. Interchanging Idioms: June 2008

Monday, June 30, 2008

Reviews - Classical vs Pop

Greg Sandow brings an interesting viewpoint to the division between classical and pop music - the review. In his blog for 26 June, he compares two reviews, one for pop music and one for classical music. He presents the idea that pop reviews are more interesting (at least that's how I read his post).

In writing classes they say "write to your audience" and I suppose a classical reviewer is looking at their audience as being the older, probably more educated (at least in terms of classical music education) and more affluent, where as a pop reviewer is trying to reach the masses. And typically that's what he crowds are. Occasionally you'll get concerts "in the park" where popular classical tunes are played and fireworks are let lose which bring out the families. But generally, classical concerts are filled with an aging crowd, a crowd that is not necessarily replenishing itself - and part of this is due to the perception that classical music is stuffy, old and unless you're really "into it" boring.

How do we change this, how do we encourage reviewers that the audience is more than just the narrow band of classical music lovers?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Getting a First

Although the final grades are not out, the preliminary marks lead me to believe I will achieve a First Class Honours Degree from Napier University for my BMus studies. While the reaction from all those around me are praise and hearty congratulations, I am feeling a bit lost with marking it as anything extraordinary.

I do not want to put down the education I have received. I do not want to make little of my accomplishments over the past four years. What I am trying to say is, I do not think what I did was extraordinary for me. I do not feel, particularly in this last year, that anything I did was much of a stretch for me. I really wish I had done more, gone farther and done better. Yes, I (potentially) have First Class Honours Degree and it doesn't get any better than that. I guess it's just that I expect more of myself.

Does this sound egotistical? I don't mean it to.

Achievements this year:

  • Finished writing and conducted my first symphony
      Yes, I am very proud of that.
  • Wrote 30 minutes of a opera that has real potential (IMHO)
      Yes, I am proud of that
  • Wrote a complete string quartet (not just a short 5-6 minute string piece) that is being professionally performed (not just as a vanity project)
      Yes, I am proud of that

Things I didn't achieve:

  • Better understanding of what makes some composers music so intriguing.
      I'd like to study Mahler, (John) Williams, Corigliano indepth. I did study Holst, Brittan, Ferneyhough and Maxwell-Davis (and others), but there are so many more that I should also have gotten to and just didn't.
  • Better handle on the tricks in orchestrating for symphony orchestras.
      I am woefully lacking in knowing the tricks of master orchestrators. My first symphony does a number of interesting things - but there are still more out there (there must be) and I don't know them. It's like I am a painter who learned a couple of techniques, but then look at Monet and realise I have no business attempting water lilies at this stage in my development - and that's frustrating!
  • Better handle on sound mixing.
      I don't want to be a sound engineer, but so much of film music is done though computer generated sounds. I am not getting the clarity of sound I know can be achieved (even with generated sounds) so my works do not sound as good as they should.
  • Better understanding of Popular music
      I took a Dance Music class, but still just failed to grasp what it is that makes modern pop, hip hop, rock, drum&bass, club, house…. Music tick. I didn't take a pop degree, but it is so much of what is part of the musicscape of today that I feel inadequate in my knowledge.

The list goes on… Hopefully this provides some understanding as to why I'm not necessarily celebrating my achievement. Maybe I have just walked up a large hill (maybe even a mountain) but there so many more mountains left to climb. Taking time to celebrate climbing this one doesn't seem appropriate.

Getting a First

Although the final grades are not out, the preliminary marks lead me to believe I will achieve a First Class Honours Degree from Napier University for my BMus studies. While the reaction from all those around me are praise and hearty congratulations, I am feeling a bit lost with marking it as anything extraordinary.

I do not want to put down the education I have received. I do not want to make little of my accomplishments over the past four years. What I am trying to say is, I do not think what I did was extraordinary for me. I do not feel, particularly in this last year, that anything I did was much of a stretch for me. I really wish I had done more, gone farther and done better. Yes, I (potentially) have First Class Honours Degree and it doesn't get any better than that. I guess it's just that I expect more of myself.

Does this sound egotistical? I don't mean it to.

Achievements this year:

  • Finished writing and conducted my first symphony
      Yes, I am very proud of that.
  • Wrote 30 minutes of a opera that has real potential (IMHO)
      Yes, I am proud of that
  • Wrote a complete string quartet (not just a short 5-6 minute string piece) that is being professionally performed (not just as a vanity project)
      Yes, I am proud of that

Things I didn't achieve:

  • Better understanding of what makes some composers music so intriguing.
      I'd like to study Mahler, (John) Williams, Corigliano indepth. I did study Holst, Brittan, Ferneyhough and Maxwell-Davis (and others), but there are so many more that I should also have gotten to and just didn't.
  • Better handle on the tricks in orchestrating for symphony orchestras.
      I am woefully lacking in knowing the tricks of master orchestrators. My first symphony does a number of interesting things - but there are still more out there (there must be) and I don't know them. It's like I am a painter who learned a couple of techniques, but then look at Monet and realise I have no business attempting water lilies at this stage in my development - and that's frustrating!
  • Better handle on sound mixing.
      I don't want to be a sound engineer, but so much of film music is done though computer generated sounds. I am not getting the clarity of sound I know can be achieved (even with generated sounds) so my works do not sound as good as they should.
  • Better understanding of Popular music
      I took a Dance Music class, but still just failed to grasp what it is that makes modern pop, hip hop, rock, drum&bass, club, house…. Music tick. I didn't take a pop degree, but it is so much of what is part of the musicscape of today that I feel inadequate in my knowledge.

The list goes on… Hopefully this provides some understanding as to why I'm not necessarily celebrating my achievement. Maybe I have just walked up a large hill (maybe even a mountain) but there so many more mountains left to climb. Taking time to celebrate climbing this one doesn't seem appropriate.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tonal music and Atonal music– what are they really?

I know I tend to sound like a broken record in my diatribe against atonal music, but the truth of the matter is I'm not opposed to atonal music. A number of great composers have written music I very much enjoy which can be considered atonal in terms of design or at least nothing like the classical definition of tonal (as Mozart or even Mahler might recognise).

So, what am I really railing about? Mark Stryker put it perfectly, "The problem was never atonal music per se but bad atonal music and an ideologically driven musical culture that distrusted overt references to the past and composers committed to communicating with audiences." His article speaks about four American composers who have made their mark in the classical world by writing expressive music that appeals to an audience. They also accept the influences of previous great tonal composers, rather than feel they need to create something wholly new.

Part of what I object to is the notion that an audience needs to be educated in order to enjoy a piece of music. Yes, a musical education has helped me gain a greater respect for Mozart and Beethoven, but their music was enjoyable before my education.

In an article by Tom Jacobs, he remarks "I think it's possible a wider audience would fall in love with this music if we had the kind of education that taught us how music history works and what a composer is trying to say. You may not get the warm response people have with Mozart, but I think you'd get respect. People would be intrigued by it."

A number of Webern's pieces are like this. When you understand the intricate workings behind the composition there is a mathematical fascination with his music, but I still don't particularly enjoy listening to much of it. I personally think he had some interesting ideas, but the music feels ugly and disjointed (even though it is incredibly tightly woven together), so IMHO much of his music fails to be good music.

Not every one agrees with me - and that's ok. In the blog The Detritus Review Sator Arepo rants against a critic who obviously doesn't like 12 tone music. I'd hate to think what the author would think of my article, although I doubt I would ever want to call myself a critic - a composer with an opinion, certainly, but to go so far as to feel qualified to actually critique someone's performance and or work as if I had some greater authority to judge whether something is good or not - well, I'm just not there yet!

Ok, I'm not a fan of 12 tone music either, but I gather that Sator is. Cool! There is a lot to be said about 12 tone music and composers (like myself) have learned a lot about creating new worlds of sounds because of it. The serialism that followed it and the various other forms that are still taking place in music all because of the "Big Bang" of Schoenberg and his cronies. As much as modern music owes to this music and as necessary as it is for new composers to strive for even more and distant musical worlds (atonal music isn't lacking tone, it is just a new way of looking at how tones are put together) - what I am trying to stress that it is just as necessary for other composers (like myself) to keep striving for a new sound that still has audience appeal, appeal to an audience that doesn't require a masters degree in music to appreciate it, an audience that enjoys it at the first hearing, and is eager to hear it again (and again).

What I rebel against are the critiques who say the music I write isn't worthy because it isn't new enough, or that is has a melody or parts of it follow recognisable chord progressions. I like melodies! And so do a lot of other people. Using recognisable chord progressions is like writing a story referencing other fairytales; it gives the audience an immediate reference point from which to jump off. For me the joy is in the twisting of the recognisable into a new form, telling a new story that is only enhanced by the recognition of the old.

Atonal and/or Complex Music and the future

I have often spoke of where music is going in this blog and proffered my postulations as to the growing need for tonal music to remain a focus of new composers (although I certainly don't think music needs to be restricted to the classical definition of chord progression and harmonic movement). What I am trying to put forward is the need of composers to understand the role of the "audience" (future performers included in the term audience) in their quest for writing something new. Brian Ferneyhough understands the type of performer who is going to tackle one of his pieces and the type of audience who will attend concerts of his works. While his music isn't necessarily the type of music I write, his audience isn't necessarily the same as the one I write for - although, if I ever get famous enough, we may have some bleed-over in the world of professional musicians.

Understanding who your "audience" is is critical for a composer. It seems Harold Rosenbaum thinks the same thing. In a recent article in the NY Times, he is stated as championing new works where choral conductors have shied away from them for being too complex or atonal, and where music publishers have avoid new works for the same reason. Mr Rosenbaum thinks there is a lot of wonderful contemporary choral music out there, but it's not getting heard because of the perception of contemporary music.

I think this perception is due to the educational system. Universities and Conservatories are stressing the avantgard composers, pushing musicians to work with and understand the more remote (albeit widely accepted - accepted by the educational institutions) composers in terms of music. Composers are encouraged to follow in these remote footsteps in the attempt to find their voice and so numerous compositions are done pushing the bounds of tonality and complexity. I would suggest most composers write more music when they are in University than they do after they have graduated, so the bulk of their material is done in an experimental phase.

Experimentation is good, don't get me wrong. It is important to try new things and explore new worlds. But it's also important to find ones self, to understand what it is that really makes you tick and part of that is learning who your audience is.

For those conductors out there, don't give up on new music. There are a host of composers who are writing very accessible works; they just are perhaps a bit hard to find. Keep looking!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Computers, Miracles or Crutches

This may sound odd coming from a computer programmer (what I actually do for a living rather that just exist as a starving composer and blogger [which has yet to bring in any income]), but I'm not sure all advancements in computers in the music industry are a good thing.

Peter Neubäcker has developed software that can fix music in the mix, that is to say, it can adjust notes in a recording to fix mistakes. I realise there is already AutoTune on the market which does the same thing for a single track during the recording (or performance) process, and done well can make a mediocre singer seem pitch perfect. This new software will allow engineers to fix recordings rather than have the entire ensemble re-record the passage - a real cost savings for the recording industry.

However, we have already begun to set unreachable expectations with our audiences, particular in terms of classical music. Seldom do we hear live recordings of pieces by orchestras, because live recordings are fraught with all those mistakes, even when the orchestra is world class (they are still human, after all). These not-so-live recordings are done is a studio where if a passage isn't quite right it can be done over (and over again) until it is just so. The problem is the listener doesn't necessarily appreciate this effort, but rather listens to the recording amazed at the seemingly effortless precision of the music. Yet, when that same listener attends the concert hall, they are left feeling somewhat frustrated; it just wasn't as good as the recording.

Pop music, particularly rock bands, actually end up with a better concert experience than their recordings, not because their recordings are treated in exactly the same way - recording over and over each section until it's perfect - but rather the "energy" of their performance is so over the top, the audience is feeling the "performance" rather than the music. (Don't mistake volume with performance; just getting louder doesn't make it better).

Orchestras tend to be fairly static, sitting ever so politely in their seats, playing away. Some conductors, like Gustavo Dudamel, perform up on the podium and so add to the live performance. But these conductors are rare, and having stood up in front of several ensembles, not all musicians like having the emotional hysterics on the podium. So, it comes down to the performance of the musicians. Live musicians already can't compare with recordings and this new software will only widen the gap - because it can alter "live" recordings as well as studio ones.

Having said all this I use computers for composition. I use computers to produce midi realisations or provide much of the background sounds in my film work. My computer has recorded (and re-recorded) numerous pieces and I've edited the sound, using the computer, to make it the best possible. So, aren't I being a bit hypocritical?

I guess what I am really hoping is that there will be some "labelling" of recordings that use this new technology (as I think recordings ought say when AutoTune has been used). Not all listeners will read the label (if it's anything thing like other fine print, few listeners will take the time), but some will, most notably critics. This would give us the chance to appreciate the difference between live and enhanced performances. Viva la spontaneity!

At the end of the above article there are a couple of sound engineers who agree this software isn't necessarily a good thing.

Gershwin Jazz or Classical?

It’s interesting that this question still comes up? Gershwin was accused of trying to elevate his station by writing classical music, since his background was that of song writer. Copeland was accused of lowering himself by including jazz idioms into his classical music, but Copeland was a classical composer so the move to jazz (a lower form or music, or so it was consider 80 years ago) was a step down.

Yet, numerous composers are using their jazz or rock influence in their classical music. Jazz and rock musicians are composing classical pieces – and yet retaining an element of their heritage. Paul Simon and Elvis Costello are a few big names that come to mind.

Alex Cook describes this as fusion music and rightly so; it is the fusion of two (or more) genres into something new. However, when does it stop being one or the other and start becoming something all of its own?

... to explain

Eddie Louise and I have been working on establishing ourselves as Twinstar Music, a pair of composers with a unique blend of talents. However, as I was trolling the web the other day I realised we haven't spent any time (or energy) getting the identity of Twinstar out there. A website is in progress (and that will help) But we say on this blog "contact us at Twinstar Music" and we haven't really mentioned what that means. So I thought I'd post our logo.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Becoming Twinstar Music

We are Twinstar Music

Sound Design and film composition

Howard Shore used a range of organic sounds to augment his score in Seven; sounds of the city were incorporated directly into the score. Hans Zimmer uses electronic sounds to augment his orchestral scores. In Horton Hears a Who, the music and organic sounds were done first and the animation drawn in after. Numerous other films have used organic sounds, sounds that you might find in the film without the music present, to augment the score – sounds like cars driving by, or footsteps. These sounds all have pitch, attack and duration qualities and thus can be used to enhance the experience of the viewer by tying in the music into the sounds in the film.

There are several software programs which can tie sound waves to keys on a keyboard. These tools then allow composer to “play” these sounds like they would a piano. The more advanced tools even allow pitch variance, so if the sound of the footstep is not quite the right pitch for the music you’ve composed, adjust it by a few cents (or even a few semi-tones) to get it in line with your music.

When approaching a film, look at what sounds in the film already exist, isolate them. If there is a car driving by, but is the pitch of the sound; how does it change? If that were an instrument in your orchestra, what other sounds would you put around it? Is the sound rhythmic (like footsteps); if so, does that set the tempo or just augment a more complex rhythm.

Be careful not set too much to the rhythm of the sounds as you can wind up “Mickey Mousing” the film and the music ends up sounding cartoonish. However, some synth pads underneath can provide sustain and avoid the feeling the music in timed to every action.

You can also look at the sounds of one portion of the film and see if those sounds can be altered and included in another part of your score. Care is needed to ensure these sounds don’t sound too organic or you might confuse the audience with sounds that don’t belong. Footsteps are great rhythms, but included in the wrong place can lead the audience to believe someone (unseen) is coming. When no one shows up, the film becomes confusing.

It’s also important to spend time watching other films and seeing if you can identify how the organic sounds fit with the music.

Trends in Classical Music

I don’t know if you’ve noticed a trend, but it seems pretty obvious to me – Orchestras are playing more and more film music for their concerts. It’s either this or the more “popular” pieces from the Romantic to Late Romantic eras (composers from Beethoven to Mahler). There are other pieces performed, but the “new” music that seems to create the biggest audience draws are those with a film based themes.

For the last two years the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has built a concert around film music. The Detroit Symphony put film music at the centre piece of their final showcase of their festival. Birmingham filled a programme with John William’s music. Howard Shore’s 2 hour long symphony, based on the music from the Lord of the Ring movies, is touring around the world with 3 different conductors (it’s that popular). John Williams makes more money from the rights to his music as he does on the films (and he makes a lot from the films). The reason for orchestra’s playing film music is obvious, it draws a crowd; film music is music a large segment of society understands and already knows they enjoy.

Caleb Starrenburg thinks most people’s first exposure to orchestral music now is in film, which means film is a power tool in the advancement of orchestral/classical music. It is this first exposure that gives film music a unique opportunity, to advance classical music from where it is to where it will be tomorrow.

Film composers are becoming known for their genre of music: Williams for his fanfare and leitmotifs. Horner for his pounding rhythms, Shore for his sweeping orchestral strings, Zimmer for augmenting orchestral sound with electronics. So, like composers a hundred years ago, film composers are finding their voice and their audience and their music (not just in celluloid form) is surviving the test of time. They are also learning their craft from their predecessors so film music is evolving, growing.

Certainly there will be the Milton Babbitt’s that feel audience appeal has no bearing on the music they write, or those that cringe at the thought of the audience leaving the concert with a hummable melody. While there may be room in the classical world (at least the classical academic world) for these composers, I suggest that popularity in the end will rule. Those composers that will survive (their music played long after their death) will be those whose music is more popular - has greater audience appeal.

Other classical music is getting played. Leonard Slatkin from the NSO commissioned over 50 works during his 12 season. Marin Alsop is known for championing new works and new composers with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. So, there is hope for non-film composers reaching a wider market. But I think there is certainly the consideration, when composing a new piece of music, to consider “how filmic is it?” If it isn’t, how likely is the piece to be widely embraced by the public?

Side Note: There is a new opportunity in video game music.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Linear Film Composition

Films are linear, even though the story line may not be. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an excellent example of a non-linear story. While we as the audience are not seeing the events in a chronological order, we are seeing the events in the order of the film. The film isn’t presented in an aleotoric manner, randomly presenting scenes. Directors spend a great deal of time sorting out just how the film fits together to end with the desired result.

Music is the same way. Music follows a linear path, even though there are pieces that are composed or designed to be performed aleoticially, the actual performance is linear. It is this linear path that should be the concern of the composer and the performer – particularly in terms of composing for film.

Typically film composers have the advantage of having the entire film or story before composing the music. But even with this, the composer needs to spend time thinking about what it is they are composing and how the composition will develop with the film. If there is a theme present in the first portion of the film, how does that theme develop, what changes to the theme are made as the film progresses? In the end, what is the final result of the theme and does it match with the final result of the film?

This doesn’t mean the music for the film needs to be composed in a linear fashion. It is very possible to come up with a variety of options for the overall film, and then play with these options creating a series of variations. Then work through the variations to see which fits where. It may be that the end of the film is clearly one of the variations and gets composed first. Other sections are then taken from this variation to create puzzle pieces that are all part of the end result, but not the complete picture. The audience then has elements of the film and music they put together as the film is presented.

However, once all the various pieces are done, the composer should go back through the composition and create a time line. This should show the progress of the variations, the orchestration and other aspects of the music so there is a flow from beginning to end. It is important to know the music not only fits the scene, but contributes to what came before it and leads to what is to follow.

Record producers spend a fair amount of time composing the order of an album, concerned at the place of the music order and the effect it has on the listener. Although we may choose to listen to the music out of order, the order as it appears on the CD is thought out to give each piece the best presentation in terms of what comes before and after. Film music should do the same thing.

Using Music in Film

Films come in all forms and composing for the endless varieties can be quite challenging. But often the most challenging aspect is overcoming preconceptions about music before the composition even begins. Some directors have a clear idea as to what they are saying in the film, but no real concept as to what role the music should play. These directors tend to see their films as silent (in terms of music) and providing music in scenes that need it can be an endless struggle. Other directors have a preconception as to what the music should be (typically something they have heard on the radio) and expect composers to recreate the exact song (sometimes including the lyrics as well) as that’s what they’ve conceived for their piece. What strikes me as most odd is that none of the film schools (based on the students from these schools that I’ve worked with) seem to give any thought as to the role of music in film.

Music in a film can

    1. smooth out transitions
    2. intensify or clarify emotions
    3. prelude what is to come
    4. add or release tension
    5. extend the dialog with lyrics

When a scene has lots of shots, jumping from one view to another, the effect on the audience is jarring. Often times this jarring effect is desired. However, by putting music with the scene that doesn’t jump with the shot changes, a greater sense of flow can be achieved. The mind pulls the images together into thread, even if the images don’t have a great deal in common.
For example: if one shot is dark an in a warehouse and another shot is outside in bright daylight. The bouncing between these can seem disorienting, particularly if there is more than one location in or out of the warehouse. With music over this scene, the images are then perceived to be related and so the action is tied together.

The reverse is also possible. With one scene of a persons face, but taken from different angles, jarring music, shifting from one type to another (one serene, another agitated) can give the idea there are warring thoughts going on inside the character’s head, without any real change in the actors face.

Leitmotifs have been used since Wagner, and John Williams used them with great effect in Star Wars. Williams established the Vadar theme and even when Vadar was a young boy, the hint of the theme let us know what was to come. Sometimes we may not want to let the audience know what to expect or at other times (in say an Agatha Christy film) these illusions to what may be coming can be misleading and help to obfuscate the end.

Tension and release is one of the prime factors in music. Since the classical period and the establishment of the perfect cadence, music has all been about building tension and then releasing it. The same process can be brought to film, only with all the new ways music can build tension (and then let it go) the intricate interweaving of the music with the images can create waves of this process over and over again. Music is in large part why horror films work.

While some may argue that lyrics aren’t really music, I think most lyricist would disagree as good lyrics can make a song. Good lyrics can also add words to a film when the actors can not include them in the dialog. However, there are thousands of ways to say the same thing, so don’t get locked into one set of lyrics. If, when creating a film, you get set on one song because the lyrics are perfect and then you can get the rights to use that song, your film is in real trouble. If your film is a student project or low budget, using a hit song is financially impossible, so it’s best to look to your composer for alternatives. Your composer, like me, may not be the best lyricist, but they will know lyricists whom they work well with. I’m fortunate enough to be married to one.

So, for all those budding film makers out there, don’t forget the music. It can add a great deal to your film, highlighting what it is you want your film to say. In the same instance, don’t get locked into one piece as the only thing that works for your film. Your composer should be able to come up with a variety of ideas that can work. If you have music that you think works, great! That will help your composer sense what type of music you’re hoping to hear – but, if you then be flexible with what your composer responds with, you’ll end up with a better film.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Musical Theatre taking note of Opera

It isn't surprising (to me) to find opera singers taking the stage in the American musical theatre. A review by Anthony Tommasini speaking about several recent forays into the musical world by opera singers. He speaking about the "melting lyricism" and the "timeless melodies" of the older musicals and how the more recent "pop infused scores" don't require the same skills.

Later in the review he discusses the move Broadway made in the 60's toward amplification of the voice. Certainly this made a less able singer capable of hitting the back row. But he also discusses the lack of diction in spoken dialog when performed by opera singers. They spend more time learning to sing in a variety of languages and not speaking clearly on stage.

While I think these are all valid points, I fail to see why Opera can't take a book out of musical theatre. Modern opera should require the singers to more articulate, perhaps not with dialog, but with recitative that really forwards the plot of a story, rather than just waxing lyrical.

I'm all for the natural, rather than the amplified voice for many things, but there are things that electronics can do that just can't be replicated with the voice - reverb, delay are just a few effects that come to mind. Opera use to be the place of innovation and now it's the place of status quo. Perhaps what Opera needs is not to so much loan out it's quality voices to the musical theatre, but take a page from musical theatre and begin exploring the vast world of lyrics that bring characters to life (which means they need to be fully understood), electronics that can enhance the voice in a miriad of ways and there is no reason opera can't be infused with pop and still require the technical skill we've come to expect.

It isn't ready for prime time, but "It Must Be Fate" has every intension of doing all of the above and more...

A New Move for Classical Music

The blending of musical styles is nothing new. At the turn of the last century the move by classical composers such as Debussy to explore world music is well documented. Bartok used folk music as inspiration for numerous pieces. Previous posts have discussed the blending of styles of numerous other forms with classical music.

It seems the tide is now moving the other direction as India is exploring the fusion of Indian folk and Western Classical music with a collaboration at the World Day of Music on 21 June. China has recently had the LA Philharmonic and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra touring their country bringing Western music to nearly every region of China in the urge to encourage more exploration of Western music by Chinese composers (especially with the popularity of Tan Dun world wide). A Beethoven String Competition in Bangkok is hoping to merge Western music with that of Thailand. And some musicians in New York are blending Bach into their sets at the JVC Jazz Festival.

IMHO we're on the verge of a new explosion in music - the form will be a blending of styles, where popular/folk tunes are given longer renditions, but still retain much of their popular feel. But classical music techniques are going to be necessary in order to achieve this new extension of pop music. The next 20 years should be very interesting in terms of a new wave of classical music. The only question remaining is whether the Euro/American classical world is ready for it...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Developing Themes in Classical Music

One of the criticisms I have received post concert is the lack of development in the music. This is probably the most confounding comment on the night as I spent a great deal of time focusing on just that concept with each piece, how the themes develop. So, I am thinking about music and what it takes to develop themes, and perhaps learn why some people feel my music lacks development.

In Schoenberg's book on composition he states a melody needs to develop in order for it to maintain interest and yet, too much development too soon leaves the listener wondering at the connection. So, it is possible to alter the intervals, but retain the rhythm. Or augment the rhythm with passing notes, but keep the original notes. But to do both would create a new melodic idea too far removed from the original idea. However in 1975 he said, "In fact...I believed that now music could renounce motivic features and remain coherent and comprehensible nevertheless." So, maybe music needs themes which develop and maybe it doesn't.

Webern has a piece (I don't remember which one off hand) which has a two note motive. Now, I don't really consider this a motive, but analysts suggest this is the core of the piece. The motive is then altered at the next iteration by adjusting the interval. As the pieces progresses into the development section (sonata form) this alteration continues to be skewed until the piece ends. The overall piece is short, and an excellent example of the sonata form in its most condensed form. However, I can't really "hear" the motive or the development of it - but people who love Webern say it's there.

In Bernstein's Young Peoples Concerts he discusses how Beethoven's Fifth Symphony develops from a basic motive into a flowering of music. He does the same with the Eroica Symphony. However, all of these developments are linear, as they are in Webern's music.

Benjamin Britten wrote his Cello Sonata as a theme and variations, but in reverse order. The core theme is not actually presented in its pure form until the end of the piece, with the most convoluted form actually presented at the outset of the music. This reverse of the process means the listener gets to hear the developed music before the original idea, so, by the time we get to the original idea, we have a different concept as to what that idea really is - a remarkable work. It might be suggested this piece is still linear, but in a very different concept than Beethoven or Webern.

Allan Kozinn reviewed the New Juilliard Ensemble on November 2005 with a series of pieces where the themes were touching on permanence and transience. He goes on to describe this as an explanation of any music. The piece by Agustín Fernández, "Peregrine" (1994) seemed to constantly shifting the combinations of timbre and shape. Listening to the piece on MySpace I would say the development is anything but linear. However, when the piece is finished, there are definite connections between the various elements.

When I am composing a piece, I generally start with a core idea. From that core I attempt to create a variety of "variations" or developments from which to choose. The variations are then placed to move from one to another, but not necessarily in a linear fashion. For example, the first movement of the symphony has only one motive. All the themes are based on that one motive. One is inverted, one is in retrograde and one is inverted and in retrograde (standard development techniques). Each of these themes is then further altered to remove some of the notes of the basic motive so only a portion of the motive is heard. What this creates is four distinct themes, but all based on a singular idea. Because the original motive is not mutated from it original form, step by step into each variation, I can understand why the themes might be considered unique ideas, too remote for the listener to grasp.

However, I attempted with the fifth movement, to reverse this process - to show the migration of the motives by manipulating them from their original form into the various alternate forms. Because I was including the four themes of the first four movements, the mutations moved from one movement theme into another (attempting) to show the relationship between all of the themes in the symphony. So, like Britten, I presented all the themes in their complexity, and then brought the listener back to the core in the final movement.

The symphony is 50 minutes in length and perhaps this is just too long for listeners to grasp. Perhaps this was maybe overreaching for a first symphony. If the overall piece had been 5 minutes or even 15 minutes it might be easier for the listeners to grasp the relationship. Hmmmmm….. Not sure how to resolve that one as I'm not keen on writing a 5 minute symphony.

I am also not interested in linear development. Classical Music has moved from linear movement to non-linear as is evidenced by numerous compositions which don't even have a set order of performance, or are aleatoric. So, for now, there is no answer - but then again, composition is a process and I intend to continue to develop as a composer. Perhaps in the future I will learn to develop my music in such a way that listeners can hear the development of the themes in a non-linear way.

Or perhaps I need to write several more and estabilish it as my style...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Numerous people have asked what the next project is going to be. I can honestly say not a concert. While I feel the recent concert was very successful, it’s a huge undertaking and not something I am looking to repeat any time soon. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things on the horizon.

Present (this week)
I have 2 films that are being shown in Edinburgh over the next couple of months (one in the Edinburgh Film Festival) so I need to finish the music for them. Films typically leave the music to the very last moment, so composers are working with the final product. Often music is considered post-production, but this also means the release date has been set so we have a pretty tight deadline to work with.

Symphony for sale
or at least for hire. Based on what I learned in the concert (and the rehearsals leading up to it), I have some adjustments to make with the score of the Symphony No 1, Figuratively Speaking. Fortunately, these are all relatively small changes and none that affect the end result. Mostly the changes are just to make the music more legible for the musicians. Once that’s done, we plan to start sending copies of the score to various conductors and major orchestras with the hopes of getting it performed again (and again, and again). I doubt we’ll get any takers for the 2008-9 season, but there is serious hope it will get picked up for the 2009-2010 season.

Continue work on the opera
It’s not done, not by a long shot. What was performed at the concert was really just the first half of the first episode and even that isn’t finished the way we want. So, there are some re-writing that needs to happen, so extending of the music and potentially re-orchestrating it (although I may not do any re-orchestration until we get an opera company on board with the project. If that happens, they may have orchestral requirements or suggestions that may affect the final orchestration.). And then there is the second half of the first episode. We are not expecting to finish the second half before we get an opera company seriously considering it for performance, but we would like to have the framework of the second half down to the point we can give a reasonable estimate as to how long until it is completed.

After all this there are thoughts about a Flute Concerto, a chamber symphony, a book of short songs for vocal exercises, another string quartet and a piano quintet, but I’m not likely to finish any of that before the end of the summer.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Finding an Agent for Film Composers

According to skillset.org "Music Agents find work for their clients, i.e., Composers, co-ordinate their contracts, and secure appropriate deals for them. They represent a roster of Composers, and cultivate relationships with industry decision-makers in order to persuade them to use their clients. Music Agents negotiate deals, and act as 'midwives' for the whole process. They also support and guide their clients' careers."

Initially, it's this guidance that I'm looking for. I have composed the music for several films, mostly student projects - but I'm not sure what would be best to put into a show reel. Beyond that, few of these projects really show the type of music I feel I do best - orchestral. Of course, that said, I'm not likely to get a film with orchestral music right out of the gate, so perhaps the show reel needs to be more intimate in it's presentation.

FilmSound.org has a number of articles dealing with film music here. One of these is particularly good and worth reading for any film maker out there who wants to better understand the role of music in film (something I think few film makers do). It talks about the Symbolic, the imaginary and the real in terms of how music affects each one.

Other articles dealing with film and music can be found via google, or in a variety of books (more and more are being published as the film music industry takes off). But many of these article speak of film music in terms of films pre-2000 and often films from the 50's and 60's. Getting a handle on where the music film industry is today means reading the various film periodicals for the occasional gems, Sound on Sound, Music Tech and Audio Media are just a few.

Other organizations, like the Association for Motion Picture Sound (AMPS) in the UK, deal with sound, but not specifically music composition. Solo UK is an agent, but primarily for concert artists, not composers. So, when looking for organization to assist in your career it's important to know what services they can provide. Just because you recognize the name of some of their clients, doesn't mean they would be the right organization to represent you.

Some websites, like VersusMedia, talk about services for the independent film maker or musician - connecting the two together. Mandy and Talent Circle are another couple of "collectives" that do this, but are industry wide and not just focused on music. While I've gained some projects from both Mandy and Talent Circle, I've not tried VersusMedia so I can't speak of the success. It is important to note that there are hundreds of composers looking for work, so expect a few "no's" along the way.

Basically, I am in the process of defining myself, and trying to determine what the best way to present that definition to other people who might need my "style" of music for their films. Hopefully an agent can help with this process, but they are not the only source of information. The more I learn about the process, the more I'll post here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Moving forward

Much of this blog has been dedicated to thoughts leading up to the concert of 4 June 2008. With that behind us (and a decent holiday doing a lot of nothing to recover) it's time to move on, to look forward (not back) at the next project. Right now there is nothing specific (at least not as specific as the concert) - but there are a number of general things that this blog will be the focus of.

  • It Must Be Fate - finishing the first episode
        If you don't know what I mean by that, stay tuned for updates

  • Getting an agent
        I've spoken about this to some degree prior to the concert, but now it's time to get serious. What goes along with this is the marketing of the quartet and the symphony, so expect updates as we start the process of getting other organizations to play these works.

  • Further Education
        I have a bachelor's degree now (or will have when the grades are finalized (or at least, I hope I will have - assuming I have passed all my courses) - and so it's time to think about the next step and where that step will be.

  • Miscellaneous Projects
        like some of the films I am composing for, or other projects as they come up.

  • Saturday, June 7, 2008

    The Scotsman Review

    Well, the review of our concert was published in yesterday's Scotsman (pg 42). The link will take you to the on-line copy - we are the second review down.

    It seems the reviewer was not very impressed, but we are taking many positives from it. Firstly, Chip's major influences are Copland and Bernstein, neither of which are played much here. Many of our friends and musical colleagues are just beginning to discover them. The 'American sound', created by Copland really permeates much of Chip's music and was bound to sound foreign and perhaps a bit chaotic to ears more used to the European model. On the other hand, audience reaction has been enthusiastic. We have received numerous comments that the music was emotional and moving. We had 2 retired symphonic trombonists in the audience and both commented that the music was different than anything they had played in their careers, and at the same time was thrilling and seemed fun to play.

    We found the reviewer's 'Vanity Publishing' comment rather humorous. The roll of composers who have done this through the various eras includes many of the greats - not the least, Mozart. As a composer if you have no formal affiliation with the Church, Academia, or a major orchestra, you have no choice but to mount performances of your own music. It seems superfluous to point this out.

    The reviewer stated that the supporting text (from the programme notes) explaining how Chip based the String Quartet on the music styles from his favourite rock band bore little relation to the music performed. While it lacked a driving drum rhythm, many of the vocalists with Stevenson Choir were bouncing around back stage dancing to the music - so they obviously felt the beat. Then she claims that the Quartet was mostly restricted to tune with accompaniment. Hmmm... Rock is a largely 'tune with accompaniment' genre. Perhaps it would have been easier to see the connections if the quartet had been set with vocals.

    Her comments on the opera we take in a very positive light!! Partway between Tommy and Tosca is EXACTLY where we were aiming! Opera audiences are ageing, and the art-form is facing the crisis of dwindling audiences and rising costs. I don't think opera will die. After-all, there have been predictions of it's demise for over a century and it is still here. But, reading the accounts of the other 'crises' it has successfully overcome in the past hundred years, one thing is sure - the key is to get new audience through the doors. We purposely are writing this opera to appeal to a younger crowd and yet point towards the great operatic tradition. So the review tells us we have hit that particular nail on the head!!

    Many of the members of our audience, as well as those of the choir had never really listened to opera and commented that before this they thought opera was all stuffy characters and screechy sopranos. Our Baritone is the lead singer in the band Milophobia, and he says he is always singing the opera around the house - to the point that his band-mates razz him about going poncy!

    In the end run we are actually really pleased with this review. Whether we 'Vanity Published' or not, we were noticed by a major newspaper. She does have some legitimate comments, and if we, as Americans hope to have our music played in the UK we might need to look at how we approach it. Would a change in programme notes have completely changed the review? Would a different programme order? Would mic-ing the Quartet's instruments as we had originally considered, adding distortion where appropriate, have helped the 'Rock' elements to have come through?

    At this point, it is all a learning experience and we are really pleased with what we are learning!!

    Friday, June 6, 2008

    Post Concert Observations

    Overall the concert was successful. We had a good crowd, approximately 135 people who were appreciative of the music (it’s nice to have friends in the audience), the music went very much as expected and in the end I learned a great deal both about the music and putting on a concert of this magnitude.

    Things that went right

    The concert order was right. Some people felt the string quartet should have headlined the event as they were the professionals on stage. Yet, the build from chamber piece, to opera to symphony was right for the night.

    Acoustics in the hall were amazing. I spent a lot of time looking for halls that had good acoustics and I am glad I did. I’ve heard orchestras play in a number of other venues and they are muddy and not well defined. The sound engineer for last night was very pleased with how good the sound quality was for the distant microphones. That speaks well for the quality of the hall acoustics.

    Sound engineering took a bit to sort out - where to place the microphones so they would get a good sound and yet not be in the way of the audience. In the end, although I’ve not heard the recording yet, the engineer thinks he got a really good take on the music.

    Things that I wish had gone better

    We did get a good crowd, but so many people that we thought might be there were not. However, that said, I am not sure there is anything we could have done to improve this. None of the press releases we sent out were published. Although numerous posters were put up about town, I do not think there were any who saw the poster and did not know me personally who came to the concert. This is because I am an unknown and not affiliated with any known organization.

    Had I been working with say the BBC orchestra and using their media department, or even if Napier’s or Scottish Widows media department had sent out press releases for the concert we did put on, I think we would have been more successful in getting press coverage – and concert goers outside of the “friends” category. In the future, I will make sure to work with an established organization and have their “clout” behind the publicity.

    Lighting was huge disappointment. The company I hired touted themselves as ‘providers of the lighting for the National Youth Orchestra’, but I have come to find out they just supply the equipment while another agency does the focusing. Obviously, they know nothing about lighting an orchestra. The technical problems with the lights were never ending and ultimately they could not even be used for the last half of the concert as they were in all the wrong positions.

    Mixing concert mediums is not a good idea. Orchestras, operas and chamber ensembles are very different beasts. Even though they are all musicians, they each have a very different set of requirements. Trying to put all three of these types of music into one concert was probably the one idea that I really should not have done. There was a struggle finding a place for all the musicians to have a space prior to the concert and not get mixed up with the other groups, so rather than having one “green room” we needed three. That was very unexpected. The idea that they did not mix well together was surprising. It was as if they each felt the other musicians were an inconvenience and yet I felt we were all there for a common purpose. Obviously, this was not the case. In the future I will limit the focus of performances to a single style of music ensemble.

    Things that were not perfect, but as expected

    The chorus for the opera struggled with the words. I think they did an admirable job considering they are a college chorus of young, inexperienced voices. Their performance is a real credit to Laurie Crump who got them to sing the music as well as he did; it’s not easy music. The performance was a step up from the rehearsal in the afternoon, so I am pleased with that.

    The symphony went well, for the most part. There were a couple of points in the 3rd movement and in the 5th movement when a few players got lost. Getting the orchestra back together was a bit of a struggle, but they kept going and eventually did get back on track. I hate to say I expected this, but after the rehearsals I pretty much thought this would happen. The music is tough and I am still learning as a conductor. I am not sure what could have been done to keep the orchestra together, however, I am pleased with my own performance in not letting it get me flustered and eventually getting them back on track.

    There were some intonation problems too, but again, with an amateur orchestra this was expected.

    Summary

    I am pleased with the night. I do not think there is anything I could have done to make it more successful. There are things that I am taking away from this concert that will make the next one better, but for what we achieved, it was right on target.

    Monday, June 2, 2008

    Things to do this week

    It's the last few days before the concert and the list of things to do is getting shorter and shorter (although I have started adding on things that affect events post-concert).

    Pre-Concert Day
    • Pick up Programmes
    • Rehearse chorus (Tuesday)
    • Finalize lighting design
    • Arrange for instruments (percussion) to be delivered and removed from hall
      this one is just to re-confirm the arrangements made are still in effect
    • Meeting with Kate about One Mile film project
    • Get final 6 mins of music to director for Quiet Heart
    • Meet with quartet to hear the piece prior to concert
    Concert Day
    • Open the hall
    • Run through Opera with full cast
    • Go through the check list with the stage manager (one more time)
    • relax!!!!
    Of course none of this includes:
    Play tour guide with the parents, take jogs with my brother, meet best friend from high school when he arrives from California, meet boss for drinks, arrange for a boat trip to Staffa, hire a car for next week.... relax (yes, that needs to be on the list twice!) If you can't tell by the post, I'm not necessarily doing real well with the last item on each list, but I am trying. It's not that I'm worried about how things will go. I'm am certain it will all go well come concert time. It is, however, a big event and a big daunting. So, fingers are crossed and lots of deeps breathing.