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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Curious Case of Henryk Górecki

One of the favorite classical pieces of very-contemporary music (the piece was written in 1976) is Henryk Górecki's "Symphony No. 3", subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." At first hearing, I was truly overwhelmed. The emotional power of the piece is undeniable. However, the song's effect quickly wore off on me, and when that happens with a classical piece, all we are left with is the piece as it stands on its own as a testament to and interpretation of the rules of music. And when the technical construction of a piece is paper thin, no matter how strong it's emotional impact is, the piece can easily be dismissed. Unfortunately, I believe that is the case with Górecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." The movement in question, which is the movement invariably referred to when people discuss the piece (and the movement which I will discuss here), is the 1st movement, titled "Lento - Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile". From the wikipedia page of "Symphony No. 3": Typically 27 minutes in duration, the first movement equals the combined length of the second and third movements,[10] and is based on a late-15th century lament of Mary from the Lysagora Songs collection of the Holy Cross Monastery (Św. Krzyż Monastery) in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains."

You can here the first movement here: First Movement of Górecki's "Symphony No. 3"

Now, as it turns out, I go on the site pretty frequently. I am subscribed to the subreddit r/classical music, where people discuss...classical music. This piece is widely acclaimed by the community to be amazing/awesome/greatest-piece-of-all-time. And whenever it comes up in the discussion, I put my two cents in. Here is the general idea of what I have to say (I'm quoting directly):

"(I'm playing a little bit of devil's advocate here)

The entire piece is constructed around the entrance and exit of a single theme that is turned into a canon. Every entrance of the theme in the canon, although it occurs at a different pitch level (so although it begins in the Ionian - major - mode, it next occurs in the Dorian mode, then in Phrygian, then in Lydian, and so can think of the theme being the same every time, just starting on a different degree of the major scale and changing the qualities of the intervals so that everything stays within the same key), is exactly the same. If you listen to it for the first time, after the first 5 minutes, you can guess exactly how the rest of the piece is going to go. If it didn't take Gorecki about half an hour to compose this, we really all should be thankful that he never fully returned to this style.
It's just another instance of modern composers hiding the fact that they don't actually know anything about counterpoint, harmony, or how musical voices move. They trick the ear with fancy textural effects that draw the listener's attention elsewhere. You see this all the time. Eric Whitacre, anyone? All he does is fill out huge extended ninth or eleventh chords throughout a whole choir, and throw a melody in on it. If for anything, these men should be commended for making something out of nothing, and not for any musical prowess that they supposedly command.

Keeping the ear entertained is the easy thing to do. Our ears are naturally interested in things; just listen to how we respond to the simplest of musical gestures (a bass kick - snare combination, that forms the backbeat for how many tens of thousands of songs in the pop format?) What's difficult is taking a tiny idea, and exploring it fully so that the ear can trace a development throughout an entire piece. That's what real composers do.

And if you'd like an example of that, listen to the first movement from Ravel's piano trio, Modere"

Now, someone rightly called me out with a good question:

"Do you really honestly believe that the value in a piece of music lies in the composers ability to adroitly manipulate a tonal system in a way such the the more complex the technique the better the piece? I can definitely appreciate the idea of technical proficiency and 'problem solving' in the compositional process, and I am absolutely enthralled by many examples of this. But I cannot accept the idea that other musics should be discounted in light of this. There are example from the renaissance to minimalism to jazz to Mozart that are fantastically simple, yet extraordinarily elegant and beautiful."

All good points. This is what I had to say in response:

"'Do you really honestly believe that the value in a piece of music lies in the composers ability to adroitly manipulate a tonal system in a way such the the more complex the technique the better the piece?'

No...and yes. I think honestly, we need to ask more of composers. This piece is (figuratively) nothing. The logical evolution of this kind of composing is less and less until there is literally next to nothing left to hear. It's a dumbing down of what we come to expect from our music. Pop music, directly relate-able to this piece, is a perfect example. Everything is in 4/4, with 4 (or some multiple thereof) bar phrases, with some bass-kick pattern, and a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structural form. Furthermore, any supposable ingenuity in harmony (counterpoint is literally non-existent) is completely removed, as everything moves in block chords (no matter the instrument.) This is the dumbing-down I'm trying to describe: any rules you had with how voices move are completely gone. Thus, voices just jump from one place to another. Thus, the chord progressions in every song are just repeated from one to the next (the specific progression itself in this discussion is of little moment.)
It just doesn't really ask very much of either the listener or the composer. It's not that listening to music is supposed to be a graded task or anything, it's just that when we're asked to put more of ourselves into listening to a piece of music, into figuring out exactly what's going on, that's when we get more out of it. Honestly, if you've heard other classical music (such as the Ravel piece I posted), or any musical piece where development is the name of the game (the true test of a composer), I don't get how you could find this piece compelling at all, being as it is 30 minutes long. As I've said before, you hear the first 5 minutes, you know what the rest will be; all the rest is flashy textural effects. Where will this train of reduction stop? In this piece you've removed any development (technically speaking or not) or progression of melody, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, AND orchestration. Seriously, what else is there?"

And I believe the answer is, unfortunately, nothing.

Again, I can't deny the emotional impact of this piece. But once that wears off, there is nothing to commit to in the music.

Just some thoughts.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#6 - Fauré's "Requiem", 3rd Mvmt: Sanctus

Now we get to the first influential work that comes from a true requiem: Fauré’s. Gabriel Fauré, a French composer (another one, alongside Debussy and Ravel... catching on to any theme here?) lived between May 12, 1845, and Nov. 4th, 1924. The 3rd movement from his own requiem is the “Sanctus”, which praises God in all His glory. Fauré supports the text wonderfully, with his soft dynamics (i.e., volume), and the swimming voices and strings. This summarizes what I aspire to do with my requiem. I hope to offer solace and comfort to those who have passed on, while also giving strength to those who are still here to carry on and move forward. When first writing the requiem, there seemed to be two ways I could go: write a requiem that imparts the finality, terror, and awfulness of death (i.e., Mozart’s), or write a requiem that offers comfort and solace (like Fauré’s or Duruflé’s as we shall see.) In fact, I tried it the first way, and it did not go well; that was what I threw out when I decided to completely start over in the summer of 2010 (and I've been much, much happier with the work I've produced since then.) This deserves a quick word on what exactly a requiem is: a requiem (the title coming from the first phrase of the first movement, “requiem aeternam”, i.e., in Latin, “eternal rest”) is a funeral mass. The text is Latin and comes from various liturgical sources. It basically asks for eternal rest (“requiem aeternam”, a recurring theme throughout the text) for those who have passed away. As always, The Fauré Requiem Wiki Page. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

#5 - Claude Debussy - Mvmt 3, "Suite Bergamasque"

The next installment in the series looking at works that have been influential in my own composing is this piece, the 3rd movement from Debussy’s piano suite, “Suite Bergamasque.” Along with Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, it is the most popular with the general public among all of these pieces. Claude Debussy, a French composer and certainly one of the greatest composers of all time, was born August 22, 1862, and died March 25, 1918. Debussy is renowned for his sensitive ear and touch. He belongs to the current of musical Impressionism. One can hear this, as, after hearing this movement, one is left rather with a general effect or impression, rather than remembering any one piece of a work, much like Pärt. This piece come from Debussy’s repertoire of solo piano music. I heavily encourage the listener to find more of Debussy’s piano music, as I believe it forms one of the most complete and unquestionably beautiful collections of music to be found anywhere. Debussy’s mastery of the piano is on full display here. Simply listen to the variety of sounds that Debussy evokes from the piano: rolled chords, quick arpeggios, a singing melody, encompassing the total range of the piano, from low to high. Listen to how forward motion sounds suspended: one chord (that is, more than one note played at a time) is repeated over and over. This is a hallmark of musical impressionism, making him a kindred spirit with Maurice Ravel, who appears later on. As always, The "Suite Bergamasque" Wiki page. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Window Into My Composing Life

Well, I’ve put this post off long enough, and it can no longer be ignored. It is time to give the people what they want, and that is to know what it is I actually do as a composer-in-training. I’ve avoided doing this post not because I don’t want to do it, but because to describe what a composer does is actually really, really difficult. Let me start from the outset by offering a disclaimer when I say that there will always remain something about my work (or any composer’s work) that is ineffable, that is, something that cannot be put into words. That is part of the beauty of composing, but also a pitfall when trying to describe composing to other people. However, I will instead try to define the limits of this indescribable area as small as possible, so that you might just find out what a composer does.

Oftentimes, whenever I say that I’m a composer (in the broadest terms, someone who writes music) I am greeted with dumbfounded looks. “I have no idea how you do that,” is a sentiment I’ve often heard. I think my writing of music finds it origin in the deep love I have for music. Even if for some reason I were unable to write music, I would be constantly listening to it. And even if for some reason I cannot pursue composing as a viable career path (which I really, really, really hope isn’t the case,) I will still be composing years down the road, and that’s part of the beauty of music. Even if you don’t pursue it professionally, it can still be totally yours, while at the same time everyone’s, and always there for you. I struggled a long time with this. But my writing is something that I cannot stop. If I was born to do anything, and I hesitate to speak in such philosophical terms, it was to write music. One of my greatest fears over the past few years was that I would wake up 10 years from now and realize that I was stuck in some dead-end office job that I hated. However, now pursuing music, I am not afraid of that. And I think this deep love of music finds its own origin in the fact that I am very strongly affected by music whenever I hear it. It was definitely a revelation for me in my own maturation as a composer when I realized that music affects me much more strongly than other people. I was horrified when I met someone who actually hated music (his or her reasoning was it was “boring” and “nothing ever happened.” I question whether he had actually ever heard music.) This strong affect manifests itself physically. For instance, whether I’m in the shower, eating, watching TV, whatever, I might be tapping out a rhythm with my hands or feet, singing a tune I’ve heard from somewhere (the TV, church, car radio… I take constant delight in all of the small times and places I run into music), or even manipulating and working on a melody from my own work. I would not be surprised if this fact had its basis in some physiological part of my brain.

With this basis for my writing, how exactly do I make the choices that I do? I describe it like this: I know what sound in the music I’m looking for, and I can’t really describe the sound of what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I hear it (the sound I want.) By my reasoning, what I’m looking for has to be there. So if I just keep looking for it, eventually I will find it. As I addressed in my post on inspiration, scores do not come out the first time in their perfect, immaculate form. A lot of it is trial and error. I am constantly trying different things until I find exactly what it is I’m looking for. Sometimes this happens quickly; most often, it takes a longer amount of time, and sometimes it takes a very long time. But it’s important to keep in mind that even when I throw out some music I’ve written that I may have been working on for hours (as is sometimes the case), it actually was not wasted time, because it has helped me sharpen my ear and my focus and my knowledge of what it is I’m exactly looking for. One of the amazing things about composers is that one would never mistake any of the greats for any of the others. For instance, one would never confuse Aaron Copland for Samuel Barber, or Claude Debussy for Maurice Ravel, even though both of those respective pairs write music that is similar to each other. That is because the music of each is imbued with such originality and unique-ness that it’s impossible to confuse them for each other. And all of that is really a function of an interaction, or conversation, with all of the techniques and parts of music (harmony, counterpoint, melody, rhythm, timbre, etc.). That is to say, a young composer must get to know and become familiar with all of these techniques, and then make certain decisions on what he or she does and does not like. As a composer trying to find my own unique voice (as I believe, with this requiem I’m working on, I’ve started to do), I need to decide what I kinds of sound please me from all the aforementioned parts of music (harmony, etc.) and what techniques I like the effect of, and then conversely what I don’t like. Then I throw out what I don’t like, and then I decide how to use what I do like. I’m constantly amazed by the way music is able to re-invent and re-define itself. Just when a composer seems to have exhausted all of the paths of a technique, someone comes along and uses it in a new way, possibly by combining it with something else. All composers have the same techniques available to them. Although this list of techniques is constantly being added to (as 21st century composers living in an age of all digitalized information, we have the advantage of being able to go back to the music of previous centuries and their way of doing things, which certainly earlier composers such as Berlioz did not, who were often familiar only with the music directly preceding their time), at any one time the list is finite. Hence, all composers choose and discard from the same materials and techniques. But make no mistake: the list of techniques and sources from which to generate musical material is very, very big. To have to describe these techniques would begin to need some music theory education. However, just know that these techniques are ways by which composers generate ideas and work in their craft of writing music.

And of course, as I’ve sprinkled references to throughout, I’ve had to make all of these decisions for myself as well. I am starting to find out what I like and what I don’t like. In the most general of terms, I like broad, open music, with lots of space between notes (and doesn’t this correspond to many of the influential works I’ve put on this blog? Think of the Copland, Barber, and Ravel videos from other posts.) I like pure sounding intervals (an interval is the musical distance between two notes.) I like flowing melodies that unfold. I like to say less rather than say more, and to really think and even maybe meditate on the music itself. I like a certain sacredness to my music that is more spiritual rather than being explicitly for a religious context. I hope that this manifests itself as a feeling of timelessness of my music; that is, that in a way, my music could have been written in any time period, as something that is and always will be. I try to evoke this by writing in a neo-Gregorian style. That is, in a “new” Gregorian chant style (think of the Arvo Pärt.) My melodies are not taken from Gregorian chant sources, but they sound like they could be. This makes it sound traditional. However, I combine this tradition with a very modern background that makes use of harmonies that Gregorian chant never would.

I think this is enough to digest for now. I will be doing articles like this, that I call “Windows into a Composer’s Life”, from time to time. These articles will take on my work headfirst, and really try to give concrete answers about the work of a composer. I encourage you to read and re-read this article, as it is full of information and insight into what it is I do. You might find something you missed the first time around.

And again, if you have any questions, let me know! I was happy to share this very important part of my life with you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

#4 - Aaron Copland - Movement 7 from "Appalachian Spring"

The next entry in my "Influential Works" series comes from Aaron Copland, a composer who was born in Brooklyn and lived from November 14, 1900, to December 2, 1990. Although many think of him as the quintessential “American” composer, with his broad, long music evoking the open spaces of the Western frontier (a position further supported by the materials he worked with and set to music, i.e., American folk songs, the story of Billy the Kid, etc.), he was actually educated in Europe. Practically, this means that he is very concerned with counterpoint, that is, the motion and interaction of two notes played simultaneously against each other. This makes him very similar to some other musical heroes of mine, including Samuel Barber, who himself has been featured in this series. Try to liste ton how the multiple voices (i.e., instruments) move in this way in the 7th movement from “Appalachian Spring”, a very famous ballet work that he reworked into a completely instrumental piece. You might recognize the tune as the one with the lyrics of "Lord of the Dance." The whole Appalachian Spring piece is one of my favorites, but none of the other movements can top the triumphant feeling of this piece. Trace the passing of the melody from one group of instruments to another: from winds, to brass, and finally to the low strings. If you like this piece, I strongly encourage you to check out his "Billy The Kid" ballet. It's written in much the same style. As always, the The Appalachian Spring Wiki Page. Click the link below to hear the movement. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rap Music Analysis #1 - Game's "How We Do"

This is my case for rap as a legitimate area for academic, musical research and attention. People variously dismiss rap music as simply vulgar, out only for shock value, and generally devoid of anything that might lead to it being considered as art. However, one needs only realize that jazz occupied the very same position about a century ago: a musical medium that was very popular with the public at large, but which was ignored by the academic music community. I hope to change that mind set. It is my belief that one day rap, having completed the same transformation as jazz music (which was adopted only after being integrated into the works of such great composers as Debussy and Ravel, two of my favorites), will be held in the same esteem. Also, even if you can't read music, you should still be able to get something out of the following. (A final note: viewer discretion is advised, as obscene language is involved!)

Let's look at "How We Do", by Game, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre. Just listen to the first 16 bars, by Game. He hears the synth bell motif (the rhythm that 50 Cent copies in the chorus/hook when he says "This Is How We Do" in staccato notes) and takes a characteristic part of it (the placement of the 2nd note of the motif on the 2nd sixteenth note in the beat) and emphasizes it. See below:

 I could write a good article alone on the characteristics of that rhythm (for instance, observe how it's beat seems to be on a dotted eighth note repeated 5 times, and the rhythm is retrogradeable - able to e reversed - in certain respects.) However, we'll keep it simple. In the following jimmied-up transcription of the first 8 bars in text, the capitalized word is the rhyme; when the rhyming word is bolded, it means that that word falls on that characteristic 2nd 16th note of the opening synth bell motif, and when the word is italicized, it means that the word falls right on the beat. To see the verse transcribed into sheet music, scroll down:

fresh like - UH / impala - UH / chrome hydraulics / 8-0-8 DRUMS / you don't want - NONE / n-- betta - RUN / when beef is on i pop that TRUNK / come get - SOME / pistol grip PUMP / if a n- step on my white air ONES / it's red RUM / ready here i COME / compton UH / dre found me in the SLUMS

This brings us to the end of his first 8. Notice that the rhyme the entire time has been on the syllable "uh"; Game continues this for the next 8 (an incredible thing to do, and which he does in other songs as well.) Finally, note the phrasing of his rhymes: 1/2 bar, 1/2 bar, 1 bar, a 2 bar grouping repeated three times (for a total of 6 bars,) until the final two bars of the first half of his 16, when he accelerates the phrasing and has the rhymes divided into 1/2 bar, 1/2 bar, 1/2 bar, 1/2 bar. This same structure is used for the next 8, and propels us nicely into 50's verse. Note, finally, that in the final 2 bars ("It's red rum..." until "slums"), Game begins to vary where the rhyme falls metrically, starting on the word "come", which falls on the beat, continues with the word "uh" after Compton (which falls on the 4th sixteenth note of the beat), and stops with the word "slums", which also falls on the beat. In the next 8, Game will continue to anticipate and play off the expectations of the listener, just as any good music-writer does. His next 8:

sellin that SKUNK / one hand on my GUN / i was sellin' rocks when master p was sayin UHHHHHHH / buck pass the BLUNT / these G-Unit girls just wanna have FUN / coke and RUM / got weed on the TONGUE / i'm bangin' with my hand up her dress UH / i make her CUM / purple haze in my LUNGS / whole gang in the FRONT / case a n- wanna STUNT

As mentioned before, the phrase structure in the second 8 is the same as the phrase structure in the first eight, except for one thing. On the word "UH" after "master p was sayin'", he elides that 1 bar phrase into the first 2 beats of the next phrase, making itself really a 1.5 bar phrase, and eliminating the 1/2 bar phrase that came in its parallel structural position in the first 8 bars of his verse here. But what really interests me here is the metrical placement in the rhymes of "uh." Look back at the preceding paragraph, and see how the rhyme changes between being italicized (falling on the beat) and being bold (falling on the 2nd sixteenth note of the beat, a characteristic rhythm of the synth bell riff.) Game sets up the listeners expectation, begins to vary them at the end of the first 8, and in the second 8, varies it even further. The contrast is heightened by the fact that the 2nd sixteenth note of the beat in 4/4 is a highly syncopated place to put a note (which he does in his first 8 bars), which is very different from being right on the beat and not syncopated at all (an idea which he introduces in his second 8 bars.) By the middle of his second 8 bars, the listener has no idea where the rhyme will comes next; this is what makes it awesome.

This long term development of where the accent of the rhyme falls in the most exciting thing (to me at least) in this verse. We will see short term development of the placement of the accent in the Eminem verse we take a look at next. That, as well as a variation in the pace at which accents come. For instance, Eminem always has his accents come as fast as possible in our next analysis. But Game varies the amount of his accents in order to build and release tension.

Now listen to Dre's production decisions. The drums (bass, snare, and high hat) all strongly accent the bar as discussed before. They contrast greatly with Game's continuing manipulation of the accent of his verse. This is why I can't listen to the song without bobbing my head: I'm listening for the accents of Game's rhymes against the driving rhythm of Dre's drums. Finally, listen to how Dre doubles Game's voice on the rhymes. He has decided to emphasize this contrast in accent. He knows some how or other that the music works like this too. This shows Dr. Dre using the supposed disadvantages of listening to music in headphones as an advantage. (For some reason, a lot of people object to rap on the basis that it can't be played live, and therefore can't be real art; what I think is that good producers, like Dre, simply take advantage of what recording does offer them, which is a stereo sound world that they can manipulate. Listen to Dr. Dre's vocal tracks, and you'll see what I mean. But that's for another time.)

Finally, I'd like to draw attention to the uncanny chemistry on this song between 50 and Game. Like they had known each other for years, they expertly pass the rap off between themselves, while sharing and riff off of each others rhythms and verbal structures (For instance, after 50 raps, "You're now rockin' with the best / Fo' pound on my hip, teflon on my chest" in his 16 after Game's first 16, Game responds in his 2nd 16 with the response, "Ya now rockin' with the best / fo' pound on my hip, gold chain on my chest." Also, see how they both use the "Touch me, tease me, kiss me, please me / I'll give it to ya just how ya like it girl" idea.) It's reminiscent of no less than Run DMC, who proved once and for all that rap groups can be better than the sum of their parts. It's too bad that G-Unit broke up before this could become more.

In summary, this is what I get out of rap music. Also, I have the sheet music (all parts, the strings, etc,) transcribed if anyone wants it.

Hope you enjoyed this!

I'm working on other analyses like this one right now. Specifically, some Eminem verses, but his rhythms are just so complex (quintuplets!) that it takes a while to write out. Look for them!

**Note: my use of the word "phrasing" here varies a bit from how I use it in the next article, the Eminem, and especially from how I use it in the Nas analysis. As I'm doing these analyses one after the other, each one teaches me more and more; please refer to my newest analysis (the Nas one) for my most current ideas on all of these different areas: phrasing, accent, etc.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

#3 - Arvo Pärt - Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten

The next entry in the "Influential Works" series is the one work that has probably affected me the most, both personally and professionally. Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who is strongly influenced by Eastern Orthodox Church music, as well as Gregorian chant. He is the only composer still alive (born in 1935, he continues writing to this day) who appears in this series. In his music, one gets a sense of the sacred and holy that is made more explicit by the setting of religious texts in other works of his, such as Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem, wherein he sets the entire Passion of Christ from the Gospel of John. This work is a very good example of Pärt’s minimalism. Minimalism means that the materials of the music have been stripped down to their essentials, and generates its sense of forward motion from a process that gradually unfolds rather than the more dramatic, narrative sense of progress such as that of the prior works in this series, Ravel's "Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte" and Barber's "Adagio for Strings." Here, see how the violins begin very high, and move downward to their lowest range by adding one further descending note at the end of each larger descent. Meanwhile, the lower strings move at slower rates that are multiples of the high, descending violins. Then, the bell tolls continually on the same note, imparting a sense of finality that is fitting for a work that is in the memory of someone who has passed away. Indeed, the last thing the listener hears is the decay of the bell, while missing the bell’s striking. This whole process makes the music meditative, rather than progressive like most music. The person being remembered is the British composer Benjamin Britten, who himself appears in this series, and who certainly has earned with his own work such a great memorial as this Pärt work here. If you enjoyed this, get ready for more: Pärt will certainly be appearing again, as he is one of my favorites! Again, see the wikipedia page of Arvo Pärt's Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten if you'd like to know more. Enjoy!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Meeting George Crumb

       Over the summer, I had the opportunity to meet George Crumb, a very well-renowned composer who would be found in any textbook on contemporary or 20th-21st century music. It all started when I watched a documentary on Igor Stravinsky (certainly one of the titans of classical music), and he recalled in vivid detail a childhood experience that greatly affected him for the rest of his life. He recounted a time when as a young child he went to a concert and he saw Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a great Russian classical composer of the Romantic era. I thought to myself, I want to have an experience like that! Luckily, I reside in an area where there is a lively classical music scene, with concerts, operas, etc., held regularly, and with many pre-eminent educational institutions in the area. Surely, I would be able to find someone in the area who I could meet. And indeed I did.

I first went to check the alumni of the music schools in my area, and decided to try and meet one of them. The composer I came upon is a composer by the name of George Crumb. Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia. He received his degrees from Mason College of Music, University of Illinois-Champaign, and then the University of Michigan, before he began a long-term relationship with the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1965-1997. Because Crumb has been so widely published and celebrated, he is one of the few composers who has made enough money from writing music that he did not need to teach (as almost all composers do today.) However, he chose to do so anyway. He, in turn, taught many talented and accomplished composers who write today, including a teacher who I took a class with before, Prof. Stephen Jaffe. Crumb liked Penn enough that he decided to remain in the area, and has done so until today. I looked him up online, and found an address. I sent him a letter, asking him if he’d like to meet. I received the following letter in response:

Eventually, I got back to him, and we set up to meet on a weekday in July.

I pulled up a house that looked pretty unassuming. Now, I should make it clear from the outset that I had no idea what to expect. If I was going to meet the equivalent of George Crumb in another field, like a famous rockstar or rapper or something, he or she would live in a giant house, have a ton of money and cars and stuff like that, and there would be no way that I’d get the chance to meet him. However, my meeting with Crumb was no less surprising, or rewarding. The house looked just like every other. I parked out on the road, and walked up to the door and knocked. Immediately, three or four dogs come swarming to the door, barking their heads off. If I did not know that I was at the right address from having dropped off the letter earlier in the month, I would have thought that I was definitely at the wrong house. But a woman came and opened the door for me, the dogs acting up the whole time behind her. I explained who I was and what I was there for, and she let me in. She introduced herself as Dr. Crumb’s daughter, and unfortunately, I forget her name. While we were waiting for Dr. Crumb to come down, she explained that she ran a sort of shelter for dogs. She took in dogs that needed help and kept them until they were ready to go elsewhere.

In fact, Dr. Crumb still lives with his wife and son as well, and I met them also. When Dr. Crumb came down, I nervously introduced myself. I was speaking to a man whose name could be found in any textbook on 20th or 21st century classical music. And yet, you would get no sign of this just by talking to him. He was very nice and patient with the questions I asked him when we went into his workplace in the back of his house. At 81 years, he is still going as strong as ever. He seemed very lively and in great spirits, and willing to talk about anything musical. He showed me works that he was currently working on, a song cycle of some American texts. One of the notable things about Crumb’s oeuvre is that it has come out steady ever since he began writing. He has released works in 7 different decades, and I’m sure will soon add an 8th in 2011. It was inspiring to see someone who showed no signs of anxiety at all when it comes to composing. He showed me the tools he uses to work as well. They consisted of many rulers, black permanent markers of all kinds of point sizes, as well as protractors, compasses, and rulers. It was great to see how Crumb produces his beautiful scores, which in themselves are works of art. I was amazed to find out that he does all of them by hand, such as the following one:

I got the chance to ask him a couple questions, such as where he got his inspiration from, what his favorite piece that he had written was, and we talked for an hour or so. I showed him some of the requiem I’m working on. He played through some of it, and made some corrections and other comments. I was delighted to find out one thing in particular, however. If you aren’t familiar with Crumb’s work, he is noted for his exploration of unusual timbres, his use of alternative notation (as seen above), and extended technique. Timbre is the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production; it’s what tells a person that a violin is a violin and a saxophone is a saxophone, even though they are both playing middle C. For instance, in his seminal work “Black Angels” (for string quartet), Crumb asks the performers at one point to play crystal glasses filled with water. Extended technique means that he asks performers to do things with their instrument that aren’t very common; for instance, in some works he asks the performers to tap on their instruments. His work is also marked by symmetry; for instance, a work of his might start and end the same way, or the chords he uses are constructed out of the same interval overlaid on top of itself. I recalled this when I was at Dr. Crumb’s when I saw that the piano that he uses, in fact, was (and I presume, still is) out of tune! It seemed like he had been dealing with that (and not just dealing with it, but taking advantage of it) for a while. Almost any other composer would have had the piano tuned immediately. But I think he liked the dissonant sound of it; it spoke to his use of unusual timbres and extended techniques.

Finally, I got him to sign a copy of “Black Angels”, and got some pictures taken with him, which I’ve posted below. I will remember my meeting with Dr. Crumb for a long time. It made me really hope that I get the opportunity to do what he’s done, and it motivates me to take advantage of the chance I have. Hopefully, one day, I will be where he is, working on music, and having young composers contact me to talk!

As a foray into Crumb’s music, I suggest you check out the work I’ve referenced herein, “Black Angels.” Be forewarned, it is unlike anything you’ve heard before! It’s a work for amplified string quartet. Crumb takes advantage of the amplification to get certain effects and timbres out of the instruments that you just couldn’t with their acoustic counterparts. The work is structurally based around the numbers 13 and 7. The Wikipedia page for the work can be found here:

This is the first movement to “Black Angels”, called “Night Of The Electric Insects.” Just click below. Enjoy!

Friday, January 7, 2011

#2 - Samuel Barber - Adagio for Strings (for string orchestra)

The next installment in the "Influential Works" series is "Adagio for Strings", for string orchestra. Samuel Barber is very similar to another composer who's very influential in my work, Aaron Copland, because they are both American composers with a European sensibility. That is to say, their music sounds a lot more like their kindred spirits on the other side of the Atlantic, like Maurice Durufle (who also appears on this list,) rather than that of their compatriots, whom I think of as the "eclectric" group. This group would include Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Harry Partch, and others, who all did their music-making in a very unique way, and in doing so greatly expanded the definition of what music was and could be. But this piece has a very special place in my listening library because I believe it is a wonderful example of the ability of music to express emotion. This has always been a huge debate in the history of music, with almost every major music critic, theorist, or composer taking part in it. If anything could be proof of an answer in the positive to that debate, it would be this piece. Listen to the chords about 3/4 of the way through the piece: each one heightens the tension until you're not sure if you can take it anymore. And just when you think you've reached your breaking point, Barber relents, and brings back the material from the start of the piece. It's very evocative. Look for other works in this series to also try to demonstrate the ability of music to express emotion. And if you're interested, again, the Adagio For Strings Wikipedia Page. Enjoy!

Monday, January 3, 2011

What is Inspiration?

Okay, inspiration. Let's start with a saying I've heard before and really like: composing is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. Now, what that means is that composing is almost all hard work, and just a little bit of inspiration. I think a lot of people think that composing is all inspiration (or more than it really is) because of how we experience music. When we pick up a copy of a masterpiece, like a Beethoven String Quartet (let's say, the one with the Grand Fugue in it, although I'm certainly no expert on LVB so I don't know which it is,) all we see is the finished product: perfect and immaculate, every note in its right place and having a purpose, without which the whole thing would fall apart. It seems like it all came out in one fell swoop of inspiration and love-making with the muse. What we don't see are the pages and pages of complete rewrites, edits, revisions, etc., that were a vital stepping stone on the path to the complete product. If you look at a Beethoven manuscript (where one is really able to feel the agony of the creative process... mangled pages, blotches of ink everywhere, written so quickly it's hardly legible,) you'll see that sometimes he begins with just an awful, banal idea. Then, after a little tweak here, and a little tweak there, repeated over and over (and over,) you're left with an amazing melody like that from the ode to joy (again, no expert, I forget which piece that's from.)  In my own work, I must be constantly reminding myself that even if I throw out a whole section of work that I worked on for hours and hours, I still have made progress. Why? Because I had to go down that path to realize it wasn't the right one. This makes my idea of what I'm looking for sharper and clearer, and focuses my ear for what I'm looking for.

"But!" You say, "What about someone like Mozart! Certainly, he was at one with the muse, a man who wrote no less than 41 symphonies by the time he died at the young age of 33!" (Not to mention the days of other music that he composed.) Well, let's think about that. First, Mozart, by his sister's account, started practicing at the piano by the time he was 4. Second, his earlier works are, certainly, of a lesser degree of quality then his other works. Consider the idea that Levine espouses in "This Is Your Brain On Music", as well as others, like Malcolm Gladwell. Apparently, 10,000 hours is a pretty reasonable estimate for how much you must practice before you become a master at something. I'll leave it to them for the evidence, and trust you to just go with me on this one. If Mozart was an extremely, incredibly hardworker, it is possible to see by calculation that he came up with those 10,000 hours by a very young age. This would explain his amazing output by hard work then and not inspiration. In fact, if you go and look at any of the composers who are remembered today (Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bach, to name some of the biggest,) they were all extremely hard workers. It's amazing and inspiring, really. Once I figured out that being a good composer was more a function of being a hard worker than having some unquantifiable, God-given attribute, I was set!

But if you want to talk about inspiration as the thing that instead is inspiring you to keep going, gives you that fire in the belly, then that's something else. Look, I'm not surprised your high school fugue wasn't good. Who can get really passionate about a high school fugue?!? It's hard to do so. One of the first things a young composer must do in their maturation process is find something to write about that they really, really, really care about. I mean, love-with-your-whole-heart care about. For a lot of people (including myself), this means involving material that is connected to some part of your history, whether it's your ethnic, racial, religious, or personal history. For instance, think of all the "folk" composers (there's practically one for every country): Bartok for Hungary, Dvorak/Janacek/others-I-can't-remember for Czechoslovakia, Stravinsky/Rimsky-Korsakov/Tchaikovsky/so many others for Russia, Vaughn Williams/Britten for England, ah the list goes on and on, we could do this all day. They all had a tremendous love for their country, and were inspired by that to write really great music. Religion really got people going for practically everyone you've heard of before the 20th century practically about (Bach especially, as just one case, and a pretty darn good one at that.) As for me, I'm Catholic, so right now I'm writing a requiem mass. I have plans to write a setting of some original miner songs from mining areas, because that's where my mom's family is from. To a young composer, I would say, think about where you and your family are from, then go find some text (poetry, a play, etc.) that connects to that, and set it to music! Then, the ideas will really come. For me, writing pure music with no words, or not trying to evoke a scene, is very difficult; I'm just not sure what I want to say, or what emotion I what to convey. But text bridges that gap and makes it easier for me (and others, I suspect.)

And if you really love it, then you'll work on it as much as you can; and then, at the end of the day, when your mind is just so completely garbled from being so intently focused on finding that next just right note, or next just right rhythm, that you can barely get a single coherent thought through your head, music will still be there to be listened to and to let you know everything is more than fine, it's great. And that's all you can really ever ask of music.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Influential Work #1 - Maurice Ravel - Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte

The first entry in our "Influential Works" series is "Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte" (in English, "Pavane For a Dead Princess"), by French composer Maurice Ravel. The pavane is a slow processional dance that was popular in European courts in the 16th and 17th centuries Although Ravel is widely considered French, he is also associated with Spain. His mother came from the Basque region of Spain, and he experienced the music of Spain through her. The only way I know how to describe this piece by Maurice Ravel, a French impressionist composer who lived from March 7, 1875, to December 28, 1937, is breathtakingly beautiful. The "impressionist" moniker means that often, one is left with the effect of having heard a piece, rather than remembering any specific part of it. Ravel, a couple years younger than the composer Claude Debussy, is invariably linked with the older Frenchman, as both a contemporary and as a influence (while Debussy is often himself considered an influence of Ravel.) Debussy and Ravel will continue to show up in this series. Although one might not hear much of Debussy and Ravel in my music, it is more like I have tried to borrow their aesthetic rather than use their materials and techniques, which I consider at this point in my education to be too advanced for me to use correctly. Their aesthetic is a soft, thoughtful, sweet, gentle one, in many instances, like here. Check out the wikipedia page for this work if you're interested and would like to know more:  Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte. Enjoy!

Welcome To The Composer's Corner!

Hello, and welcome! There is not much to see just yet, but I will be taking care of that soon. I have a couple initial plans for the blog:

1. I will be posting a lot of info and articles on my current project, the "Requiem For Victims of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti." It's a composition for carillon, choir, percussion, and brass quintet that I've been working on since January 2010. But more on that later!
2. There will be a series of "Influential Works", where I post links to musical works that have been influential in my composing; more specifically, in the composing of my current piece, the requiem. They will be accessible to the average listener, and I will do my best to make some insightful comments on each work. Look for them to come out every week or so.
3. I will also post and discuss articles on classical music of general interest that explore the current topics being debated in classical music today, including questions of how and why classical music is still relevant today, why it's listening audience is so small, and what can be done about that (or if anything should be done at all!)

So, check back every so often for these projects. I will do my best to work on the blog pretty regularly, but if I'm rather busy (hopefully working on the requiem!), there might be some delays.

See you soon!