming out of the 60s you understand: LSD, Jimi Hendrix, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Woodstock, lots of weird stuff. So this just seemed like more weird stuff. The little group of student composers also had a performing ensemble they called the "Vegtaband" that consisted of various vegetables like carrots, rutabagas, potatoes and so on, fitted with woodwind mouthpieces and hollowed out with finger-holes so they could be played.

At the time I didn't even ask myself if these people were serious. After all, I had just discovered Schoenberg, Stravinsky and John Cage myself. But were they serious? I should have been asking that. Classical music, whose traditions most certainly include music like the Mass in B minor of Bach, was one sort of thing, but happenings and the Vegtaband were another, weren't they? Had Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Cage changed everything? Surely if you thought that the B minor Mass was a piece of classical music you could not also claim that whatever the Vegtaband was doing was also classical music? Even if you called it "contemporary classical"? So perhaps they were not serious--or maybe they were just consuming too many recreational drugs. But maybe they were serious, which is actually considerably worse.

In either case, if that was what student composers were up to I was completely uninterested. The disciplines and traditions of the classical guitar seemed much more significant to me at the time.

Later on, after discovering Steve Reich, I did start composing again, but I was still very committed to being a performer instead of a composer. Only in my late 30s did I start to question the ideology of modern music and my identity as a composer, though these two things did not seemed linked at the time.

Now I have come to understand that I have an ideological objection to the main currents of music composition in the 20th and even 21st century. As I have come to see this, I am able to understand that I am a composer after all. Just not in the modernist camp. In order to be comfortable with where I am I have had to work out the ideology of modernism and see where it has gone wrong. I have done this in a number of recent posts, especially the one yesterday on cultural hegemony. As that was rather intellectual, let me lay it out in more concrete terms.

Here is the kind of composer I refuse to be:

  • the hip, up-to-date kind who is writing music that supports the popular ideology of the day. Examples include John Luther Adams whose music supports the "climate change" myth and the other John Adams whose operas play off current events.
  • the technocratic kind whose music makes use of the latest technology because it is the latest technology and strives for the maximum in complexity. Examples include Boulez and Stockhausen.
  • the jester kind who strives to outrage everyone with the outlandish but claims it is just the next stage in music. Examples include Charles Ives and John Cage.
  • the politically-committed kind who wear their ideology on their sleeve (and always seem to be Communists). Examples include Luigi Nono and Cornelius Cardew.
Notice that I have not cited Schoenberg, Berg or Webern in the list. They, along with Stravinsky, are very complex figures essentially caught between the traditional aesthetic concepts and the new ideological concepts.

So if you reject all that, what is left? Minimalism? Spirituality? Examples of these two categories include Steve Reich, Philip Glass on the one hand and Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt on the other. I think that both these approaches can bear fruit. But we are still very, very far from the aesthetic standard of the Mass in B minor. Or, for that matter, the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Still, I am almost convinced that the attempt to destroy Western Civilization, of which the Vegtaband was the merest example, may have failed.

J. S. Bach, Mass in B minor: English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir Conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.


Marc Puckett said...

I very much appreciate that you've shared this thoughtful confessio with your readers. When I was a young man, early years in high school, perhaps, I recall being mesmerized by Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, with its 'melancholy long withdrawing roar' of the 'Sea of Faith'-- the civilisation of the Mass in B minor, in this context-- that managed to resolve itself into nihilism lipstick painted with hedonism, no love, no joy, no peace, no certitude, no light, 'nor help for pain', if I remember rightly. Such nonsense, but it moved me in the early 70s. I am not at all confident that the Vegtabanders have failed-- sometimes I cannot bring myself to look at the news-- but I hope you're right; spes contra spem. The St John Passion, Helmuth Rilling conducting, Thursday night....

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you Marc. Yes, Arnold's Dover Beach ran through my mind a few times in recent days. It is interesting that he was so far ahead of the times. Though not published until 1867, the poem was apparently written in 1851, at the very beginning of the trends in Western society that are coming to their culmination today.

I am rather lucky to have commentators with such elegant Latin tags as "spes contra spem" at their disposal!

Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting to read about your background. You're of course right about rejecting the modernist ideology for the most part. The ideology itself is faulty but it did produce lots of great music too, along with the not so great of course. I think the best approach is to try to be innovative but not at the cost of aesthetic quality. Aesthetic quality should come first and it does not matter whether the compositional techniques are modernist or not.

Either way, I've been inactive on here recently but I hope to catch up to some degree at least. You can look forward to more of my comments soon.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's great, Rickard. Welcome back. Have you been doing any composing?

Rickard Dahl said...

Sadly not. Well, it's been a lot of procrastination on my part. I guess it started a while ago (many months ago already) when I for some reason got stuck in starting ideas but not being able to finish them. And I guess I've also felt too much pressure to compose something better than I already composed, basically thinking what I was doing to be not adequate enough. And the cycle just kept repeating. And as time went on I felt as if I needed to do even better since I've spent much time on not composing anything. Something like that.

Another reason why I haven't been working much on it is that for some reason I started getting head aches after playing the piano for a while (not much, maybe 1h or less). It turned out to be due to ear wax being pushed too far into my left ear when I used earphones. Well, I went to the doctor and got the ear wax removed. The situation got better but I still get (milder) head aches from playing at the piano.

The third factor is that I've started pursuing video game development on a hobby level, or more specifically video game modding. Basically video game modding refers to taking a finished video game and modifying the game in various ways or using a video game engine to create video games based on it. Specifically I've been learning Hammer Editor for Source Engine. And even more specifically I'm working on a new level/map for a Source Engine mod called Goldeneye: Sourced (based on the N64 game Goldeneye 007). I'm working on re-creating a level/map from Nightfire 007 called Sub Pen. Hammer Editor is the main program used for the level creation but I'm also learning a 3D modelling program called kHed which is needed to make props (basically more detailed 3D elements including things like railings, lamps, computer consoles, pipes etc.). Finally I'm also learning GIMP in order to create the textures I need. Here are some images of an older version of the level/map:

And these railings are probably the most advanced, or at least most time-consuming of the props I've made:

Rickard Dahl said...

There is still plenty of work left, mainly doing the rest of the props, rest of the textures, making better lighting, adding extra areas that weren't in the original (i.e. in Nightfire) etc. So yeah it will look better plus be more complex in terms of level design.

Either way, I've started working on the video game modding hobby (something I've wanted to do a while back but didn't really get into it until recently) sometime in February I think. I mostly watched Hammer Editor tutorials at first. I think I started the level design of this level in April and worked on it a lot during that month and also a lot during May. So yeah, that caused me to sidetrack away from composing etc.

Also in June I've started another goal of mine, specifically to walk a trail called Bohusleden which is 370 km. So I did a few day trips with my mother and so far we've walked about 160km of it. Right now we're having a break since my mother got sick (stomach issues) but we intend to return to it asap, maybe on Tuesday if the weather allows for it. Of course I can't blame it on that alone. I guess I fell into more procrastination because of it though.

Finally I also bought a Playstation 4 maybe two to three weeks ago and that has also kept me occupied since I finally had the opportunity to play Bloodborne and I'm still playing that (still much left before I finish the game completely). Of course that's another source of procrastination.

Well, today I've started getting back on track. Trying to increase the time I spend on music and also on video game modding (since I've started procrastinating from that too...). The most difficult thing will probably be to get back to composing as I'm not sure how to go about it in order to create the best motivation to keep going. Basically I need to somehow push myself to actually finish compositions, maybe by setting up reasonable goals. I don't know, I'm motivated by the pursuit on one hand but on the other hand the difficulty reduces the motivation. I guess this is one of the bumps in the learning process and when I come across such bumps (in this case being stuck and not having composed anything for a while) I tend to stagnate due to the slow progress. I know I need to keep pushing despite that the progress is slow at the moment. If I keep pushing I will eventually overcome the bump and the learning will get back to its' normal pace. Well, I'm open for ideas of how to overcome this bump, make the composition learning process faster and actually get things finished.

Sorry for the rambling response. I realize I probably haven't explained the situation perfectly but hopefully it's well enough.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, Rickard, all very interesting! Somehow I suspect that if you pursue the video game mod hobby, that might end up with you making a lot of money. Which probably won't happen with composition. Look, my work on composition also varies a lot. Sometimes weeks go by and I don't do much. Then I get into it and write a lot in just a couple of days. I don't try and force it. If I were working to a commission, that would be a different story. Why don't you try writing something for a particular performer or group that you know. Promise them a piece for an upcoming concert and make sure you deliver! That is the best motivation of all, I think.