Saturday, June 9, 2018

Composing Outside the Lines (or within)

My first lesson with composer Tania Leon was something that would change my approach to composition forever. Professor Leon asked me to define a line (actually, she gave me a week to think about it and return with a definition). I was confused as to what this could possibly mean aside from a straight line between points A and B. When I returned for my second lesson, we discussed the various definitions of a line – particularly in the context of music. To illustrate the endless possibilities, Professor Leon drew a squiggly line on paper and then asked, “how would you notate this?” I remember thinking I wasn’t clear on exactly how to represent the shape before me, but soon realized this was an introduction to the concept of representing sound through notation in a way that expresses the organic shape of a musical line - beyond approximating the shape via conventional rhythmic notation, etc. The point of the lesson was to utilize notation in a manner that expresses the exact, organic shape of the musical idea in your head. It can mean anything from graphic notation (if this effectively conveys the idea) as well as micro subdivisions of the beat....but accurately executed! The latter can be a painstaking process as organically conceived rhythms often look complex when notated correctly on paper. However, this concept is crucial for pure, unadulterated compositional thought…especially in an environment where notation software can make it easy to input the closest sounding conventional rhythm. The concept of representing a line exactly as it appears forces one to search for the notation that will communicate that which sounds free and natural….almost in the manner of an improvisation. In a sense, the concept of “defining a line” deals with every conceivable musical shape beyond a straight line. As a suggestion, try singing your organic idea and recording it. Then transcribe the audio exactly as your hear it without altering the natural rhythm.  Notation programs such as Sibelius or Finale make it easy to select an idea which is “close enough”; however, truly complex rhythms require all sorts of manipulation and editing (not to mention a firm grasp of math in terms of note value and subdivisions – especially in the area of nested triplets / groupings, etc.). This approach will bring you closer to expressing your original ideas more accurately and also force you to think about what it is you really want to say as a composer. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Percussion ensemble in the 21st Century: An orchestral vision

As a family of instruments, percussion is constantly growing and evolving in the orchestra as well as with other ensembles. Having grown up as a percussionist, I’ve played in many percussion ensembles observing changes in the repertoire over the years – from the types of instruments used to the style of composition. Although there are many pieces that focus on small sections of the percussion family (groups of three or four), the available number of players in a college setting, and even professional percussion groups, ranges from 3 – 12 or more. In the university setting, pieces for large ensemble are accommodated by combining both undergraduate and graduate students (which is often done) as well as the use of outside players. This flexibility allows composers to explore the multitude of percussion instruments, thereby creating a more colorful pallet. That said, it makes sense for composers to think of the percussion ensemble as an orchestra and not just a choir within the orchestra. When one considers the variety of instruments from pitched (e.g. marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, xylophone, timpani etc.) to non-pitched (snare drums, concert toms, cymbals, triangle, gong, etc.) it is possible to group the instruments in sections much like an orchestra. Add to this the unending list of instruments adopted from other cultures (Djembe, Cajon, dumbek, congas, Bohran, dulcimer etc.) as well as the piano and diversity within each area of membranophones, idiophones and aerophones becomes limitless!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Organizing Your Workspace

While it’s true that some people know exactly where everything is in a messy office, there’s a chance they are missing out on the benefits of keeping an organized workspace. One of these benefits includes a more positive attitude in tackling new and old projects - no matter how small, large or numerous. The initial feeling one experiences when waking into a congested room can create an overwhelming sense of chaos. Similarly, sitting at a desk filled with papers strewn about can affect the desire to even begin a project; it’s just not very inviting and often feels like there’s too much to do! However, the opposite experience occurs when only one item at a time is displayed on your desk or workspace. This minimalist approach makes life feel more manageable. The ability to move through each item productively is accelerated because the visual layout promotes a more focused effort. One is not distracted by mounds of paperwork waiting in the periphery. It’s worth experimenting to see if these changes make a difference with individual work habits; limit yourself to placing one item at a time on your desk with nothing else in your field of vision. Since I have often sat in front of multiple projects without the drive to get started, I now appreciate the difference within myself when facing a messy desk vs. an organized workspace.
Even though some have a knack for finding a needle in a haystack, for most it can be overwhelming and frustrating. The simplest solution is to take a full day to organize your workspace. Begin by stacking projects in order of priority and then viewing one at a time until each is completed. The effect is an ability to move forward with clarity and peace of mind. In the process, you may discover lost projects, forgotten themes and old ideas (for those of us who compose) that suddenly seem new.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is your music too difficult to play?

For several years now I’ve discovered that much of the music I compose is difficult to perform… least that’s what I’m told. I didn’t think this would be the case as it’s not especially difficult on a reading level; however, having the luxury of working with some of the top instrumentalists in New York City, I realize from their feedback that the execution of my music is not always easy….in fact it’s hard. This brings up a valid concern…if the music you compose is too challenging, will it limit performance opportunities? It's very possible; however, a good piece will eventually find its way to the concert stage and capable musicians will take on the challenge. While I am currently trying to strike a balance in my own music moving forward, I don't feel the need to modify difficult pieces as long as I’m genuine about what I wish to express. I can remember being told by past teachers that every note, chord and phrase must be written with intention……and THAT is what should serve as the criteria for what you keep and what you throw out! That said, I have never approached a composition with the sole intention of challenging a player. When it happens, it’s always a pure byproduct of an intentional idea. Music should come from your inner voice ….even if the result pushes the performance envelope.
           This brings me to a more supportive point on this subject, which is best expressed by the premiere of Stravinsky’s Right of Spring in Paris on May 20th, 1913 - a performance which apparently upset many audience members with its strangled bassoon melody and outrageous choreography. Writing for the bassoon so high in the register, as Stravinsky did, was simply unheard of….it was not idiomatic for the bassoon. Of course, this piece is now part of the standard orchestral repertoire and considered mild in the context of 21st century works. While I wouldn’t suggest pondering the fate of your composition (wasted energy), I do recommend spending time and attention pursuing those difficult ideas as long as they are genuine and physically possible to play. Although some will wrestle with your music (in both performance and listening), a really great piece may become part of the standard repertoire as did the Rite of Spring. The level of playing will continue to develop and evolve over time. So don’t worry if your music is ahead of the curve……….eventually the playing level will catch up or even surpass your difficult creative ideas! 😀

Friday, November 25, 2016

Multi-tasking: Friend or Foe

It would seem that multi-tasking is the way of the 21st century. While most of us multi-task to some degree or another, there is an unforeseen drawback to keeping everything moving at the same time. As I’ve learned from my study of martial arts, when multi-tasking one runs the risk of not doing everything at  the same level of quality. The perception is that one is saving time…but at what cost? Simple mistakes are often made (e-mails, letters) and quality is often sacrificed. In fact, multi-tasking can result in readdressing some items that were not fully completed the first time. The adage “Haste makes waste” still rings true today…and for good reason. So what is an efficient alternative? Most of us have only become busier yet many seem to think we have endless time to complete tasks. Although it sounds like a slower alternative, the answer is to tackle each project one at a time with a completely focused effort. This means nothing else can occupy your mind (or your desk) except the task at hand. The reason why this may not have worked for many is that daily tasks are usually mixed with daydreaming, texts, phone calls, coffee breaks, etc. When you eliminate everything but the main event (so to speak), you will not only finish much quicker than when multi-tasking, but the quality of each effort will be considerably higher. I’ve adopted this approach from experiences at my karate dojo (Shoreikan), in which we’re taught to leave the world behind upon entering the dojo. This very act establishes the discipline needed to do one thing at a time with extreme efficiency and quality. I believe it has helped me to become a more focused student, artist and individual. Give it a try ;)

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Album Concept

One of the most significant albums to influence my conception of what an album experience should be is the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was fortunate to have parents that introduced me to the Beatles at a young age (although I was too young to really know exactly what I was hearing…that appreciation came much later). Throughout my life, I always returned to this particular album with the same feeling….as if I were going to a show (in the theatrical sense). Each track has its own color and story to tell and no matter how varied the instrumentation, everything sounds like it belongs together. In general, the Beatles never hesitated to mix instrumentation (and styles) within the same album (especially during the later years). In contrast, there has been a trend for several decades now in which artists release albums that feature the same instrumentation, same production……same sound. While this has its merits from a marketing standpoint, I’m personally much more attracted to the Beatles’ approach – especially when applied to my own music. Bear in mind that there can be drawbacks to an album with such diversity in style and production; record labels might be reluctant to sign an artist whose music doesn’t fit neatly into a marketable category…this is a real issue which I’ve experienced myself! Be that as it may, I’ll continue to search for the right situation for a future record label as I want to stay true to the creative freedom that I’ve enjoyed so much in the work of the Beatles. If I can come even a little close to creating a stimulating listening journey as the Beatles did in their various albums (a Magical Mystery Tour, if you will ;), then I’ll be that much closer to returning the gift that was given to me by one of the best bands of the 20th / 21st century.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Midi, Loops, Samples and More:

Composing with midi and sampled sounds has become an art in the 21st century. While some purists are opposed to the idea of using samples to represent an orchestra (or any acoustic setting), the current musical climate doesn’t always allow for other options. The opportunities to hear one’s music performed by a top level (or even moderately good) orchestra are frequently reserved for a select few – those who win highly competitive competitions as well as world-renowned composers and artists with personal ties to an orchestral committee. That said, if a composer really loves to write for the orchestra but doesn’t have the opportunity to do so, sample libraries offer a realistic alternative.
         In some ways, the lack of outlets for orchestral readings has encouraged and inspired composers to become adept at using midi. Personally, I’ve had great success using Quantum Leap’s East West Symphonic orchestra (Gold) along with various string patches from Omnisphere. However, the sources used are not as important as the ability to manipulate and combine sounds to achieve the feeling of a live orchestra. Sometimes it may be necessary to add a few live instruments to make the recording more realistic…especially since most sample libraries have some deficiencies with certain instruments in the way the sound speaks. Although you may need extra funds to do this, it’s certainly more affordable than hiring an orchestra :)