In 1927, Daniel Gregory Mason published a book entitled Artistic Ideals that I recommend aspiring artists read. Containing great insights into the artistic temperament, Mr. Mason advances that artists need to have these six intrinsic qualities to produce great art: Independence, Spontaneity, Workmanship, Originality, Universality and Fellowship. Never have I easily identified with the concepts stated within a musical tome.
A quick summarization: Understanding that art has been the creation of individuals who persevere despite herd pressure, independence is the fundamental artistic ideal. The artist needs to be absorbed acting spontaneously in the art process itself. From spontaneity comes freedom, freedom to express oneself unspoiled by concern for the fate of the musical product. Great art is created out of the void, arduous toil, and mental labor. Good workmanship consists of understanding that you are a fascinated participator vis-vis the artistic process, avoiding marketplace demands. You discover beauty and excellence through the longest path, the most arduous journey, and in solitude which leads to obscurity, the price of originality. True originality is slow growing and a powerfully slow disciplined intention, time being your ally. Universality implies discovering beauty, taking an impersonal view of the world and your art knowing that egotism and universality does not mix; philosophic truth is universal. The artist's business is not to find an audience but to find the right attitude towards one. There is a necessary relationship between the work of art and its audience. Art is not only expression but also a means of address (to an ideal), addressing ourselves to others, hence the fellowship, the artistic process being essentially social.
This book is a rare gem of great insight and wisdom that rings true today as it did 100 years ago.
I love writing for the guitar. It can be a very expressive instrument capable of mimicking an entire orchestra. With its wide range, you can compose complex works that dazzle the ears. It is even more rewarding when you work with a world-class musician, such as Christian Saggese, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for many years. When I compose a new guitar piece, I have him in mind, knowing that he will never complain, takes on the challenges head on, and just simply embellishes the given score he sees to suit the mood and the composer's wishes, without detracting from the overall musical architecture or purpose. It's a collaboration to end all collaborations to be sure. Like a hand in glove, we know each other's capabilities vis-vis the guitar and its potential. It feels good knowing your music is in capable hands at all times.
Compose Music as if it Were Your Last Composition
Compose music as a matter of urgency. Earnestly and persistently extract from your active imagination the raw materials for
a newly composed work that captures the moment of clarity, when your intentions become crystal clear. For all you have is the present, the only thing that has no end; you must savor this moment as if there were no others in which to cast your musical constructs.
Music critics can offer much to educate us about new recordings, often giving us a historical context in which to understand the current sound recording. I learn much from reading reviews and appreciate the efforts involved. One of my favorite reviewers has been a fellow composer, Virgil Thomson. He was a scholarly and erudite person. Wit and brevity defined him. He is one of many articulate critics who, we must remember, has his/her own personal viewpoints to express and from their frame of reference can not be disputed. For it is ultimately the listener who will determine, given his own unique personal construct system, the worthiness of any particular composition, CD design, musician's skill set, and musical programs that an artist brings to the table for consideration. Creativity can only be judged by the person judging and we all do that when listening to a work of art.
Staying Consistently Great
Every composer can write some interesting music, only a few can compose music that keeps you wanting more with every listen. Only a few can consistently write music that keeps your attention, entertains you in ways you thought were impossible, and does not dull you with mindless derivativeness. With each and every listen you hear something new, you hear something fresh and alive, you hear a genius express his greatness to the world. These great composers have something in common: greatness against the time and greatness with the time. They write for themselves, and for future generations with an open heart.
Take Advantage of Unintentional Incidents in Music
During the process of composing music unintentional events occur that can sometimes take you in a new direction. Instead of fighting the urge to continue on a path that was "pre-calculated" it often occurs to me to flow down the path that the unintentional incident takes you. New inventions often happen when an "accident" occurs as it gives the inventor an idea that was not considered. In music we desire a mix of the old and new in a newly composed work and, therefore, "unintentional incidents" can get us thinking of new possibilities which enhances rather the detracts from the overall listening experience.
Freedom to Create
The beauty of creation lies in the freedom of expression that artists bring to their “creation palette.” The range of colors stimulates the ears, eyes and all the senses. Form is essential as well as repetition and contrast. Everything in nature stimulates; every recombination is possible.
I have always believed that inspiration comes from the ether and cannot be taught. Composition teachers can advise on the techniques that modern composers use and what was used in the past, but they can never teach inspirational techniques! A friend just e-mailed me and said the following: “The greatest music can’t be devised with a step- by-step intellectual process, it is as though it comes from some other place outside of our minds and even beyond time, and those composers know this. Otherwise, anyone could study harmony and counterpoint through the 1700s and then become another Mozart!” So true Michael, so true.
Just as in other art forms, in music the final edits complete the overall vision of the creator. Often, it’s the smallest change that makes the biggest difference. We zoom in to change the smallest aspect of the work in progress. As the painter helps to define a close-up image with a few brush strokes, the composer alters the sonic landscape for an enhanced listening experience.
Final Edits Part II
Final musical edits include a total auditory review of the end product being produced. These can include, but not be limited to, small tweaks to rhythm, placement of notes on staff, pitch adjustments, making octave displacements, or perhaps giving titles to a work whose emotional impact arrived after the score was completed. The composer often makes the comprehensive review of the entire work, remembering to take into consideration the above aspects of musical language, after completion of the final draft.
The Muse Never Leaves
There was a time when I composed music and wanted to sound like JS Bach. I admired him so much. Now I create music effortlessly without thinking about inspirational sources. The muse never left since childhood when the gift of music entered my consciousness. The force guiding me resides within the boundaries of awareness, such that its presence can be felt throughout the creative process. Therefore, I never fear for lack of inspiration as the muse remains till death do us part.
Capturing Special Moments
I do not often dedicate music to anyone in particular. It has to be a special event, memory or an inspirational moment that captures the imagination. In these memorable occasions, music flows effortlessly and the art of creation intensifies. Capturing the essence of meaning is easier than one would think. Feelings are enhanced and its translation to sonic realities is mostly effortless.
True originals act by instinct and without formula. They seldom understand their own works as an historian, theorist or critic might. Mozart created out of need and spontaneity. He could not understand the theory behind his work. Words are ineffectual. They cannot articulate the divine. Art is indescribable yet thrills the senses for all time.
Composers change over time, sharpening their skills as their music evolves. If you define a modern artist by one early creative outburst you run the risk of neglecting future defining works that will give you an overall musical perspective of his/her career. Long ago someone mentioned how disappointed he was in Dylan's new release, I replied that it is our responsibility to look forward to the next work, the next creative outburst. It is more rewarding then dwelling in music heard, where familiarity could breed jadedness.
When we buy a book, we often set it aside for future reading enjoyment. Often, too many competing interests engulf us, leaving the newfound treasure to sit among a shelf of publication wonders. Likewise with music purchased for listening we may not hear it until the proper time comes when its rediscovery pleases the senses. When the time is right, all things have its moments of discovery and wonderment. It's music that has not been heard that we should revere. The moment of discovery may be remembered far longer than its 9th listening experience.
The Good Use of Musical Materials
Quality music requires the use and reuse of inspired patterns of invention. These patterns can be new, used or altered. When listening to music, the brain seems to need something to latch onto, some repetitive figure that can be remembered. If the music is too random, we loose interest. Take an idea, which is new, use it again and then alter its shape. The alterations can come from the bag of tools all composers use. These include: octave transpositions, canonic devises, ostinatos, coloristic effects, etc. Using patterns of invention is the easier part of the equation. Inspiration seems to be present at birth; the talented artist lives and breathes his art.
Composers As They Age
I have been getting several of my early piano works in Finale software and came to the realization that as composers age their music gets more sophisticated. The music improves over time and it becomes easier to write music. You can endlessly borrow from yourself, correct past mistakes and enhance the new music as it begins to dry on the printed page. Composers seldom run out of ideas, which keeps the music interesting and novel. Most live to a ripe old age composing for self- entertainment, jollification and amusement. Nothing can be more satisfying as a sentient being.
Self-deception seems to be a human folly. You often hear of a person's rise to fame as a journey through loneliness, drug addiction and/or pain. The Residents is an art band from the San Francisco area. They wear costumes when they perform to hide their identities. Whether or not this may be a gimmick to keep music sales higher, when they all go home they are not hounded by the paparazzi or deluded fans. Michael Jackson wished he could have walked down a street without hassle and with anonymity. When you are content to create art for its beauty and its total satisfaction to move you, fame becomes secondary and most likely not desirous. I relish this thought.
A Musician's Creative Life
When you look at the complete works of a musician's creative life, you can cull from these a handful of pieces worth listening to. You just do not have the time to listen to it all and if you do, you really will only hear it all once or at the most twice in your lifetime, unless, of course, you are a scholar and your life's ambition is to know everything about an artist. It behooves us to read the best books written by a writer, likewise to hear the best music composed by a composer. The beauty of the iPod is that you can have a playlist of those masterpieces you enjoy and take it with you on long walks as you absorb nature's beauty. It turns out that we all have preferences and will hear one particular favored work many times while hearing a less inspired one only a few, if at all. And given the ever-growing world's music library we will never hear many artists' works for endless different reasons. How sad, too much music, not enough time!
When creating a new musical work we are often reminded that performers are expected to master the new music and then give its premiere. (You can opt to not have this expectation and create music for no one to perform. This option has all kinds of implications, including music sitting on a shelf in the backyard barn for no one to hear until the composer is long dead only to live when the music flows into the airwaves.) Lets imagine that you are creating a work for a performer to play at his/her next concert. How simple or complicated should this music be? It turns out that it is all complicated! New modern music, though a score may look simple, is always complicated. This was true 300 years ago and it's true today. Unless it's a simple Fanfare of 12 seconds duration, most music has its intricacies that challenge the performer and hopefully challenge the listener to experience a wondrous display of sonic vibrations. This means that the executant has to study the score(s) with attention paid to detail and always latitude for personal expression, which gives the music uniqueness and adds to the complexity of the overall work!
For Whom or For What Reason?
An artist can create a work of art for different reasons. Among them are: to make some quick cash, to add to his/her repertoire, for a dedication, to satisfy a commission's demands, for the love of it, to answer the muse's calling, to explicate an academic argument, to satisfy the appetite of your audience, out of sheer boredom, to add to the historical cannon of musical works, to display your compositional acumen, to fill up a CD's space requirements, to elucidate a compositional device, or to complete a part of your oeuvre. Making assumptions about the purpose for a piece of music is like walking through a nest egg of possibilities. For whom a musical work was composed or for what reason has intimate answers that can be best answered by the composer.
When you are listening to a familiar piece of music, you can anticipate what will happen next. This predictive power makes the listening experience enjoyable. But, if you are hearing a work for the first time it becomes a bit harder to know for certainty what will happen next. It can be argued that not knowing the musical outcome increases its listening pleasure. As a creator of new music, not having a "map" to outline its future course can be both exciting and challenging. When we do not know what will happen next the musical creation gains intensity and power as it develops and our listening experience matches what the creator experiences as his "invention" unfolds.
Freedom From Verbal References or Musical Shackles in Music Manuscripts?
I once had a musical lesson with a double bassist who reviewed my violin and double bass work. He mentioned that you could never have enough descriptors for musicians directing their interpretation of the music they see. It reminds me of the modern musical movement called serialism, where composers use a series of values to manipulate different musical elements. But to control every aspect in music is to chain the musical elements in shackles, thereby stifling creativity. For these reasons, I like freedom from verbal reference (or absolute music) in musical manuscripts. Executants will, therefore, be able to express themselves as they interpret the composer's artistic statement, which really is a template of musical ideas organized in a meaningful manner. Each musician construes for themselves the composer's intentions giving an artistic license to be creative during the interpretation process. A new listening experience for the audience is the outcome and a musical statement that is fresh with each performance.
When Musicians Die Young
I can think of several young artists that died just as their song writing abilities were becoming strong. It is a profound tragedy. Sandy Denny is one of them. Her song, I'm a Dreamer, was on her last release and will be known as a classic song along side of several other heartfelt creations. I think of what could have been and the lack of many creations that were not to be. It's not like they had a fruitful long life and we could choose between many works. We can, however, remain pleased that we can select a handful of gems that were written in youthful bursts of energy as part of their legacy.
Folk music gives us many reasons to celebrate the cultural diversity of music making from around the world. With its rich tradition of grand story telling that imparts meaningful wisps of wisdom with each tale, to its judicious use of complex rhythms and unique combinations of instrumental wizardry, we are blessed indeed. My huge collection of English traditional music gives me many hours of entertainment and inspiration for my own musical undertakings. We should be thankful for every musician that partakes in musical adventures which gives humanity glimpses into the lives of our gifted musical brothers and sisters.
Conducting While You Are Composing Music
It seems to me if you begin to spontaneously start to conduct the music that you are writing as you are hearing it, the music, in all probability, contains that elusive element of quality. We often ask ourselves, once a work is completed, "Does it have real substance?" If you are moving to your music, then yes, indeed! :)
"No Serious Music Has Been Written in 75 Years"
is what a person posted in response to a NY Times article about the current music of OMD. Being a composer who is writing serious music, I responded:
"Gordon, your remark that no "serious" music has been written in 75 years is misinformed. The history of classical music includes artists who are discovered years after their deaths, where other composers "resurrect" the music that has been sitting in barns, bookshelves, or lined as garbage bags for the trash. I have just completed 9 orchestral works since the beginning of this year, a Fanfare for two trumpets that will be recorded at 2:00 p.m. today for the 10th anniversary Honolulu Triathlon, 9 miniatures for piano solo and a solo violin work. We do not need fame, nor desire it. It's the music that matters most above anything else. It will always have life as long as there are executants who choose to perform it."
When composers die their music making days obviously comes to an end and they can no longer edit their own music. That presents a problem for those left to help preserve our nation's musical heritage. We can think that when a musical work has been performed and recorded that the composer's intention have been elucidated, but that would be an error in thinking. There really is no final musical statement of a composer, a place where perfection exists and there can be no improvement. Perhaps it could be true of a genius-master composer, lets say Mozart. But, if he were alive today, he may voice complaint about how his music has been treated over the centuries. He may prefer one musical interpretation to another. Even then, he could be critical about the smallest detail, the tiniest of nuance, or some minuscule defect that could not have been improved upon because of budget limitations or of performance shortcomings. In the end all we can do as composers is strive for perfection knowing that, ultimately, as mortals, it is out of reach for all of us.
I received a phone call from a PBS phone solicitor thanking me for my most recent donation. She asked if there was anything I would like them to do differently. Because I was composing music at the time and my brain was involved in hearing altered vibrations, I said no and thanked her for the contact. It was only a few days later that I realized I had squandered a great opportunity. Since PBS exists mainly by donations through fund drives and they collect millions of dollars from music lovers every year, why not start commissioning composers in their respective communities to write some music? It would stimulate communities across America to be involved in musical undertakings. PBS could then showcase their community composers and have on record a unique collection of music specific to their geographic region. Typically, they do just the opposite by asking composers to donate a musical work during a fund drive with the proceeds going to the radio station. I think it is time to support local musical artists who are expected to bring forth their projects with no financial support from anyone.
I am at the end of composing my new sextet for the love of my life who died in March. I never imagined that my longest single movement work would be composed during the Grim Reaper's visit. But then all great music must come to an end, the moment in time when it's death is inevitable and we all die with it. But during its exhilarating existence we celebrate the highs and lows, the sensual conversation that leads to one of many climaxes glorifying the joy of life.
Hearing the Potential of What Could Have Been
Music is an art form where perfection occurs at the next performance. Because human beings are not infallible, unwanted errors creep into the musical experience, whether it is a live or recorded performance. For example, during a recorded studio performance many takes are required to get the right articulation of a musical passage or the right musical dynamic. Listening with a critical ear can lead to exhilaration or disappointment depending on what your criteria is for a "great" performance. Expecting too much can lead to dismay while attending into a particular aspect can lead to joy. Perhaps it is best to guard against being overly critical, thereby avoiding musical paralysis, and just enjoy the moment, being aware that we all strive for that allusive thing we call "perfection."
The Selected Writings of Virgil Thomson (1924-84) continues to inspire eleven years after its first publication. He has got to be one of the finest writers about music in the 20th century. Full of wit and charm and seemingly so accurate about all aspects of our musical landscape, you discover a gold mine of musical insights and delights with each paragraph. A great composer in his own right, Thompson also worked for the Herald Tribune from the 40's through the 60's where he contributed essays about how we make music, perform it and send it to the market place. You need to read his Why Composers Write How and How Composers Eat, essays from 1939, to get a good description of how composers have made their living though the ages. He corrects misconceptions you may have about the musical life of composers and will reinforce the notion that many of us make very little from the art of composing music.
The Musical Painting
As I complete my Orchestral Suite, I see it as a musical painting. Knowing what follows the initial brush strokes is not merely intuition, but a sense of having a mental picture of the total design. No need to sketch it out as it is already there mapped out in its entire mental splendor, ready to be realized through the conduit of creativity. Musical shades appear as timbre, the color of music, making for a varied, interesting listening experience. A painting, as well as music, has logic and a particular language, which comprises the cohesive elements that we recognize as form. The composer's series of musical variations are just the painter's use of common themes and styles that are varied with each re-production. Your musical painting needs to speak out giving people a reason to cast their constructs to construe a unique observation of the new work of art!
The Final Edits or Avoiding Future Embarrassment
There are two moments when you say to yourself, "I have completed my composition until rehearsals begin." The first is when you have expressed your final notations and the second is when you have completed your enharmonic interval reviews. I used to dislike the latter as it was a lot of work (3 or 4 days) and no new music was being created (the real agony). Now I see it in a new light where I get a chance to improve the musical work, as indeed music improves during the editing process. Mistakes are discovered, thereby avoiding future embarrassments. New ideas form from looking at the music in more detail; I call this "the magnifying effect!" When looking at the overall musical design, we can miss the minutiae that holds the piece together. Looking at the music up close can offer a wealth of opportunities for improvement.
Rules of Musical Engagement
While composing music, I often set up rules that are not overtly stated, but silently adhered to. Being an admirer of George Kelly's The Psychology of Personal Constructs, it is easy for me to understand that we formulate theories about the world we live in, as incipient scientists, constantly canvassing our world for familiarity in which to cast our constructs upon. Our "labels" help us to understand and validate the events that pass by while we actively engage in our activities. So, as I compose a new set of piano miniatures, one each day, as a break from orchestral writing, my rules include: short, easy pieces, no longer than 2 pages; if anything can add to 9, all the better; these works will be templates for larger pieces in the future; take the first "musical impression" that comes to mind on the keyboard and work with it (the pieces need to sound spontaneous); the music can sound old and new at the same time; breaking traditional musical theory rules are ok and not to be feared; and children can be as easily entertained as adults while sight reading. What fun I will have crafting the last 7 pieces of "Miniatures."
William Moritz in Search of Visual Music
I had the pleasure of meeting William Moritz 30 years ago. We met through a mutual friend in San Diego, California and went to LA together (after reading a Frank O'Hara poem at his house) for a Shakespeare play in Topanga Canyon. I also witnessed his glorious poetry readings with his fellow poet Margaret Porter. I was saddened to read his obituary yesterday. He died in 2004 after a long bout with throat cancer and discovered that he penned a book entitled "Optical Poetry" (a definitive biography on the works of Oskar Fischinger). I ordered it from Amazon.com and am waiting with much eagerness for its arrival. Bill gave me many of his poems (he was a giver with such a gentle heart), posters, and magazines and wrote a personal letter asking to meet to read poetry and share intimacies. After 30+ years, he went on to write two plays, became a great film historian, authored more than 100 articles, became an expert on animation, experimental film and visual music, and created 34 films! WOW, what a creative life! I am astounded that our paths met for a few months and that we both took on different artistic endeavors. His desire to create "a moving, abstract image, as fluid and harmonic as auditory music," began during the time of our brief interlude. His quote reminds me of one of Bill's films we previewed which took the music of Ray Davies (Celluloid Heroes) as a background of a film crowd exiting the theater in a slow, romantic dance that, in reflection, was his artistic statement of filming harmonic images. He died just before the publication of his monumental book that will be arriving in a few days. I wait with fond aloha and regret not having scored some film music for him, but he probably would reject the offer given his artistic aesthetics.
Musical Reflections Upon A Hill
Went hiking up a mountainous path to reflect upon things musical. I am reminded of a song from Family, an inventive rock quartet from the 1969-70's, "Observations From a Hill." Experiencing inspiration during long walks through nature allows you to be away from the hustle and bustle of city life and gives you a chance to look inward, letting go of the stresses of modern life. Compositional life is a solitary one. No one can assist you except a mentor who can guide you through untold pitfalls, teach you what cannot be found in a book, and do musical reviews with thumbs firmly in the up position or down. After awhile you can be your own judge, and ultimately, you have to be enthusiastically excited by your creations or no one else will be.
To Improve a Work or Music Seldom Arrives in a Perfect State
One of the many ways to improve a musical work is to transcribe it for an ensemble. As you orchestrate your new piece, you discover the "mistakes" of the original work. Often, you also add ideas that did not arrive when you had the first inspiration. Not only do you have another gem to add to your growing catalogue of works, but also you will be able to improve an older work, which is what we all do eventually anyway. Music seldom arrives in a perfect state. We have to edit our creations until the feeling of complete satisfaction arrives. As I compose orchestra works this year (just completed one), I get to improve my Piano Etudes. What a joyous outcome indeed!
We can learn much from other composers. It has been a tradition to study scores and extract its core essence. Dangers arise when we "extract" and "borrow" too much and therefore, our own creations sound like our predecessors, derivative and not very original. Other pitfalls include "throwing in" too many ideas into a score. I can look back at my own creations and see that what is one piece of music is really ten. Being crisp and concise is now a conscious effort, taking an idea and expounding upon it. Reflecting back on my own writings, I can see that the poems that stand out are the ones delineating a single subject matter. It i is the simple idea that is the most complex to elucidate.
The Need to be Different
I am often told, that as an artist, you need to be different from the rest. You need to have something that sets you apart from the race to be an established, influential, go downin history composer. Call it “style,” “technique,” “methodology,” “form,” “approach,” or “modus operandi,” it is true that there is this “something” that sets the real McCoy apart from their contemporaries. The identifying features from my perspective is simply being yourself and doing what you like best. It can be complicated or it can be simple depending on your aesthetics. And that is OK. You have to be passionate about your art and love it to the point that it owns you. Your art is your addiction. Nothing else really matters except that you keep your art flowing out from the ether. And it matters not that it gets exposure. It is the act of creating, that solitary set of behaviors you have established, that makes you different. You have no need except the need to create and, therefore, your uniqueness will shine henceforth and for posterity.
Artists who have institutional support have distinct advantages over those who do not. It is both expensive and challenging when you do not have institutional support. Booking venues, licensing fees, programs and promotions cost money. When you have financial backing, you may believe that your music travels a smoother yellow-brick road. But some rejoice in the very act of music making while caring not about the opinions of financial barons, be they institutions or private benefactors. A dictate by any other name is still a dictate. And a bitter pill can become hard to swallow when your music is in the hands of those who control purse strings and gives you musical dimensions that are not in line with your aesthetics.
End of Year Musical Thoughts
Many thoughts come to mind as I review the year in music. We can only grasp a small amount of musical knowledge that it behooves the discerned musician to specialize in one area. Even in composition we can choose many different avenues of expression. For myself, I like to look in the past and forge a new pathway for American Classical music. I have no interest in the avant-garde where extended techniques flourish and I have little tolerance for minimalism. Nor does pop music interest me as many musicians express themselves this way. If you create music for the love of it and not for the money in it, you have the freedom to be authentic and unique. This notion intrigues me.
It is true that a musical work needs to be performed prior to recording time. Executants need to drill down into the musicʼs core in order to discover how the music works from the inside out. This practice time also gives the player an opportunity to ask vital questions about the musicʼs structure or to give helpful advice about the musicʼs playability to the composer. A work is never completed until the audience has experienced the music live, on stage. This gives the composer assurance that the music is under the playerʼs “fingertips” and every expression will be carefully articulated when the performer walks on stage to give the musicʼs its premier.
Lower the Volume, or Technicians in the Control Room Endings
When I hear “lower the volume” endings in music, I feel disappointed. A high percentage of pop music has “technician in the control room endings,” it seems, where dials are manually turned to lower the volume, which allows the music to fade into silence. Either the composer has a deadline to complete a cycle of songs, or is uninspired or both. I minus 50 points from 100 automatically when I hear fade out endings no matter how good the beginning or anything in-between. These endings give me the impression of laziness and sloppiness, which distracts from the overall musical quality. I wish it were not so, as there is nothing more beautiful than a well-crafted ending. Itʼs like the dessert that tops off a great meal at the end of the day. You savor the moment and give thanks for the bounty that unfolded.
My thoughts have been about the nature of musical construction as I complete my Piano Suite VIII in 9 sections today. It is all about recombination and the casting of musical materials the composer chooses as his musical language. One language is not better than another. One language is not more useful than another. Musical material from the past gets reorganized and presented in a way that sounds unique because the means by which the music gets rearranged is new. We borrow methodologies from the past; interweave them with our musical language and the resultant new music gets cast into the future.
I enjoy editing my early piano works. These little pieces are my beginning works, when I composed with paper, pencil, and an eraser while sitting at a piano (pre- computer days). I would play what I heard and then write it down on paper. So happy that I did not destroy these little gems as so many composers have done in the past (because of embarrassment or some perceived harm to reputation!). Why not savor these auspicious beginnings and improve upon them? After all, donʼt we all reach into our archives and re-invent ourselves?
Honolulu to Helsinki
On April 16, I began to compose a work for guitar and piano after the pianist, Anne Ku, had requested some music following a visit. Her and her husband, Robert, form the musical group Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo. Composing for two instruments is both challenging and rewarding, especially when the two instruments are so far apart both acoustically and dynamically. The inspiration for this music came from an on-line friendship with a buddy who lives in Helsinki while playing a Facebook game during breaks from musical expressions. If Mozart could play pool and compose in his head, I can compose and play Internet games.... I now take advantage of relationships as inspiration for music making.
Music on a Shelf
The title of this blog, Music on a Shelf, reminds me of books on a library shelf, many sit waiting to be read. Such can be the life of an artistic endeavor. I often get the feeling of dread that another completed musical work would spend its life on a shelf, unheard. Nothing Shall Come of This, which will be recorded next June in Olomouc, Czech Republic, is a string orchestra piece, which started its life as a solo piano work. Performers do not readily seek out new works unless they are paid well and composers are expected to bring forth their creations on their own, with no financial backing to produce it. Nothing Shall Come of This attempts to capture the human condition we label as “sadness,” when creations that excite the creator are left to idle among a collection of neglected works.
Completely Clothed in Sound
Completed a work for piano, three players (or 6 hands!), in homage to Virgil Thomson. Was reading The Art of Judging Music when I came across the construct that was a most suitable title for this new work. I actually had to do three parts for a solo instrument, which presented a challenge and a learning experience. Why not extend these ideas to other instruments? Three players on one violin do not sound extreme the more you think about it. This work was sent to Anne Ku following a request for pieces to be entered into a competition, Multi- hand Piano Duets, Many Hands on One Piano, in San Francisco. Her Blog is entertaining and a strong recommendation to add to your Blog lists: http://concertblog.wordpress.com/
80th Birthday Jingles
Editing this piece of music from 1997. It consists of 81 tonal piano miniatures that were composed shortly before professional composition studies began. What a joy to rediscover these small wonders, as they will surely become inspirational resources for future works. Composed for a dear departed friend Robert Kehoe, I designed them for his playing abilities in mind and they, therefore, are simplistic in nature. They will become a childrenʼs piano book of short, easy miniatures with strong melodies.
Composing for the piano gives me great joy. I am now completing Book III of my Piano Preludes. These tiny pieces can often be the germ of a more brilliant future work. They give an artist satisfaction quickly as they can be composed in a day or two. The larger forms take many months to complete, and then there is the anxiety of never knowing that they will be played or recorded. Smaller works have a higher chance of being performed, which is what music really is all about - performing and listening to musical creations from musical beings.
Guitar Music and Recasting Musical Material
I am busy transcribing my 8 and 10-string guitar works for 6-string guitar performances. More players for a 6-string guitar abound and what will be left is more music for a variety of players! The 10-string guitar works, in particular, are more complicated pieces and Iʼve decided to make them works for two 10-string players. I will then have works for two guitars. Those pieces, in the future, can be transcribed for two 6-string guitars and on it goes... Transcribing music gives the composer many options to recast the musical material and sometimes you discover that the music you composed was for an ensemble you had not considered!
I have been busy creating parts for recordings scheduled for June or July in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Now I know why Bach had 13 children! It is an incredible amount of work creating parts for a concert band work, an orchestral work, two string orchestra works, a quartet and a sax quartet. All these works will be featured on the next CD release. I plan to take some time off when the parts are completed (at the end of next month) and compose more music! Canʼt wait to compose more solo piano music, which is my favorite passion when it comes to composing. Darel Stark informs me that he plans to program a solo violin work of mine that he premiered several months ago here in Honolulu. He is busy learning another work, which will premiered in May of this year. :)
Music on a Shelf
The title of this blog, Music on a Shelf, reminds me of books on a library shelf, many sit waiting to be read. Such can be the life of an artistic endeavor. I often get the feeling of dread that another completed musical work would spend its life on a shelf, unheard. Nothing Shall Come of This, which will be recorded next June in Olomouc, Czech Republic, is a string orchestra piece, which started its life as a solo piano work. Performers do not readily seek out new works unless they are paid well and artists are expected to bring forth their creations on their own, with no financial backing to produce it. Nothing Shall Come of This attempts to capture the human condition we label as “sadness,” when creations that excite the creator are left to idle among a collection of neglected works.
Anguish in Every Household
I have been busy completing the final draft of my first orchestral work called “Anguish in Every Household.” It is a somber yet satisfying work. It comes on the heels of a just completed Concert Band work (I keep thinking that the latest draft is really the final, but alas, new ideas keep the music flowing). In these complicated times, life seems to be filled with anguish and grief, toil and few rewards. This music, which hopefully will be recorded next year for a future release on Parma Recordings, examines the harsh living conditions we all face while trying to keep a facade of strength and courage with each passing day.
Parallels to Counseling Techniques
I studied Clinical Psychology for a period of time where we learned various counseling techniques. The idea of “tightening” and “loosening” became etched in my mind and it seems to apply to music composition as well. This particular counseling technique implies that you allow your client to expand or contract their construct system as therapy unfolds. As composers, we often expand or contract a musical idea as the music composition unfolds and when we review the score after a period of rest. Often musical ideas are malleable and are able to be thinned or developed. Just as sentences are uniquely constructed to express an idea, likewise are musical phrases, but there seems to be many ways to “express” the idea that can be understood by all.
The Next Project
It seems that the next musical project comes very easily for me as time marches on. Once you have a catalogue to “reach into” you can borrow from yourself as many composers of the past have. Mostly I borrow from my solo piano works. Several have become String Orchestra works. It is my understanding that Stravinsky and Ravel wrote orchestra works by borrowing from their piano repertoire. Currently, the first movement of my first Piano Concerto is a transposition of the first movement of a work for three pianos. Borrowing from oneself seems to be a process where you enrich artistic material from the past. My next project turns out to be a “musical complement.”
Transcendence in the Age of War
Parma Recordings will release a new CD of my music soon. Was informed today that the CD design and music master was sent to the manufacturers for processing. This labor of love was long in the making as the musical contents span the years between 2003 and 2009. Named after a work for two pianos, Transcendence in the Age of War was composed two years after 9-11. This tragic event has been the focus of several works of mine. The themes explored in this work are about man’s preoccupation with war and his need for a transcendent state of mind where bliss is eternal. Let Thy Mind Be Still, the final track is the music that propels us to that state.
Composers and The Internet
I have often wondered whether my music would be different in its style and texture if I had lived in a thriving musical community that currently exists in NYC, Vienna or San Francisco. We live in a computer world now where communication is quickly and effectively sent by digital transmissions via satellites. With music software improving every year, it is easy to send quality-looking scores by e-mail attachments. Music dictionaries are readily available on-line, likewise orchestra music manuals! Given all of the above, you can live anywhere and produce music of high quality within the confines of your home music studio. It does seem to me, however, that a composer needs to have a cadre of available musicians to “bounce” his musical ideas off of. There is no replacement for a live musician who knows his craft well to execute your musical ideas so that you can hear in real time whether or not what you intended is what will be conveyed. Thankfully, competent musicians live everywhere now and this should not be an issue for most composers.
Supporting Our Children’s Artistic Needs
Our children inherit the world we design. We need to support their artistic desires as early as possible so they can improve on our creation when they become adults. They model after our behaviors and we shape their destiny. How we support their artistic needs now determines future outcomes for our mother earth. Parents may feel that there is no “money” in art. That may be true, however, art is neither about money nor recognition. Art is about the ability to craft a unique vision and sharing it with the people we love. You can make a living with art or you can express yourself in any work setting to your advantage. A musician, for example, may be working for the Health Department and offer to compose a song to raise money for the mentally ill. We are all artists designing our future one day at a time. Let’s instill a sense of artistic wonder in our future artisans when they are young and naturally artistic.
Everything is New
Popular forms of art music like “New Age” or “Minimalism” rely heavily on repetition as part of their musical aesthetics. Rock music, in turn, has borrowed heavily from these art forms and also uses repetition copiously. Repetition in music is certainly nothing new and when used effectively can be pleasing to the ear. I have been of the opinion, however, that music in its most exalted state should be fresh and new, resembling the moment, which is always unique. There are no two identical moments in observable nature. This does not mean that repetition cannot be used judiciously. The inner ear does need to hear something familiar as it is changing. This makes music making a challenge to say the least and above all most satisfying.
Do composers need mentors? Yes. As creators, we often loose perspective. Getting lost in the details, forgetting to use a specific technique (or overusing one) and taking advantage of an idea you had not thought of are common problems. My mentor, Dr. Robert Wehrman, composer, painter and author, drops by every other week to review my progress on several pieces that are under construction. He is quick to discover something missing, makes suggestions for improvement and is full of praise when he hears a particular passage that he enjoys. It takes a great deal of humility, however, “not seeing the forest for the trees,” “two minds are better than one” and “if you donʼt like the heat get out of the kitchen” are useful aphorisms that we should take heed of lest we think ourselves superior. No man is too great to not have learned a lesson each day.
I remember my first composition lesson well. A university professor told me at the end of my lesson that I needed to be aware of the form I wanted to use and then “stuff” the music in it. I handed him my 60 dollars in mostly ones and change (I robbed my piggy bank) and never returned. My system of determining form has not changed since perhaps my first composition and the professorʼs opinion had no effect on my thinking about form. One should determine musicʼs form by the characteristics of the music itself. It takes its shape as the music is being created. Sometimes it is not evident until the middle of the work or beyond! If your music resembles a known form, e.g., Theme and Variations, then you have a convenient title. I suppose if you are a commissioned composer and need to “deliver” musical works at a constant rate (think movie scores etc.) then you can “stuff” your music in a convenient, handy dandy form and bank your cash. For me, however, with no commissions on the horizon, I can be as free as a formless piece of music exiting this earthy existence!
Persistence is that quality of mind which we need to accomplish most goals. A musical work cannot be completed unless a composer spends time each day sculpturing its foundation and erecting its structure. It’s through the use of patterns that we recognize a work of art. Edward Gorey used a patterned cloth to design his figbash and salamander dolls. Our senses recognize these patterns and artists use them to define their work’s distinguishing characteristic. Each artwork differs greatly from each other (the figbash and salamander dolls do not share the same distinguishing shape) because their patterns differ. The distinguishing characteristic, its patterned style, is what makes each artwork and is what distinguishes one artist from another.
New Musicʼs Flowing
I get tired hearing 20th Century music lacked a direction. Perhaps it will be known as a time of musical fruitfulness where future composers were dealt a fertile laboratory of sonic richness from which to build a solid foundation. Sure, Schoenbergʼs atonality has been a source of contention and consternation among the musical public, this does not mean that his ideas and theories have not been useful. I have used them to great effect in my own compositions and never plan to stop. Why canʼt music be atonal, melodic and beautiful? One’s ear needs to be developed just like a composer’s musical flowering, which is continually growing and taking a new shape.
Musical Rewards, or Itʼs Not About Money
As a composer who remains outside of the musical establishment (most composers are professors of music at a music conservatory where they teach music to enthusiastic students full-time), I do not have a cadre of students who can rehearse my music. This is a distinct disadvantage. When I soon realized, shortly after beginning composition lessons, that musicians wanted to be compensated well for their efforts (who doesn’t?) I began to set money aside for the purpose of paying executants to interpret my music. Musical rewards, however, should not rely solely on the satisfaction one gets from hearing performances and recordings of their music. Although these activities can leave you pleased with your formidable skills, itʼs the process of creating music and thereby diligently improving your craft that truly enhances your overall sense of fulfillment. There are no better
The Art of Creation Part 1
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I am often asked, “How do you create music?” The answer is both easy and complex. I start with the simplest of lines (a musical motif of one to 10 notes approx.) and then I mold them into a musical shape I like. Once the music begins, it is easy for me to continue the process of creation, as the next series of musical fragments will come from my brain. The music comes from editing activities, as more times than not the initial ideas are drafts and they need to be improved upon or deleted in order for a more perfect solution to take its place. I wrote a poem about this entitled “Scaffolding.”
The Art of Creation Part 2
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Music comes from the ether, i.e., composers are conduits. I believe that music exists in a different state (dimension) and we act as conduits for the transmission and execution of the final product that we like to call music. It is a highly personal language and every astute composer has his/her stamp in the first measure or system or first 10 seconds of tape or whatever other medium the artist chooses. We know it is Bach, e.g., after the first several bars. How composers become conduits we may never know. Suffice to say that it is what it is and that is all it is.
The Art of Creation Part 3
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Pop music seems to be music of personality. The performer gets on stage and the audience recognizes the artist by the dress, special effects, lighting, or dramatic facial nuances. We recognize the composer mainly by the presentation of artistic ideas of the music presented. The music possesses personality and the cleverest of us never lacks for conceptual constructs in which to cast our music upon. We are cognizant of form in particular and the genius creates his/her own form as the music develops. Composing is not a choice, but a daily passion that is all encompassing. When a composer completes a work, a part of him/her dies; sadness ensues until a new work begins and the new sonic patterns enrapture the creator, feeling a sense of purpose, anew.
Music Not Heard
Have you ever wondered how a composer feels when he/she has composed a work, rendering it to a place on a shelf hoping for a performance? I have over a hundred pieces that I have never heard. It costs money to have a performer interpret your music and you end up hoping that someday your music will get the attention it deserves. Itʼs nice to have a repertoire to delve into when an opportunity arises however, and that is the subject of this blog entry: Music Unheard is more Valuable Than Music Heard. Have you ever bought a book, placed it on a shelf meaning to read it soon and 5 years later you do? The excitement and sheer joy of hearing a musical work that you created 5 years ago cannot be described. Beethoven only had a hand full of his piano sonatas performed live during his lifetime. I’m in good company.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Beethoven is one of my favorite composers. His powerful musical statements resonate strongly 182 years after his rough life ended. He, and a handful of other major composers, made me want to hear more as each musical work is so distinctly different that you canʼt replace one with another. My mentor once told me that in pop music you can replace a tune with another tune and no one notices, but with a highly developed artist each composition is a skillful work of art that cannot be replaced. I am still discovering new gems in the highly recommended collection of his complete oeuvre “Complete Beethoven Edition” published by Deutsche Gramophone in 1997 (CD edition). Beethoven has taught me to not be satisfied, incorporate power and intensity into your art and to explore new directions.