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For various reasons I never studied composition as my major in undergrad or graduate (it was piano performance). How can one obtain the same knowledge and skill on his own that he would have in such a program? I lack the confidence that I know what I'm doing; sometimes I think I'm a good composer, and sometimes (especially nowadays) I think I have no idea what I'm doing and more knowledgeable composers would have to chuckle at my work.

In my specific case, I've studied basic 20th century harmony such as the 12-tone method, quartal/quintal, secondal, set theory (though I don't know how one would efficiently apply it in the composition process), group theory. I've studied many scores (mostly before 1950, since modern ones are hard to obtain), esp for orchestra, with recordings. I've worked with orchestra and small groups on arrangements of very traditional music. I've tried to compose novel music, but it turns out quite already-done-before (see my very John Adams A Peek into a Boson for example). 

Are there particular texts that are definitive or very helpful on the process of modern composition, and how one applies the theory efficiently? Are there ear training exercises needed before one can be fluent in modern harmonic language? Specific questions currently in my mind are:

1. I'm used to first hearing things in my mind, then composing from there. But how does one compose complex harmonies that are hard to hear? It is easy to compose a 5-minute piece with traditional harmonies in just a few minutes or a few hours. Should a good composer have such a strong ear in 10-pitch-class harmonies for example that he finds it that easy to compose with it? Do you choose a pitch hierarchy (a tonic, a chord, a synthetic scale) around which you can have ornamentation and passing tones?

2. How does a composer choose a specific musical language for a piece, and then stay consistent with it? Do you choose certain intervalic content for the harmony first, and then (say you're writing polyphonically) make sure the vertical interaction of the voices creates those harmonies and not others? How does one quantify the non-harmonic aspects of the language, such as length of phrases, melodic contours, and things that I haven't even thought of consciously considering perhaps?

3. Do the composition process and techniques vary widely from one contemporary composer to the next, so that it can't really be standardized into a text book?

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Joel,

I am very leery of the ill defined genre known as minimalism. I don't consider your Boson piece minimalism in that it contains all the necessary elements of music, melody, chords, dynamics, even tonality. A better example would be that of Bob Morabito when he espouses using primarily second and minor second intervals. If other chords are excluded then you indeed have minimalism.

Someone referred to Edgar Verese as a minimalist. Actually he called himself a sound organizer, not a composer. It was his followers who wanted to be called composers so ascribed the term to him after the fact. But his sound innovations were incorporated into film and television scores in the 50's and 60's, so he greatly contributed to modern music.

A better example of minimalism might be W.A. Mozart. For a time he excluded all dissonance from his music to extol the celestial beauty of the pristine tri-chord. To me, music without dissonance is as distasteful as music without harmony.

So my strategy in examining modern music will be to glean the good ideas without actually writing minimalist music. (If that is possible.) I believe that your boson piece is a prime example of modern music which is chock full of good ideas.

Hi Laurence--Im a little confused (and intrigued!) by your post above, as Ive never quite heard 'minimalism' described as you do-

FWIW heres my take on it, as, until reading your post I really was quite set in my thinking as to what what minimalist music is/was!

Minimalism --please see this search with musical examples on the top of the page

https://www.google.com/search?q=minimalism&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-...;*

Also this article, and many more from the search mentioned above.
:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimal_music

"As an aesthetic, it is marked by a non-narrative, non-teleological, and non-representational conception of a work in progress, and represents a new approach to the activity of listening to music by focusing on the internal processes of the music, which lack goals or motion toward those goals.[7] Prominent features of the technique include consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting which leads to what has been termed phase music. Minimal compositions that rely heavily on process techniques that follow strict rules are usually described using the term process music".

Is there any link you can cite/provide that supports and expounds upon what youve written? Id be VERY interested in seeing it..Thanks so much!


Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

Hi Lawrence,

Oh actually I said that the Boson piece had too many different things, while my "Electromechanical" piece for piano was more minimalist, so it did have coherency, but at the cost of not being very substantial or novel. But the reason I composed a more minimalist piece was to practice the discipline of controlling the parameters of a composition, because I was dissatisfied with my piano sonata no. 2 which was, like the Boson piece, all over the place in musical language. Ironically I wrote Boson after Electromechanical, so I still hadn't learned my lesson :)  Thank you for the encouragement on the Boson piece, being "chock full of good ideas". It is interesting to me that this is the very thing I'm afraid of: it's packed with so many ideas, rather than providing plenty of variety and beauty within a more constrained musical language. Granted the whole 11 minutes is based on a single theme, but still the musical language changes too much I think. ...or maybe there are other problems that I have not yet consciously identified that are actually what are bothering me more about the piece. But I suppose if we wish to improve, it is good to be bothered by our own compositions sometimes, as long as we eventually figure out how to avoid the same problems in the future, right?

Lawrence Aurich said:

Joel,

I am very leery of the ill defined genre known as minimalism. I don't consider your Boson piece minimalism in that it contains all the necessary elements of music, melody, chords, dynamics, even tonality. A better example would be that of Bob Morabito when he espouses using primarily second and minor second intervals. If other chords are excluded then you indeed have minimalism.

Someone referred to Edgar Verese as a minimalist. Actually he called himself a sound organizer, not a composer. It was his followers who wanted to be called composers so ascribed the term to him after the fact. But his sound innovations were incorporated into film and television scores in the 50's and 60's, so he greatly contributed to modern music.

A better example of minimalism might be W.A. Mozart. For a time he excluded all dissonance from his music to extol the celestial beauty of the pristine tri-chord. To me, music without dissonance is as distasteful as music without harmony.

So my strategy in examining modern music will be to glean the good ideas without actually writing minimalist music. (If that is possible.) I believe that your boson piece is a prime example of modern music which is chock full of good ideas.

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