Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!

I want to ask the question that was suggested in another thread because I think it's important. The question is: How should an inexperienced composer who wants to write dissonant and rhythmically complex music learn how to do that?

I've been writing and playing music a long time but I'm basically a beginner at 'classical' composition. I can read score at an intermediate level. I know basic theory and have some experience with extended harmony and odd time signatures and syncopation. I can write four part harmony and I have a basic understanding of counterpoint. I haven't spent much time on orchestration. I do spend time studying scores and listening to a variety of composers. I can write basic pieces that mimic (poorly) composers of the baroque and classical period.

So my question is: What else should I be doing, what is the next step? I don't post music here because lately I haven't much time to write anything; and to be honest, the level of bickering and personal attacks on this site in the past at least makes me think that it is a waste of time.

But I'd like to hear any thoughts or suggestions.

Views: 2038

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Not my style but I would hazard a guess at getting a book and take it from there.

Atonal music is a huge category!  I think the best way for you to start is listen to several atonal pieces and find one that appeals to you.  Maybe you already have several favorites?   All of the following are atonal, but each is very different in many ways.  You could start by deciding what you like or dislike about these pieces and then you'd know better what kind of research and analysis would be good for you, and where you might start.

I'm listing some of my favorites - they might not appeal to you at all!

Density 21.5 was written by Edgar Varese in 1936 and revised in 1946.  The title refers to the density of a platinum flute. Most flutes prior to this time were silver or gold, and this piece was especially written to show off this particular flute.  I always enjoy solo flute music and this one especially shows how to create wonderful contours, uses repeated motifs, gives us a good combination of cohesion and contrast - all without any harmonic implications.  By the way, Emmanuel Pahud may be the greatest flutist alive today - at least in my book!

Here's what I think is one of the most gorgeous pieces written in the 20th century.  Messiaen wrote this as he was dying, and said that he was hearing the music "of the beyond".  Messiaen seemed to have a direct connection with the Divine, so I believe him!  I was thrilled to learn that heavenly music isn't major or minor chords, doesn't use functional harmony, has no catchy rhythms - it's just pure beauty.  Messiaen walked a fine line between tonal and atonal, and used his own modes of limited transposition rather than major/minor scales.  He said music must speak to us and must be beautiful - he didn't like labels or differentiation of types of music. 

Perhaps my favorite piece of atonal music actually combines serialism and Bach.  The weaving is seamless and haunting, and to me brings out the best of both styles.  Alban Berg's Violin Concerto is in 4 sections, with no break between them.  I'm only including the last section, where Bach's chorale "Es ist genug" (It is enough!) speaks to us in a 20th century voice.

Here's the Bach chorale:

And here's the Berg concerto, starting just before the 4th (last) section:

If none of these pieces speak to you, pick your own favorite atonal piece and start learning what makes it tick.  There are books, one very excellent one (but expensive) but until you've listened and fallen in love with a special piece, the books will feel like gibberish.

Good luck!

@ Kevin, a book is a good idea, but there's a bunch out there! Thanks for commenting.

@ Dave, that makes sense I think.  Skill building, learning and practice are always good. Gotta walk before you can run right?

Julie, thank you for some wonderful examples!  Yes, atonality in general is too wide a scope as you have proven with the variety of your choices, none of which has the slam-bang harshness that we associate with 'atonal'. I used that term in my title partly because it was mentioned in the other thread and I wanted to continue that discussion. 

The Varese is kind of improvisational, how could he hear that loose yet lyrical and spontaneous quality and get it down on paper, amazing. The Messiaen is gentle and hypnotic, again not what you might expect of atonality, but as you say no typical progression when you listen for that. The Berg is a great concept but I will have to study that for a long time I think. All three of these do speak to me.

Thanks again for all that you are doing for this forum.

Hi Ingo,

A good and fun way to start your exploration might be to create a tone row, which is a melody that uses each of the 12 notes of the scale exactly once. From that, you can create 3 other rows, 1) an inversion (the melody played upside down), 2) a retrograde (the melody played backwards), and 3) a retrograde inversion (the melody played backwards and upside down). It can produce some surprising results which may inspire you to add harmony or play around with it in interesting ways.

Best,

Gav

Great idea Gav,  I like that.  The advantage is the piece sort of writes itself which appeals to my laziness for sure. Seriously though, that would give me a good starting point.

It's interesting that a set of "rules" evolved from Schoenberg's atonal pieces, he broke old rules to make new ones I guess.

Gav Brown said:

Hi Ingo,

A good and fun way to start your exploration might be to create a tone row, which is a melody that uses each of the 12 notes of the scale exactly once. From that, you can create 3 other rows, 1) an inversion (the melody played upside down), 2) a retrograde (the melody played backwards), and 3) a retrograde inversion (the melody played backwards and upside down). It can produce some surprising results which may inspire you to add harmony or play around with it in interesting ways.

Best,

Gav

I think you've given us a quality answer MM, thank you for that. Dave mentioned getting good at tonal music and then expanding on that which is kind of what you are saying too I think, in that the general principles of conventional composition will still apply at some point to anything that we write, even if we vary one aspect like the amount of dissonance and the treatment of that, we still have to give our listeners some sign posts to follow our path.

I like to think of it as a conversation. If I'm talking just to hear myself speak then I can blabber anything I want (I try and limit that!) but if I'm speaking to someone else or maybe even a lot of people I need to make my ideas clear in order to communicate with others. Easier said than done for me at least.

MM Coston said:

Good idea to start a neutral thread, Ingo. I don't know the first thing about proper atonal composition so I can't contribute any quality answers to this thread.  But here are concepts I've either stumbled across or wondered about but unfortunately, I am not sure exactly what all they encompass. I hope others will shed more light on these topics which might give you (and anyone else) some tools/knowledge to start with.

1) Atonal Palette.

I'm sure this includes the tone rows Gav mentioned. I am assuming it also could include any predefined finite set of sounds which might include quartertones, extended technique sounds, notes of a non-western scale, etc. (I assume these sets are used in lieu of traditional scales).

2) Compositional Structure/Form.

Not sure if there are special forms for atonal music. I mention this because it would be a useful thing to know even just for more thoroughly appreciating atonal music.

3) Compositional Similarities to Tonal Music

It seems that motifs and repetition would fall under this category.  Development might also belong here. Perhaps others can add more or correct me if I'm wrong.

4) Compositional Differences from Tonal Music

Movements and resolves. Hopefully others could cover some techniques for dealing with these concepts in the absence of a pitch hierarchy. 

Sorry I cannot be of more help. Best of luck

Julie, 

     I agree with Messiaen that music should not be differentiated into various forms. which is why atonalism, in separating itself from harmony becomes minimalism.  By ejecting harmony from  music atonalism is eliminating a large part of the musical vocabulary and the emotion which harmony evokes.  The Messiaen piece you have posted demonstrates a marriage between atonalism and tonal harmony.  It is a tonal melody played over an atonal and dissonant orchestration.  The emotion evoked is one of wonder, longing, eeriness, and awe. 

     The Berg concerto, by remaining dissonant throughout dwells on but one emotion, tension, and or stress which remains unresolved to the end.  Bach on the other hand produces an immediate emotion of ahhh, relaxation, glory.  (Actually there is some stress in the choir voices as in falsetto singing.  In this computer age someone needs to write all the baroque era   vocals down a step so they will sound like Bach intended them to sound before pitch inflation.)

     Regarding Messiaen receiving some divine inspiration:  The few people who have gone to heaven and returned  have commented on how beautiful the music is.  They are common people who have had no music training,  It is doubtful that they would have called the heavenly music beautiful had it sounded like Varese or Berg.  Heavenly music probably sounds more like Bach. 

     Ingo,

     Take Messiaen's advice.  Make your music beautiful by employing the amount of dissonance necessary to evoke the desired emotion.  Atonalism, fugetaboutit.

To me music is a branch of physics.  The laws of physics apply all the time and in all places of the universe.  You can't eliminate or ignore one law of physics in favor of another just because you are not fond of a particular law.  So it is not practical to eliminate much of the structure of music (tonal harmony) in favor of dissonance and still produce good music.

To me music is a branch of physics.  The laws of physics apply all the time and in all places of the universe.  You can't eliminate or ignore one law of physics in favor of another just because you are not fond of a particular law.  So it is not practical to eliminate much of the structure of music (tonal harmony) in favor of dissonance and still produce good music.

Hi Lawrence,

More dissonant intervals occur higher up in the harmonic series and so using your Platonic logic, utilising these intervals for creative ends should also be a valid expression should it not? You might not be fond of atonality and its laws, but some of the greatest musical minds of the last 100 years or so have been and continue to be so. The implication that atonality or dissonance is structureless is also unfounded. In fact a lot of atonal music is highly organised, sometimes out of necessity, so perhaps you could say on what basis you came to this conclusion.

I see a  parallel between expanding tonality into atonality and advances in other areas of human endeavour, especially the technical sciences. It is in our nature to attempt to overcome natural laws and we are clearly inherently capable of such feats. I personally believe our species art is a result of our rage and emotional recoil against the 2nd law of thermodynamics. 

 btw, some physicists aren't sure that the laws are all- encompassing across the universe. They might be local conditions and vary in different regions of space and if the multiverse is real, then the laws might just be one permutation in an infinity of endless combinations...sounds like an atonal creed to me.

Mike.

mikehewer.com

Mike,

I applaud those composers brave enough to experiment with atonalism. They are enlarging the envelope for the rest of us. I scoff at those composers who think atonalism will supplant tonal harmony. A theoretical branch of physics cannot negate a grounded branch of physics such as tonal harmony. Did Einstein's relativity negate Newtonian physics? Not at all, but rather added to it.

An example from art: Remember op art from the sixties. It was all the rave for about a decade, interesting but minimalistic in that it was monochromatic and lacked composition. It may have added something to the body of graphic art but did not replace portraiture or landscape painting.

Name one law of physics that humans have overcome. By flying in airplanes we have not overcome gravity, just counteracted it by another branch of physics, aerodynamics. Have we overcome time because we live longer? No, merely delayed aging with better medications and nutrition. Have we overcome radiation from the sun? We've only shielded ourselves with lotions and visors.

An example from technology. Did fossil fuels supplant steam power? Think carefully. The internal combustion engine supplanted the steam engine, but now we use steam to cook our food, heat our homes, desalinate water, cool nuclear reactors, convert heat to electricity, and much more. Steam is far more useful and valuable now than it was in the steam age.

I leave alternate universes, string theory, worm holes, time travel, and man made global warming to the dreamers and theoreticians. There is more hope to be found in believing in the tooth fairy.

 
Mike Hewer said:

To me music is a branch of physics.  The laws of physics apply all the time and in all places of the universe.  You can't eliminate or ignore one law of physics in favor of another just because you are not fond of a particular law.  So it is not practical to eliminate much of the structure of music (tonal harmony) in favor of dissonance and still produce good music.

Hi Lawrence,

More dissonant intervals occur higher up in the harmonic series and so using your Platonic logic, utilising these intervals for creative ends should also be a valid expression should it not? You might not be fond of atonality and its laws, but some of the greatest musical minds of the last 100 years or so have been and continue to be so. The implication that atonality or dissonance is structureless is also unfounded. In fact a lot of atonal music is highly organised, sometimes out of necessity, so perhaps you could say on what basis you came to this conclusion.

I see a  parallel between expanding tonality into atonality and advances in other areas of human endeavour, especially the technical sciences. It is in our nature to attempt to overcome natural laws and we are clearly inherently capable of such feats. I personally believe our species art is a result of our rage and emotional recoil against the 2nd law of thermodynamics. 

 btw, some physicists aren't sure that the laws are all- encompassing across the universe. They might be local conditions and vary in different regions of space and if the multiverse is real, then the laws might just be one permutation in an infinity of endless combinations...sounds like an atonal creed to me.

Mike.

mikehewer.com

Hi Lawrence,

I agree with you that tonality is the bedrock, no doubt about that and I like the analogy of Einstein and Newton because I too see atonality as an extension - a "standing on the shoulders" of stability - rather than a means in itself. Others undoubtedly think differently and I can see and actually do practice other ways of using atonality too. I sadly cannot see a time in the future though when the general population (let alone a lot of composers) will accept atonality-without a creepy horror movie as accompaniment- as a listenable mode of artistic expression. 

Good points about the usefulness of older innovations informing newer ones, it has often been that way. Maxwells' electromagnetic equations for example, have led directly to MRI imaging along with radar, microwave towers and antennae.

I can't agree with the tooth fairy being more beneficial than theoretical physics (lol). I believe  cosmology is one of the most important branches of science because it may eventually answer the biggest of questions - why and and how did we get here. An integral part of cosmology is quantum mechanics (although not fully resolved yet as equations are still breaking down because of a conflict with gravity). The counter-intuitive (and proven) paradigms in that discipline such as entanglement or the two slit experiment, makes the tooth fairy look a very likely reality in comparison.

Getting back to the thread, as a composer, I am attracted to extended atonal writing because I believe there is more scope for an individual, unique expression and it is exciting for me  to try and create order from an open unbounded system because in attempting and sometimes succeeding to impose rigour, the original voice and expression is found.  

(disclaimer - before I get picked on...these are just my own views....nothing more).

mikehewer.com



Lawrence Aurich said:

Mike,

I applaud those composers brave enough to experiment with atonalism. They are enlarging the envelope for the rest of us. I scoff at those composers who think atonalism will supplant tonal harmony. A theoretical branch of physics cannot negate a grounded branch of physics such as tonal harmony. Did Einstein's relativity negate Newtonian physics? Not at all, but rather added to it.

An example from art: Remember op art from the sixties. It was all the rave for about a decade, interesting but minimalistic in that it was monochromatic and lacked composition. It may have added something to the body of graphic art but did not replace portraiture or landscape painting.

Name one law of physics that humans have overcome. By flying in airplanes we have not overcome gravity, just counteracted it by another branch of physics, aerodynamics. Have we overcome time because we live longer? No, merely delayed aging with better medications and nutrition. Have we overcome radiation from the sun? We've only shielded ourselves with lotions and visors.

An example from technology. Did fossil fuels supplant steam power? Think carefully. The internal combustion engine supplanted the steam engine, but now we use steam to cook our food, heat our homes, desalinate water, cool nuclear reactors, convert heat to electricity, and much more. Steam is far more useful and valuable now than it was in the steam age.

I leave alternate universes, string theory, worm holes, time travel, and man made global warming to the dreamers and theoreticians. There is more hope to be found in believing in the tooth fairy.

 
Mike Hewer said:

To me music is a branch of physics.  The laws of physics apply all the time and in all places of the universe.  You can't eliminate or ignore one law of physics in favor of another just because you are not fond of a particular law.  So it is not practical to eliminate much of the structure of music (tonal harmony) in favor of dissonance and still produce good music.

Hi Lawrence,

More dissonant intervals occur higher up in the harmonic series and so using your Platonic logic, utilising these intervals for creative ends should also be a valid expression should it not? You might not be fond of atonality and its laws, but some of the greatest musical minds of the last 100 years or so have been and continue to be so. The implication that atonality or dissonance is structureless is also unfounded. In fact a lot of atonal music is highly organised, sometimes out of necessity, so perhaps you could say on what basis you came to this conclusion.

I see a  parallel between expanding tonality into atonality and advances in other areas of human endeavour, especially the technical sciences. It is in our nature to attempt to overcome natural laws and we are clearly inherently capable of such feats. I personally believe our species art is a result of our rage and emotional recoil against the 2nd law of thermodynamics. 

 btw, some physicists aren't sure that the laws are all- encompassing across the universe. They might be local conditions and vary in different regions of space and if the multiverse is real, then the laws might just be one permutation in an infinity of endless combinations...sounds like an atonal creed to me.

Mike.

mikehewer.com

Reply to Discussion

RSS

Sign up info

Read before you sign up to find out what the requirements are!

Store

© 2018   Created by Gav Brown.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service