25 March 2007

My Composition Lessons with Bartòk (Part 1)

The best composition lessons I ever had were the ones with Bartòk. In only 45 minutes, he would show me how to write counterpoint, how to orchestrate, how to manage large-scale form and orchestral forces, and even how to keep a sense of humor throughout the process. I came back every few days for a couple of weeks and we would go over the same material and the same concepts. Despite this, I never got tired of the lessons, and in fact, they just kept getting better. Strangely enough, the fact that he was not alive at the time didn't seem to have any adverse effects.

I'm talking, of course, about playing Bartòk's Concerto for Orchestra when I was in college. Why do I think this single experience (or set of experiences) was more helpful than spending 4 years earning a degree in composition? Many reasons.

•First, when performing a work as part of a large ensemble, one does not hear the music as the audience does, nor does one approach it the way a scholar does. The experience is unique, for you are required to listen across the ensemble for pitch, style, and dynamics in a way that makes you hyper-aware of the most intricate details of the score. Your position on stage "inside" the ensemble also gives you a unique and valuable acoustic perspective (I'd rather listen to music from there than from the audience or on record).

•Second, at least in a student ensemble, the work will be rehearsed many times, perhaps even too many for your preferences as a player in that ensemble, but this affords you many hearings not only of the whole piece, but of movements, sections, and partial instrumentations. You simply can't help but absorb (or at least notice) some of the salient compositional features of the work. Your heightened level of engagement and awareness throughout this process makes it all the more effective.

•Third, the rehearsal process and the conductor (presumably someone who knows a little something about the instruments in the orchestra) reveal an incredible amount about the capabilities of each instrument and how the piece in question does or does not use them effectively both individually and in combination with each other.

•Fourth, it is fun as all get out and keeps you intellectually and spiritually alive as a musician. If as an orchestral composer you have never actually played in the ensemble yourself, I say that speaks poorly on behalf of your compositional pedigree. If you have never even had any such desire in the first place, I say you have chosen the wrong profession.

I was merely skeptical of formal composition study before I played the Concerto for Orchestra. Having now had several such experiences in addition to this, I'm ready to dismiss all of you academic composers outright. Be honest: how many of you who write for orchestra play an orchestral instrument well enough to make it into the orchestra at the school(s) where you earned your degree(s)? How many of you actually did this? And how many of you actually got to play works from which you felt like you could learn something of significant value to your development as a composer? (sadly, the programming in the college orchestras I played in was rarely of the kind I am describing)

Let's stop pretending that just anyone can learn to read score like Pierre Boulez and that a feeble attempt at climbing this mountain is just as good or better than taking it in through your ears. If I ran the world, I would make performing in the ensemble of greatest interest to the student a part of all composition degrees. I would also demand that college orchestra directors program more works that are capable of serving this purpose effectively. During my college years, I played for one who did and one who didn't. The former experience was an absolute unqualified joy and is where the "lessons" I'm jokingly referring to took place. The other was an absolute unqualified disappointment where I learned nothing useful as either a composer or a performer. Do you think it's a coincidence that the former conductor was also an accomplished composer?

The majority of "great" composers have also been virtuouso performers, going back at least as far as Ockeghem and continuing through Bartòk, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. It has been pointed out recently and frequently that Steve Reich has played an important role in his own success by performing many of his works himself. And the jazz world speaks for itself on this matter.

People like me really should not accept the "autodidact" label from the credentialed elite. The next time one of them asks me who my teachers were, I'm going to answer "Bartòk, Debussy and Thelonious Monk among others. You?"

1 comment:

Eric St-Laurent said...

Absolutely ! Me too ! I'll say "Stravinsky, Coltrane and Messiaen". Thank you for a wonderful article - it made me feel proud to be a performer !