I'm currently reviewing my counterpoint, 20th century techniques and analysis so I can be in top shape for Toronto in September. As I'm laboriously composing grim Lutheran chorales, desperately evading consecutive fifths to spare the kittens from death, it makes me wonder how Bach did it effortlessly every week. I'm naturally assuming everyone was more productive back in the 18th century without Netflix.
Brahms remarked that the best thing a composer can study is strict counterpoint. Generally, I agree though studying music history has done wonders for my creativity as well. After you learn all the rules, then you can learn when to tastefully break them in a composition. Just ask Bach about that, it seems he was quite good at it:
Mozart and Beethoven is refrigerated milk. The milk is good, because somebody’s put it in the fridge.
Contemporary music is milk too, but it’s sitting outside on a table, in front of you. Is it bad? Is it good? Is it lukewarm? Skim? 2%?
Are you going to try it?
So along with my commission, I've been writing some other pieces. The first is a work for two violins and cello, called "To Recruit A Violist" which I've been working on for a while now at its own pace (hey, it feels nice to do that!). The music's in three short movements; the first movement I've used the medieval musical technique of isorthythm, the second is a tiny elegy for Canadian politician Jack Layton. The third I've titled "Playground Ritual" and is lively with lots of "push and pull" syncopation. In this way, each movement is like a little storybook or pictograph.
Along with this work I'm writing a number of pieces for toy instruments! Learning a brand new instrument has reawakened those old memories of learning recorder in Grade 3 music class. Take a listen to an excerpt of a new piece I'm writing for two plastic recorders: http://soundcloud.com/tylerversluis/na-ve-recorders-excerpt
From performing La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7! It was a unique performance experience. I would have liked to have put together a bit of an ensemble for the performance, but nothing coalesced so we performed the piece on two electric keyboards. On one electric keyboard we held a drone, and the other keyboard was available for improvisation over the drone, limited to the pitches of B and F#. My pianist friend Melissa and I took turns in sets, playing. The instructions for the piece were to "hold" the drone "for a long time". It would have been nice to have a whole different bunch of droning instruments for the performance, but instead I took a raga-like approach to the piece, beginning simply and then gradually adding more complex figures and rhythms (only using B and F#, though!) whilst expanding the register use of the keyboard. As for "a long time", the performance was to coincide with the duration of another performance piece, White for Governor Wallace, which also had variable time lengths. First performance took 1.5 hours, second only 15 minutes, third half an hour, etc..
It was eye-opening working with such minimal material- the bare essence of an open fifth.. I was interested in how different people reacted to the performance.. some people peeked their head in the door, some people stayed for 10 minutes.. one woman stayed for 40 minutes. I’m not sure what thoughts were running through their heads.. probably boredom, but I was interested in opening people’s minds to the concept of performance.. particularly with Young’s work, wear the Eastern philosophies in his music have blended the concept of performance and ritual. It was
"It bears repeating: at the Met, the most expensive opera tickets are indeed expensive, but you can stand behind the orchestra section—or even sit at the upper reaches of the house—for less than the cost of an IMAX showing at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 multiplex up the road. This persistent fiction of “elitism,” and contemporary classical music’s supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture. They would prefer you not ever cost-compare a Family Circle seat to Satyagraha alongisde a 3D screening of Transformers 3."
-- Seth Colter Walls source: http://www.theawl.com/2011/12/at-satyagraha-and-occupy-lincoln-center
Unfortunately, almost all of classical music and composed music bears the stamp of elitism in our culture. This is primarily the cultivation of ideas propagated by composers, listeners, classical musicians and orchestras.. but also by pop media, who do a pretty good job at telling you what you're supposed to like. Since classical and composed music has been pushed to the margins of society within the last 50 or so years, many organizations adopt the elitist stance as a method with coping with the fact that only a small percentage of people attend our concerts, but hey, look! We're still being funded because we're culturally important despite the odds.
But the other question is, does the pop media trick you into think you're not smart enough/rich enough/sophisticated enough to attend a classical music concert?
I really love Sacred Harp singing, and I don't know why.. I'm not a rugged Southerner by any means.
Well, actually.. I know what I love about the music, but I've never found out why it touches me so deeply. I love how everybody sings as loud as they can. I love how everyone just goes for those high notes without caring. I love how people stomp, clap, sway in unison.. I love the rugged, unrefined harmonies and robust tempos.. I love the texts, poetic and often with a doomy Southern tinge..
My thoughts, that often mount the skies,
Go, search the world beneath,
Where nature all in ruin lies,
And owns, her sovereign — Death!
And now for my composition Meditations Around the Cross, I'm setting a Sacred Harp hymn and trying to capture everything I love about Sacred Harp singing.
I'm prepping for a performance of La Monte Young's composition Composition #7 1969. The work is simple, almost controversially simple, in a 4"33 kind of way. The score for the piece consists of a B/F# drone, with the instructions "To be held for a long time". It's interesting working with such few materials in a composition.. and in such a potentially long composition, too! It makes me think that performing a work with such few components ceases to be a performance and becomes almost a ritual, a meditation in practice.. which is an idea that La Monte Young favoured. The question is, how does one listen to Composition #7 1969? That's an idea I'll observe when I perform the piece at Brock University's Nuit Brock performance art festival. Keep a look out for me!
Orchestral readings can be stressful, especially for the composer who's score is being rehearsed. Not only is time preciously limited for the conductor, but orchestra musicians can be snarky and difficult. Most are untuned towards new music and are unreceptive to unfamiliar techniques. And the worst part for composers after a bad reading is the endless amount of guilt after the reading." The musicians hated my music! The balance was so bad, I’m a bad orchestrator! I can’t write for strings! Why didn’t I just write easier music?!" Etc.
Nico Muhly discusses some of his experiences with readings.. and yes, even when working with a top-of-the-line orchestra and a world famous composer, the results are still the same. Should I feel some relief? Well, I'll listen to some recordings of my own readings and see how that goes..
Be Like the Bird
5 voice canon, music by Abbie Betinis, (1980-) text by Victor Hugo.
This canon is a continuation of a tradition started by Abbie's great-grandfather in 1922, who would write original carols every year and send them to family and friends. This recording has the canon sung first by a soloist, then by the full soloist, then in 5 part canon. Awesome!
Tyler Versluis is a composer and pianist.