How Composers Learn, Part 1

In the process of applying for PhD programs in the fall, I exchanged email with a former teacher of mine at the San Francisco Conservatory. At one point he wrote something, in the prospect of possible future consolation, that struck me as intuitively true:

I don’t think I learned anything from my alleged composition teachers. . . The history of music — now so neatly archived (I think it’s nice that there’s a way for music historians to earn a regular salary too) — is a superb educational resource, non pareil. If I were to undertake to teach a young composer, it would largely involve looking at music by others rather
than the student himself.

This has probably always been (largely) true. A good composer teacher is really more of a critic, I think, someone who can take a piece of music on its own terms and discern what makes it work, and what makes it fail. Being a good composer can’t be taught, but a young composer can be guided towards resources, examples, and also, ideally, shown to a clear way of thinking about their own work, taught how to listen to what they are doing.

But this body of music is the true teacher. Since the Beethoven Piano Sonatas have been published, they’ve been the guidebook for teaching so much of composition and harmony. How can I perform this modulation, make this structure? Well, let’s look at Beethoven and see how he did it. It’s no different, in essence from how writers learn to write (by reading), and jazz musicians learn what their music is (by listening).

In looking at schools, I found out that Princeton has a particular requirement for their fellows (one of a very few) that I found intriguing and exciting – each student writes a piece in response to another piece. How simple, and how great. No complicated lesson, just do the thing that composers do in order to learn their craft and explore their ideas.

So, if I’m not at Princeton next fall, I still have this enormous body of work available to me to learn from. And in truth I’ve already started. I’ve already written music in response (some would say imitation) to other pieces that involve me. Most have not been successful and are pretty much forgotten, like my own version of Barber’s Symphony No. 1. Still, it’s the way. And it’s a way for me to maintain the California focus, the look off the edge of the world into the future, that developed so strongly in me and is so important to maintain now that I’m back in New York.

In the scheme of things, it’s unconventional but appropriate. There is so much music available nowadays, so many styles and such a pervasive effect of non-classical music on my generation of composers, and those that come behind us. So for me, a point of influence in a lasting work of mine, a chamber piece called Big City from whence this blog is titled, is the work of Ingram Marshall, especially his Fog Tropes. There’s a guy who probably would not get into a lot of PhD programs, but he’s made a lot of good music that is firmly in the California aesthetic. Which means it’s evocative, slightly abstract, a little dark. Those are all good things.

Marshall’s work is an evocation of San Francisco Bay and the fog that can completely shroud it, leaving one in an undifferentiated greyscape. It blends electronic sounds with a brass choir, ideally seamlessly:

My own piece has a first movement meant to evoke an equally physical experience of living in San Francisco – there is a recorded part that plays along with the instruments, but their voices and musical purpose are different than Marshall’s:

I wanted a background that suggested a physical location, but not the emulsification of sound that Marshall achieves. Also, in peformance, the soprano sax and bass clarinet were spaced as far apart as possible to give the sense the horns were calling to each other, albeit in an uncoordinated way, across a distance.

I revised the piece this fall, and also made a brand new audio file (party because it’s a hassle to get the one off DAT, partly as a learning exercise in some new software tools I have). The result, built from environmental sounds, is hopefully both more specific to SF Bay and also more mysterious. Here’s a sample

I kinda’ like it . . .

. . . and nicely enough, I can catch a performance of Fog Tropes at Zankel Hall tomorrow evening.

And I have a lot more learning to do. The study of Beethoven for harmony and Bach for counterpoint never tires, and in the fall I added a lot of excellent books to the music library. But as for pieces to respond too, well, those pop in and out of my head all the time. Some are more challenging others, more ambitious, more complex. A short list would be something like this:

. . . and that’s just what I’m thinking of today. There’ll be many more installments on this topic. Now, it’s time to see just what can be done, editing samples and mixing audio files.


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