Monday, 10 December 2018

How, What & Why?


I don’t teach much these days. I am happiest when writing music and am able to do this full time. But, when I do have the opportunity to teach composition, I start the lesson or workshop off with 3 simple questions “How?, What? & Why?’. These questions might seem strange for a composition class but they get to the core of who a composer is or could become as an artist. At the Outreach Festival in Schwaz, Austria, I teach a workshop to local composers, songwriters, and instrumentalists who are just beginning to think about composing, and when these questions are posed to them, I see a light bulb go off. They never thought about asking these things of themselves, they simply wrote music. But when we start investigating these questions we find certain things we are doing that could be better, or even change completely some of the practices we use to write music, practices that come from habit and instinct as opposed to deep understanding and inquiry into one's artistry. 

How?. Well ‘how’ could mean many things. We can talk about the skills needed to compose music, like knowledge of theory, instrumentation, orchestration etc. But my ‘how’ is a reaction to a question many students ask me. “How do you start a piece?”. It’s a fair question, except it presumes there is a correct way. So the first rule I teach is, that there are no rules with ‘How?’. How does it work for you? and does it work? and if it does, then it is the correct ‘How’. So I ask each of the students to show me how they start a piece of music and am usually surprised that they never really thought about it. Its again instinctive or routine which turns into some kind of music, which of course usually sounds like something else. The ‘How’ of composition can’t be taught in one workshop, so each student shows me their skills and ways they go about starting and writing a piece of music. Many get stuck after their initial idea, so we discuss the development of that idea and other ideas that can be generated from the first. We talk about form and the various ways you can travel through a piece of music etc. But with multiple students in the workshop, it's hard to really get into the 'how', you can just show new directions and techniques that the students can take away and experiment with later. 
From my compositions, as an example, I can show them many pieces where I use these various techniques. I usually choose a piece that has a minimal amount of materials and much development of that material. One piece like this of mine is ‘Fix II’. Originally for percussion quartet, it has only one melody in it, and the rest is rhythm and color around this melody to develop it. The ’II’ version is scored for a ‘Soldiers Tale’ instrumentation and it’s all about color, groove, and multiple tempos at once, but still just one melody and a few harmonies.
Here is Absolute Ensemble performing this piece:
And here is the score to it:

What?. So what kind of music are you going to write? For many students, this is again instinctive, or they say “I write what I hear in my head”. Which is fair enough, so I ask them to play me their music, and many times I will agree with them, yes it is what you are hearing in your head, but what you hear in your head happens to be music that you hear from outside sources. It has not gone through your artistic personality, you are merely reshuffling notes and rhythms around and saying things you hear from others. It sounds like everything else and has no unique voice. At this point, we get into what makes a great composition? The answer I try to convey to them is that its a personal and unique voice that makes a good composer (more on that in the ‘why’). To talk further on this, I, of course, show them what I know best; my own music. What do I write? One thing I say immediately is whether people like or hate my music after they hear it, they all agree that it has my own unique sound. And for me, that's the compliment, regardless of the listeners' tastes. I then tell them something I always explain when people ask me how I write and what music I write. I live with an idea in my head for a while and before I start writing one note, I have the piece finished from beginning to end. I don’t know any of the notes, or rhythms, or the exact form, etc. But, I know the full essence of the composition. And the essence is what makes this music me, it is the unique and personal part that I can’t put into words. If I could put it into words, there would be no reason for me to write the music. So I have the essence, then all that is left, is to sit down and put down the little black dots and various directions that make up a musical score that will convey this essence that I created. This part is a journey and it requires much skill in composition and the ability to convey your musical ideas to others using the various languages of musical notation, and/or creating your own language for that purpose. I personally love that part of composing, that process is enjoyable. But I do not get to that process until I find the essence, the ‘What am I saying?’. So the ‘What?’ is, not what does the music sound like? or what kind of style or genre am I writing in? but ‘What am I saying?’ what am I trying to convey to the world that is uniquely me. Once you find that ‘what’, and of course learn the craft of composition, a good composer you can make.

Every piece I write goes through the above process, so I show the students a bunch of my music and talk briefly on each composition. Again you can’t explain the essence, but you can talk about certain ideas that come from the original essence of the composition.
Here is my piece called ‘Essence’. Yes, I wrote a piece on the word I use so often to describe my musical process. 
It's for piano and drum set performed by Derin Öge and Cesare Papetti from my album 
‘Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death’ 
Here is the score:


Why?. So I guess the question that is the strangest to student composers is “why?”. Why are you writing music?. To most the answer is obvious; “I have a need to express something, and I am doing it through music”. Which is a fine explanation, that is how most people begin their compositional interests, and this should be encouraged in young people starting out. But I want the students to expand on this thought, and really ask themselves the value of their contribution to the sounds being created in the world. So I describe to them my “why?”. My why starts off simply, I write music that I want to hear and do not hear anywhere else in the world. I literarily write for an audience of one, me, who is in search of a certain sound that I can’t find anywhere else, thus I have to create it myself. Which to many students sounds like the opposite of what they are attempting since many of them are trying to copy music they hear and like and recreate it from their perspective. usually, it just sounds the same as what they are recreating and lacks a personal and unique voice. So I continue with my ‘Why’. Besides writing music that I want to hear and cannot find in the world, is the music I am writing uniquely me, does it express a new essence, does it bring something in to this world that has not yet existed and will it ask people to stretch their understanding of the sublime, of art, of humanity in some way. The ‘why’ of a piece of music can get very philosophical, but I believe the answer to the ‘why’ is exactly what creates original and beautiful art. In class, we ponder on this topic and I ask each student to think about the pieces they brought and see if it stands up to the ‘why’. Most realize their music might lack in that original unique essence you can only get from deep meditation on the ‘why’ and I hope they leave the class with a new outlook on composition and how to approach it with their own inner voice. 
As an example of creating something that does not exist in the world and I myself have to create it, I show them my compositions that started of with a ‘what if?’. For example, what would it sound like if you mix dodecaphonic music (twelve-tone technique) with American Old-time music (North American folk music)? I have not heard this in the world and I want to hear it, so that is why I am creating it. Here is my piece that does just that: 
‘Dodecamountainphonic’
performed by the Outreach Orchestra at the Outreach Festival 2013
Score

Or a different type of question. What would it sound like if I video my friend Keve Wilson roller skating and playing oboe at the same time, then taking the audio from that and making an electronic track with which I will create a piece for  2 violins, cello, piano and video Samplestra (pre-recorded electronics)? Here is the answer to that question:

‘Skate’ 
performed by Lynn Bechtold and Mioi Takeda - violins, Jennifer DeVore - cello,
Vicky Chow - piano. As part of Ladies First concert presented by Composers Concordance 
at Bohemian National Hall.

Score

Or, what kind of sound would I get if I combine very distinct musical forms? Like for instance; punk rhythms, string orchestra music, quotes from Handel, Mendelssohn, and American folk melodies. 

‘Punk’
performed by the Composers Concordance String Orchestra, 
Thomas Carlo Bo - conductor. From the concert 'Legends' as part of Composers Concordance
3rd Annual Festival: 'Timbre Tantrum'
score


We go through many of my pieces that start with questions that when answered and executed properly, created original and unique musical compositions. Each having my musical language as the glue that unites them and yet each one still retaining its own distinctive sound world. I encourage students to search for the same in themselves, to ask the hard question of why am I creating this piece of music, how will it progress humanity artistically, what am I saying that has not been said before and will my distinct voice add to the sublime. 





Monday, 15 October 2018

Avant-garde

 This word is defined as: ‘new and unusual or experimental ideas, especially in the arts.’ In this blog, I will argue that our understanding, in 2018, of this word is incorrect, at least in the realm of musical composition. What we perceive or label as new and experimental is usually neither, and our capacity to realize that something is new and experimental has itself been compromised. 

I believe the problem started with the term ‘modernism’ in the early part of the 20th century. Calling a movement of music modern is not such a great idea since the word modern has a very particular definition and that definition will not carry through time with the music its describing. For instance hearing a piece by Schoenberg in 2018, written 100 years ago, and calling it modern, is silly.  Then we get to a term like Contemporary classical music, which for me means anything written now, BUT if you look on Wikipedia for instance, the definition is: “understood as belonging to the period that started in the mid-1970s to early 1990”, so a piece written in 1970, 50 years ago, is considered contemporary. And of course the term I hate the most: postmodern. Which seems to mean that if you are not writing in the style of the modernists, from the early part of the 20th century, or are a minimalist or neo-romantic or some other word the critics came up with then… well, whatever - postmodern. Which in my mind is a compliment, since they can’t place your music or connect it to something in the past, and that to me IS actually Avant-garde: “New and unusual”.  Back to Wikipedia: “It may be characterized by nontraditional, aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability”. Yes, that’s what I write! 

I do not describe myself as avant-garde though, because the term has been damaged. When people ask what kind of music I write, I use the term eclectic. I don’t need to tell them that I am avant-garde, that’s for them to decide when they hear my music. Was it new, unusual or experimental to them? I also do not need to say I am contemporary, new, modern etc., cause they see I am alive and I am writing music therefore by default its contemporary, new and modern. Also, those words do not actually describe the music itself. Mostly those terms put an image of dissonance and “I don’t know what the fuck I’m hearing, but I’m getting bored” in peoples heads. SO I say “eclectic”. I actually don’t love the word, the sound of it is sterile in a way, but it does describe what I do very well. looking up Eclecticism in music, there is a very negative definition on Wikipedia, I won't post any of it here cause it's dumb. But to me, the term means simply that I am influenced by the world of music, and I mean the whole world. I let those influences flow through me and compose original music with an original voice inspired by the world around me. In this day and age, where sounds from across the globe are at your computer fingertips, we should immerse ourselves in this sound and create something truly original and yes avant-garde (unusual, experimental, surprising). I tell students that one reason to listen to music from the past is not to repeat it. Same goes for all music in general, listen to what's out there, get inspired and create something new, something that has not been done before. That’s avant-garde.

I read some comments about a recent premiere by the NY Phil. Some people were complaining that the piece was too avant-garde, I was not there so I can’t comment on the whole piece, BUT from what I heard of this piece online, it could have easily been written in 1950, 60’s, 70’s and is not avant-garde at all. So my complaint to the NY Phil is why are you programming pieces of music that sound like they were written 50+ years ago and bragging that you are a new music champion. Again, I did not hear the whole piece so I don’t really want to criticize it, perhaps something happened in the middle of the piece that will blow my mind, but from what I heard of it and about it, they might as well have played a piece like Stockhausen’s ‘Punkte’ (1952-1962) or Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ (1961) or John Cage’s - ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ (1962) …or or or. I'm not saying the music sounded exactly like any of these pieces, but it sure was using a similar language, which is not avant-garde, not an unusual or experimental thing to do. Just think of going to a concert in 1918 (already The Rite Of Spring is in the world) and hearing a composer write in the language of 1850, 60’s, 70’s, and the orchestra performing, saying that we are champions of new music, laughable. 

I can go on for many paragraphs here about my discontent with what we think of as new and experimental, and how music that I call ‘Cat on piano’ (cause it sounds like someone threw their cat on a piano and the cat just runs up and down the keys) is thought of as avant-garde, even though that language has been used for at least 50 years, and from piece to piece that I hear of it, the cat basically stayed the same. But I want to stop and answer the question that people usually pose to me after I deliver a similar tirade as above: ‘Well what have you written that you think is so avant-garde’? 
Good question. And it's hard to answer, cause if I can say it in words I would not have to write the music. But in this blog format, I can direct you to some of my compositions that I think are Avant-garde, again defined as: ‘new and unusual or experimental ideas’. 



1. I will start with an older piece of mine. this was my orchestral thesis as I was graduating Manhattan School of Music in 1994. The question I posed my self what 2 elements are as far apart musical as possible but yet share a certain spirit and are both important to me in my musical development. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Heavy Metal music were the obvious choices. The idea for the piece was that in 1913 The Rite of Spring was the first mosh pit of the 20th century (if you don't know what a mosh pit is - look it up) So I wrote a piece called ‘Pretty Maidens Slam Dancing’ where I combined larger orchestral orchestrations (a la Stravinsky) with rhythms and the energy if heaven metal music. Oh also the main melody of my piece is an inversion of the opening melody of The tie, so we are looking back to move forward. The audience that evening in Borden auditorium was definitely surprised by the unusual experiment. = Avant-garde

‘Pretty Maidens Slam Dancing’  for orchestra 
Performed by the MSM Orchestra 
Glenn Cortese - conductor 
Video by Graham Elliott

VIDEO

SCORE


2. I was always fascinated by electro-acoustic music, combining real instruments with electronic sounds. But what can be done that is new and usual with it. I decided to take sound manipulation to the extremes and started witting pieces I call ‘Modified’. The concept of the piece is the modification and expansion of sound. Its the extreme of what can be done electronically with timbre. I decided to create a full composition from one sound, a sound that is manipulated transformed into many sounds. I limited myself to one timbre and put a goal of creating a new kind of sound world from that timbre. In ‘Modified #1’ it was the horn, and everything you hear in this piece is a horn, even if it sounds like a drum set.  Since I noted all that is going on electronically, I gave the electronic part a name: Samplestra, (an orchestra of samples). I give that name to any prerecorded elements in my music since is all noted like an orchestral score. 

Modified #1 for horn and Samplestra
Performed by John Clark - horn 

Audio

SCORE

3. Another experiment I like to attempt is to create brand new music inspired by a short sample (figuratively and literally) from traditional music. In my violin concerto ‘Mind I Have a Question For You’ I use short samples from Pansori (Korean genre of musical storytelling). I was at a concert and was very moved to hear this music, I recorded, on my iPhone, some of the singing and drumming, on the janggu drum, and used this as source material and as samples for this Korean culture inspired chamber piece. The piece has 2 soloists in it, the first violin and a Dj.J. (digital Jockey).  I performed the FDi.J. part and manipulated these short samples, they are integrated into the score with the violin and chamber ensemble, and I go in and out from very tight writing, where I have to trigger these samples at exact places, tempos, and rhythms and sections where I am freer to play with a particular sample. The Avant-garde elements here include the way the electronic part is used and integrated with the acoustic instruments, the use of traditional music and its manipulation.

Mind I Have a Question For You
Performed by Vesselin Gellev - violin, 
Gene 'Noizepunk' Pritsker -Di.J. 
Absolute Ensemble - Kristjan Jarvi - conductor
VIDEO


SCORE


4. In this last example, I will show a few compositions that go under the category of taking a piece of music that is inspiring and creating a brand new piece in a completely different (you might say the opposite) genre. This combination creates a new genre in itself and a sound world that has not been heard before. unusual, experimental, aesthetically innovative and initial unaccepted = Avant-garde. But I guess you decided if that's true or not. 

a. Shostakovich meets Hip-hop 
Drinking Youth
Performed by Sound Liberation 

b. A progression from a Mendelssohn string quartet      
            becomes and r&b song 
Reference to the Past
Performed by Sound Liberation 


c.  Schoenberg meets the big band 
Transfigured Swing 
Performed by The Outreach Orchestra 

d. Mozart meets gospel meets hip-hop-meets jam
Out Come of the Wine
Performed by Sound Liberation 

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Deconstructing


Deconstructing 

I guess I  have to admit that I love deconstructing music from the past. I first fell in love with the idea when I heard Stravinsky do it to Pergolesi, then Zappa to Stravinsky then Berio to Mahler - the list goes on. Basically when I hear a piece of music I love, I want to do something with it, to it, own it in some way. Its a natural reflex I always had. But just performing it is not enough, as a composer I want to put my own stamp on it. I guess they call this post modernism, a term I don’t like, since its more of a comment on modernism then on what composers and artist were doing in the late 20th century. If its not mid century “modern” sounding then its something else - I think thats dumb. But I don’t really care for any terms really, so if it was called Deconstructionism or Reinterpretation-ism or whatever - I probably would have still said its dumb. 

Lets get to the basics. 
I love a piece of music from the past.
+ It is not enough for me to just perform it as is, since I am a composer and want to do more with/to it.
+ I am influenced by many musical cultures, genres, styles, traditions and I want to experiment with how this piece of music I love, would sound if it was seen through one (or more) of those cultures, traditions. 
= Thus I write my own interpretation of this music. Using various methods such as Deconstructing it, re harmonizing it, reimagining it in various ways, putting it through various genres, combining it with elements as far removed from the original as possible etc. 
Simple! 

I feel like there are people out there who do not understand this simple principle, and think a composer like myself, is writing and reinterpreting older music for other reasons then purely musical. I state here that the only reason I do it is the reason I write all of my music. I WANT TO HEAR WHAT THIS SOUDNS LIKE!  And since no one has done it, I will. 
Again Simple! 

I will show below 3 examples of my compositions that deconstruct older pieces of music that I love.

1. Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring 
  - Deconstructed by me in: ‘Rite Through An Eclectic Spectrum’ - Movement #1 'Introduction’ 
2. J.S. Bach’s ‘2 Part Inventions’  
  - Deconstructed by me in: ‘Reinventions’ -  Movement #5
3. Anton Webern’s ‘5 Movements for String Quartet op. 5’ 
  - Deconstructed by me in: 'Variation on the First & Last Bars of Webern's Opus 5'

I do many things with older compsotions in various pieces, but with these three examples I will focus on Deconstructing them. Meaning taking short melodies, rhythms, motifs etc. out of the full piece and grooving on them, remain them in some way. Or, taking a longer melody and changing it just enough so you can recognize it yet also hear what the change is. I will discuss other techniques within the three pieces listed below.

1. Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring 
 - Deconstructed by me in: ‘Rite Through An Eclectic Spectrum’  - Movement #1 “introduction’ 
‘The Rite of Spring’ by Igor Stravinsky was a big influence on me, and I always wanted to “do” something with it. I got my chance when on the 100th anniversary of its premiere I decided to write an 8 movement composition for my band Sound Liberation based on this music and give it a descriptive title (descriptive to what I am doing with it): ‘Rite Through An Eclectic Spectrum’. Since everything seen through my mind becomes eclectic, the title really defines what I am doing with this music.
In the first movement, titled ‘Introduction’,  I take the famous opening bassoon melody, and various other short motifs that follow it, and assign these to the various instruments to be used as ostinatos, over which we improvise. The ostinatos form an interesting tapestry of strange rhythms and are supported by an african inspired groove played by the drums and percussion. 

Here is the first page of my score:
Here is a link to the original Rite Of Spring Introduction:

Here is a link to ‘Introduction’ from my ‘Rite Through An Eclectic Spectrum’:



2. J.S. Bach’s ‘2 Part Inventions’  
  - Deconstructed by me in: ‘Reinventions’ -  Movement #5

My piano concerto ‘Reinventions’ takes six Bach inventions and in 5 movements uses this music to create a brand new extremely eclectic composition. In movement 5, Bach’s F major Invention goes to the middle east. The idea was: how does this major scale melody sound if the scale used is something very different. The piece starts with a groove on the F Phrygian scale then the original major melody is suddenly stated. The piece goes on with alternating 4 bars of the melody in its original major scale with the repetition of the same 4 bars of that melody as it would sound in the Phrygian mode. Of course the orchestration, textures and rhythms reflect the sound of the melody. The piece goes on to develop beyond the Bacj melody but brings the melody back toward the end in a crazy syncopated 9/8 groove. 

Here is the link to the full score of movement 5:
SCORE

Here is a link to ‘Movement #5’ form my piano concerto ‘Reinvention’
Performed by Simone Dinnerstein - piano, Absolute Ensemble with Kristjan Jarvi conducting at the 2013 BachFest in Leipzig, Germany:





3. Anton Webern’s ‘5 Movements for String Quartet op. 5’ 
  - Deconstructed by me in: 'Variation on the First & Last Bars of Webern's Opus 5'

The last piece I will talk about is self explanatory. I took the first bar and the last bar from Webern’s string quartet, and deconstructed this music for 3 pianos (yes you heard it right, 3 of ‘em) to make a brand new composition. Mostly I took fragments of these bars and created new textures and grooves our of them, adding new melodic material around this music and making it “My own”. Out of context from the string quartet, these bars take on a life of their own, and in my development get completely transformed musically. Aside from the title you would not think ‘Webern’ so much when hearing my full composition. Though I'm curious to hear what people do perceive, so feel free to share your thoughts.

Here is the first bar of the original Webern:


Here is the last 2 bars (since its in 3/8) of the original Webern:


Here is the video to the original (with score):

Here is the link to my score:

Here is a video to ‘Variations on the first and last bars of Webern’s op. 5' for 3 pianos 

Performed by Julia Den Boer, Vicky Chow, Derin Öge at ‘Happy Birthday Mr. Webern’

as part of Composers Concordance ‘Anniversaries’ Festival  - December 3rd, 2014 @ Klavierhaus:









Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Reusing music to create multiple compositions.

   I have written over 650 pieces of music. People ask me if I repeat myself. The answer is yes and no. No I never write the same type of piece more than once, the same idea, same essence etc. Each piece expresses a new thought. I try to find a unique sound a brand new idea with each new composition, yet retaining my language and musical voice. But yes, I do sometimes take a piece of music I already wrote and rearrange it, re orchestrate it, reinvent it into a new (or part of a new) composition. Sometimes, if its a multi movement piece, I think of a shorter piece that can be a movement in this larger work, or sometimes, within a longer piece, I will put in melodies or even full compostions from older music. It has to fit, it has to excite me to do it. It is never about time (making a piece longer) or about running out of ideas (I have a more of those then commissions usually) its always about "how would this sound if it were...".
   The other day I was at concert of a piece of mine for piano called 'Lacerations II', and yes it has a 'II' next to it because it was originally a guitar piece, but the question "how would this sound on a piano" came to me and it became another piece.  The pianists took liberties and made the piece very romantic, which I though was great, since originally it had a Brazilian rhythm feel to it (at least in my mind - thats what I was inspired by), I thought this is great since it really is another piece, the way she plays it and the sound of the piano etc. But the music is exactly the same. I also used this music in another composition called 'Lacerations & Lesions' a chamber piece for flute, violin, electric piano, electric bass and Repinique (a Brazilian percussion instrument). All there use the exact same music but I think are very different and unique compositions.

To demonstrate, here are links to each of the pieces and to the first pages of the scores.

'Laceration'  for solo guitar
from the suite 'Scars, Wounds, and Lacerations + Snow to Numb the Effect'
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JL9JDWqfBRQ

Here is the 1st page of the score:

Here is 'Laceration II' for solo piano 
as performed the other day by Jasna Popovic notice how different the piece sounds 



Here is the 1st page of the score:

And here is 'Lacerations & Lesions' for chamber ensemble 

Here is the 1st page of the score:


To me all three of these versions of this music are unique and have their own character. even thought the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic content is the same. I would like to, in future blogs, explore more of my music that has a life beyond its original inception and discuss and demonstrate how I approach composition and re composition.

Peace
- G