Composing something New... But is it good?

All art, music included, is subjective. So, how can a composer be certain a piece they've composed is any good?

The point of this post is not to elicit compliments, to to examine the question of whether a composer can judge their own work.

We know Bach's music is good because not only is it pleasant to listen to, but analysis of the music shows a series of layers to the composition. This proves Bach did more than just jot some dots on a page. Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky all did the same thing. There is the sound we love, but there is also a grace, an elegance to the way the pieces are put together that make the pieces so much more than just random notes that sound good.

In the past six months I've written a variety of different pieces of music, ranging from some solo flute music to a piano concerto, a string quartet to an orchestral dance. To some extent there is a common "sound" to these pieces, so that if you heard them played in the same concert you might recognized they were all by the same composer even if it wasn't listed in the program. But are they any good?

Flute Toys is the flute and piano piece written for a friend in Denver.

The idea was to create something challenging, something to show off her skill as a flutist. It's possible to put lots of notes on the page and creating music that is difficult to play, but that hardly makes it good. Perhaps some of the criteria to determine if the music is good is to determine if the music creates something new. Brian Ferneyhough certainly did this with his Unity Capsule for Solo Flute.

However, if I were to 'mimic' his style of "new complexity" that's all it would be, pastiche --nothing new.

Another "Soloist" work is the start to a Piano Concerto entitled "Intense Relationships."

Again, the point was to create challenging music that was also lyrical. Something else I very much enjoy is intense rhythms, so I incorporated rapid repetitive notes for the pianist --not particularly easy to accomplish and yet, not insurmountable. There were also considerations for how the music lays in the hands of the pianist. It's possible to write music where the hands fly all over the piano, but then I bet again the possibility of getting an accurate performance. Whether I captured some of what Ligeti did with his Etude No.10 "Der Zauberlehrling" is still to be determined. Certainly there is a difference in the sound of the music.

Rinaldi Strings asked me to write a string quartet, which is entitled "Atmospheres" after Ligeti's orchestral piece of the same name, the first movement, "Genus Cumulonimbus."

Another piece influenced by Ligeti, this time from his earlier music --the orchestral piece Atmospheres (my quartet bears the same name), and his consideration of two different styles of music which he described as clocks and clouds. My quartet is an amalgamation of the two together. Fresh on the heels of writing the 1st movement of the Piano Concerto, I was heavily influenced with the sound of repetition. I also very much like irregular rhythm, here incorporated into a 19/16 time signature. But it doesn't quite capture a "new" sound like Horatiu Radulescu does with his String Quartet No. 5.

I woke a few days after finishing the first movement of the string quartet with a series of orchestral dances using irregular rhythms.

This movement, recently finished (pending review), is entitled Dança apaixonado (Passionate Dance) as the music is a reflection of the passionate Latin music. The irregular rhythm of 31/16 feels ostensibly like 4/4, but with a slight anticipation to the music. Could it have been written in 4/4? Probably, but then I've sat through so many performances of Bernstein's "West Side Story Suite" where the musicians failed to get the proper hesitation or anticipation to the music and left the music sounding stiff. It is impossible to dance to Latin music and be stiff.

As I venture back over my recent pieces I realize I still like the music. Even after a few months, I like the way they sound. But that doesn't mean it's "good" music.

In my exploration of "new" music, I listen to a number of fellow living composers' music. There is not a single sound I would call contemporary classical. However, there is an edge in many of their pieces I'm not is present in mind. It may be; I just don't know.

Someone told me one once, write what you like and if it it's good, it'll get played. But it can be years from the finalizing of a piece to the first performance. In that time I will write numerous other pieces. If the piece isn't good, and I continue to write in that vein, all I will do is continue to write bad music (or at least, not good music).

I'm not sure there's an answer to the question "is it good," at least not one I can answer. There are qualities of "good" music. I have tried to incorporate those qualities into these pieces, while striving to create something new. Whether I succeeded isn't something I can judge. If I thing something is in the music, it may be there for me because I intended it to be there. An author writing a book, may think part of the plot, which explain everything, is evident, but somehow what was in their head didn't get down on paper. For a composer, our music is very much like that.

I like my music. I thought about all those "things" my instructors taught me about great classical pieces when writing the music. Someone else will have to be the judge as to whether I got them on the page or not.


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