30 October 2006

Theory and Composition

Colin Holter of New Music Box makes an interesting point in a recent post when he writes that, "our 'instincts' may themselves be nothing more than theory internalized directly through study and indirectly through listening." As someone who often blindly asserts the superiority of "instincts" over "theory," I feel that I owe myself a closer investigation of this statement. First off, let's distinguish between instincts that are acquired unintentionally/subconsciously and those that one actively seeks to ingrain. As Colin's statement implies, you can make most anything habitual/instinctive if you choose to (this, I assume is what he means by the phrase "internalized directly through study"); conversely, some things enter your psyche without your being aware of them, or perhaps even without you wanting them there (i.e. Colin's "indirectly"). But where it is in fact a conscious choice, it is what you choose to internalize and why that are the more intriguing questions. I have never been concerned as much with the question of mechanism ("direct" versus "indirect" or conscious versus subconscious) as with the nature of the subject matter one chooses to deal with and the reasoning underlying this decision.
As raw information to be processed by the intellect, "theory" per se is intrinsically very different from sound or score. Theory contains interpolations and extrapolations from what the composers actually wrote; it embodies the biases of individual theorists; and it always eliminates more possibilities than it enables. What prevents me from writing a dodecaphonic piece is not so much the fact that I possess only a dilettante's understanding of the theory, but the fact that the music that my instincts (whatever their origin) lead me to create does not conform to this very specific criterion. Furthermore, it bears mentioning that I am statistically far less likely to compose a piece that conforms to "total serialism" than to compose a piece that conforms to Schoenberg's "method of composing with 12 tones." This is because Schoenberg's theory is less comprehensive than that of the total serialists, and hence precludes fewer possibilities (interestingly, Schoenberg was known to follow his musical "instincts" rather than his "theory" if there was a perceived conflict between the two at any given moment in the process, which is not true, I don't think, of many who later took up the various offshoots of his idea). By choosing to listen to and perform such music without dabbling in the underlying prescriptive theory, one chooses to deal with some information and not with other information. That is my choice. I don’t view it as “indirect” or “subconscious” study; to the contrary, I have a good ear and I pay close attention to what certain combinations of notes sound like, and if I have any use for them, well, there they are.
A composer who makes a conscious decision to work in a dodecaphonic idiom has also decided not to work in many other idioms. Conversely, by choosing not to be governed by "theory," one chooses to leave many more moment-to-moment sonic possibilities open. The decision not to internalize prescriptive theory is both equally valid and equally consequential as the decision to do so. Colin's statement clarifies an important point, namely that perhaps there is no such thing as not following one's instincts when composing. To be an exceptionally unique and instinctive exponent of this process is not so much a question of the learning process, but a much simpler question about the subject matter one chooses to learn about, the specific intent behind this decision, and the specific effect on one's work.

28 October 2006

Duck and Cover

Do you nod off at concerts? Do you find the concert hall to be cold and stale? Do you have trouble sitting still for longer than 30 seconds? Well then this is for you. Watch your head though; the metaphors fly at you quickly from all directions.

Finding the Energy to Make Music

I'm not talking about inspiration or motivation; I'm talking about electricity! A cursory glance around my study reveals that of all the tools I rely on as a musician, only the tuba is exclusively human-powered. The rest? A stereo for listening; a desktop computer and printer for music notation, typing and slow internet access; a laptop computer for recording and fast internet access; and an audio interface, microphone and headphones for recording onto the laptop. I use most if not all of these gadgets for multiple hours each day. When I use them all at once, the room is a sea of blinking lights. It looks like the aliens have finally landed. Add to this the fact that I work in this room almost exclusively at night (meaning that there is always a light on), that I waste untold amounts of paper trying to print out my compositions and running into various printer malfunctions and driver conflicts, and that I log more miles in my car than I'd like to admit (about 400-500 each month; you can't carry a tuba on a bike...or at least you shouldn't). The realities of our collective energy usage should be enough to make a conservationist out of anyone, even musicians. We do tend to be left leaning in general. My mom raised me to be environmentally conscious, so much so that even some of my left leaning friends think I'm a little bit obsessive about this. But we also seem to think that what we do is sooooo very important (yes, I'm especially talking to my fellow composers here) that we can suspend our principles for the sake of our work. Or, perhaps we simply have no choice. I wish I had some reliable statistics and a background in electrical engineering. Anyone with such knowledge care to venture a guess as to how I stack up to the average American in terms of energy use?

The New Avant-Garde

I was at a rehearsal a few weeks ago and one of the musicians said something really deep: "Harmony is the new avant-garde." I've heard people say similar things, but this really seemed to put everything in perspective. Of all the elements music has traditionally been divided into, harmony is indeed the most lacking on commercial radio right now. This helped me make a connection to another issue I'd been thinking about recently, which is that for some time now, there has been a wing of "contemporary" music that maintains that the symphony and concerto are dead forms. Others may go as far as to say this about the symphony orchestra in general, and yes, you'll even hear it uttered occasionally that instruments played by real people are obsolete. For the first time ever, I started to wonder a couple of weeks ago if I really had anything meaningful to contribute as an orchestral composer, or perhaps if it was even still possible to have anything meaningful to contribute as an orchestral composer. I still think the answer is yes, at least to the latter if not the former. But with all the recent talk of "saving" classical music, I started to wonder what position it would put us in if classical music indeed "died." The answer is clear: eventually, the orchestra would be new again. People would forget about it, or be born and raised without knowing it ever existed. Then suddenly, a revival would be upon us. The craze would sweep the country. There would be professional and community groups popping up left and right to capitalize on the opportunity. Well...I'm not betting on this happening, but I think that given the present conditions, there is nowhere to go but up: from now on, the more marginalized the orchestra gets, the cooler it gets. Perhaps the symphony is the new avant-garde.

13 October 2006

Mini or Apple?

Question of the day: does or does not Minneapolis have a "scene"? The reason I ask is because of the curious things I hear people say around here. It seems that Joe Schmoe on the street thinks we have a great scene while the musicians think it barely exists. Is this true everywhere or is this unique? Have non-participants simply created the myth of a scene in order to validate their fondness for the area? For my part, I cannot see myself ever making a living working only as a musician in this city, even if we include teaching in the discussion. There are a few paying gigs and a few students; it has bailed me out of some jams for sure, but I perceive a lack of interest, apathy, and often downright hostility towards most of the music I am interested in, even among many fellow musicians, and that includes some pretty mainstream stuff (see my response to a thread at Greg Sandow's blog where I related the story of the reception Bach is getting nowadays). Music is not "in the air" here, despite talk of the great scene. It has been uttered many times within earshot this blogger that the Twin Cities are comparable to a "big city" music scene, that our players stand up to any others, that the improvised music scene here is better than in Chicago, and that we have the "fourth most active" jazz scene in the USA (you can dig that curious claim here. So, without resorting to mere venting, I want to ask anyone from the Twin Cities with an opinion or experience: do we or do we not have a scene on our hands? I want to know who exactly is so "active" here, more active than Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, etc...because it's not me or any of my crew. I also want to know if anyone from other places can corroborate something I was told a few weeks ago, namely that the scene here is so incestuous (even as music scenes go) that touring groups from out of town often don't bother trying to book shows here. Are we truly a Mini Apple, or just mini?

07 October 2006

I used to hate marching band...

...when I was in high school. It was always more about marching than band. Our group was small, so there was no concert band, jazz band, pep band, marching band, etc. etc. We were THE band, whatever capacity we may be called upon to serve in. It is a testament to how much I hated marching band that I actually looked forward to the transition to concert band and jazz band, which were often frustrating in their own right. Fast forward to today: I have been seriously digging this. These guys are not so much a marching jazz band as they are a jazz marching band. This is the kind of thing I tend to avoid for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which are my experiences in high school jazz band, but it occurred to me that you could very easily apply this sort of approach with younger students. It could be done without any written music, and could, though I am generally opposed to this, conceivably include popm music from the radio that kids actually like. (although, in truth, when I ask my tuba students what they listen to, they usually say...NOTHING at all!!!) After establishing the program, upperclassmen could teach incoming freshmen their parts each year in sectional rehearsals for any repeated repertoire; the band could also add new pieces and actually have a say in what they would be. This sort of approach could be hugely successful for programs like the one at my high school, which was (1) small, (2) included a huge range of ability levels, and (3) included some supremely talented percussionists who could not read music. Rather than being forced to first read the music and then committ it to memory (few of the kids were equally comfortable doing both of those things), students could teach each other their parts by ear, and even have a hand in picking and arranging the tunes. This would kill several birds with one stone as far as it would challenge all of the students (not just the ones who play in jazz band) to, if not actually improvise, then perform their parts in a less constrained way than they would in concert band (kind of like the Mingus band operated on recordings like Blues and Roots) and would provide an excellent basis for some very basic teaching of theory. Any JHS or HS band directors out there interested in taking this idea up?