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Open discussion - Why do you compose in the style you do?

Hello colleagues, 

We have a variety of composers on this site who write music in many different styles, from neoclassical (music in the style of a period of history), modern classical, jazz, ragtime, techno, filmic, video-game, pop, and "other," as well as people who have no fixed style but hop around through different approaches with each piece. I am starting this conversation to invite you all to discuss why you choose to compose in the style that you do. To have this be a somewhat structured conversation, I ask that in your initial reply you use the following format:

1) Style or styles I compose in and why:

2) Example: (link)

3) Brief description of the music you just provided the link to. 

The music you link to can be something you've already posted here, it doesn't need to be something new. After your initial posting, it's open discussion.

Gav

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I think this is a fine idea, both because it gives us as a group a chance to exchange our experience as composers, and because as individuals it may give some of us an opportunity to stop and reconsider our own work.

Many of my compositions are adaptations, mostly but not always instrumental, of folk songs.   I began composing such things as a result of realizing that a huge number of scores of traditional music are now available in old books archived on the internet.  A more modern inspiration for me has been the works of the Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, best known outside of Greece as the composer of the song “Never On Sunday” from the film of the same name. But his real significance is as the creator of a revolution in modern Greek music by creating brilliant refurbishments of traditional folk and popular Greek songs, especially those from the genre known as rebetica. The seminal work in this revolution was undoubtedly his 1962 album Lilacs Out Of The Dead Land. What impressed me most about his compositions is that they are not merely arrangements of traditional melodies, but explorations of them: his variations bring out musical and emotional aspects of the familiar, usually simple, traditional melodies which I had never imagined.  Hadjidakis, however, kept a strong Greek feeling in his compositions by prominently retaining the use of bouzouki; I myself almost never use instruments outside of those of standard classical ensembles.  Another difference is that I draw the melodies I adapt rarely from Greek music, but more often from British, Celtic, Russian, or French traditions.

My interest in traditional Greek music, which stands on the border (both geographically and musicologically) between European and Middle Eastern music, led me to listen to a lot of music from Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern influenced music, including Balkan and Sephardic traditions. Some of my compositions are based on folk tunes from those traditions, for instance Bright Sun, others are original melodies of my own given an Anatolian or Balkan mood, like my The Empty Plateia.  One specific technique I’ve taken from these traditions is that of the taxim, an improvised or improvised-sounding introductory, usually solo passage exploring the mode of the main section of the music to come.  One innovation of my own (at least I’ve never found any other composers using it) is to use the taxim in compositions which aren’t at all Middle Eastern. For instance my Four Russian Songs for Violin Clarinet and Cello begins with a passage which formally meets the definition I’ve given above of a taxim, although taxim  isn’t a technique used in traditional Russian music.

Another genre I’ve worked can be called art song in the general sense, that is, poems (sometimes my own, more often great poems from the past)  set to music.  Some of these are, as is usual with standard art song, solo vocals accompanied by piano, but most are solo (or a few times two to four voices) with small ensemble.  One such, Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper, is among the handful of my pieces which have actually been performed by professional musicians, though unfortunately I don’t have a recording of it.  A score and software-generated audio demo has been posted on this site.

I’ve also worked in a number of other styles, including lots of solo flute pieces, adaptations of early vocal music, many choral pieces, a few humorous compositions, and some exotic, experimental, or plain weird compositions.  But since this posting is already perhaps narcissistically overlong, I’ll only offer to say more about those compositions on request, and close with a brief description of my musical background.

My formal musical training consisted of several years playing string bass in Jr. High and High School (I walked into my school’s Band/Orchestra room and the music teacher looked up at me and said, “Hey, you’re tall, you play bass,”) and although I didn’t keep it up and probably couldn’t produce a tune on the bass if you handed me one today, it at least gave me the rudiments of reading music and playing a string instrument.  Later I taught myself a simple-tunes ability on harmonica and tin whistle, and more recently did a bit of self-study on piano (actually a 64 note electronic keyboard.) I gave up on that after getting to somewhat complicated two-handed pieces, since I found that my two handed co-ordination is hopeless – I’m one of those people who can’t pat their head and rub their stomach at the same time.  Still, that study at least gave me the rudiments of reading and playing keyboard.  At present, the only thing I can say that I really play is picking out simple melodies and chords on the keyboard. 

Finally, I should mention that I really started composing when I discovered MuseScore, the free music notation software, which I’ve used to develop all my pieces.

So there you have it, or me. I hope this long piece will be of some interest to some members of this site, and I look forward to postings from people who also want to share their composing experience.

(If anyone has problems with the above links, please let me know and I'll try to correct them in a further comment.)

Hi Jon, very interesting.  Thanks for sharing.

Ali

This is a really interesting question. A few months ago I would have said that my style is closest to early Schoenberg, because I felt that nether world on the edge of tonality is a place where anything can happen, and where expressive possibilities are practically unlimited. I finished up a string quartet last winter in that style and posted it here. But its expressive world is one of unbridled anguish, and it ends in abject despair. Now, after a few months, I'm not sure what else I can do with that idiom, and at least for the moment, I'm not feeling drawn to it at all.

Mainly, I think, this is because of the pandemic. Everything has been turned upside down, and even modern civilization, at least as it has evolved since the Renaissance, is under threat. Or at least, the values of the Enlightenment, that have given rise to so much that we have today, both our technology and our democratic societies, many people seem to be rejecting those values, the light of science and reason, for opinions based on tribalism and beliefs based on what one wishes to be true. So now I am feeling drawn to older forms and styles, to the fruits in music that came into being just before and during the Enlightenment, to classical tonality and strict forms like passacaglias and fugues. I guess the connection doesn't make logical sense and I'm not sure whether anyone will understand what I'm saying. But that's one reason for my returning to tonal composition.

The other is just that I guess I'm feeling now that the edge of tonality is more suited to expressions of personal anguish and nightmare states, like Schoenberg's expressionist paintings. I know that's not necessarily true and I know of several composers (including some here) who write atonal works in a more impressionistic vein. A couple of really nice examples would be Havergal Brian's Wine of Summer, and our own Dane Aubrun's Music for Orchestra 2. But I've never really been drawn to writing that sort of thing. The music that attracts me now is more classically oriented, with a strong sense of moving purposefully from A to B, always in flux, always evolving and flowing in a natural way. Among "modern" composers, Carl Nielsen probably exemplifies this approach the best. Again I think this has to do with the pandemic. We will not get through this without focused, disciplined action and a positive, hopeful attitude. That attitude has come to permeate my approach to writing and expressing myself in music as well.

I don't know if any of this makes sense, but there it is, for whatever it's worth.

I have always found (though I have composed atonal pieces myself) atonality to be a potentially interesting experiment.  It's a snack when you want something different, not a square meal.  The essence of Western culture, in my understanding, is teleology:  any comprehensible discourse, including art as discourse, must have an organizing goal towards which it evolves, and that evolution is the meaning of the discourse.  I realize, of course, that large sectors of our current intelligentsia consider such teleology the essence of evil, though they may not articulate it that way.

Shakespeare made the same point superbly in the classic passage on "degree," by which he meant hierarchy: it's long, but I think it's worth quoting because it relates directly to the general topic of this thread and to Liz Atems's comment above: note "Hark! What discords ..."

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself

Jeez...I did a write up, a couple of links, took about 1 1/2 hours to get sorted out what with converting old stuff to mp3.

Clicked Add Reply. It faffed around for a couple of minutes then came up with Bad Gateway.

And I scotched the lot. Not that my contribution would have been interesting anyway but it could've made useful insomnia treatment. 

:(

Dane, that's happened to me too... not often here, but elsewhere not infrequently, and so I tend to copy any long post I've just composed to the clipboard before hitting Add Reply. A shame we lost your thoughts on this.

Jon, I always thought that statement by Ulysses was referring to political hierarchy, not the order of Nature. In the former I have no particular investment; but belief in and respect for the latter is central to Enlightenment values and to my own worldview. As for teleology, I'm all for teleology in discourse, including musical discourse, though not dogmatically so - it's just how I tend to approach composition. I'm not sure which sectors of our current intelligentsia consider teleology "evil", unless you're referring to the pushback against such things as the teaching of "creation science" in science classes. The evil isn't in teleology itself, nor even in the notion that Nature proceeds with a goal in mind (a notion that many scientists would consider "not even wrong", though I personally just think of it as orthogonal to any scientific theory), but in the use of a teleologically based narrative to suppress and confuse the abundant physical evidence that details of the narrative are flat-out factually wrong, e.g. that the Earth is 6000 years old.

But maybe you are thinking of something else, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, so I'll let you clarify if you care to.

I don't know that I would call atonality just an interesting experiment. I think there is much that can be expressed in that idiom. But I think that giving up tonality altogether sacrifices one source of dynamic energy in music, and that composers who work in that vein are in effect working with one hand tied behind their back. Robert Simpson made much the same point: he said "if you lose a leg, you have to concentrate in order to move about without it, but however hard you concentrate, you cannot escape the conclusion that it is better to have two legs". I also think that much atonal music really does rely on tonal processes, even if they are so heavily buried that the ear only subliminally perceives them. Schoenberg's 4th string quartet comes to mind as an example: surely it starts in D minor? And so much of the slow movement seems to be searching for a key. Simpson also once commented wryly that he felt Schoenberg's Piano Concerto was really in C Major underneath everything, or some such, but I can't find the quote at the moment.

That has happened to me too, or used to.  I now write any lengthy post to a web site first in Notepad or Word, saving it a temporary filem so if the post fails I'll still have a backup.  It often requires some fiddling with the format, e.g. taking out Word's automatic paragraph marks, but I think it's worth it.

Dane Aubrun said:

Jeez...I did a write up, a couple of links, took about 1 1/2 hours to get sorted out what with converting old stuff to mp3.

Clicked Add Reply. It faffed around for a couple of minutes then came up with Bad Gateway.

And I scotched the lot. Not that my contribution would have been interesting anyway but it could've made useful insomnia treatment. 

:(

It has forced me to consider the question. It made me look back to what I'd call the formal start of composing while at school. I still have the first manuscript of that time. For reasons that needn't be mentioned here it was an extremely angry reaction to an event at the time. It's discordant, noisy, morose.... really an improvisation, taking anger out on the piano (which thankfully was in the annexe).

For all that it seemed to set a trend. I hardly seem to have changed since, now I look at it...similar chordal structures, intervals, attacks, moments of respite....I don't seem to have moved on at all except through a few diversions.

Once I'd got over the anger bit, I scored it as a quintet for people who could be persuaded to perform it, family friends and a school chum. The adults probably looked on me as a novelty! 

.

Styles I compose in: mostly classical/neo-classical. Sometimes an arbitrary mixture of classical and more modern styles.

Why?  To paraphrase Debussy: because I feel like it. :-D I compose what I like to listen to, which happens to be of the neo-classical flavor; I give less heed to what people might like to hear, and I actively reject jumping on bandwagons ("you should write in style X because that's the latest and greatest fashion!", or, worst of all, "you should write X because everybody else is doing it!"). In particular, I strongly reject the notion that new is (necessarily) better, and that to be creative implies throwing away the past and inventing something from scratch. My belief is that true novelty comes from buliding upon previous work, rather than rejecting and denying it and inventing something supposedly "new". Correspondingly, just because a particular style is considered as "old" does not necessarily mean it has been exhausted and offers no new avenues of creativity.  While the crowds are actively reaching for the skies, so to speak, I stop and take note of unexplored avenues in towns most have abandoned, and discover new treasures therein.

Examples of my work:

Brief discussion of the above examples:

Let me start from the bottom, since that's chronologically the earliest in the list: I am utterly unashamed to declare openly that Beethoven is one of my greatest influences, both in quantity and in quality, and that I actively seek to emulate many aspects of his work. His influence ought to be very obvious in the Fantasia. :-)

The Threnody was composed for a contest on this very forum, and represents a departure from my usual output.  I approached it from an iconoclastic contrarian's POV, freely borrowing the theme from Handel's fireworks overture and then proceeding to trample upon it, twist and warp it until it's completely out of shape, while juxtaposing it with modernistic elements like bitonality, deliberate discords, and borderline atonal-like passages. I even threw in a cryptogram of sorts in the last section, an enigmatic sequence of pitches that encodes the name of the victim of the fire.

The fugue on Erwin's theme was done mainly as a short exercise, so not much substance there, but I did very much like how the phrygian-like modality came through.

Exuberance represents my most up-to-date style, that is, fugal texture. It is, however, definitely not a Baroque era fugue; I have no interest in replicating an ancient formula just for the sake of replicating an ancient formula; so I took liberties with the form and wrote what I liked to write rather than what the prescriptivists would have me write when they hear the word "fugue". Another fugue of mine, Fugue in D: Noises in Two Voices (not linked above; search my profile if you're interested to hear it), takes even more liberties, twisting the traditional fugue from a serious composition into a light-hearted joke-like piece, complete with a non-traditional answer decidedly not in the usual dominant key but a minor 3rd above the subject, and in fact, throughout the piece, all over the map, and when the dominant answer finally comes, it's rudely cut off and terminated before falling back into the traditional mold. :-P Whimsy is definitely an important element in my compositions, at least in process, if not apparent on the surface!

Fugal texture is something that has most recently utterly fascinated me, because its strictures demand utmost creativity in order for it to still express something unique, that isn't just yet another textbook regurgitation exercise that composition students are forced to write for homework. In particular, it imposes a certain quality on the subject -- not every subject is amenable to fugal treatment! -- which means you're forced to exclude trivial, inane subjects; and the strictures of counterpoint demand that you abandon fluff like meaningless droning accompaniment figures, and really think things through. The strictures of form also demand thorough exploration and development of your subject matter, since the (apparent) paucity of starting materials means you have to squeeze every last drop of juice from your chosen subject, thereby ensuring thorough development. And the tightness of the form similarly ensures that every transition is well-thought out, since an arbitrary, ad hoc transition would immediately stick out like a sore thumb. When you finally do break through in spite of all these straitjackets, there's a great sense of accomplishment not found anywhere else. :-)

HS, I really like your attitude about this and will have to give some of your pieces a listen when I get a chance. Your discussion of fugue was especially interesting to me as I just finished a piece that contains lots of fugal textures but is, in my opinion, NOT a fugue per se. What is it that makes a fugue a fugue? It cannot simply be the use of imitative entries as canon fits that bill too. I have always felt that the subject must be taken apart and developed contrapuntally in a focused way, and there my own piece cops out nearly every time - either it brings in additional material, or sets the subject against figures only remotely related to the subject and countersubject, or it breaks away from imitative counterpoint into an antiphonal exchange, or... the list goes on.

My feeling is that if one is not simply doing a compositional exercise, it is more important to follow one's musical inspiration than to try to shoehorn the material into a form that isn't appropriate. I realized as I went on that I *could have* found ways of developing my subject in a more consistently fugal way... but then it wouldn't have conveyed what I wanted it to expressively. So I compromised and composed some weird unclassifiable hybrid work, a sort of polyphonic fantasia with elements of fugue as well as a more sectional structure something like variation form, but without the theme to go with the variations.

Anyway, just some stream of consciousness thoughts inspired by reading your essay.

If I'm a little reluctant to reply to this specific comment, it's because such discussions may lead far afield from the subject of this thread.   But here I'll only say that first, it seems to me that the whole import of the Shakespeare passage is to argue that the hierarchical social and political order is part of the natural order of the universe, and thus by implication is part of the divinely established order of creation.  As for teleology and politics, teleology implies hierarchy, and it seems to me that the whole tenor of neo-leftist politics is rooted in the Marxist vision of an eventual classless, that is, non-hierarchical, society.

But I suggest further discussion of this doesn't belong in this thread, though it may belong on this site, if we can keep it connected to music and composition. Perhaps we should consider the question of whether atonality wants to do to music what Marxism wants to do to capitalism.


Liz Atems said:

...

Jon, I always thought that statement by Ulysses was referring to political hierarchy, not the order of Nature. In the former I have no particular investment; but belief in and respect for the latter is central to Enlightenment values and to my own worldview. As for teleology, I'm all for teleology in discourse, including musical discourse, though not dogmatically so - it's just how I tend to approach composition. I'm not sure which sectors of our current intelligentsia consider teleology "evil"...



H. S. Teoh said:

To paraphrase Debussy: because I feel like it.

When challenged by the registrar of the Paris Conservatory as to what rule he followed when composing, Debussy replied disarmingly, “Mon plaisir!” But it wasn’t a matter of just his pleasure; he also said, “La musique doit humblement chercher à faire Plaisir.”

I strongly reject the notion that new is (necessarily) better, and that to be creative implies throwing away the past and inventing something from scratch. My belief is that true novelty comes from buliding upon previous work, rather than rejecting and denying it and inventing something supposedly "new".

One of the main tenets of Modernism, “Make it new!”  has been continually misinterpreted.  The “it” in that command is not the work of art, it is the tradition.

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