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Showing posts from July, 2008

Blending Pop and Classical Music

I see a trend emerging.... the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is going to perform a symphony based on 12 Greatful Dead tunes, a piece called the Dead Symphony by Lee Johnson. The St Louis Symphony Orchestra will be performing several concerts of movie music (ok, that's not so new), but they're sponsoring a concert of Glenn Branca’s symphony written for 100 electric guitars. Classical music isn't dead - it's just beginning to absorb some of qualities of more popular genre's - and will (IMHO) create something even more wonderful in years to come.

Scene Length and how it affects the music

The length of scene has dramatically shortened over the years, particularly in terms of opening/introductory scenes. Film makers are shifting from long, drawn-out shots to rapid changes; some of these coming in different camera angles, but some are completely new scenes. In our reviewing popular television programs and their opening episodes it is common to have scenes with only 3 or 4 lines and then on to the next character. Compare this to films and TV shows even 20 years ago and you'll find the current trend is for short and sweet dialog. But short and sweet can dramatically affect the flow of music. When the scene shifts from one to another the music needs to follow, giving each scene its own character - and yet tying the scenes together, having themes that flow across scenes and elements that bind the entire piece into a cohesive whole. One approach is to use leitmotif's to establish characters, which allows the music to quickly bounce from one leitmotif to ano…

Fate of Contemporary Classical Music

There is a lot of discussion on the internet about the demise of Contemporary Classical Music. Eddie Silva talks of the Death of the Death of Classical Music to say it's been pronounced dead so many times we need to move on - and yet, Classical Music isn't something that really ever dies, but just looks to be re-born or re-invested into something new. Anzu says much the same thing (only much shorter - with references to sex, albeit a tenuous connection). Alex Fong attributes the death of Classical Music to the stuffy critics and patrons who feel "classical music is an art to be appreciated like fine wine, with a discerning palette to augur through its complexities." While all of these are interesting reads, Stefan Kac, on his blog "My Fickle Ears Dig It", gives a fascinating insight into three reasons why he thinks CCM is dying. While I agree with his first and third arguments on Attempting To Use Analysis To Synthesize Experience and Appe…

Getting beyond the comparison

When studying music (or any art), a part of the process is to study the music of other greats. This is a necessary part of learning as past masters can show us how good music is done (at least in their style of music). The danger is this study can frustrate the novice composer into thinking they can never compete with the masters. Kenneth LaFave wrote an excellent post on his blog - "How to Fail" which prompted my own post.Composing music, like painting, is comprised of combining a series of elements together to create pleasing (or not so pleasing) sounds. These elements are really nothing more than techniques. By learning the techniques of Mozart or Hayden it becomes possible to write music like them. This is called pastiche. The point of pastiche writing is to learn the techniques of other composers. Learn enough different techniques and you start to create your own unique blend of them. By learning what's been done, you have a better idea as to where you can …

Cautionary Accidentals necessary

Cautionary accidentals are those little friendly reminders that the note you are looking at (about to play) is actually different than the same note previously. Sometimes this is because we've crossed a bar line and the altered note in the previous bar is no long altered, but should be played in the appropriate key signature. Othertimes notes an octave different from the altered note are played in a bar after the altered note, but these notes of a different octave don't retain the alteration (like they would if they were in the same octave). And then there are those times when the key signature has changed and a friendly reminder is presented the first time a note is played in the new key - just to remind the player "you're in a new key." When I was playing fairly regularly, I didn't find it all that necessary to have cautionary accidentals in the part because the rule is, if the note is altered, either flat or sharp, than tha…

Finding a Story’s Architecture

In setting about the writing of the libretto for It Must Be Fate I wanted to weave the characters and their stories much the way tapestries are woven on the loom.If you were simply weaving two colours together, warp and wheft, then there would be little if no surprises.But when you add colours and pattern then the weave becomes more complicated.Like life, it can be difficult to see the overall pattern when you are looking too closely at a single line of weaving.Now that we have audience tested our basic concept and characters I have turned to the writing of the body of the opera.I wish to develop my characters over the long stretch of the story, much in the way characters in film or TV are revealed – scene by scene.I also want to show the intersecting lives of my characters in as realistic a way as possible. The metaphoric use of tapestries and weaving provides my framework, but how exactly do I pattern the story?This is the question that is keeping me up at night.I have been spending…

What's on in Scotland this weekend

25-27 July, 200825th - Friday19:30at Paxton House,
Berwick-upon-Tweed
Hebrides Ensemble 26th - Saturday7:30at Paxton House,
Berwick-upon-Tweed
Primrose Piano Quartet27th - Sunday14:00 at Ross Bandstand,
Edinburgh
Forth Valley Chorus19:30at Òran Mór,
Glasgow
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland with Mark Lockheart

Listening to music in a different way

The New York Times is a paper I go back to fairly regularly in terms of music related articles. In the Opinion Section of the website is a blog, Measure for Measure which has a variety of different articles dealing with music writing. Andrew Bird wrote one, Without Words back on 21 June that I keep coming back to. He initially talks about concern over how much he likes one of his recent projects, then moves into how adding drums changes the feeling of a piece. Bird eventually ends up talking about how words can change a piece and not sure if he will very really like instrumental music - and yet, he's been listening to an instrumental version and liking it. During the initial compositional process of "It Must Be Fate" there were a lot of decisions made about what the music should do. As we rehearsed it, I was surprised to hear so much of what I wanted in the music to actually be coming out. Then, during the performance, I was so focused on…

Musical Introductions in Opera

There are ways to introduce characters without using words. This is one of the powers of opera and it's been translated into film and television. The next time you watch a pilot episode of a new TV series or in the first 20-30 mins of a film, listen carefully to the music as a new character enters the screen, or if the music changes to something dramatically different and then a new character appears, you'll see/hear what I mean. Music is being used to identify characters, let us know if they're the good guys or not - or to confuse us into thinking they're the bad guys when they're not. All of this is in the hands of the composer.In working on the opera, "It Must Be Fate" my wife (the librettist) and I are reviewing a number of different mediums to identify elements of plot, structure, tone, theme and what music is doing to tie together these elements. Some of what we've seen has excellent dialog, great screen angles and …

Quality Classical Music post 1950

Although I occasionally rail against the dissonant music of post WWII, there are a number of pieces which do work, very well. Ethan Iverson on his blog Do the Math put out a challenge for a list of good post 1950 music. Terry Teachout responded on his blog About Last Night. Before I list the music on my list I thought I'd comment on their lists. First Terry's list: The only piece I don't know is Moravec's The Time Gallery. Everything else on this list might have made it on to mine - and when you see my list, many of the composers are the same, so we must share a similar taste in music.Next Ethan's list: Here I had more difficulty. I don't know Gould's StringMusic and, I have only heard one of Adès' pieces (and didn't like it) so I am not sure I could comment. As for the rest of the pieces, sorry Terry, but I don't like them. However, Terry starts his article with "The classical music written since 1950 that I list…

Why be a film composer

Varsity published an interesting article on film composers and why they chose to be film composers. While there are a number of interesting answers, perhaps the most striking responses are the freedom they feel when composing for film (not restricted by other forms - particularly classical) and the influence of John Williams. "I didn't want to be a purely 'modern classical' composer" or "I liked to write classical music as well, but then I didn't think that I couldn't enjoy this for my life" are some of the sentiments quoted from the article. For me personally, I like writing both, but there is definitely a challenge in writting for film. It is restricted in needing to fit the film and yet freeing as it can be anything - not limited to a concert hall, live performers, form or structure... and yet, it can be all of those as well. I also enjoy story, narrative and try to put narrative (to some form) in everythin…

Emerging Composers

What will the next new music be? Some of that will depend on which new composers get "discovered" and the reaction to their works. The London Symphony Orchestra and the Panufnic Young Composers Scheme gives a chance for emerging composers to work with the LSO and potentially earn a commission for a large scale work. Jazon Yarde's All Souls Seek Joy will be premiered on 28 November 2008, and Charlie Piper has been commissioned for a Barbican concert in the LSO's 2008/2009 season. Reading some of the biographies for the composers who have participated in previous years (2008, 2007, 2006) it's remarkable how many include jazz as an influence. A review of Jason Yarde's music in the Guardian reads, 'Yarde is a musician to watch. In his work, "world" meets jazz meets crossover to the point where such terms mean nothing. We are left with just glorious music.' - 30 November 2007. Another aspect about each of these composers is the number of awards t…

West Side Story: 50 years

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One of my favourite musicals is West Side Story. It has great music, powerful story, and a message that rings as true today as it did in Shakespeare day. The Yesterday, the Telegraph did an article, 50 years of West Side Story, in preparation for Sadler Wells upcoming production.It is basically a series of quotes that talk about the first production and what lead up to this amazing musical. Some of the ones I particularly like are:Leonard Bernstein I don't know how many people begged me not to waste my time on something that could not possibly succeed... a show full of hatefulness and ugliness.Carol Lawrence In the beginning, we broke a lot of Equity rules. A month before rehearsals began, Gerry Freedman took the principals, Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino, to this tiny little garret, so hot I can't tell you, for no pay at all, eight hours a day, and we would dissect the characters, talk for hours about why they did the things they did.From st…

Classical Music, Alzheimer's and a Personal Note

There is an interesting article in The Australian on the connection between learning, music, the brain and Oliver Sack's book Musicophilia. The article provides a quote from the book, “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician, but they could recognise the brain of a professional musician without a moment's hesitation.” Why I found this interesting is because my father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He's played the trombone all his life with many of the last 30 years playing with the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra (he retired a few years ago - but still plays with a variety of other groups). In another article by Jill Daniel about Sack's book says music can also helps Alzheimer patients (along with reducing stress and several other health benefits). An article by Denise Dado speaks about fending off the effects of Alzheimer's speaking about turning off the TV …

Hollywood Sound: Simple Action Scene

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A number of the action films coming out of Hollywood today have orchestral action music as a background music. This music is generally built on fairly simple repetitive elements layered to create a rich sound. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this is an example.We start the first example with strings. The element is two bars in length, but basically a series of running 16th notes. We then add percussion, timpani and a snare drum - although for a full sound we'd probably want to add a bass drum, and tom toms in the final mix. I added the timpani at bar 3 and snare drum at bar 5 to create a longer build. The accents in the percussion are different than in the strings, creating a syncopated pulse in the music.The third layer is the melody. This particular one is pretty cheesy, but demonstrates the concept. The brass play pretty much in unison octaves, with only a coloring of harmony. The more elaborate the harmony, the more dense the music and the less effective it is a…

Bi-tonality: Composing with new harmonic movement

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At the turn of the 20th Century, a number of composers were beginning to explore the sound world of bitonality, the use of more than one key simultaneously. Composers like, Bartók, Stravinski and Ives all explored bitonality in their music. Debussy's second book of Preludes explores the blending of keys - as does my own set of 12 Preludes. Some theorists consider notation in two keys to be pointless, because the purpose of a key is to suggest a root or tonic. With bitonality, there is no common tonic, and so the keys become irrelevant. And yet surely the point of a key signature is to also aid in the reading/performing of the music?!?Prelude 2In writing my own set of preludes I ran into a problem. The preludes explore bitonality in the migration of keys through the circle of fifths, with each hand moving in a different direction through the keys. So, the first prelude has both hands in C, but the second prelude has the right hand in G while the left han…

I don't get reviewers

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Here is a quote from Kenneth Turan review in the LA Times, "The refreshing thing about the 'Mamma Mia!' show was that it dared to be simple. Just those 18 songs, adroitly presented, with just enough plot, dancing and stage business to get you cleanly from one to the other. That's all anyone cared about and, frankly, that's all anyone should have cared about."What???  So, basically, the musical "Mamma Mia!" is a sing-a-long for ABBA fans with no real plot.   Ok, that's pretty much what I thought the movie was, and while it was lightly entertaining - if you're not an ABBA fan, it's fairly lame in terms of substance.*sigh* - The stage show and music "Mamma Mia! are huge successes - even though they are little more than ABBA sing-a-longs.  Yet, write a new fluff musical where the music is fun with hummable tunes and the show is panned - literally crusified for having no substance.  Write something new, that has new music, challanging an…

Harmonic Movement

Previously I mentioned Harmonic Movement as a way to create tension, building interest in music. Then I thought I probably ought to talk about Harmonic Movement and its roll in Contemporary Classical Music and to do that start with a brief history of harmonic movement.Brief HistoryWhen music began to move into more complex harmonies than the single or duet lines of Gregorian Chant, it did so by harmonising notes that sounded pleasing, but music was more horizontal in terms of movement of each line, rather than the vertical harmonies created by multiple lines. By the time of the Renaissance, chord progresses still weren't a developed concept. Multiple voice music was beginning to play with progressions, with the development of a ground bass. There where certain progressions music made more enjoyable (see Passamesso Moderno and Passamesso Antico), but cadences which provide a resolution to the harmonic movement were not common practice.By the time of th…

Obscuring the Beat (2)

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Previously I wrote of how the beat has been manipulated, transformed and obscured in music across pretty much all forms. But to say that it happens is one thing, to discuss how to achieve it, and the resulting effect is something very different. When composing a piece of music it is important to create movement in the music - not just a moving melodic line, but the piece should feel as if it speeds up and slows down as if riding waves. The music should feel as if there are peaks and valleys as the listener progresses through the piece. Harmonic movement is one way composers are taught to create a sense of tension in a piece. By speeding up the harmonic movement as a piece nears the end of a section, the music feels as if it speeds up, the tension increases and a "peak" is achieve in preparation for the cadence. Yet adjusting the rhythm of piece can have a similar effect in terms of keeping the piece shifting through peaks and valleys.In Bach's Jesu,…

Obscuring the Beat

A number of moderns composers, in an attempt to create interesting rhythms, obscure the beat - this is to say, they create counter rhythms or off beat stresses that do not fall on the beat of the bar thus giving the feeling the beat is actually somewhere other than it is on the written page. Ok, why do this? Isn't the point of music to be rhythmical? Well, yes, but if all music were straight to the beat it would be boring. If you think about Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, the opening moving melodic line starts off the upbeat, even though the underlying bass line is firmly on the beat. The very idea of a hemiola is to shift from a complex (triplet) pattern to a simple (duplet) pattern and common in the music of Haydn and Mozart. As music progressed to the romantic composers, the beat became more and more sublime with irregular patterns creating a feeling of rubato even though the actual beat didn't change. Debussy was a master at creati…

Getting your music out there

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I've occasionally written about the process of getting music heard, and the uphill road classical composers have to tread. Well, it seems I am not alone. William Weir writes about Kenneth Fuchs in The Red Orbit. Mr Fuchs and Ms Frank (see previous post) are recorded composers, both have studied with well recognised composers - and both struggle to get their music heard. So, if there is a lesson to be learned it must be - nothing worthwhile is going to be easy.

Combining Classical and Folklore

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I was reading the daily news and came across this article in the San Jose Mercury News. Composer Gabriela Lena Frank will have her music performed in August at the Music@Menlo Festival. Ms Frank has a diverse cultural backgrounds, Chinese-Peruvian-Jewish-Lituanian growing up in Berkeley California. She loves latin rhythms and incorporates folk influences into her music. She has been hailed as representing "the next generation of American composers." Another article in the Independent speaking on how "Classical performers need to stop being stuffy and get in the groove." Kristjan Järvi's article is all about how Classical performances should be entertaining (yea!)

Film and Music Acousmatique

The film industry has taking the role of sound to new heights as we explore the meaning of sound (and music) in terms of the images we see. We, as viewers, are often aware of the music and the tension it can bring to a scene. Practically everyone can ominous double bass pounding in "Jaws" just before the shark would attack or the screaching high strings in "Psycho". But often the music is underplayed, subtle to the point of disappearing into the scene so we don't realise the effects on our psychi. The music, if done right, can add emotional impact to a scene, to a film, so the end result is a more powerful response - and a more enjoyable experience.Then there is the organic sounds of a film, the sounds we expect to hear (and think we expect to hear based on the images of the screen) - the creaking of a door, or the electronic hum of machinery. Sound Design has become a huge part in the creation of film today. Foley artists, who …

Time signature and Tempo: Conducting or Composing the right mood

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What is the proper time signature and tempo for a section? Should the tempo follow the perceived beat, or should it be related to what the composer wants to impose as the beat? Are they provided to give ease to the performers or arbitrary points to control the passage of time and nothing else? Over the next few weeks I will be examining the role of time signatures and their relationship to tempo and the eventual performance of a piece. While I will begin by using my own music as examples, these posts will not be limited to my music. If you have selections of music you think agree or refute what I say here, please add your comments. I will endeavor to find and post the suitable examples as images to coincide with your arguments. Time signatures are something I struggle with as a composer. I feel as though they should be indicative of where the stresses are in a piece. This means it should be as fast or as slow as the stress intended by the composer, even if the piece "s…

Piano Preludes are done...

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photo by Clare Martin It's been a long time in coming, but I've finally finished the 12th Prelude to complete the set. You can listen to all the preludes here as well as some of my other compositions. I haven't installed a flash player yet...
You may be wondering why only twelve Preludes as typically there is a prelude for every major and minor key so that would make for 24. However, my approach to the preludes is a bit different. I don't work strictly with major or minor keys, but rather move the hands in opposing directions around the circle of 5ths. So, while the first prelude has both hands in the key of C, the second prelude has the right hand in G (1 sharp) with the left hand in F (1 flat). The two hands continue to migrate around the keys until they reach the twelfth. The 12th prelude is the inverse of the second. If you're interested in seeing sheet music, drop me a line and I can send pdf's for the ones you're interested in.

A problem with New Classical Music

Ok, I occasionally rant about the direction of classical music... but I'm not alone.Joe Queenan of the Guardian feels much the same.And yet... Tom Service presents a compelling reason as to why Joe is wrong.Lesley Aeschliman writes about why Classical music isn't dead (and may never be) - with far more voters voting no, than yes. Although, Amber Jansky (a yes voter) speaks about just the sort of issue I am concerned with - the future of Classical music in terms of market share and what is it that people are really listening to.

The Film industry gets hold of Opera

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We are in an age where cinema is affecting our lives in ways we don't realise (until perhaps it is too late). There are claims that cigarette smoking on screen glamorizes it, the American dialect in speech can be heard the world over, even in countries where English is not the primary language and film directors, writers and composers are branching out to live stage productions. None of these things are new. There was a call for legislation in the 60's to ban smoking on screen. The film industry responded by voluntarily cutting back (for a while - as now it's difficult to find a film where there isn't someone smoking at some point). John Wayne and Clint Eastwood cowboy flicks were huge international hits bringing American Old West culture to the world (even though some of them were filmed in Italy - thus spaghetti westerns). Film stars are often gone to Broadway bringing their fame to on stage productions, and Mel Brookes has given new …

Accessible Language in Opera

Reading an article in the NY Times today I realised I "grew" up in an era where Supertitles were on the cutting edge, not necessarily something we took for granted or just accepted as common place, found in all the "best" houses - but rather a new idea that still struggles after 25 years. I didn't grow up in New York, so the opera of my childhood (more than 25 years ago) was found on PBS which included subtitles. When I finally made my way to the opera house, Denver they didn't have the technology. Then (some years later), I found myself in the San Francisco Opera house and glad to see they did have it. But at this point I thought this was because San Francisco was a more upscale house, not because this was necessarily a new technology at the time.The article goes on to discuss what opera houses did before supertitles. Some provided the libretto in the programme, or at least a detailed synopsis. Others began performing trans…

Why more of "The Fly"

You might well ask that question and the answer would be "We are working on an opera and interested in understanding what works and what doesn't in the modern sense of opera." Since the recent opening of "La Mouche" (the Fly) in Paris I have been intrigued by what the response is - particularly in terms of music with the score by Howard Shore (of Lord of the Rings fame).Le Monde wrote the following (translated by Google): The music "Essentially atonal but occasionally sentimental, talkative but static, this music could have played to forge codes soundtracks of science fiction and horror of the 1950's but it prefers to remain in the respectable. And, as often, respectable bored."Eric Dahan of Libération said Mr. Shore had “perhaps overestimated his ability to write a lyric work (as quoted in the New York Times). Plácido Domingo conducted the orchestra and involved in the production said, "There are very moving moments, very melodic moments. …