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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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Hi, Gav. Your analysis rings with me as accurate. I was trying something new with that piece, and also think I was not ready to compose at that scale, because I still haven't found my voice. (For what it's worth it's actually peek into a "boson" as in the sub-atomic particle, rather than the city Boston, but no biggie.) I can't argue with the lack of a memorable melody; the main theme is very angular and not easy to remember. I could point to the pastoral theme, which does have a memorable melody, but it is washed out of the memory by the many sounds that follow it (and such a stylistically-contrasting section doesn't belong in the piece anyway. ...i'm my hardest critic so far). Ah, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra is what taught me to start appreciating 20th century music. Though I haven't imitated much of his style. Then again the fast ascending turns in the strings later in Boson was influenced by the last movement, which was always my favorite part, and another orchestral piece of mine had the same type of thing. But that's a very superficial imitation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 

Gav Brown said:

Hi Joel,

I will give the same answer that I have given to similar commentators before. BTW, I started out by listening to your Peek Into Boston piece. I hear with this piece a composer striving, as you said, to master something new. I felt this piece was an exploration, and an interesting one. Ultimately it did not keep my attention, but the fact that you are striving to create something new is to me the best indicator that you have a hope of achieving your goal. A journey undertaken is possible to be successful. A journey never undertaken, of course, is automatically a dead end. I can’t advise you what journey to undertake to find your modern voice, that will be up to you. I can tell you that in my case, I sought out American and British Progressive Rock and movie music and theater music and found a voice (I think) based on these influences (plus many more traditional sources.) I would encourage you to find new music to listen to. If prog-rock and the other types of music I mentioned are not of interest to you, then I would suggest Bela Bartok, who I am also greatly influenced by. He broke all the rules and made something totally new. One more comment on the Boston piece, which I listened to twice. I felt there were good sounds throughout all of it, but that it lacked a memorable melody. This to me is absolutely number one - if you haven’t got this, nothing else matters. This is a critical comment, I understand, but I hope you will take it in the spirit in which I intend it - to be nothing other than helpful to you.

Best to you, and thanks for posting,
Gav

Hi Mike,

I was hoping you'd also chime in :) Reading of an actual composition process is exactly the kind of thing I've been looking for! I've tried my own processes of course, but I keep wondering, "What is everyone else doing?" It seems easy to find endless material on theory and very difficult to find material on the process and art of composition. It's similar to the process I've adopted, but what you said seems so key: choosing the parameters and controlling them. I'm going to consciously try this process, starting with improvising with the harmonic material and hearing it. Thanks for sharing your process!

Yay, books to check out!


Mike Hewer said:

Hi Joel,

Here's my take on your questions, inevitably  subjective and as short as I can possibly make it :-/

You do not need perfect pitch in order to compose complex harmony, but that is no get out clause. You do need to hear what you compose, either via the piano or computer. You also need experience in handling the material as Bob suggests, because manipulating complex sound needs a sure hand and a sound vision in order to create a consistent and satisfying work. Not hearing what you write is against all principles of self expression in my view and to ask players to learn complex music without you knowing what it sounds like is, well down right insulting. (not my words, but the words of a well known player)

I use complex synthetic scales in my work. I derive harmony from them and subject the harmonies intervallic structure to mutations. More normal practice such as scale changes (key!!!!) scale expansion and manipulation then give a motor, a way of moving forward, for the work. These initial choices are made after a lot of thought and improvisation on the m/s and at the piano. Once the choices are made, a structural plan is worked out with possible areas of interest sketched in. By this I mean perhaps a meta plan for gravitational attraction between scales or notes or harmonies, and a developmental plan to manipulate material. 

This sounds very precise, but it's not like that in practice. A motive may be the spark for a whole work, or a chord progression, either way, it is important to set out parameters to make a piece cohesive and to control any material in order to eke out any latent expression. Ideally these parameters will be inferred if the original spark has fertile implications - it's a question of them teasing them out and testing them to see if they appeal.

Most important though is to makes sure you retain the intent to allow free fantasy too in the piece. An small moment as it develops may alter the whole course and original intent of the piece. Some call this inspiration and perhaps it is - just make sure you keep yourself receptive to it, it can still be a part of your overall vision and parameters even if if disregards them for a while, in fact it may be exciting and special because it does go against the grain.

I don't get too hung up about horizontal lines being in accord with vertical structures - the literature is replete with examples of disregard  in this sense, starting with (admittedly tightly controlled) early suspension technique, through passing tones, up to bitonality and beyond.  What is important is the sense of line (Gav says melody, but that is the wrong term in this context for me - thematic is more appropriate) and a sense of prose. This is deeply personal and can only be found in your artistic sensibility and experience. For me, I am constantly aware of how lines flow, how they feel to a player and listener, and how they shape the structure and emotional impact of a piece. Phrase length and harmonic rate are in a constant flux when I compose, I unceasingly vary and avoid a too regular rate of change and structure.

I could go on Joel, but I've already done so far too much. The questions you ask are to the heart of composing and the fact that you are asking them is something for you to be encouraged by in my view.  Listen to any acknowledged masterpiece in the last 100 years or so and you will hear a lot of what I've said above in practice. These thoughts are just my hurried take on what is a complex subject and is in no way exhaustive, but I'll stop here.

Some books you might find illuminating...

Hanson..Harmonic materials of modern music.

Music and Inspiration...Jonathon Harvey

Finding the Key...selected writings of Alexander Goehr.

George Perle..Serial Composition and Atonality

Mike.

your welcome Joel...just thought of something that may be very useful to you..

Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky.

If you google it, you will find a free download of it. It will get your ear going...

Downloaded!

Mike Hewer said:

your welcome Joel...just thought of something that may be very useful to you..

Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky.

If you google it, you will find a free download of it. It will get your ear going...

I don't compose in the "modern" idiom (whatever that means) so I'm not really qualified to contribute to this discussion, but what Mike said echoed my own experience:

"Not hearing what you write is against all principles of self expression in my view and to ask players to learn complex music without you knowing what it sounds like is, well down right insulting."

and the part about a small detail leading to brand new directions that were not part of the original plan.

The first part is ear-training, and it's certainly worthwhile to master the recognition of chords and sound combinations in whatever idiom you choose to write. And, if properly mastered, it will easily lead to you discovering your own voice.  I'd even say that in order to truly master atonal or post-tonal composition, your ear should have been developed at least to the point you can easily pick out the fine distinction of a single note's difference in a traditional tonal chord -- because one has to be that sensitive in order to be able to clearly hear an atonal work in the mind's ear.

The second part is very much my experience in composition: I often start off with a rough idea of where I want the music to go, but quite often in the course of working out (and working with) the musical material I stumble upon interesting ideas that lead off into brand new directions I haven't thought of initially -- "fantasy", as Mike puts it.  I find that most of the time, following these unexpected directions often leads to a more satisfying piece of music than sticking strictly with the original plan.  Of course, there is certainly the aspect of properly planning things out beforehand so that you have a clear direction to proceed -- writing without any plan often leads nowhere. But the occasional excursion or two may lead to a fresh re-conception of the original plan which may turn out to be far better. (And as a counterpoint(!) to that, sometimes you can still pull the music back from the excursion in the direction of the original plan afterwards, but having that excursion makes it so much more interesting than without, as Mike said.)

I vaguely remember your Boson piece, which I quite liked; if anything I'd say, in my own opinion of course, that what would really help is to develop a sense of overall dramatic arc, such that you can pull off a successful piece in any idiom, rather than being caught up with trying to discover your own unique idiom.  What really made music take off in the old days, e.g., in Beethoven, wasn't so much his mastery of the rules of music at the time (though he certainly had that mastery), but in his large-scale structures and conceptions, which is what I mean by "dramatic arc".  This mastery of large-scale structure and sense of dramatic arc goes far beyond the specifics of the classical/etc. harmony and what-not, and can really apply to any style, even to atonal or serial music. And because of this generality, IMO it's a much more worthwhile investment to master, than to master the letter of the rules of, say, serialism (or even your own self-made rules) yet be unable to conceive of a convincing overall musical structure.

Thanks for posting this Joel, good topic and questions and the answers so far are great.

I don't really have a good answer to any of your questions but a couple of thoughts at least.

" 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). "

There is so much accumulated music out there now it's hard to even know what is important beyond the obvious ones. So for "modern composition" what would be the essential study list? We all have our personal favorites, but who are the composers that any serious modern composer must be familiar with? Mike Hewer mentions "acknowledged masterpieces", is there a list somewhere?

Rodney has given us a list of composition exercises that I'm sure would give a composer thorough knowledge and excellent technique, but nowhere on there do I see improvisation mentioned. Mike Hewer does mention it briefly. I'm pretty sure all of the pre-1900 greats were accomplished improvisors, and improvisation is a great way to make a direct and unique personal connection with the basic materials of music. Just a thought.

Joel,

I just listened to the LIptak and had some extra thoughts on this business of composing.
One cannot write without imagination. Any technical aspect is there only to support your imagination, it acts as firm footing and guidance for your mind to wander and explore the parameters you set. This aspect is particularly relevant to the new in music.

ANother issue is that of rhythm. Adams has said that it is a great unifier (sorry, I'm paraphrasing here!) and is one of the root causes of the demise of the new in music from the 50's on because of the breakdown of an easily perceived pulse. You have to decide what side of the fence you are on here. Do you subject your rhythm to what seems to be to the listener, a lack of unifying pulse, by employing asymmetric rhythmical devices, or do you keep the rhythm more standard and therefore more readily comprehended by the listener. In other words how many people do you wish to communicate to.

Personally, I wish to get my music through to as many as possible and although my rhythm can be complicated at times, it is at heart, traditional. That is not to say that assymetric rhythm can't be used as a resource by me, because I have employed nested tuplets before and have deliberately obscured pulse, but I will always try and find the simplest rhythmical way to express an idea.

I assume you are familiar with Messiaens rhythmic practices, perhaps that's a good area to study to see if you are happy with emancipating rhythm a little more than what is standard practice. A freer approach to rhythm gives your imagination an even bigger universe to explore.

It's interesting that you admire Adams and Messiaen (I love them both) who's rhythmical practice is quite different and yet similar in a lot of ways.
@Ingo,

There is no definitive list of masterpieces, so what I did was look through Taruskins History of Western music, figuring he would only talk about the movers and shakers. Here are some classics, others would undoubtedly want to add to this as swathes of the greatest composers of the last hundred years are missing here, I tried to just pick some of the more modern orientated writers.

Stravinsky...all ballets and pretty much everything else he wrote
Schoenberg...five pieces for orchestra, pierrot lunaire, ewartung, piano pieces op19,
Webern...funf stucke op10, bagatellen op9,
Berg..wozzek, lulu, violin concerto
Hindemith, ludus tonalis
Bartok...all string quartets, music for strings percussion and celesta, concerto for orchestra
Debussy..prelude l'apres dun midi faune, piano preludes, la mer, pelleas et melisande
Ravel..jeaux d'eau, daphnis and chloe,
Messiaen..turangalila symphony, vingt regards, quartet for the end of time, colours of the celestial city,
Charles ives...concord sonata, the unanswered question,
Henry cowell..dynamic motion
Boulez...structures, pli selon pli,
Stockhuasen...gruppen , kreuzspiel
Carter...string quartets, double concerto, cello sonata
Cage...music of changes, music for prepared piano
Babbit...three compositions for piano, composition for four instruments,,philomel
Varese..deserts,
Berio,...sinfonia
Crumb...black angels, music for a mid summers night
Also check out lutoslawski, tippet, dutilleux, birtwistle, ades, etc.....

There are soooo many more, it'd take forever to list them all, so I wont.....

Mike, many you have listed are among my favs.. thought id throw in a few more:

Takemitsu - chamber music - "Rain spell' 'Bryce' 'twas wind'

Ligeti- piano études.

Miles Davis' ''Aura" written by Palle Mikkelborg

Corigliano - film music- 'Altered States'

Korngold, B. Herman - film music as well

Subotnick - "the Wild Bull', "Silver apples of the moon'

Threadgill - recordings "Up popped two legs', "Too much sugar for a dime"

Reich- 'Music for 18 musicians', 'piano phase'

A. Part  "Fratres" - choral works as well..

Golijov- "La Pasion"

Raymond Scott -- music for cartoons- :)   

for pleasant wallpaper , "thursday afternoon" -- Eno   :)

hi Gx,

How on earth could I forget Takemitsu and Ligeti (well it wasn't exhaustive!), but even so...those Ligeti studies are something aren't they...

Very good thoughts. The question of for what audience I will make my music accessible to is one I'm working through right now; I'm approaching it by first learning and experimenting/improvising with techniques that are new to me, and through the course of composing short pieces thereby I hope to have a palette that I'm happy with for future compositions (of course, modifying it some still in the future). One really does have so many choices for audience: the common Western listener, the common classical music lover, those that only respect the avant garde, those that like a fresh but consonant and understandable sound, etc. And I think for people like me and you, we know we will not appeal to the average person, even among classical music lovers (many who still would rather spend more time on music from 100+ years ago than on new music), yet we're willing to lose those listeners for the sake of creating something new, fresh. Right? And fortunately there are still a lot of people left that do want to hear a new sound.

I think I'm siding on the side of music that people can understand while listening. And fortunately a rhythmic pulse still leaves room for plenty of rhythmic interest such as irregular and changing meters to create suspense, surprise, and forward motion into the next peak or sub-peak, and I think even sudden changes in the pulse to a ratio of it, sometimes only briefly before returning  back to the original rate (which they often do in jazz also).

I especially like the Turangalila symphony because it is harmonically rich yet consonant (imo), still with tension-resolution, and also the pulse is there but there much rhythmic and tempo variety, and also he builds well with so many things going on at once. I'm looking forward to reading (a translation of) his "The Technique of My Musical Language" which I found just the other day https://monoskop.org/images/5/50/Messiaen_Olivier_The_Technique_of_... 



Mike Hewer said:

Joel,

I just listened to the LIptak and had some extra thoughts on this business of composing.
One cannot write without imagination. Any technical aspect is there only to support your imagination, it acts as firm footing and guidance for your mind to wander and explore the parameters you set. This aspect is particularly relevant to the new in music.

ANother issue is that of rhythm. Adams has said that it is a great unifier (sorry, I'm paraphrasing here!) and is one of the root causes of the demise of the new in music from the 50's on because of the breakdown of an easily perceived pulse. You have to decide what side of the fence you are on here. Do you subject your rhythm to what seems to be to the listener, a lack of unifying pulse, by employing asymmetric rhythmical devices, or do you keep the rhythm more standard and therefore more readily comprehended by the listener. In other words how many people do you wish to communicate to.

Personally, I wish to get my music through to as many as possible and although my rhythm can be complicated at times, it is at heart, traditional. That is not to say that assymetric rhythm can't be used as a resource by me, because I have employed nested tuplets before and have deliberately obscured pulse, but I will always try and find the simplest rhythmical way to express an idea.

I assume you are familiar with Messiaens rhythmic practices, perhaps that's a good area to study to see if you are happy with emancipating rhythm a little more than what is standard practice. A freer approach to rhythm gives your imagination an even bigger universe to explore.

It's interesting that you admire Adams and Messiaen (I love them both) who's rhythmical practice is quite different and yet similar in a lot of ways.

Yes, they are truly fantastic!

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