Teaching Composition – What are we trying to achieve
In the process of learning composition I have spent time with a number of instructors who have encouraged me to write twelve-tone, pitch-class, electro-acoustic and other forms of experimental techniques. No matter how much I might understand and appreciate the work of other composers in the genres, these are not forms of music I resonate with. They are simply not forms of music I listen to and I struggle with the idea of writing them.
However, in a Master Class by Libby Larsen she made the comment, “Learn them all, because all forms of music have something to offer.” This I very much agree. There are elements of each of the above mentioned forms (and others) that I do resonate with. Berg’s Violin Concerto is a beautiful twelve-tone work, although it is possible to look at numerous sections of the music with a “tonal” analysis.
Another composer friend, Gary Bachlund commented that using these techniques can narrow the choices for how to compose a piece of work. If you look at the complete list of notes available (not even considering microtonality), all the various instruments, rhythm potentials, etc. you’ll go crazy trying to write something. By selecting a form with which to narrow the compositional focus, it makes it possible to actually create a set work.
What I do feel classical composition is missing is the use of modern art forms and study. Why do we study pitch-class composition and not jazz? The exploitation of “cluster” chords in jazz is extremely similar, and in many ways builds on the structures of previous compositional techniques (creating new names for chords which are already established). While jazz may not expect the detailed rhythmic writing of say new complexity, harmonically and stylistically it is very intellectual.
How about Hip Hop or Rap? Libby spoke about not being a “rap” artist herself, but thrilling with the exploration of the intricate rhythm structures in the music. Shouldn’t young composers be examining the music of their own generation to find what makes it tick and how to incorporate these elements into classical forms? Philip Glass speaks of the rock influence in his early music. Steve Reich has numerous pieces which have “pop” like elements. John Adams is the same. These are huge names in the classical world and they are incorporating contemporary music elements, but wouldn’t be able to do so if they didn’t first have a grasp of the art form.
Perhaps we don’t study contemporary “pop” forms of music because our classical educators don’t understand “pop” music. They have been steeped in the line of thought from serialism through post-modernism, without having the benefit of “pop” training. Unfortunately, when they continue to educate new composers without this benefit, we only continue to create composers without a connection to modern commercial music. It is possible to create “new” music and still be marketable. It is possible to advance the sonic world without losing sight of the fact that music needs an audience.
Two of the largest audiences for composed music are in Film and Video Games, yet composition for these art forms is rarely taught and then mostly under the ‘Pop’ strand of a given program. So, when it comes to classical music composition, are we simply training the next generation of educators? If there is no understanding of how to write commercial music, then the chances of a composer actually making a living with the musical education (outside of being an educator) is extremely limited.