John Cage’s 4’33. A pianist comes out and sits at a piano and begins to…do nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Is this taking minimalism too far, or is it just someone beating everyone else to the punch. Probably the latter.
My first exposure to minimalism was Philp Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. I didn’t hear it as a piece, but as part of the movie. Either way, it’s mesmerizing.
My all time favorite is Ann Southam. Here is just a taste:
Usually, when I hear one of her pieces, I have to stop what I doing and just listen.
Enter my composition. Fast Ride on a Slow Train, which was almost called Slow Ride on a Fast Train, although I’m not sure it makes a difference, makes use of two things: Repetition and dissonance. Dissonance is the sound of two (or more) notes that the ear perceives as not pleasant sounding. I know that this can be subjective but since much of western music is based on certain scales, we do have a common perception of what sounds “right”. I’m sure this could have turned out differently if we had divided the scales into 13, 14, 15 etc. notes instead of twelve. Anyway, I like how notes can clash, but after repeating them many times, the ear gets acclimatized to the sound. Well, mine does. So here we go-let’s take a ride. Thank you, Ann.
Now that I have written a piece of music, what next? Music, like other forms of artistic expression, is meant to be shared. Not always—some of what I have created will only be seen and heard by myself. Not that I’m selfish, some things are just too personal.
There are two options: Live or recorded. Live music has taken on a whole new meaning in the last year, with streaming performances becoming the new live. I’m not a performer. I have performed, but it’s not my forte.
I suffer from the classic stage fright. If you’ve never experienced it, you are lucky. Imagine playing a piece and all you can think about is “don’t make a mistake” or forgetting the next part—the proverbial “drawing a blank”—and so on. It really sucks.
One thing about learning to play a piece of music is memory: Mental and muscle. There are pieces that I learned early on in my college and university years, I can still remember. And some, if I don’t think about it, will come back like water from a faucet. It’s pretty amazing. It’s also about consistency. Can you play it right the first time (you don’t want to learn mistakes) and can you repeat it correctly?
When I try to learn a new piece, it seems to be more difficult to do those things, and it feels like more work than enjoyment. Since I’m only doing it for myself, there’s not much accountability when I say, that’s enough. Often when I do learn a piece, if I don’t play it on a regular basis, I need to relearn many of the parts. I love to play. I used to be better. I don’t like when it feels like work.
It also takes me a while to record. I can play a piece perfectly (or perfectly enough) until I press the record button and bingo—mistake city. I’ve been trying to record two of my earliest compositions, so maybe now is the incentive to finally finish them. Since I made a separate page on my website for all my music (plus I put them on SoundCloud), I might as well put those on as well.
Before the availability of computer programs to record, there used to be home 4-track cassette* recorders. Small, compact, and easy to use. Basically, it had four recording heads that divided the tape into four parts. Perfect for voice / guitar / bass / drums. But what if you wanted to add more instruments? Easy! Record tracks 1, 2, and 3, then put those on track 4. Now you have 3 empty tracks. So now you can record on 1 and 2, put those on empty track 3, and voila, you have 2 more tracks.
OK. Not so easy…
I use a free program called Audacity to record. You can have as many tracks as you need, add effects, and edit countless other aspects. Now, that’s easy.
What’s next for this series. Well, I have to finish the composing piece that I started. There are still parts that need to be connected, and parts yet to be created. Don’t ask me the timeline. I have no idea. It still needs a name as well. Stay tuned.
*Remember cassettes? Then you also remember when they jammed, and you pulled out lengths of crinkled brown tape. You also remember having to use a pencil to rewind them.
When I started my musical education journey, I didn’t have the advantages of computer transcription programs. There was no easy access to popular sheet music. Other that a few guitar magazines, if I wanted to learn a song, I had to get a recording and learn it by ear. That’s not an altogether bad thing—it’s a skill that is indispensable. And that wasn’t that long ago. Unless you think 40 years is a long time (it’s not. Really.)
When I decided to do my post-secondary education in music, one of my first required purchases was a calligraphy pen. Thankfully, not the feather dipped in ink kind. I’m not that old. We studied older manuscripts, practiced our musical notations, and practiced some more. Take a look at a handwritten musical score and see how much artistic skill is required.
The ink was just the final step though. You don’t want to be writing down rough drafts in permanency. I do suspect that the early composers did. No, for the majority of the time, a pencil—and eraser—are your best friends. If I had to choose, it would be the eraser (sorry, pencil).
Playing and writing are alternating tasks. Play a bit, write a bit, play a bit, erase a bit, and so on. Besides writing down the note’s pitch, you also have to figure out the complicated rhythm you just came up with. Enter the foot tapping. One and-a two-e and…Nope. One and two and-a…One-e and-a, and so on.
Of course, most of the time you know the rhythm; it’s those parts that make your piece sound cool that always give you trouble.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I have to make sure I don’t play to much, otherwise I forget the first part. That means I’ll write things down in short sections as I come up with it, and then connect the dots so to speak. If I’m having difficulty deciding where the melody will go, I often jump ahead and try to join them up later. Which leads me to a piece of paper that looks like this:
Eventually, I’ll have a complete handwritten piece ready for the final task. No more ink and splotches, dreading making a mistake (but I don’t want to start over!). Now there are many different computer transcription programs for that. They range from free to not so free to really expensive. I’ve used Finale, Encore, Sibelius, MuseScore, to name a few. I don’t write enough to warrant forking out the big bucks, so I am currently using the free program MuseScore.
I liked Encore, it was very user friendly and easy to learn, but it was glitchy and the price kept going up. MuseScore has a polished end-result, but it’s has some issues, mainly not being as straight forward as I think it could be.
My book, Journeys: Eight Original Pieces for Classical Guitar was put together using Encore, but at some point, I would like to transcribe them into a different program. I don’t want to have to key in everything again, so I need to find a way to convert one program to the other.
I sommelier once told me, don’t let anyone tell you what you taste. If you taste black cherry, then it has notes of black cherry. He also said that price shouldn’t be a factor. If you like it, it’s a good wine. That’s advice coming from someone whose job it is to sell us on the vineyard’s vintages.
I approach composing in much the same way. If I like the way it sounds, then it’s right. A composition teacher told the class that in order to break the rules, you first must learn them. Thus, began the arduous task of mastering music theory, harmonization, voice leading, etc.
Who made these rules? Every composer before me. The lucky ones were the ones from the beginning. Each composer wrote what sounded right to their ears, and others copied (because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). As with anything, music evolves. New ideas of what sounds right or wrong are added, and voila, we have Barbara Wharram’s Elementary Rudiments of Music.
There are still things that sound pleasant-or correct-to our ears. That could be because we have become accustomed to the way chords and notes move and interact over hundreds of years. Don’t believe me? Play– or have someone play– this chord sequence: G / / / C / / / D / / /, then stop. For you musicians out there, don’t worry, you can play the tonic chord now, I’m not cruel. For everyone else, it leaves you wanting something else, doesn’t it? Hint, it’s a G.
I learned all the rules. I composed fugues and inventions according to convention. Sound boring? You wouldn’t be completely wrong, sometimes it was. In the 20th century, composers began to rebel against these rules and made their own. Some went toward the minimalist approach, others used math to determine the outcome, and the rest took the forms that they liked and used the notes they wanted.
Let circle back to the sommelier, not because I like wine – I do – but because he was right. Don’t let anyone tell you the music sounds wrong because if that’s how you want it to sound, then it’s right.
Next week: The Beginning of a Composition (or, Where did That Idea Come From?)
I was thinking the other day (I do that sometimes) how much easier it would have been to be a composer in the early days. For example:
Gregorian chant? You hold that low drone for a while, and then we’ll move up and down this scale I invented. Ohhh, I got an idea! Let’s sing in this cavernous church.
Traveling troubadours? I can use these same three chords. No one has heard them in every country song written yet.
I bet no one said to Bach: “Hey, J.S., I love that tune, but doesn’t it kind of sound like In-A-Gadda- Da-Vida?”
We could have had more or less than 12 tones in western music, but nooo, someone decided to use that division. For you Ancient Alien fans, I think there was a show all about the number twelve. Just sayin’.
Do the math. There are many combintaions you can get with just twelve notes, but ultimately, you are going to write something that will get you sued. Bach then (ha!) everything was new. Oh, I’m sure there was the occasional fugue fight, or arguments on who’s motet that really was, or who was the real father of the symphony (psst–Haydn), but what you wrote was more than likely going to be brand new.
There are times when I am composing that I have to change certain notes because even though they fit and sound exactly how I wanted it to, it reminds me of something else that I’ve heard. You would think that it would happen more often than it does, but I’m sure glad it doesn’t.
The next few Mondays will give some insight into one composer’s process (mine, but you knew that): what I’ve learned, forgotten, ignored, and dismissed. So, you guessed it, sometimes I just wing it.