Musical Repetition (featuring a video from TedEd)

As a composer of music that frequently features strong emphasis on stasis or repetition, I frequently butt heads with the notion that repetition without transformation is non-music, or “boring.” When we allow ourselves to let go of our judgments about if we like music or not, or if we’re bored or not, we tend to be more open to having the experience that the music is facilitating. In many ways, music that contains strong repetition allows us to experience more fully the depth of the musical event because we are allowed to engage with this music several times over, each time learning a new thing about what the music is saying.  This concept has fascinated me since the first time I heard a minimalist work and has had a strong drive on my recent conceptualization of what I want my music to be like.

This brief video from TedEd explains some of the science behind this idea.

What Do I Really Care About Here? : The “Soul” and “Body” of a Piece

by Nathan Cornelius

I’m writing this post fresh off my first lesson on a new piece I’m composing. I often feel some trepidation about showing a piece to my teacher for the first time, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond the mere fear of criticism, as any artist needs to come to terms with both positive and negative feedback on their work. Besides, the very point of studying with a teacher is to see where your pieces fall short of your goals for them and then how to improve them. When my teacher points out a weakness in my work and offers advice on how to fix it, my usual emotion is one of gratitude, not fear. At the very least, I feel that I’m getting my money’s worth.

Why then am I worried about what my teacher will say of my new piece? In pondering this question further, I found it helpful to distinguish between the “soul” and the “body” of a piece of music. The soul of a piece is the idea at its very core, the thing that impelled you to create the piece in the first place.  Like its DNA, it identifies this piece as unique, distinct from any other piece of music, and contains the germ of everything it could grow into. For me, the soul of a piece can take many different forms, such as a word or phrase, an image, a scientific concept, or a memory of a specific life experience. It can also be an abstract, purely musical idea that generates the entire piece. Wherever this original idea came from, I see the piece’s identity as firmly tied to it.

Of course, a human soul cannot be fully alive without a body. Similarly, the composer must work through a process of realizing his or her idea in notes so that it can have a life outside of the composer’s mind. What we call compositional technique is the skill with which a composer builds the skeleton and sinews of the piece. The specific manifestation of the piece (its “body”) can potentially be changed, either on a surface or structural level, without altering the piece’s identity (its “soul”). However, just as a person’s outward appearance may reveal or conceal his or her inner nature, a piece’s “body” may manifest its “soul” with varying degrees of clarity. The process of growth as a composer is one of learning how to construct pieces in such a way that the basic idea shines through lucidly (unless, perhaps, the composer specifically intends to obscure it).

Thus, I finally realized I’m not worried my teacher will tell me how to make the piece better by improving my execution of my idea. In human terms, this would be akin to adopting an exercise regimen, tearing down one’s body in hopes of making it stronger or more beautiful.  Instead, I’m worried my teacher will find the idea itself, the “soul” of the piece, lacking, and I find this prospect disturbing.  I realize I care about this idea, and I don’t want to let it go and replace it with a different “soul,” even if the “body” is superficially similar. My decisions as the composer determine whether this piece will live or die—and I earnestly want it to live. As the composer Chaya Czernowin has said, only by sensing “what is at stake” in writing a piece, what aspect of it is in danger, can you discover what is important to you as a composer.

I do believe a piece can only be as good as its original idea allows. And it may be beyond the skill of a particular composer to flesh out a suitable “body” for a given “soul.” Yet it would be absurd for composers to keep searching for better “souls” for their pieces before they start composing. If that were the case, no one could write any music until they find an idea with the potential to become The Greatest Piece of Music Ever. Just as there is no ideal, perfect human being, there is no ideal piece of music, and composers cannot sit around waiting for stronger inspiration to fall into their lap. Instead, all we can do is work with the ideas we are given, valuing each one as a unique and beautiful entity despite its shortcomings. Yet we are always dreaming, hoping, searching, and working to help it grow into the best self it can become—just as we ought to do for the human beings we care about in real life.

Technique versus Expression in New Music

by Nathan Cornelius    

I recently finished composing a piece that represents a new style for me. In the process of notating this piece, I became uncomfortably aware of some concerns I have about new music and its relationship to performers and the audience, which I’d like to share in this post.

Thus far in my brief career as a composer, most of my music had focused on the notes, with either tonal or atonal pitch structures providing the backbone of the piece. This new piece focused more on sounds, with the piece structured in a very abstract way around different categories of timbres and sound qualities. To achieve as wide a palette of sound colors as possible, I used special techniques for the various instruments to a much greater extent than I had before, asking the cellist to bow on muted strings, the trumpet player to slap the mouthpiece with her hand, the pianist to scrape the strings with a credit card, and similar effects.

As I typed the piece into my music notation software, I quickly began to fill up the “Technique Terms” category with directions for these techniques. By the time I finished, I had defined over 90 different technical instructions for the various performers to observe. I clicked over to the next category in my software, “Expressive Text.” For the same score, I had created a total of four expressive terms, two of which were just the Italian words possibile (as much as possible) and sempre (always). For comparison, I pulled up the file for the last piece I had composed, in which I had felt much more familiar with the style I was working in. In that piece, I had created five technical instructions—and 23 expressive ones. I wondered if my exploration of new compositional techniques was causing me to lose sight of my larger goal of sharing a state of mind and heart with my performers and my audience.

As a performer, I know only too well that it’s difficult to play with expressive intent when your technical capabilities are being stretched to the limit. When we’re secure and confident on what we’re playing, we feel free to emote, but when things get hard, we hunker down and hope to just hit the right notes. Any musical expression that happens to occur in a difficult passage is an extra bonus. Or so we think. But from an audience’s perspective, the performer’s expressive gestures, both musical and physical, are a must at all times. People don’t pay twenty dollars for a concert ticket to hear technically proficient robots display their prowess; they want to see and hear other human beings share an authentic, whole-hearted musical experience.  This experience is not just communicated aurally; I believe the performers’ stage demeanor makes a huge difference for the audience. If the performers appear to be at ease and enjoying themselves, the audience’s perception of the music is far more positive than it would be based on the sound alone.

Is it any wonder, then, that performances of new music often feel detached and cold to those who attend? Not only are composers often writing difficult music to begin with, the performers feel more out of their depth if they have to execute any techniques unfamiliar to them. Again, I know the sensation of abject terror upon receiving a new score filled with techniques that even I had never tried on my instrument. Of course, new-music performers today often rise to the technical challenges of their repertoire with admirable aplomb. However, it is rarer to hear a performer, having mastered the special techniques, then perform the piece with the same freedom and focus that we often call musical expressivity.

Are composers to blame for this? Should they refrain from writing music that pushes the existing boundaries of vocal or instrumental technique? Does music necessarily even need to have an emotional component to be good? I don’t think so. Like many composers, I feel a need to stretch the possibilities of what sounds performers make and audiences hear. Perhaps we composers can at least be mindful of when we are stretching our own compositional technique so far that we have difficulty acting expressively at the same time. In that dangerous yet exhilarating place, we have the opportunity to take a creative leap of faith, attempting the same fusion of craft and feeling in our own work that we expect of performers in theirs.

Fear, Pride, Discourse, and the Emerging Composer: Some Thoughts on Mark Applebaum’s “Existential Crises”

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by Sarah Perske

A few months ago I read an article by Mark Applebaum called “Existential Crises in Composition Mentorship and the Creation of Creative Agency.” In addition to exploring many other topics, Applebaum suggests that faulty self-perception – a lack or excess of self-confidence – can negatively impact a composer’s development and the quality of the music he or she writes.[1] These claims caught my attention because some of my own teachers in both composition and performance have made similar comments; I have often heard professors remark that a timid individual would achieve more if they had greater self-confidence, or that an overly-confident person needs to develop some healthy self-doubt in order to improve. Applebaum’s article provided me with an opportunity to reflect more deeply on this subject, and to question how such problems should be addressed.

Applebaum suggests that fearful and prideful attitudes both have the potential to thwart an emerging composer’s development and cause the writing process to founder. He claims that individuals who are “too self-confident have a tendency to accept their first idea, they are unwilling to revise, and they stunt their growth potential by complacent satisfaction with their current outlook…”[2] Furthermore, this “hubris…enables a garrulousness that, in a community context, threatens to overcome the communal discourse and silence alternative voices.”[3] Individuals who are plagued by fear, on the other hand, suffer from what the author calls “masterpiece syndrome,” a state of bring excessively “self-critical” to the extent that “fear and self-loathing replace joy and agency.”[4] Both modes seem very dangerous to me. The proud, self-satisfied composer is less willing to question his/her decisions, to listen to criticism, or even to take notice of different approaches. The fearful, self-hating composer, on the other hand, may self-question to the point of being unable to make decisions, and be either too willing to listen to all sorts of advice (which may lead them in directions that are contrary to their true interests), unwilling to implement advice because of fear of failure, or simply unable to listen at all because of the stifling, stupefying effect of fear.

Applebaum generally treats fear and pride as opposites that demand different pedagogical approaches, explaining that he strives to bolster the under-confident student by “ lower[ing] the stakes of the enterprise” and “cheerleading,” while he works to “push back on ideas” and “purposefully destabilize…the artistic comfort zone” of the over-confident student.[5] This corresponds with the way most of us view fear and pride and their respective treatments; in daily life, the most commonly suggested “cure” for either malady often involves a good dose of the opposite attitude. In my own experience, however, elements of the two modes can alternate with one another quite rapidly or even exist simultaneously, making this approach problematic. For example, one aspect of a piece I’m writing may stagnate because of fear (anxiety about making a change, or uncertainty about whether a change should be made), while another may suffer because of pride (inability to notice or admit that a change ought to be made). For this reason, I’m beginning to think that fear and pride are actually symptoms of the same disease: an excessive preoccupation with self at the expense of the music.

Interestingly, although Applebaum seems to take the traditional view that fear and pride are opposites that need to be brought “into balance,”[6] he hints at a common cure for both ailments in interactions with others, emphasizing the importance of “communal discourse” and the need for conversations with peers as well as mentors.[8] On the subject of community and interaction, Applebaum believes “that the most puissant source of inspiration comes not from formal teachers but from student colleagues,”[9] in part because students can learn from their interactions with one another what it means to be a mentor, and this in turn helps the student to become a self-mentor, able “to reflect questions internally.”[10] I would add to the author’s discussion of community the importance of having a sense of real camaraderie in the interactions of the community members; this is implicit in a number of Applebaum’s comments, but not explicitly stated.[11] I’m hopeful that camaraderie within “communal discourse” is the antidote to the self-preoccupied attitude that leads to fear and pride: if one can learn to fully appreciate one’s colleagues, hold them in high regard, feel “safe” expressing one’s difficulties and listening to their input, and see one’s individual efforts as part of a common effort, then the stakes are not so high. There is less to fear, less to feel puffed up about, and there are more reasons to simply enjoy doing the work and sharing it.

[1] Mark Applebaum, “Existential Crises in Composition Mentorship and the Creation of Creative Agency,” Contemporary Music Review, 31, no. 4 (August 2012): 259-60, accessed May 5, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07494467.2012.725809.

[2] Ibid, 259.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 260.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 259.

[7] Ibid, 260-262.

[8] Ibid, 261.

[9] Ibid, 261-262.

[10] Applebaum’s descriptions of his seminars on collaborative composition are suggestive of a community that includes real camaraderie as well as competitiveness.