Thursday, January 25, 2018

Problems of Composition

A composition is something that is put together, composed of different elements. Music composition is composed of sounds and silences. Well, with a couple of exceptions! You know what they are: that piece by John Cage for just silence (and there was an earlier movement by another composer that was just rests).

So what is the problem? What elements do you choose and how do you put them together? The big question, or one of them, is what sort of elements do you choose? Do you invent or dream up a tune?


This kind of tune radiates a whole historical era in music when tunes had a metric regularity and were deeply connected to a whole harmonic foundation. This theme outlines a tonic and dominant seventh in G major. This was typical of music in the late 18th century but saw a revival in the 20th century called neo-classical. Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, "Classical" is a great example:

Click to enlarge
Prokofiev makes this fresh and interesting by harmonic means, giving this kind of theme an acerbic quality.

But the ability to give a tonal theme a new life only lasted a few decades even though we still see occasional examples where a tonal theme is embedded in a non-tonal context. Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet No. 3 from 1983 is an example. Here we see he quotes the theme from the Grosse Fuge for string quartet by Beethoven:


But in general the movement is away from themes, textures and harmonies that are too linked to music of the past. The reason is that using this kind of material creates a problem in composition. Despite how well Schnittke does it, the usual result is music that sounds trite. Sometimes the interjection of even a small element of melody, rhythm or harmony from a past period in music sets up expectations that are difficult to handle. Each of these elements tends to pull others with it as, for example, a certain kind of melody implies certain kinds of rhythm and harmony.

For many composers in the last hundred years the only path forward seemed to be to try and limit or eliminate as much as possible of these historic elements. My series of posts on Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring outlines how one composer worked. He took one novel element, the octatonic scale, which had been in use in Russia for some time, and developed it in ways that took him outside traditional harmonies. This, combined with new approaches to orchestration and rhythm, yielded very successful aesthetic results.

The Second Viennese School took a different approach with their 12-tone system. This guaranteed independence from tonal melody and harmony, but it was a technical solution that ultimately proved a Procrustean bed for many composers, forcing them into solutions that were not necessarily aesthetically ideal. Extending the 12-tone method to rhythm as Boulez and others did further removed it from the possibility of making an expressive connection with the audience. Ultimately these methods did not seem to offer a way forward and were largely abandoned by the 1970s.

Other kinds of solutions involved making rhythm and repetition central which produced a lot of very successful pieces. This was the stylistic choice of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams and others.

Yet another path involved exploring in great depth the parameters of music that had been usually regarded as peripheral. These include timbre, texture, unusual means of sound-production and the use of unusual combinations of instruments. Some composers that took this path included Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, George Crumb and Sofia Gubaidulina whom we have been taking an extended look at. The basic assumption here is that, except for limited expressive purposes, the traditional kinds of melody, rhythm and harmony are no longer of great value. Instead we must pursue other avenues that involve new uses of instruments and sounds. One early possibility involved the use of electronic instruments that had no traditional uses. Composers like Stockhausen and Gubaidulina did a lot of work in electronic studios but ultimately returned to the use of ordinary instruments and musicians. This might be because audiences are less responsive to electronic and tape music, especially if it does not involve actual musicians on stage.

So, bearing all this in mind, let's listen to a string quartet by Gubaidulina that is an exploration of some techniques and sounds that were traditionally regarded as peripheral. The string pizzicato is found in a lot of compositions, but traditionally it is an occasional color. Here Gubaidulina uses it exclusively (along with glissandi) for the first eight minutes of the piece! The result is unusual to say the least. This is the mdi ensemble in a 2013 performance of Gubaidulina's String Quartet No. 3 composed in 1987:


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