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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.