Saturday, July 19, 2014

Child Prodigies

The Wall Street Journal has a brief article up about musical child podigies. I suspect this is a much more interesting topic than it might seem from the article. So let me just muse freely for a bit about what goes on in a musical mind. For lack of a better candidate, I will pick myself!

I have been fascinated with music since I was quite young, but in no sense was I ever a child prodigy. In fact, I seem to be the opposite, which we don't seem to have a word for. "Late bloomer," maybe? Like Janacek, if I am a composer worth his salt, it has only come to me at an advanced age. One interesting thing though, on the occasion of my first encounter with music notation, at age nine, I was fascinated by the fact that this fellow could sit down at the piano and play music from just looking at those dots and lines. So I went off into a corner and scribbled some down myself and then put it in front of the pianist and said "what does this sound like?" Pretty weird, I imagine, but that would be my op. 1.

My gift seems to be twofold: I have a sensitivity to music, though I am not an ear-training virtuoso, nor do I have perfect pitch. And music always seems to have a significance to me. I love good music and really hate bad music. I think in musical, well, not images, but again, we don't have a word for it. What sometimes happens with me is I catch myself humming a tune. Yesterday it was this one:

I have no idea why that came out all grey, sorry! Anyway, I found myself humming that tune. With a bit of thought I identified it as the chorus to the Ray Stevens tune "Everything is Beautiful". So I was in a good mood! That's what I mean by "I think in music". I had a professor in graduate school who said he did the same thing.

I am relentlessly curious about music. Why does Haydn always make me smile? How does he put together those tidy and expressive phrases? How does he manage those surprisingly dramatic harmonic effects? How does Beethoven achieve that transcendent loveliness with such simplicity? How does Shostakovich manage to grip the listener with such power from the very beginning? And so on. Just about every good piece of music makes me curious about how it works.

Incidentally, I think this might give us clues as to how to define bad music. Bad music is music that has a lot of unconsidered stuff. Repetition without the awareness of the effect of repetition. Repetition without a plan or direction. Regurgitation of typical textures and tropes. Essentially, music without imagination.

What compels me to compose is I have these experiences or feelings that seem to be musical in some way so I want to see if I can craft a piece of music that captures them. There is always something musical chugging away in some corner of my brain.

So, all things considered, I think I have a musical mind, that is, a mind that naturally thinks in musical channels. But that doesn't mean I have the ability to compose a good piece of music. Sadly, no. I think what is missing from all these accounts in the mass media about musical geniuses and prodigies, is the work that is involved. If a child shows remarkable affinity for music at an early age, and really, that is all it is, then with the proper instruction that child may grow up to be a fine musician or composer. This is what happened with Mozart. His father, his sole teacher, was a prominent violinist and teacher.

My problem is that, whatever affinity I may have, and I have some, it was not nurtured because there was no-one with whom I was in contact when I was young that was musically knowledgeable apart from my mother, who was an old-time fiddler with no general musical knowledge. I was well into my twenties before I met someone who had formidable musical knowledge.

Given some musical affinity or gift, the really crucial thing is that it be nurtured and disciplined. No-one, not even Mozart, achieved anything without a tremendous amount of work. It is the work that is important and that is what none of the articles ever really talks about.

Here is the training you need if you want to become a composer:

  • study of one or several musical instruments (Mozart was a virtuoso on both piano and violin--one of my problems is the only instrument I am really competent on is the guitar)
  • study of music theory which comprises basic harmony, modulation, phrase structure, counterpoint, motivic development, composition of themes and so on
  • study of the characteristics of the individual instruments and how they combine, this is often called "orchestration" but it applies to any composition whether it is for orchestra or not
  • study of the music of various periods (traditionally composition students only studied the immediately relevant music such as composition from Bach to the present, but nowadays the field is much larger--Steve Reich studied drumming in Ghana and Philip Glass studied classical Indian music)
  • perhaps I should amplify a bit on the last part: by "study" I mean close examination and analysis of the scores of things like Beethoven symphonies, and, indeed, the whole corpus of whatever you think the "canon" is
  • and the big question mark: whatever else might be necessary in order to stimulate the imagination: improvisation, listening to lots of different music, building weird instruments, working in an electronic music studio and all sorts of things I can't even imagine
But mostly, working on the piece until it sounds "right"!

I'm going to put up an interesting piece. I'm not sure if anyone has done close analysis of this music or if how it was put together has been figured out, but I find it pretty interesting partly because I have no idea how it works! This is the first part of Allan Pettersson's Symphony No. 8. It is about 21 minutes long and, as becomes more and more evident, the motif or cell E to F is very important.


Nathan Shirley said...

I actually have a very similar story to yours about scribbling music as a kid-

When I was 3 or 4 my brother was practicing his cello. I was interested in how he read the notes on the page and asked if any notes written down would make music. He said "I guess so." I crawled under the bed and wrote out a line of notes, handed it to him and he played it. He handed it back to me and said, "It doesn't always make GOOD music." But from then on I was fascinated.

Later on, after finding it really funny that part of the bow was called "the frog," I decided to improve the joke by putting a real frog I caught in the F hole of his cello just before it was time to leave for his orchestra concert. At some point during the concert (probably due to all those horrible sounds) the frog managed to jump out of the cello... which caused quite a commotion as a few girls jumped up screaming! The director was not pleased.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh. That's a great story!

I wish I had had a cello-playing brother.