Sunday, December 7, 2014

How to Compose Like Igor Stravinsky

Over at Ann Althouse's blog she has been putting up a series of posts on how to paint/draw like Paul Klee. Here is a sample. At first I thought it was a bit wacky, but I've been getting intrigued. So let's see if I can offer some hints as to how to compose like Stravinsky. First of all, you have to have a cool title like "Rite of Spring" or "Fall Homecoming" (no, wait) or "Primeval Stirrings". Joking aside, you need to do something distinctive right off the bat:

Click to enlarge

Stravinsky has the bassoon right up in the top of its range here in the beginning of the Rite of Spring. Be ambiguous with the tonality: this bassoon melody is in A minor with an E minor dominant. But what really makes this opening so compelling is the contrasting harmony in the other instruments. The horn (transposing, in F) enters with a C# to D, suggesting D minor. Then the bass clarinet (in B flat) enters with a chromatic scale, A flat down to E (or G# down to E) and the A clarinet (also transposing) in parallel C# down to A flat. We might want to hear that as a suggestion of E major, so we have three different tonalities. But the writing is so crystalline that they don't blur one another, but appear as distinct areas.

Then there is the rhythm. Using fermatas and two layers of triplets (eighth and sixteenth), Stravinsky creates an improvisatory feel in this introductory passage. The bassoon keeps repeating that opening motif, but in different rhythmic shapes.

The orchestration really is unusual. Using the bassoon at the top of its range makes for a very unusual color and that is emphasized by the contrast with the softer sound of the horn and the reedy combination of the bass clarinet and the clarinet in A. It is safe to say that no piece before this (and possibly since) has started with this kind of sonority.

Now let's have a listen. Here is Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.

I'm not going to analyze the whole Rite, or even just the first part. That would take weeks. But if you browse through the score I think you will continue to see these characteristics appearing in many places:

  • very unusual sonorities with instruments at the extremes of their range and unusual groupings of instruments
  • modal melodies (Taruskin has shown that Stravinsky made use of Russian folk melodies)
  • polytonality (different keys or modes in different instruments)
  • rhythmic variety and complexity with frequent changes of meter
A hundred composers have used these same methods, but only a few, like Stravinsky, made great music with them.

Here is a clip of the whole Rite of Spring with better sound:


Rickard Dahl said...

Well, about " A hundred composers have used these same methods, but only a few, like Stravinsky, made great music with them.". True, however it can be summarized as that the methods themselves don't create good music, inspiration and creativity does. It's one of the reasons it's no point to rely too much on theory, you can't expect a good result if it's made based on theory rather than inspiration and creativity. Sure, you could write something that sounds OK or even in some cases good but I think that's rarely the case if too much effort is placed on following music theory. It is quite telling that for instance music theory doesn't give a solid framework to compose good melodies. Good melodies come from inspiration and listening close to what sounds good.

Bryan Townsend said...

Why a piece is an outstanding piece of music is, when all is said and done, still a mystery. You are so right: good melodies are particularly mysterious (but so is the magic of harmony and rhythm). Still, theory and analysis can tell us quite a few things about a piece. What they can't really do is show us how to write the next piece. For that, as you say, you need inspiration and creativity.

Anonymous said...

Striking how much film music owes to Stravinsky and Wagner. Not talking about today's sappy soundtracks, but the real stuff like Bernard Hermann's score for Hitchcock's Vertigo. The Rite is really a film soundtrack when you think about it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Someone was just mentioning to me the other day how great the Bernard Hermann score to Vertigo is! I guess I will have to seek it out.

Rickard Dahl said...

Today's soundtracks are most often sappy indeed. Most movies that don't take themselves seriously (more on the comedic side even if not necessarily a comedy) and movies geared towards younger people (youth+people in their 20s or so I guess) tend to use pop music for their soundtrack. But even high production movies that take themself seriously seem to have worse music nowadays. A good example is how Skyfall (amazing Bond movie) tends to use generic soundtrack material rather than stuff that stands out like in the older Bond movies. Another example is that the Hobbit movies (I haven't watched the 3rd one yet but I plan to) didn't have much originality in the soundtrack and seem to recycle much from the Lord of the Rings trilogy soundtrack. I wish that Howard Shore would put more effort into it and give the soundtrack a more fresh sound. The Lord of the Rings soundtrack itself is amazing but that doesn't excuse the copy-pastery.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm not much of an expert on movie soundtracks. Maybe I should give myself a little course in them and do some posts. But I have been avoiding the Hobbit films, though not because of the soundtracks. I have been a lover of the Lord of the Rings trilogy for many years, since I discovered it on a newsstand rack in the mid-60s. I read the first 60 pages standing there! I have re-read it probably a dozen or more times since. The Peter Jackson movies made me a bit uneasy as they seemed to be distorting the feel of the books in some important ways. With the grotesquely bloated Hobbit trilogy I am sure of it. There is more Jackson than Tolkien in them. The CGI is so overdone and pervasive (based on viewing the trailers) that I do not want to see the movies. I am really getting to hate the CGI these days as it seems to overwhelm everything else.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rickard Dahl, you're absolutely wrong. Check out Arnold Schoenberg's book The Fundamentals of Music Composition for a wonderful explanation of what makes good melodies. Pretty much all art has a sound scientific or theoretical framework behind it that is followed and utilized by every major artists in that field, don't hate on theory, no great ever did.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sr. Anon, you are commenting on a very old post and Rickard doesn't hang out here much anymore. However, your comment intrigues me.

As I write Herr Schoenberg's book on the fundamentals of composition sits on a shelf behind me. It is a valuable text on composition and working your way through it, when you are young, is likely to teach you a great deal. What it will likely not teach you is how to write a really good melody. A sound, well-constructed melody or theme, yes, but really good melodies cannot be written according to a set of rules. Incidentally, Schoenberg, for much of the book, relies on the compositions of Beethoven as a model. Beethoven, of course, was not one to follow the rules very closely (and neither were Haydn and Mozart, his models). Ironically, Schoenberg, while and important and influential and fine composer is not at all renowned for having written a single good melody!

Sorry, but most of the great composers had critical things to say about those who tended to follow a set of rules while composing.