2014 Society of Composers National Conference

The 2014 Society of Composers National Conference took place March 20-22 at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It featured three days of concerts and paper sessions in Sursa Performance Hall by select composers from across the US. The conference wordpress blog and facebook page contain specific details regarding the concert schedule and events. The overall quality of the concerts and paper sessions was excellent!

Sursa

Inside Sursa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notably, the majority of concerts featured electronic resources and multimedia. To be sure, there were a number of pieces with traditional acoustic instruments and some old school electroacoustic music with outstanding spatialization enhanced by Sursa’s eight-speaker configuration which enveloped the audience. That being said, many, if not a major of pieces on the program featured both acoustic instruments and either prerecorded electronic accompany or manipulation of live sound in real time. Some pieces also contained video projection in which case, a video screen was lowered above the stage.

audienceIt is exciting to note that 21st century composers are embracing technology and multimedia. With all of the new resources available to composers, it seems that composers of new music are blurring the lines between electronic and acoustic music. This most assuredly will be an area of research for some musicologist in the not too distance future.

In addition, many of the paper sessions discussed topics related to emerging technologies and live performance. For example, Zachary Boyt discussed MIDI bows, while Orlando Legname presented electronic sensors for conducting which interact with MAX/MSP in real time.

Orlando Legname

 

Zachary Boyt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a great conference. I’m definitely planning to attend the 2015 conference. I would recommend it to all composers of new music who wish to stay abreast of the latest developments in new music.

By the way, I was a presenter at the first paper session on Friday, March 21. My paper was entitled Metamorphoses Nocturnes a Stepping Stone in the Compositional Development of Gyorgy Ligeti.

mephoto(6)Here are a number of links to photos and other media from the conference:

https://twitter.com/Music_comp/media

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/qgo8nrk7t8l6te0/V_HOi3Dh3D

Special thanks to Michael Pounds, Keith Kothman and Jim Rhinehart for organizing such a great conference. If I have left anyone out, my apologizes. Please send me your name and a link to your blog and/or website, and I can include it in this blog. Thanks again! See you in 2015.

How to Develop Your Own Voice and Become a Great Composer: The Ligeti Model

In the spring of 2007, Simone Fontanelli, a world renowned composer and professor of new music at the University of Mozarteum in Salzberg, gave a series of seminars at the University of Georgia, Dancz Center for New Music. I asked maestro Fontanelli, “are there any composition exercises you would recommend to help beginning composers develop their own voice?” He suggested borrowing harmonic, melodic and/or rhythmic ideas from three great composers, then write a new piece which combines the best elements of all three. For example, combine Stravinsky’s Petrushka chord, Bartok’s rhythmic motives from String Quartet No. 4 and Schoenberg’s concept of developing variation into a single composition. This is challenging to say the least, and it stretches the abilities of most composers. In addition, this exercise gives beginning composers an opportunity “walk in the shoes” of the world’s greatest composers, thereby, discovering what makes them great. It also helps beginning composers get into the historical flow of what has gone before them.

This idea is not new. All great composers have written pieces “in the style of…” For example, Mozart was influenced by Bach, Haydn and many others. Schoenberg considered himself to be an extension of the German tradition and was influenced by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

While working on my DMA in music composition at UGA, I read a number of interviews with György Ligeti (1923-2006), one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, in which he discussed the influence of Bartók on his compositional style and technique. Ligeti used Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 as a model when he wrote String Quartet No. 1: Metamorphosis Nocturnes (1954). In fact, in an interview with Friedemann Sallis, Ligeti stated he knew Bartók’s style so well that “he could have gone on to write the seventh, eighth or even twelfth Bartók quartet.”

Bartok Ligeti

I decided to analyze both quartets to determine if this statement is true and, if so, discover what elements of Bartók’s quartet and style are present in Metamorphosis Nocturnes. It appears that Ligeti borrowed a motive directly from Bartók’s quartet, see Example No. 1. This motive belongs to set class [0123]. Ligeti uses it in the beginning of Metamorphosis Nocturnes, and it becomes the primary harmonic structure throughout the entire quartet, see Example No. 2. It is interesting to note, after writing Metamorphosis Nocturnes, Ligeti continued to use set class [0123] throughout his career, but he added his own twist in the form of microtonality.

Example No. 1

Barok example

Example No. 2Ligeti example

There are a number of parallels between these two quartets, and Bartók’s influence is present throughout to the extent that Ligeti’s quartet sounds more like Bartók than Ligeti. With that being said, Metamorphosis Nocturnes is a model for all aspiring composers. Ligeti wrote his quartet in order to experiment with Bartók’s harmonic and melodic language. He ultimately kept what he liked most from Bartók’s style, eventually making it his own. In the process, he developed his own unique voice. March 20-23, I will present my research at the 2014 Society of Composers Inc. Nation Conference at Ball State University in Indiana.

I would recommend trying the same experiment with your own favorite composer or composers. Borrow a melody/harmony or two. Take it out for a test drive. If you like it, find a way to make it your own!

Is There a New Minimalism Underway in Popular Music?

Is there a new minimalism underway in popular music? It seems two of the most recent number one songs, “Blurred Lines” and “Royals,” consist of little more than a catchy percussion driven beat with bass and harmony vocals. It is a very effective combination, if the lyrics are strong, because minimal accompaniment focuses the listener’s attention on the words making them more important to the success of the song.

There are a number of artists who have built careers using minimal accompaniment including Bob Dylan, in his early folk period, and Neal Young. Can you name other artists who use minimalism?

Photo courtesy of billboard.com.

Fragmentation and Melodic Development

Fragmentation is an interesting tool which composers can use to generate a plethora of melodic material with very little effort. In my opinion, there are two primary types of fragmentation, subtractive and motivic.

Subtractive fragmentation is easy to do and, if used properly, creates syncopation. All you have to do is substitute rests for notes. Example No. 1 is an original melody which I have used in a number of previous blog posts. Example No. 2 is the same melody with rests replacing some of the notes. Play both examples and listen to the difference. Example No. 2 is clearly the same melodic idea, but it has more rhythmic punch because the rests create accented upbeats in measures 2 and 4. The quarter rest in measure 3 creates additional rhythmic interest.

Example No. 1

Original

Example No. 2

Subtractive Fragmentation

Motivic fragmentation is more common than subtractive. In fact, it is an integral part of classical period repertoire and is common in compositions by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. In general, the primary thematic structures used in classical period music where the sentence and period. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss thematic structures in classical period music, but, in general, a basic idea is introduced (usually two measures), repeated creating a four measure theme, then a fragment of the basic idea is extracted and sequenced three times to create a classic eight-measure sentence structure. In example No. 3, the eighth notes in measure 2 are extracted and sequenced three times to create an ascending melodic line which cadences in measures 7-8. This creates a sense that the melody is accelerating toward a cadential point.

Example No. 3

Motivic Fragmentation

Comment if you can think of any other types of fragmentation. In the meantime, apply these techniques to your own compositions and listen to the results. Happy composing!

How to write a film score like Danny Elfman

According to buzzfeed.com, while making Nightmare Before Christmas, “Composer and lyricist Danny Elfman didn’t have a script to write the songs from. He asked Tim Burton to describe a scene and then Elfman would compose the song.” From a slightly biased composer’s perspective, this is an excellent example of how a film should be made.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-29802-1382981015-41Often, filmmakers don’t consider music or sound until the very end of the project. At which point, there is very little budget left, and all of the creative decisions have been made. The music must conform to the visuals; not a collaborative model at all. In my opinion, the music should influence the film and vice versa.

I learned this lesson from personal experience. As a graduate teaching assistant, I created an electronic music composition inspired by Federico García Lorca’s Poems of the Deep Song. It featured electronically manipulated classical guitar samples and a film by a very talented artist. My mistake was to write the music first, then expect the artist to make her film conform to my vision of the music and poetry. There are moments which work perfectly, but overall it would have been better if I had collaborated more closely with the artist from the beginning. In my case, I put the music first and the film second.

On the other hand, I worked on music and sound design for Interactive Science in 3d, an educational video game group at UGA funded by the National Institute of Health. It was a great collaborative experience. The game designers presented me and my colleague with an in-progress game. We composed a short piece for the opening scene and sent it back to them for approval. They liked it so much, they redesigned the beginning of the game to fit seamlessly with our music. The score inspired the design and vice versa. It was very effective and a lot of fun to see the final results. Check out the video below.

In my opinion, Nightmare Before Christmas is so successful because of the collaborative arrangement between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. The music inspired the film’s visual design making it one of the greatest Halloween films of all time.

Can you name other films that follow this collaborative model?

How to Develop a Melody Using Sequencing

Sequencing is another time-honored tool that most composers use on a regular basis. Sequencing is the immediate repetition of a motive at a higher or lower pitch level. The motive can be almost any length the composer desires as long as it is not a complete repetition of the entire phrase. Often the motive is quite short, just a few beats or a single measure.

I particularly like to use ascending sequences. They create a sense of growing intensity and anticipation, as if something important is about to happen. They work well as transitions to new sections or as a build up to an important climactic moment.

There are a number of different types of sequences. Two of the most used sequences are exact and tonal. Example No 1 is an original melody which I used in my first blog post to demonstrate inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. Example No. 2 is the same melody subjected to exact sequencing. All of the intervals in each sequence are exactly the same as the original melody. Accidentals have to be added to maintain the intervallic relationship among the notes. This is sometimes referred to as a modulating sequence because, with the addition of so many accidentals in measure 4, the phrase has essentially modulated to the key of C# major.

Example No. 1

original

Example No. 2

sequencing exact

Example No. 3 is the same melody subjected to tonally adjusted sequencing. None of the sequences have accidentals; therefore, the phrase remains in the key of F# minor.

Examples No. 3

tonally adjusted sequencing

Three and out is the general rule for sequencing. In other words, whatever you decide to sequence should only be sequenced three times; anything longer feels predictable and tedious.

In addition, it is advisable to vary the sequences. Change some of the notes or invert one of the sequences to keep the listener off balance. Most people are sophisticated enough to understand that a sequence is in progress and can predict what it will sound like as it unfolds. If one of the sequences, usually the third, is a little different, it will keep the audience off balance and engaged. If they can predict exactly what you are going to do next, you have lost them. Keep them engaged with unpredictable twists and turns. Example No. 4 demonstrates this concept. The last sequence is inverted; all of the intervals are upside down.

I encourage you to play through these examples, then apply sequencing to one of your own melodies and see what happens. Enjoy!

Example No. 4

exact with inversion

Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, How to Write a Hit Song

According to Billboard Magazine, Blurred Lines “has sold 5.8 million downloads in its 26 weeks of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It continues its radio dominance with a 10th week atop R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.” What makes this song popular with everyone from 80-year-old grandmothers to 18-year-old hipsters is how these controversial words are set musically. There are plenty of songs that explore controversial themes, but this particular song has obviously captured a large audience. There must be something about the music that makes it popular.

The instrumentation is very sparse consisting of only bass and percussion, see Example No. 1. The percussion section is just a cowbell, clap, and high hat. There is also a mark tree (chime tree) at the beginning which adds a little color.

The bass part establishes a repetitive rhythmic pattern on scale degrees one and five in the key of G major. There is a descending turnaround in measure 8 that walks down the G major scale from note D to G. This firmly establishes the song in the key of G major, see Example No. 1. The entire chord progression is simply four measures on a G major chord and four measures on a D major chord with a turnaround in measure 8.

Example No. 1

Blurred Lines Example 1aBlurred Lines Example 1b

The most interesting aspect of the accompaniment is its driving rhythmic pattern which is highly syncopated and full of rhythmic interest. For instance, the cowbell starts on the upbeat of count one with an interesting sixteenth-note pattern that ends on the upbeat of count four. This rhythmic motive starts and ends on an upbeat giving the song an irresistible rhythm. The clap occurs on counts two and four creating a straight up, rock and roll back beat which never fails to give any song a bouncing, upbeat rhythmic intensity. The high hat is used sparingly on the upbeat of count four in every other measure.  This creates a nice rhythmic lift in measures 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Basically, the instrumental accompany is as simple as it gets, only two chords, no guitar, no keyboard, just bass. The accompaniment provides a bare bones harmonic structure and a driving rhythmic pattern that propels the song forward allowing the vocals to stand out.

This song relies almost exclusively on its vocal setting. One of the ear marks of a good setting is how closely the rhythm follows the natural rhythm of the words when spoken. For instance, “You’re a good girl, I know you want it,” sounds identical to the way one would naturally say it. Say it a few times then sing the song as comparison. Sounds the same right?

Also, the melodic contour and harmony accentuates important words and phrases throughout. For instance, harmony is only used on “You’re a good girl,” and “I hate these blurred lines.” In the chorus, these words are harmonized in thirds on both the five and one chords respectively. In both cases, the lower voice starts a half step below the third (Bb) and the seventh (F natural) in the G major scale. Then it slides up to the B natural and F#. The initial lowered third and lower seventh create extra harmonic tension making these words really stand out in the song. Most people who hear this song for the first time will remember those particular lines. Who can forget “you’re a good girl, I know you want it.” That is the core of this song.

What’s the lesson for aspiring musicians and song writers in this song? Less is more. The sparse instrumental accompaniment provides a driving rhythmic pattern which allows the words to stand out from the accompaniment. There are no fancy guitar solos or instrumental breaks to distract the listener, and harmony is used sparingly only on the most important words. So if you want a hit song, create a catchy hook and keep it simple baby. See you on the charts!