Thoughts, wishes and peculiarities

How One Hears Their Own Music

Sometimes, being a composer is wonderful; I spend my time creating and shaping ideas and am all the luckier to have them brought to fruition by talented musicians. Sometimes, being a composer is taxing; I invest every fiber of my essence in a thought only to dismiss it to the trashcan five minutes later. It’s difficult. It’s lonely. It feels insurmountable. But, that’s why every composer you’re likely to meet is so passionate, for it takes an unwavering and deep desire to undertake such a pursuit. That passion is why a performance (in particular, a premiere) is such a special thing. I had one recently in Pavia, Italy, where my piece, Petrichor, for clarinet sextet, received its premiere as part of the highSCORE Festival. I conducted the premiere myself, which of course required an entirely different sort of listening than if I had been sitting in the audience. As such, it got me thinking about how a composer listen’s to their own music and why it’s an important thing to think about.

First, a diversion about highSCORE: I was incredibly lucky to study with Dmitri Tymoczko, Christopher Theofanidis, Mario Garuti and Amy Beth Kirsten, as well as to attend lectures by Louis Andriessen, Martin Bresnick and Giovanni Albini. I also had the privilege of hearing the music of approximately 50 of my peers. The impact of all of this study and perspective was doubled by its compression into 10 days, which also included the premiere of my piece, Petrichor, for clarinet sextet, by the 15.19 Ensemble. It’s wonderful to hear the outlook and personal aesthetic of similar composers, but just as insightful to hear that of composers who write and think about music from an entirely different standpoint; I find it often gives me a new angle from which to examine my own writing. One particularly memorable moment came after Professor Tymoczko’s presentation on improvisation. His work involves some heavy math (abstract algebra and probability) being used to guide computer-generated improvisatory passages. I’ve been aware of the presence of some math in compositional ideas, but these ideas typically use math from a top-down perspective, using it to build a framework from which elements of the piece are derived. Professor Tymoczko’s approach is more of a loop; mathematical concepts guide the improvisation, but through input from the user, the framework is continually altered; the rules are malleable. One such instance is the use of probability distributions. Think of a C Major scale. If I were to ask you to list the notes of the scale in order of their importance, you might say something like: C, G, F and B for their harmonic functions, followed by A, E and D. As such, in improvisation, we would expect the former notes to arise more often than the latter. This translates to a probability distribution, which might look something like this:

C: .25
D: .05
E: .1
F: .15
G: .2
A: .1
B:. 15

This tells the computer that C should be played approximately 25% of the time; notice this is five times as much as D, for example. The computer then uses this to guide its choices of pitches. The loop is introduced by allowing the user to modify the distribution in real time; for example, if I wanted to modulate to G, I would correspondingly increase the value for G, as well as for D, given its harmonic relation to G. Seeing such an interactive application of math to music was both surprising and exciting; it’s not often that I get to combine my background in math with composition in such a natural way.

Anyway, as for listening, it might seem silly to acknowledge the importance of listening to one’s own music; of course any composer does that. But, there are so many ways to listen to music. There’s objective evaluation, as when evaluating the characteristics of a piece, then there’s pure enjoyment, the sort of listening one does on “autopilot” - conscious processes shut down, the music washing over our being in waves of sound. There’s obvious benefits to both, but I believe a composer must learn to hybridize these perspectives. We want to write music that is good, but what is “good?” Is it approval by our peers for its judicious use of compositional processes to create a coherent and well-executed train of musical thought? Is it the approval of our audience, as measured both by their enjoyment and by their sheer numbers? Many would argue it’s only the former, holding no regard for the latter, or vice versa. However, I would argue that a composer that doesn’t attempt to successfully navigate a process (whatever process he or she subscribes to) is not growing as a composer. Furthermore, I do write music for an audience; I want people to hear it, to connect with what I’m attempting to express. I don’t pander, but I do believe that music is a dialogue; after all, it is a language and thus, it demands a logical consistency just like the words we use do. And this is precisely why a composer needs to listen from both perspectives. To innovate, listen with the brain; to be expressive, listen with the heart. I firmly believe any successful piece has to demonstrate proficiency in both aspects.


Rehearsal for my piece, Petrichor, highSCORE Festival (photo credit: Jason Taylor)


Premiere of Petrichor by 15-19 Ensemble at Santa Maria del Carmine, Pavia, Italy (July 23, 2013)
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