Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!

Hi Colleagues,

Recently the phrase "Finding an American Voice" came up in a post Julie Harris put up about her excellent work "Shortnin' Bread," and the phrase has kind of stuck with me, I think because it is what I have been trying to do since I have been a composer. When I first started out mostly I copied the styles of others, it's only been in the last 10 years or so that I have started to feel something inside of me coming out, that while it may still be influenced by others, is no longer an imitation, it is something more. I think that is my voice (and I am glad to say I have one) coming out. I first saw inklings of this on two fronts: in harmonies and in time signatures. As far as harmony, here's an example:

What is that first chord? Looking from bottom to top, it's an extended D- chord. Looking at the top only, it's a C-maj7. So is it an extended harmony, or polytonal? I tend to think of it as simultaneously both, because then I don't have to be strictly in one key or another in either hand. In other words, it kind of frees me up to do whatever sounds good to me.

As far as time goes, I like to play around. While I compose in regular 2- or 3-beat time sometimes, sometimes I consciously seek out unusual time signatures and vary them, as in the example below, where each measure has one more 8th note in it than the last. In the example, my goal in adding one more note to each measure was to build and advance an idea as an attempt to create excitement in a way similar to how building volume does

As far as the overall nature of a piece, I think there are two kinds, one for short and one for long. In a short piece, due to shortness, a single nature is usually sufficient. Here's an example of a section of a piece I wrote of about 2 minutes duration. It doesn't vary from the tempo shown, and is intended to give a feeling of rising and falling slowly (hence the alternation of the C and D-flat in the bass).

In a longer piece, contrast seems to me the word I keep coming back to. I think it is essential that a piece of any significant length have wide contrasts between sections to avoid becoming dull. I particularly like sudden contrasts, as in the example below - note the sudden changes from soft to loud and the reverse - as well as the rapid move up the register.

I also like syncopation and latin rhythms, which are just plain fun to write and perform

I also am finding that rock is creeping more and more into my current works, which is to say whole tone progressions and sometimes pentatonic melodies. For example, this somewhat jazzy bit

boils down to a pure rock whole tone progression:

Here's a short piece that puts some of the above together. As usual, my output is from the Finale notation program, and I am aware its recording capability is limited, so no need to remind me about that

Not all my influences are American, of course, and this only a limited subset of things which are making me feel like my own voice is emerging. I'd be interested in any commentary on this, or perhaps you could share thoughts about your own voice!

Gav

Views: 308

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Gav,

I feel like from the very first time you put some musical notes together, you were expressing your voice. Maybe you were trying to copy some other style, but it was still filtered through your voice. No one else's. 

Living in America, especially if you were brought up in America, I don't think you can help but write with an American voice. That's an over simplification, I know. Even if you were to try to write Hindu music ( like I'm going to attempt for a video) it would still have your voice in it. 

As to the YouTube piece, I feel all the parallel triads work because you disguise them with unrelated parallel triads so that they are all jazz chords. I actually like this piece. I have no problem with Finale piano playback. 

Hi Gav,

I like your short Kite piece very much!

It's music that I like, but I fail to see what the "American" element is in it. Having heard other piano pieces by you, I would also say that it is definitely your voice (without nationality involved).

 

About the examples you give, I think you referred to too many things at once and probably it would be better to take one at a time.

So, going to your first example, what I can see is a Cmaj 7 chord in the tremble over a Dm chord in the bass, which would suggest immediately to one some kind of bitonality. Fine.

In all such cases, still, I would be more interested in discussing the voice leading issues emerging from such usage, and distancing slowly from harmony, I would like to see if there are serious contrapuntal implications to be considered.

I am not being critical here (composition is a free concept), but I want to be rightly informed and learn from other people's approaches.

Hi all, thanks for your comments, and answered individually below >

============

Bob -

I feel like from the very first time you put some musical notes together, you were expressing your voice. Maybe you were trying to copy some other style, but it was still filtered through your voice. No one else's.

>That is a generous view which I am going to go with from now on. I think you caught my attention when you said "still filtered." Thanks!

Living in America, especially if you were brought up in America, I don't think you can help but write with an American voice. That's an over simplification, I know. Even if you were to try to write Hindu music ( like I'm going to attempt for a video) it would still have your voice in it.

>Not sure if I agree with you on that - a lot of composers seem to me to be specifically aiming for a European style, unless I am misunderstanding your point.

As to the YouTube piece, I feel all the parallel triads work because you disguise them with unrelated parallel triads so that they are all jazz chords.

>Thanks, I love writing in parallel, something about it is very satisfying, perhaps that it creates a natural sense of build, if you take my meaning. Things you can't get away with in a mixed ensemble work perfectly well on the piano is my perception.

I actually like this piece. I have no problem with Finale piano playback.

>So glad to hear it and thanks for listening!

===============

MM,

Hi Gav. Its a really good jazzy composition you have here. To be honest, I would really like to hear it in an improv ensemble setting.

>Thanks for listening, glad you enjoyed! Curious what you mean by improv ensemble!

While listening to your piece I paid particular attention as to how it sounded American to me because this is a topic I'm very interested in. Despite the title, I immediately got a moderate-sized city feel and related imagery from it. However, it didn't sound like just any city to me. Rather it reminded me of Chicago (as opposed to places like Atlanta or New Orleans or LA or Nashville or Dallas).

>I love that you got this impression from it! I aim for my music to have an aspect about it of a visual evocation or to tell a story,  and it seems like it worked out with that. I've been in Chicago many times, and that's a good music city!

Until this moment I've attempted to define a modern American Voice with a set of techniques, theories and a recipe of specific cultural influences but these factors are no longer limited to Americans.

>Like other composers who "write to their country," I draw on influences that come from popular music sometimes, other times from established American composers like Gershwin and Davis. My approach is unscientific, I hear something I like and it becomes a part of my toolkit, almost without me thinking about it. I remember once writing a piece based on the ambient music that plays as you go down an underground accessway to Concourse C in the Chicago airport.

In considering your music, I was reminded that the diversity in our country isn't just limited to people and culture. The land itself is very diverse, of many moods and is perhaps the only thing that we uniquely have aside from history.

>I never quite thought of it this way, but this strikes me as right. Certainly we could say the American music of Gershwin is very New York, while that of Copland is the American west

====================

Socrates,

Hi Gav,

I like your short Kite piece very much!

It's music that I like, but I fail to see what the "American" element is in it. Having heard other piano pieces by you, I would also say that it is definitely your voice (without nationality involved).

>Glad to hear you liked it and it's ok with me if a listener pulls something away from a piece that is different from what I say it represents! I think to some extent every piece always has two components: the piece itself, and what the listener gets from it. That is the listener applying their own context to how they feel about a piece, and if it works for them, then it just works.

About the examples you give, I think you referred to too many things at once and probably it would be better to take one at a time.

So, going to your first example, what I can see is a Cmaj 7 chord in the tremble over a Dm chord in the bass, which would suggest immediately to one some kind of bitonality. Fine.

In all such cases, still, I would be more interested in discussing the voice leading issues emerging from such usage, and distancing slowly from harmony, I would like to see if there are serious contrapuntal implications to be considered.

I am not being critical here (composition is a free concept), but I want to be rightly informed and learn from other people's approaches.

>There is so much that I find interesting in what you say here that I don't know where to go from here. If you ask me a specific question, I will try to answer it

Thanks again to all of you, I appreciate your feedback on the piece as well as the topic!

Hi Gav,

since there is only melody and accompaniment (no counter melody) in your first example, I just copy sequentially the chords and melody to see if I can come up with an opening 7 bar phrase.

Is this, you think, a legitimate approach? To me it seems logical (but not necessarily what you have in mind or denoting any American quality as such.

 

I'll have another examination of the 2nd example and come back if I find anything on my own, that I am not ashamed to post/discuss. c u in a day or so.

Gave%20example%201.mp3

Gav, 

It's one thing to aim for a European style, and quite another to hit it. I certainly could be over-generalizing, but I feel like no matter how much I study Greek music, for example, even to the point of living there for several years, my compositions will always be filtered by my roots, my over simplistic melodies and harmonies. And my belief that music is an emotional experience and not a mathematical one. 

Socrates, I will be in touch later after I have had time to look closely at your example -

Bob, I agree -

Hi Socrates, Of course I do find your approach legitimate, as is all experimentation. A couple of things which struck me about what you did - 1) at the slower tempo, it comes across as a bossa nova, which I like; 2) the F natural in the chord in the 3rd bar is for me a bridge too far, I would have probably sharped it to be more consonant, but that does not mean it is not legit, just a reflection of differing styles and/or experimentation; 3) The 7-bar phrase I find perfectly fine. I sometimes will eliminate a bar or a repeat when I think it is only happening because of a traditional baggage-tendency to make everything an even multiple of 2. But if you do this, it has to be carried forwarded into what follows next. Not to say you have to have another 7-bar phrase, but what you do next must make sense given a 7-bar phrase here.

Thanks MM, I think this would work quite well as a jazz tune with an improv section!

What a fun piece, Gav!  I also enjoyed all your examples that led up to the piece.  I think in a blindfolded listening test, I'd be able to identify your music, whether or not an individual piece is "American".  "American" music is actually a little hard to pin down, isn't it?  Are Latin rhythms American?  Is jazz purely American?  I think Ravel did jazz earlier and better than many folks on this side of the pond, so was he finding his American voice?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa9cfqzKcms

In my world, growing up in and living in America does not automatically lead to an American voice.  When I was writing my Freight Train variations (I'll post those sometime), I had to work hard to weed out the Russian, French, German and Italian influences.  The source for my variations was a tune written by twelve year old Libba Cotton, who grew up down the road from me - a piece that practically reached the status of American folk tune when Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger made it famous.  You can't get more American than that!  And yet, my first draft, which was awful, was full of European Romantic.  It's not that easy to have your music reflect your own country, nor is it a given. 

I grew up in the 20th century as well, and now am continuing to grow in the 21st - just like everyone on this forum.  Yet very few of us automatically write in a contemporary style.  Most of the music on this forum sounds Baroque, Classical or Romantic, or even earlier.  It's what we all grew up calling "classical music" so no wonder! 

I made a conscious effort to write "American music" in my American Triptych and my Tribute to Libba (Freight Train variations).  Other times I wasn't interested in a particular American style nor even in finding my own voice.  I let the music be the guide. 

Samuel Barber was a good example of someone who wrote in so many different styles it's hard to pin him down to a particular "school" or country.  He just wrote wonderful music!

https://musicwiz.club/samuel-barber-american-composer-1910-1981/

Julie,

In your view, what is "a contemporary style"? I'm not talking about composers who, in your opinion, write in a contemporary style, but what are the building blocks that set it apart from other styles? Why are those blocks important? 

When I was in music school in the early 70's, there was a big push for atonal, 12 tone, and the like. At the same time, we had to learn all the traditional stuff. This was really the first time I had been exposed to any formal music training, though I had been playing trumpet and guitar for a number of years. While in college, I was exposed to both styles, traditional and "contemporary" in some detail. Frankly, contemporary seemed cold and impersonal. I know relaxing the rules, as some styles do, is supposed to be freeing. I felt there was no focus. 

Truth be told, I don't like most music I hear. The rest I do like, or at least, tolerate. I can afford to feel that way because I write music for the fun of it. I know I'm nobody, going nowhere. And I'm fine with that.

Bob, it might be interesting to explore what "contemporary style" means to any of us ... but probably not on this thread.  I don't want to veer away too much from Gav's piece and his original question about finding one's voice.  Would you like to start a new thread?

Hi Julie,

Julie Harris said:

What a fun piece, Gav!  I also enjoyed all your examples that led up to the piece. 

>>Thanks so much for listening Julie, and glad you liked!

I think in a blindfolded listening test, I'd be able to identify your music, whether or not an individual piece is "American". 

>>>That is fair!

"American" music is actually a little hard to pin down, isn't it?  Are Latin rhythms American?  Is jazz purely American?  I think Ravel did jazz earlier and better than many folks on this side of the pond, so was he finding his American voice?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa9cfqzKcms

In my world, growing up in and living in America does not automatically lead to an American voice.  When I was writing my Freight Train variations (I'll post those sometime), I had to work hard to weed out the Russian, French, German and Italian influences.  The source for my variations was a tune written by twelve year old Libba Cotton, who grew up down the road from me - a piece that practically reached the status of American folk tune when Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger made it famous.  You can't get more American than that!  And yet, my first draft, which was awful, was full of European Romantic.  It's not that easy to have your music reflect your own country, nor is it a given. 

>>Can't disagree with that! Where you draw your influences from is a choice, not an automatic heritage of birth. BTW the Ravel is good as is everything he did, thanks for sharing that. I believe I am hearing some Gershwin Concerto in F in the first movement.

I grew up in the 20th century as well, and now am continuing to grow in the 21st - just like everyone on this forum.  Yet very few of us automatically write in a contemporary style.  Most of the music on this forum sounds Baroque, Classical or Romantic, or even earlier.  It's what we all grew up calling "classical music" so no wonder! 

>>>Also very true, but I think writing in a contemporary style vs. harkening back to recreate or fit in with a past sound is a choice. The choice is (caveat: my opinion only, not asking anyone to share this view) to copy a dead form of music or to attempt to add a new form.

I made a conscious effort to write "American music" in my American Triptych and my Tribute to Libba (Freight Train variations).  Other times I wasn't interested in a particular American style nor even in finding my own voice.  I let the music be the guide. 

>>>I am almost always consciously seeking an American sound.

Samuel Barber was a good example of someone who wrote in so many different styles it's hard to pin him down to a particular "school" or country.  He just wrote wonderful music!

https://musicwiz.club/samuel-barber-american-composer-1910-1981/

>>>Thanks for that example as well. I certainly do like him a lot!

Reply to Discussion

RSS

Sign up info

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

Store

© 2021   Created by Gav Brown.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service