Thoughts on Thoughts

Thoughts on Thoughts

The blogosphere has been humming this past week with interesting posts on new music. Ralph Kendrick’s “Much Ado About Doing Nothing” grapples with new music issues that are very near and dear to me, and which I intend to address at length in later posts. Meanwhile, the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Music and Arts Center has announced their third “Living Composer of the Month” in their ongoing feature and this month’s living composer is … me!

Over at Sequenza 21, in his post “Just Doing,” Jay Batzner considers the balance between expertise and innocence. To me, the issues he raises reflect those raised by Frank J. Oteri and commenters in his much-discussed column “Don’t Call Me Stupid” and also those from my earlier column “Be Untrue to Your School“.

Like Jay, I have given a lot of thought to the changes education has wrought on my musical style and I believe that some aspects of this evolution have been deleterious. There is an energy that derives from the amassing of insalubrious choices that can render the whole significantly greater than the sum of its parts. However, I would argue that one can reach a point in training where accumulated skill and knowledge allows an artist to recapture the naivety of their early work combined with rigorous thought which allows for a transcendent experience. To me, that is the lesson of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and of the “Heiliger Dankgesang.”

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Thoughts

  1. Armando

    Hang on…this whole quest for the “naivety of our early works” is all fine and dandy, but should we pursue that at the expense of our CRAFT? What in the 9th Symphony or the “Heilegger Dankesang” gives the impression of naivety, other than in the Schillerian (?) sense of the word? I hear a lot of music praised (often on these very “pages”) that, frankly, show their composers to be sorely lacking in technique (be it orchestrational, contrapuntal, formal, melodic, whatever). Funny, but it seems to me that the best way to get those chops is, surprise surprise, through education.

    I will give you this, though: the academy has a way of stifling exploration and encouraging settling on an accepted (or, rather, “acceptable”) model and developing some pretty strong musical prejudices (which, I think, was the point of your earlier article). These prejudices are EXTREMELY hard to break out of, and I, personally, am grateful for the time I spent outside of academia for forcing me to think beyond the norm in order to make a living as a musician AND, most importantly, for my students, now that I’m back in the academy, who have taught me more about music–and introduced me to music I would otherwise not have heard, ever–than my teachers ever did. (Oh, there are some colleagues who come to mind in that sense too. I think you know at least one of them.)

    Yeah, I know this isn’t what you were getting at, but your last paragraph led me there.

  2. smooke

    Yes, not at the expense of craft
    Hi Armando,

    Correct, I agree that this naivety should not come at the expense of craft. I raise the example of Beethoven as someone who was able to utilize the full force of an incredible amount of craft and rigor in order to compose works of surface simplicity based on a foundation of incredible complexity. That’s why I chose those examples. No way does he reach those heights of expression without decades of training, despite the fact that children can easily sing the “Ode to Joy.”


  3. Lisa X

    I hear a lot of music praised (often on these very “pages”) that, frankly, show their composers to be sorely lacking in technique (be it orchestrational, contrapuntal, formal, melodic, whatever).

    Who? I’ll assume you are confusing personal taste with an objective assessment of technique, until you name names.

  4. Armando

    No, I don’t think so, Lisa. Unless we’re prepared to say that the question of what constitutes compositional craft is itself merely a matter of taste.

    And you should know better than to ask someone to name names. At least in public.

  5. Lisa X

    I’m only saying that compositional craft is something very difficult, probably impossible, to pin down.

    But you’ve peaked my curiosity. I’d love to hear about some music that is praised by some that you feel is lacking in technique. Feel free to use examples from the dead or super famous to avoid hurt feelings.

  6. Armando

    No, I don’t think compositional craft is all that hard to pin down. The quality that David calls “naivety,” a sense of freshness, confidence and profundity (to use a term that, to me, connotes the seeming paradox of the complexity behind seemingly simple music, as David points out in the two examples by Beethoven which he cites). Mozart’s mature style (pieces from the period around Idomeneo and his move to Vienna through to his death) comes to mind as having that quality. THAT is hard to pin down and very difficult to tell when a composer has achieved it (usually posterity gets the final word on that).

    So, okay, I’ll meet your challenge by continuing with long dead masters as examples, in order not to hurt any feelings. Let’s stick with Beethoven. Compare either of the pieces David cites above to something like the Battle Symphony, “Wellington’s Victory.” Admittedly, this is a piece Beethoven slapped together relatively quickly and in order to capitalize on patriotic fervor and commercial opportunities around the Congress of Vienna in 1812. It was a HUGELY popular piece, but it is also a rather poorly constructed potpurri of tunes that are not fully realized and display none of the formal and linear cleverness that the melodies Beethoven famously struggled over display. There’s also a passage within an otherwise recognized masterpiece, the Piano Sonata op. 109, that is simply awful in its counterpoint. I can’t remember, however, if it’s in the trio of the march (second movement) or towards the end of the fugue in the finale, but there’s a little passage utilizing canonic imitation which yields a number of parallel sevenths and seconds. Now, somehow, Beethoven makes it work (see that naive quality, above), but it is, from a technical standpoint, completely wrong.

    Which, I guess, makes your point, somewhat, for you. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of technique being in the ear of the beholder but, rather, a quality that all composers aspire to but which few composers achieve. (I’d venture that that, too, is an objective quality, if only it wasn’t so hard to pin down, let alone define.)

  7. Lisa X

    Armando, thanks for trying but I must admit to having no idea what you are talking about, so much so that I can’t even find a question that might help clarify. Maybe a more modern example?

  8. colin holter

    Sorry, but you just ran into one of my homonym pet peeves.

    One of your homophone pet peeves.


  9. Armando


    If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I suggest that there is some listening (and maybe some score study) in your future. Certainly of the late Beethoven sonata(s). Enjoy!

  10. Matthew Peterson

    CRAFT, by God!

    Give me “objective assessments of technique!”

    It’s like Artusi v. Monteverdi all over again.

    We composers are so damn silly and I love it (sometimes). One of the disadvantages of many composers having so much education is we get really good at seeing things that are “wrong” in pieces, which isn’t always a skill that translates into more and/or better art-creation. Tragic.

    The pedantry sideshow is really funny and reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s hilarious discourse on “SNOOTs” from his review/essay Authority and American Usage. I wish I was linguistically intelligent enough to be a closet SNOOT.

  11. smooke

    Artusi/Monteverdi and wrongness
    Hi Matthew,

    Thank you for your post. I just sent off next week’s blog (about 5 minutes before seeing your post) and it’s about this idea of being wrong. It even refers to the Artusi/Monteverdi controversy. I hope that you find it to be an interesting take on this issue.


  12. Armando

    No, Matthew, YOU’Re wrong.

    Just kidding. Actually, what you point out is one of the perils of conservatory education, one which, obviously, I, among others, I’m sure, am still struggling with. That said, all of the inspiration and good ideas in the world can’t help a composer if s/he doesn’t know how to bring those ideas to fruition.

    Of course, technology is making things like craft and ability obsolete, so I’m sure I’m speaking here as a very endangered species.

  13. mclaren

    Armando asked: What in the 9th Symphony or the “Heilegger Dankesang” gives the impression of naivety, other than in the Schillerian (?) sense of the word?

    Simple pentatonic melody sans chromatic pitches in a rudimentary unchanging time signature.

    Compare with Varese’s Density 21.5 or Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I or Conlon Nacarrow’s Study Number 5 For Player Piano for a vivid illustration of the difference twixt naivete and sophistication.

    Armando went on to aver: Of course, technology is making things like craft and ability obsolete, so I’m sure I’m speaking here as a very endangered species.

    Surely you mean “technology is making things like virtuosity obsolete.” Technology has clearly and obviously increased and enhanced the craft and ability of both performers and composers today. Personal example: I only started composing what Kyle Gann calls “totalist” music in 1989, when a newly purchased Mac Plus together with the 1987 version of Mark of the Unicorn’s Professional Composer + Professional Performer let me start producing pieces with 3 or 4 or 5 or more simultaneous time signatures at once. Back in 1989 I damn sure couldn’t perform stuff like that. But, after using the computer to practice with, and after enough years of following the machine, now I can do 7/4 in the left hand against 5/4 in the right hand, or 17/4 in the left hand and 7/4 in the right hand, or 13 against 8 or 11 against 9, or what-have-you. In fact, when the computer produces those kinds of polyrhythms and you can hear the overall pattern (there’s always a simple emergent resultant, like “PASS the GOL-den BUT-ter” for 5 against 4), after a while you get to the point where you can just bang those sorts of things out without thinking twice. The muscle memory sets in and it just becomes second nature. But you have to hear the polyrhythm first, and that’s where the technology comes in to help with musical practice in ways previously unthinkable.

    Consider as well the issue of the sophistication of musical structures now permitted by computer. Even the most antique MIDI sequencers of the 1990s allowed composers to instantly try out structures like canon canzicrans, tempo canons wholly unnotatable (like tempo 100% against tempo 70% against tempo 110% against tempo 47%), complex modulations in prestissimo or polyrhythmic passages whose effect the composer can instantly hear, complex chord progressions which a composer can now re-orchestrate at the touch of a button to hear which orchestration works best. Orchestrational skills and crafts that would have taken a young composer 10 years to learn a few decades ago, young composers absorb in a year or two today with the aid of orchestral samples and computers and notation programs like Sibelius and Finale. Obviously a laptop + Garriton orchestral samples + Sibelius offers no substitute for actual hands-on experience writing for an orchestra, but it’s a huge help in accelerating the learning curve for young composers.

    And then there’s the entire issue of computer step-entry of rhythms which break through conventional notions of meter, such as (for example) something like:

    qqq 33 qq 444 qqq 77 qq 11 11 11

    55 qqq 666 qq 888 qq 9:7 9:7 qqq

    where q=simple quarter note, and the number indicates broken tuplets with 3=triplet, 4=4:3 tuplet, 7=7:6 tuplet, 11=11:10 tuplet, 5=5:4 tuplet, 6=6:5 tuplet, 8=8:7 tuplet, etc.

    When you repeat two such rhythmic patterns playing against one another, what meter are you in? The two rhythms don’t line up and continuously fall out of sync. Even the most sophisticated current music notation software, like Sibelius or Finale, will not even allow you to enter such rhythms, since those notation programs don’t permit broken tuplets and in any case these two patterns of broken tuplets never line up at a single simultaneous barline and (worst of all) since each rhythm would require a separate fractional meter with a non-power-of-two-denominator. In this case the top rhythm uses 18 quarters + 23/924 of a quarter note, while the bottom rhythm uses 18 quarters + 696/2160 of a quarter note (see Henry Cowell’s “New Musical Resources” for the musical meaning of a non-power-of-two denominator in the meter).

    But these sorts of rhythms can be step-entered into a computer via sequencer even if no current music notation program will allow you to enter them using conventional western notation, and the computer can play them. The result sounds like vividly compelling polyrhythms of a kind Western music can’t notate, but which sounds eerily akin to some of what traditional African performers produce.

    Wouldn’t you agree that this represents a significant expansion of the composer’s musical craft and ability?

    If technology has rendered anything obsolete, it’s the tired old New York virtuoso trick of playing lotsa notes real fast. That’s now over, courtesy of MIDI. No human performer can play as fast as a machine. But when it comes to allowing composers to vastly expand their range of compositional techniques by combining “any possible tempo, any possible timbre, any possible tuning” as Wendy Carlos pointed out her classic article “Microtonality: At the Crossroads,” Computer Music Journal, 1987, technology has explosively expanded performers’ and composers’ craft and ability. If you have any doubt, listen to a concert put on my Johnny Reinhard’s American Festival of Microtonal Music.

    Indeed, you need only watch YouTube performances like this one (where two music students play Nancarrow’s Study 21 live) to realize how exponentially technology has increased the craft and ability of both composers and performers. Performers today can practice with computers to guide them until they nail the most devilishly complex rhythms and the most diabolically difficult microtonal intonations, and as a result young musicians today can perform things delcared “impossible for humans to play” 30 or 40 years ago.

    Likewise, composers now can try out and hear the result of compositional procedures that would be impossibly difficult or time-consuming to contemplate just a few decades ago. A composer can re-arrange entire sections of a piece, swap in new musical material, invert, retrograde, transpose, lengthen or shorten by arbitrary percentages (not necessary a power of 2!) within a score, all by using convenient macros built right into notation programs like Sibelius and Finale.

    This has vastly increased the craft and skill of younger composers today. I find it no coincidence that “totalist” composers as Kyle Gann calls them started writing music of remarkable rhythmic complexity right around the time that cheap personal computers with MIDI let people hear rhythms of unprecedented complexity. I find it no coincidence that interest in microtonality among young composers has skyrocketed starting a few years ago, when softsynths let you instantly hear the musical effect of strange new melodies and strange new harmonies in entirely new tunings, like 19 equal pitches to the octave, or pelog + slendro, or various extended just intonation tunings.

    Any objective observer would have to agree that all these uses of technology have vastly expanded the contemporary composer’s and performer’s craft and skill, would she not?

    And, just in my own subjective and likely valueless opinion, I’d have to say that the sheer number of young composers producing brilliantly crafted compositions with enormous skill seems to have taken a quantum leap ever since the introduction of personal computers, MIDI, and softsynths. Just from my personal perspective, I’d say that younger composers like Teri Hron and Zoe Keating and Nico Muhly and Mark Dancigers and Martin Suckling and Judd Greenstein and Allison Cameron and Nathan Williamson and Pamela Z and D’arcy James Argue seem to immeasurably outpace the immediately previous generations of American composers in the range and depth of their compositional craft and skill…all made possible by the radically new rehearsal/performance and compositional procedures opened up by computer technology.

  14. jchang4

    As much as theory follows composition, so does education follow practice. A formal education through a university or any other school is just that: formal. Standardized education is meant to reflect on past circumstances and practice; it is not the seed of change. Sure, education can inform the practice, but in this “which came first” cycle, there appears to be a more concrete answer.

    This is all generally speaking, of course. Universities do have the money and fandom to build super computers and things that otherwise would not have come to pass. But you don’t necessarily needs loads of money to invent good music. I just think complaining about how crap the education system is is getting really old.

  15. smooke

    4 v. 3
    mcclaren: I know that this is purely a side-note and your main point remains of interest, but I just need to point out that “PASS the GOL-den BUT-ter” is a mnemonic for 4 against 3, not 5 against 4.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.