Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Teaching Composition: strategies and possible pitfalls

I have been teaching composition for about 30 years and still find it both challenging and frustrating at times. When I was studying music as an undergraduate, teaching composition was often avoided and the practice discouraged. At Manchester University in the late 1970s, there was an underground composition class run by the composer Geoff Poole for composers, which was not allowed to be on the official timetable. Students weren't allowed to compose their own music as part of the course until they had learnt how to copy (usually badly) the 'masters' in harmony and counterpoint classes. Fortunately this approach is no longer prevalent, and composition is usually offered on undergraduate music courses and also at 'A' level and GCSE.
    So what should we teach when we teach composition? I get the impression that this is a problem for many music teachers - and the ubiquity of the Sibelius notation programme appears to have made this worse (composition as unthinking and 'unhearing' note input - who cares what it sounds like as long as it looks like music). So where should we start in teaching composition?
    It seems to me (on the evidence of first year Undergraduates) that the experience of composition teaching at pre-HE level is quite patchy, so it makes sense to build up some foundations first. Isolating and exploring individual musical elements such as texture, rhythm, line and harmony. It is easier to deal with these elements on their own rather than in a complex combination. One then examines these elements through analysis of suitable musical examples to see how these compositions have been put together using these fundamental features. Practical compositional exercises can then be set to allow students to explore the specific element to gain an understanding of its nature, and how to use it. For example, we would look at Varese's Ionisation for percussion ensemble to see how rhythm can be used for compositional discourse, and how the composer develops his rhythmic cells. Therefore this method of teaching composition is underpinned by the use of analysis of relevant models, and practical exercises/compositions. These student works would be played for further discussion and feedback from the whole class.
    Once these fundamentals have been examined, one can move into more complex or sophisticated areas of music through analysing specific techniques/features of contemporary music such as Farbenmusik, minimalist music and the use of systems in music. Alongside this study one would also examine more general topics such as larger scale structural models, development of material and more advanced harmony. It is important for students to be exposed to a range of good contemporary music and to see how it was put together (obviously this is often speculative). The genre of popular music, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in HE, has similar considerations although the specific elements and materials are clearly different. It is useful to use models from a range of sources, and in a range of styles.
    What cannot be taught, however, is imagination and invention - although one can encourage it when it has been recognised (rather than stamped on).We must be careful when teaching composition (and indeed other music subjects) that we allow students to make mistakes and take risks in their work. In composition (and performance) the 'safe' approach is rarely the best one. We need to recognise and nurture the sparks of imagination, and encourage students more, and criticise less. Composing is a real challenge even for experienced practitioners (I think only active composers should teach composition in HE because of this) so we should treat student composers considerately, and beware of crushing their confidence. Alongside this approach, however, we also need to teach our students to be self critical - to teach them the tools they need so they can be independent from their teachers.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A Second Visit to Oldenburg University

I was invited back to Oldenburg University's music department at the end of October 2012 for a week on the Erasmus scheme to do some further observation and teaching. The second visit was useful as you notice different things on a return, and I also went to different classes. The music department at Oldenburg is focused on training teachers, and students can either do a BA over 3 years, or the Masters over 5 years which you need to do to become a teacher. The course structure is still a little hazy for me but seems to have some compulsory modules (such as theory etc) and the rest are optional and decided by individual tutors. Students can take a module or course without being assessed in it - indeed you might have a whole class who are not being assessed. The class sizes I saw were mostly quite small - say 5-15 - but the theory one was more like 25. This time I observed a clear focus on developing aural skills, and most of the classes I saw were very practical and quite demanding. In the Solfege class you had to do the hand signs as well as sing. I also observed an excellent class focused on how to  train young singers which also including dance and movement.
     Other classes included Katzenmusik (Cat's music) taught by a professional percussionist which was excellent, covering issues of form, texture, timbre, improvisation, and aesthetics. The class I saw was using wine glasses and glass bowls to create an orchestra of glass, and creating simple scores to control the semi-improvised music. The theory class I saw was very inspiring and taught with great enthusiasm and verve. It was quite a traditional approach but the students clearly got a lot from the session. The teaching materials were very clear and logical.
    My own teaching was composition-focused, although I also talked about Ligeti and Bartok and their relationship. I tried to take quite a practical approach with my teaching and get students to try out compositional ideas in the class - I got the impression that this wasn't usually the case in composition teaching here. I also presented a colloquium on my own composition and played part of my Saxophone Quartet. I had also composed Eleven Haiku after Cage for piano specifically for the Colloquium which was well played by Roberto Reale. It was quite interesting to interact with the general public and one of the audience suggested that my music was not very good to relax to (I had to agree). This prompted a more general discussion of the nature and function of contemporary music and how to understand it. It seems to me that one can only develop an understanding of any music through deep, thoughtful and repeated listening - and having an open mind to new ideas.
    My other observations of the week are that the tutors here seem to have more freedom over what and how they teach in their modules - there appears to be less of the obsessive QA culture here (although I may have had a false impression). There is also less of the sense that tutors are aware of the overall structure of the course and how everything fits together. I also noticed that they had just appointed 3 new lecturers which suggests funding here is pretty good in comparison to the situation in the UK.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Editing a Journal for the first time

I ran a one-day conference on the later music of Ligeti in March of this year at London University, and had arranged for the papers to be published by Contemporary Music Review (this has just come out, click Ligeti's Later Music). As I hadn't edited a journal before I was both excited and rather nervous. I asked a friend of mine with some experience of book editing for advice, and what he said was very helpful - he said that you need to be quite firm with contributors and if you feel something is not quite quite right, then you must say something sooner rather than later. It is perhaps too easy to try to be too relaxed and laissez-faire. I also decided to ask one of the presenters to be a co-editor to lessen the load - it was a good idea as you have someone to look over your own contribution.
    The main issue was that we had been given relatively a tight amount of space for each article, and quite understandably contributors wanted to provide full examples which often went beyond this allocated space (the journal was very understanding and allowed more space to accommodate this). Another issue was concerning footnotes and references, and what might be the optimal length for these. I had successful (if slightly protracted) discussions about reducing these in one case where the footnotes gradually expanded to become nearly as long as the article. This is perhaps more a matter of style, which I think is the editor's responsibility. Another issue was getting colleagues to get the final copy in on time (I suspect that this is common)- so it is important to set a deadline well before the final deadline given by the journal. We also had a delay caused by the copyright fees charged by the composer's publisher which seemed rather large given likely sales, and beyond the relatively modest budget. It seemed a little curious that a publisher would want to potentially jeopardise the publication of an academic journal covering one of their composers. This was thankfully resolved by the publisher of the journal and it was a relief (and a joy!) to finally see a hard copy of the issue. I have learned one thing through the process, and that is that editing a journal issue takes a lot more time, effort, and emotional energy than you would think.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Ligeti Conference March 2012: some reflections

I organised a conference of Ligeti's later music on 30th March at Senate House (in association with the Institute of Music Research - and with their support) which has taken up a fair bit of my time over the last few months. This is the first major confernce I have organised and it seemed to be a success judging by responses received. I was particularly pleased to see the number of speakers and delegates that had travelled from US, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Holland, Hungary, and Norway. The conference was mainly a series of papers plus a lecture recital by Ian Pace, a parallel analysis session for composers (led by Peter Wiegold) and a chamber 'performance' of Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique (we didn't quite manage 100 metronomes but there were two that seemed particularly persistent at the end).
    What was valuable at the conference was making contact with Ligeti scholars who one had read but not met, and being socialise with them before and after the conference. On reflection I think there should have been a round table session at the end (there wasn't time in the schedule) and it would have been good to have had questions after each speaker. I had allowed 30 minutes for each speaker to include 5 minutes for questions, but the reality was that the full 30 minutes was usually taken up with the papers (which is quite understandable) - and there was little slack in the day. There were also technical issues which soaked up time - almost inevitable when so many different computers were being used (our technical support was excellent and it is absolutely essential to have someone good to cover this). I liked the range of our speakers which showed many different approaches to the nature of the conference paper. At previous conferences I often feel that the papers were not really designed to be read out, but rather needed to be read as an article which can be quite tedious.
    There is a general orthodoxy to read papers at conferences which can be quite a challenge for the listener (I whish I had the confidence not to do this myself - our keynote speaker Richard Steinitz avoided reading out a paper, which made what he had to say very engaging). If I had to do this again I would allow more time for the papers and include a round table session at the end. I didn't do a general call for papers (on helpful advice from a colleague) and simply invited who I thought would have the most interesting things to say about Ligeti's music. I think this worked well - student researchers have plenty of other opportunities to present their work. One final thought is that it does take a lot of time and energy to organise - so bear that in mind if you feel the urge.
see Ligeti Conference London 2012  for full details - the papers will be published in Contemporary Music Review shortly.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Preparing a Composition Portfolio: thoughts

These are some thoughts I discuss with my composition students when they are preparing their portfolios:

Composition Portfolio Preparation
  1. Submit with a CD recording. Full, clear and accurate notation. Full score required in concert pitch.
  2. Avoid using a midi print-out (Logic etc) which can be meaningless.
  3. In pop music and jazz, rhythms are often difficult to notate because of slight changes to the beat - these don’t need to be notated– keep it simple and clear.
  4. Drum kit parts – keep it simple and of use to the drummer – not too complex.
Some useful texts:
  1.  Runswick, D. Rock, Jazz and Pop Arranging, London: Faber, 1992
  2. Baker, D Arranging & Composing: For the Small Ensemble, Jazz, R&B, Jazz Rock, Alfred Pub, 1988
  3. Adler, S The Study of Orchestration, New York, Norton, 2002
  4. Avoid production of looped backing tracks where there is no development nor main idea/melody – it is boring.
  5. Think about overall shape of piece and sketch that out first
  6. Well-structured music combines repetition and contrast. Avoid over-repetition and too many different ideas – vary and develop your ideas.
  7. Notational performance details: make sure that full details are provided for the players.
  8. Avoid pastiche – relate your music to today’s music scene.
  9. Listen to a wide range of music.
  10. Approach your own music with a critical ear – don’t be easily pleased.

  1. Make sure the main melody is audible – think about balance of the parts and dynamics.
  2. Vary the ensemble – don’t have them all playing at once all the time.
  3. Find out the range of your instruments and what they sound like in their ranges, plus other aspects of their nature.
  4. Buy a book on orchestration and read it– see above.  (plus see Hugill’s website)  http://andrewhugill.com/manuals/intro.html
  5. In tonal music think about which chords you are using and what the key is.
  6. Listen to your harmonic progressions? Are they the most effective ones? Are there notes missing? Does it go anywhere?
  7. Melody is really important – it needs to be more than just part of the harmony – it needs a life of its own. It should have a memorable shape.
  8. Make sure you use a varied rhythm – not just crotchets and quavers.
  9. The bass-line is a second melody and needs to be memorable and singable – avoid just using a line of root position chords – use first inversions and passing notes – make it interesting.

  1. Anything can be inspiring: improvising – images – poems – other works – stories – events – musical processes – chemical processes – emotions (but beware of ‘cheese’…).
  2. Sketch the whole piece out first with just the main line – use a sound source to help.
  3. Don’t leave it too late so you cannot improve it.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A Scottish Ligeti Trip (Hamburg Concerto)

In late January I went up to Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) to give two pre-concert talks on Ligeti's last major work the Hamburg Concerto for Horn and Chamber Orchestra performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (they also played Ligeti's Chamber Concerto which I didn't hear). I was impressed by the quality of the playing of the SCO as this is an extremely demanding and complex work. The excellent soloist was Alec Frank-Gemmill (on both French and Natural Horn) and the conductor Robin Ticciati showed a thorough understanding of the score. The work is curious for two reasons: it is in seven brief movements which are often divided up into smaller sections making it 14 in total; and it makes extensive use of the strange and beautiful tunings of the upper harmonics of the natural horn. As one goes up the harmonic series, the notes gradually deviate from the equally tempered scale of the piano, sometimes to an alarming degree. In places the natural horn quartet in the orchestra (parts which are almost as demanding as the soloist's part) are all in different keys - F,E, Bb, and D. Ligeti combines the 'out-of-tune' notes from each horn to generate quite alien-sounding harmonies that are disturbing but also beautiful. It seems to me that it would be almost impossible to be able to calculate the precise results of these combinations, but there does seem to be a strange logic in the progressions - for example in the 'Choral' in the second movement. The fourth movement is also quite interesting in the way that it combines elements of minimalism and serialism in quite an original manner.
     I also ran a Ligeti study day in Edinburgh which included a question and answer section from the soloist and conductor who explained some of the challenges of the work. These included the problems of playing natural horns high up and hitting notes that one would usually avoid (ie the oddly tuned harmonics). Robin talked about the importance of having an image of each movement in your head before working with the orchestra, and the importance of avoiding listening to other people's recordings. I felt that the audience were quite positive towards the concerto, and they said that they would have liked to hear it twice in the concert to help their understanding. This is an excellent point as it is difficult for even experienced contemporary music listeners to make sense of a new work on one hearing (whatever they might say!).
   At the end of the day I got the participants to create and perform their own compositions based on Ligeti's ideas and techniques (see http://www.sco.org.uk/experience/blog/2012/01/exploring-ligeti  for pictures) which produced some rather interesting and unusual work. It is daunting doing this kind of activity if you are an amateur musician (or just a music-lover) and I felt everyone put a lot of effort into making the best pieces possible.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

New Book on Ligeti: Gyorgy Ligeti: Of Foreign lands and Strange Sounds

I have just finished reading the above new book on Ligeti ed. by Louise Duchesneau (Ligeti's assistant) and Wolfgang Marx published by Boydell Press (my first copy fell apart). It is based on papers from a conference held in Dublin in 2007 but is now much expanded. There is some really excellent material here for Ligeti scholars, particularly the chapters on analysing the sketches by Jonathan Bernard and Richard Steinitz which give insights into how Ligeti wrote his music. Bernard usefully provides categories for the various sketch-types at the Sacher Foundation, and the colour plates of the sketches are amazing - especially those of Atmospheres and San Francisco Polyphony which are vividly graphic and quite colourful.
     The chapters by Ligeti's composition students, Manfred Stahnke and Wolfgang Schultz are also very revealing about how Ligeti taught his students and his relationships with them. Stahnke says that Ligeti was both "extremely exciting...[and] also vicious and unfair not only towards other, well-known composers, but towards his own students as well." (p. 223) Clearly this was quite an idiosyncratic approach to teaching which would not be tolerated today, although it seems that his students went back for more. Stahnke also states that "Ligeti was not a real teacher. Or rather, that he was a 'transposed' teacher, one who had long ago left behind the traditional 'keys' of teaching and now strived to discover new territory." (p. 225) It is clear that Ligeti approached his teaching in a similar fashion to his composition- that there are no easy answers and that every position had to be challenged. Stahnke also said that later on  "I once told [Ligeti] that he was like a vampire who bled us dry of all our ideas. A slight giggle to himself was his only reaction." (p. 227) To a certain extent all composers who teach gain from their own students, but of course students will also gain from their teachers - although they may not be aware of the extent to which they have benefited.