Monday, November 17, 2014

Why Composition is like (and not like) Building a Bridge

I was out walking the other day and started musing about how we structure music compositions. How do we do it? The question is pretty simple, but the answer could be enormously long. You might consider the whole of the Oxford History of Western Music, in five hefty volumes, to be just a brief introduction to the answer! This reminds me of a friend of mine who did a doctorate in composition with Morton Feldman at NYU Stony Brook. At the end there was an oral exam and one of the questions was the very simple "what was the influence of Claude Debussy on 20th century music?" The answer to THAT question could go on for a very, very long time.

So, how can music compositions be structured and how does that relate to bridge building? The metaphor occurred to me because I was thinking about the problem of long compositions. How you structure a two or three minute piece is pretty clear, at least we have a lot of examples that are easy to analyze. Usually it is something like one phrase (8 measures or 16 measures as a period or sentence) followed by a different phrase, followed by the first phrase repeated. In Baroque binary dance movements we can label the first phrase A and the contrasting one B. This gives us a form A repeated, B A, then B A repeated. This is often shown as AABB, but since the A is often repeated after the contrasting B, this leads to a form called "rounded binary" which is better labeled AABABA.

That's not much like bridge building! By the way, I never took engineering in university, so I know almost nothing about bridge building, just so you know. But I have a feeling that the structure of something like this:

is based on factors like the strength of the materials used, the distance spanned, the weight of the bridge and basic principles of physics. In music the analogous factors might be the instruments used in the composition (orchestra, string quartet, solo harmonica, whatever) and their ranges and timbral qualities, the duration of the piece and? Ah, there is the rub! Because what comes next is where it gets very complicated. The composer has a myriad of confusing choices. Say you are writing a symphony. You have historical models in three, four and even five or more movements (Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is in five movements). Each of these movements might be structured in various ways using forms as varied as "first movement sonata form", minuet and trio, scherzo, aria form, rondo form or something entirely different. But there are other symphonies in eleven movements, each of which is a setting of a poem for voice and orchestra--this is what Shostakovich chose for his Symphony No. 14. Or you could go in a completely different direction and write a lengthy single movement as Allan Pettersson did in several symphonies. His Symphony No. 9, for example, is in a single, uninterrupted movement about 70 minutes long. (Oddly enough, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 was written in 1969 and Pettersson's Symphony No. 9 in 1970.)

So how are these structured? I don't think that question has ever been answered with any thoroughness. When it comes to genuine theoretical understanding of the principles underlying the structure of a lot of music, we just don't know. It makes sense when you listen to it, but just how and why is hard to answer. We have a pretty good theoretical understanding of how music was structured up to, say, 1830, but from then on, the answers are rather tentative.

Unlike engineers, composers work from intuition, not a clear set of physical laws. Sometimes I think there are some basic musical principles, like tension and release, like dissonance and consonance, like pulse and sustain, but how these can be used in a composition seems to have so many applications, that general principles just don't seem to be evident. Still, it is tempting to think that musical structure can be as evident as engineering.

In fact, there was a school of composition that tried very hard to make this happen. It is a school of what Taruskin calls "maximal complexity" and that is also called "total serialism". The most well-known practitioners are Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, who looked back at the music of Anton Webern for inspiration. These composers create a musical structure whose entirety is dictated by a set of basic principles used to create a tone row that is processed in various ways. Two interesting things came to pass with this method: first of all, audiences did not find the results very palatable and secondly, the principles and processes used became more and more complex and ultimately obscure so one begins to wonder if there is much difference between this method and intuition.

So, the upshot is that music composition is not very much like bridge building after all. But it would be very interesting to read what music theorists might have to say in, oh, a century from now...

Pettersson's Symphony No. 9 doesn't seem to be on YouTube, so here is the much shorter, at 43 minutes, Symphony No. 7:

UPDATE: I replaced the clip with one with better sound. 

(One final thought: Pettersson's symphonies tend to be monothematic in the sense that the whole large form is spanned with a single theme or motif such as a scale segment or even a simple melodic cell like E to F. One is reminded of the simple, soaring arc of a suspension bridge...)


Jon said...

Hi Bryan,

Great post! I have often wondered how instrumental composers decide which form their potential composition(s) will take. Suppose a wonderful motif or melody comes to you - how does one then decide what form to put that idea into? Some musical ideas don't seem to lend themselves to much further development They seem complete in a small form.

I come from a popular music background, and when I used to write with a band the song form was almost always decided before-hand and was based on the lyrical content.

Great writing here at the music salon by the way - I just found the site recently and have been really enjoying it. Within the last year, I've started exploring the western classical tradition and your writing here has been a recent springboard to so much good music!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jon and welcome! Thanks for the nice comment and I hope you don't mind if I quote part of it on my sidebar.

Your question is an extremely good one that delves rather deeply into how music works. Perhaps the most thoughtful research on this topic has been done on the Beethoven sketchbooks by, among others, Gustav Nottebohm.

My suspicion is that the answer probably varies with each composition. There are elements of the structure that might be, as in your song example, simply laid out from the beginning. But these may be varied and shaped by the character of the themes. And then there are elements that are simply the fruit of inspiration.

Jon said...

Hi Bryan,

Please feel free to use any part of the comment as a quotation. I'm afraid I don't have any particular credentials to go along with the quote besides being an interested musician. I hope that qualifies!

Thank you for the mention of the Beethoven sketchbook scholarship - I will have a look into it, as I find this topic fascinating.

As an aside: When I was a teenager, I knew essentially nothing about musical form, besides the popular songs on the radio. One time, I went to a guitar recital and several baroque dances were on the program. Well, I didn't bother to read the program then, I just remember hearing the music and thinking, "Wow these songs have such an amazing logic to them, but I don't quite understand what it is!" It wasn't until some years later that I found out that what I had heard were dance movements. I thought the "songs" simply had strange titles like "Bouree"! To my naive, contemporary ears, I would never have guessed that such nuanced music would have been used for dancing.

I mention that story because I think it accords well with your statement that, "It makes sense when you listen to it, but just how and why is hard to answer".

I'm glad to read that we are all still puzzling over many long form musical works. I find the emotional impact of long pieces of music to be really unique, and quite unlike other experiences of artwork.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jon! There is also a book by a friend of mine that I used to teach with that examines in some detail Beethoven's sketches for his Diabelli variations. Nottebohm was a 19th century scholar, but my friend's book is fairly recent: William Kinderman, "Beethoven's Diabelli Variations", Oxford.

I think you hit the nail exactly on the head when you say "the emotional impact of long pieces of music [is] really unique, and quite unlike other experiences of artwork." Exactly! For a very powerful example, have a listen to a symphony by Allan Pettersson. Perhaps No. 6 or 7?