Posts Tagged ‘composition’

Movement two is released. Take a listen…

The second movement of my string quartet has been mixed and edited and the program notes have been written up.

And if you haven’t yet listened to the first movement, check it out here:

The third movement is mostly finished and will be released very soon.


Apr 2010

P. Diddy. Songwriter? Or Composer?

You heard me. P. Diddy.  Songwriter? Or Composer?

Perhaps I should back up…

After yesterday’s  composition lesson with David Conte, he mentioned an upcoming radio interview with NY Times blogger and critic about town Chloe Veltman.  (The interview will air next Friday, on her VoiceBox show on KALW). He thought that one of the topics would be the difference between composition and songwriting, and asked if I had any ideas to share.

My first thought was that songwriters have an inherently simpler task since they’re working within a well defined form.  In song there is the expectation of a verse, refrain, chorus structure, some division of discrete chunks of material, and the songwriter “simply” (sic) needs to fill those well defined modules with appealing enough melodies, harmonies, hooks, and grooves.  I’m hard pressed to think of any exceptions.  On the other hand, music composition, especially in the modern era, has few if any expectations of form or structure.  It is up to the composer to impose or realize a form appropriate to the material he or she imagines.

But the difference is less clear when you look at pieces in the classical era.  Forms were still quite well defined, and while composers were remarkably inventive within those forms, there was some amount of connecting the dots and following prescribed structural practices.  It wasn’t until Beethoven and the romantic era that form was subjected to the will of the composer in the name of their efforts to express the ineffable self.

Then what is the difference between composition and songwriting in the classical era?  It doesn’t feel right to call Shumann or Schubert songwriters, even in context of their art songs. They didn’t just write those songs, they COMPOSED them.

David’s feeling was that pop songs, the product of songwriters, are less about the material and more about the expressive abilities of the performer.  As evidence, he cited the dozens of covers of Beatle tunes in various styles, while there are no convincing reinterpretations or adaptations of Schubert songs or, arguably,  classical pieces in general, Wendy Carlos and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer notwithstanding. (Actually, a college friend is writing a rock opera where all the songs are opera arias re-imagined as rock songs, so perhaps I’ll have to amend this argument.). A Schubert song is meticulously through composed, every note in the accompaniment and the voice is meaningful.  You can’t change the notes, or alter chords or timbres without nullifying the end result.  Pop songs, on the other hand, can survive any number of transformations, inflections, or outright re-harmonizations and still retain their essential character. There is something about the stuff of pop music, the melodic and harmonic choices that lends itself to such transformations.

This is another facet of the Definite vs Formless Content distinction.  Pop songs are largely Formless while Schubert’s art songs are Definite.  (Note that in this context, “Formless” means a very different thing than the structural forms of the classical era).

What about pop songs which are less dependent upon harmony and melody? Songs more reliant upon an arrangement of sounds and samples are not easily covered or transformed.  Is it possible to cover a rap song, (other than ironically)? Do techno producers re-interpret the works of other techno producers to add their own personal expression of thumpa thumpa? If untransformability (ie Definite Content) is your metric, is it appropriate then to say that these untransformable works are more composed than written?  Does this make P Diddy more of a composer than a songwriter?

So. Like I asked. P Diddy.  Songwriter or Composer?

I’ll check in with David to see what he has to say…


Mar 2010

First movement now available for download

I’m happy to announce that the first movement of my string quartet is now available for free download. I’ve also written up extensive notes for that movement if you’d like to know more about the composition and where it came from. (Of course you’d like to know more. Why else would you be reading this blog?)

I hope you’ll take the time to listen and follow along with the program notes. I spend hundreds of hours composing this piece (not including the time writing up the essays for each movement) and I’m very proud of it. It’s all time wasted if no one gets to hear it. So I’m counting on you here.

The other two movements will be released in the weeks to follow (I’m editing as fast as I can), so be sure to check back.

Eight days a weekend…

Well this was a big weekend.  I presented a thirty minute excerpt of Failing That at StageWerx, including twenty minutes of brand new material.  If that was all that was going on this weekend, that would have been plenty.  Unfortunately, it was one of those weekends where just about every aspect of my life had something going on.

How did the workshop go?  Well…I’ll get to that.  First let me give you a glimpse into the days leading up to it…
Read the rest of this entry →


Mar 2010

Precious Toothpaste (or Why Bother?)

Why toothpaste?
Composing music is not easy.  At least not for me.  It’s hard.  And slow.  And kinda lonely.  And it requires a lot of sitting around with a piano or computer or piece of paper and trying to will something into existence.  Ironically, it has almost nothing in common with the activity that usually compels one to try to compose music, namely, LISTENING to music.
Now, that’s not really true.  The process of composing is some combination of listening to what you’ve already written and then hearing in your imagination what should happen next.  Or if your imagination isn’t feeling up to it, you can resort to trial and error, reach for some notes at the keyboard or enter pitches into your notation program and then tweak them until you arrive at something you don’t hate and may eventually actually like.  So, sure, composing music requires a particular kind of listening, but has little of the joy or pleasure of listening to the music that one loves.
So why do it at all?  There’s not exactly a growing demand for composers and life’s pretty short to be spending hours a day wrestling with uncertainty and isolation with little promise of reward.
For me, it comes from an energy I get when I do listen to music I love.  There are moments in music (theater and film as well) that create an overwhelming sensation of awe and humility and eternality. These ecstatic peaks don’t happen often, perhaps four or five in a year.   But during those brief times, I come to feel that doing anything besides trying to create such moments for the word is a pointless waste of time
I have a hope that this pursuit won’t always be a slog, that someday I will reach a level of compositional prowess where brilliant music just pours fully formed from my brain, like it seems to have done for the REAL composers like Mozart.   In fact for many years, the fact that writing music  didn’t come easily kept me from composing at all.  I took it as evidence that my skills just weren’t there yet, that I hadn’t yet earned the right to TRY to write anything.
But I suspect that this is just the way music gets written.  It will always be an uncertain struggle with suspect results.  Like trying to solve a diagramless crossword puzzle in a language you barely speak.   Or squeezing precious toothpaste through the eye of a needle.  But I have an inkling that I may be able to make something worthwhile, something that may create in others a moment of beauty, and whether I succeed or not, I have to try.

Composing music is not easy.  At least not for me.  It’s hard.  And slow.  And kinda lonely.  And it requires a lot of sitting around with a piano or computer or piece of paper and trying to will something into existence.  Ironically, it has almost nothing in common with the activity that usually compels one to try to compose music, namely, LISTENING to music.

Read the rest of this entry →


Feb 2010