Composition is …what?

…. notation? *

Back in Music History class we all learned how philosophers used to differntiate between “music of the spheres” and “practical music.” The now-quaint terminology masks a somewhat interesting and important differentiation that is actually an important part of any musician’s relationship to music.

The original concert of “music of the spheres” came from imagining the mathematical interplay of the movement of celestial bodies as expressing an idealized form of music expressed as pure mathematics, or pure mathematics expressed as music. This idea later evolved into a broader concept of a “pure” form of music that exists in the realm of concept, not in performance. If one thinks of “spheres” music as being that which exists in your inner ear, in your imagination as opposed to the “practical” music one hears ringing in space, then maybe it allows one to see music notation in a different light.

In America, by and large, when young people are taught to read music (which they are only done grudgingly), they are taught to read notation as instructions for physical action- “when you see a note on the bottom line, that’s first finger on the g-string… that’s half note, so you hold the note for two counts.” Even at the conservatory level, many students never look at a piece of music without their instrument. There is only limited training in learing to read music as an internal process.

However, perhaps notation should really be a road-map to hearing the elusive “music of the spheres.” Perhaps we should look at it as a visual representation of the concept of music, not a set of instructions for how to execute a performance of music. So many performers are quick to point out the “limitations” of notation as license for subjective performances, but if one is only used to reading notation with an eye to knowing what to count and where to put your fingers, you’re going to miss a lot of the information.

I once heard Barenboim say (in the Great Conductor’s series of video) that (and I paraphrase) music on the page doesn’t exist until it is played. I might suggest that actually, Beethoven’s music is more honestly represented on the page, maybe even perfectly represented on the page, and that the only limitation  of his notation is our ability to read it as well as he could

The other day, I said that “composition is analysis.” Today, I might well say that “composition is notation.” Of course, what I really mean is that “classical” composition is notation, but after all, so much of what makes art music unique- counterpoint, developing variation, subtle and multi-layered use of harmony as both a coloristic and structural device, control of tone color- all of this vocabulary could not have evolved without notation. Any of us can hear a tune in our heads or plunk out a melody at the piano- a composer, on the other hand, can notate a self-contained work of art. The art is in the notation, not in coming up with the tune.

Next time, I’ll look at simple example of  a case where it seems as if notation fails us, but it is really us who fail it…

In the meantime, I’m braced for some strong words from those for whom I haven’t perhaps made my point clearly enough. It’s not that music cannot be created without notation, or that music created without notation is somehow lesser in value. It’s just that we gave up the distinction between songwriting, improvisation and composition sort of in the name of political correctness. If composition has been divorced from notation, then how we do we talk about the process in a way that reconnects creativity, craft and the act of creating a re-performable, self-contained work of art that CAN be experienced silently (and, in theory, in a purer form than in performance)? If we can connect to that concept, perhaps we can get more out of notated music?

*and cognitive science, or so I am told….c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

17 comments on “Composition is …what?”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » A grace (note)-full Gate of Kiev

  2. composerbastard

    depends on what kind of music you are referring to?

    Im thinking specifically about the difference between music that is temporaly layed out ahead of time to navigate some sort of narrative, vs music that “just is” or who’s construction is layed out through “process” – such as minimalism (Steve Reich)

  3. Ray

    I get your drift but (as a composer) I don’t fully agree. I think notation is the *final* step in composing. By the time I get to notating my music, I feel like I’m “almost done”. Often it feels like a translation process: translating the “tones” into “notes”.

    However, this translation process is very important: get it wrong and the music you wrote won’t sound like the music you composed.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Ray

    Thanks for writing!

    Of course, the compositional process is different for everyone, and I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else. However, for me, in this context it is the notation that separates a composition from a day dream, if that makes sense. Most composers I know describe a method like that you’ve outlined- composition goes on in the mind of the composer even as life goes along. Ideas evolve and interact. However, those ideas become a composition once they’re written down.

    Once a piece is written down, the truth becomes the notation- not what was in your head or Beethoven’s….

    Ken

  5. composerbastard

    err…someone here is totally missing out the whole lot of labour in the sketching process in between initial idea and final score – if evolving some narrative linear or non-linear work. And that doesnt necessarily have to be in rigid notation or even open score to be a physical representation of the ideal or an abstract ideal.

    You could argue that is where composition is…how you approach precomp and sketching…90% of the pain…if you ask me…

    And then there are the downtown aleotoroholics, and midtown mini-malls, post mini-malls, totalitarianists – who dont necessarily use strict notation…or use it reluctantly or with some specific modifications.

    One of my favorite books is NOTATIONS by John Cage. Wish I still had a copy.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Hi CB

    Of course- I completely agree without that this post doesn’t address sketching, mental working out or any of the process aspects of writing music at all. My point is more that its in notation when those ideas become the composition. Maybe the parrellel between practice and performance is apt- 99% of the process of performing takes place well before the concert, but it’s still the concert that is the performance.

    I’m not so sure the aleatorics are a different case. The Mefano I’m working on right now is a fiercely difficult open-form piece, but the more I work on it the more it feels like basically the real difference is the range of parameters that the performer gets some freedom in (and freedom is always part of a composition). There’s plenty of choice and improvisation in Schumann, just different degrees and different parameters….

    Cheers and thanks for the comment!
    Ken

  7. composerbastard

    I dunno…i think its all foolish nonsense to try and chase definitions like this..,of what use in the end state? Radio interviews and spin? Party philosophy talk?

    OK, some Hypotheticals:

    Lets say I wear black t-shirts and dark glasses, and I’m named Dieter, and am a pretty good Assembler language programmer, and an expert of Digital Signal Processing. So, lets say I write a program (similar to Max and CSound and othe rfun stuff from nativeinstruments) and develop a specialized computer hardware board that takes sounds of musicians and people and creates wonderful melos and harmonies and rhythms and timbres and dynamics using a very very complicated algorthm that I developed. And lets say this algorithm also creates a thru structure and form based on the information you send it. Dieter calls his machine Rossini Version X on the odd number of days of the month. And Dieter calls his machine Symphony #392 on even days of the month.

    Whos the composer? Is Dieter the composer? Is Rossini Version X the composer? Whats the composition and the notation?

    Hypothetical II

    Dieter quits his role and becomes a DJ in a techno-club. Here he spins records and has a few analog synths lying around. During his gigs, he mixes and cross mixes in surround sound various conpositions using his LPs and his vintage toys – greatly morphed into new interesting sonics. He takes great care in putting the compositions together, which are very complex. He can repeat them on various nights exactly and with little variation without notation. One day Hans, a local producer who loves to dance, takes him to a studio and records his compositons onto 7.1 surround sound. The DVD becomes an instant hit.

    Who’s the composer? Wheres the notation?

  8. Kenneth Woods

    CB writes-
    “I dunno…i think its all foolish nonsense to try and chase definitions like this..,of what use in the end state? Radio interviews and spin? Party philosophy talk?”

    KW responds-
    Well, it’s a blog.. what better place for foolish nonsense could you find…
    My interest in this is not to get to any kind of answer to silly questions, but to encourage non-composers to think about how they (we) look at our relation to the score.

    I would think in your two hypotheticals
    1- Dieter is the composer, the program is the notation and the “pieces” he titles are performances.
    2- Just for the purpose of this sily discussion, I don’t think there is a composition here. There’s a song or an album or a musical event. I’m suggesting that, lacking a better word, a composition is something that can be recreated by different performers using non-aural tools. That is, you don’t have to learn it by ear- the composition can be learned and recreated and even experienced by the inner ear without recourse to a stereo or another performer. That’s not to say that Dieter isn’t making art or making music, and of course, he’s composing in the legal sense. If, however, he wrote out instructions for future performers that explained how they could recreate his pieces (that they could use without having heard the original), then it’s a composition.

    Again, thanks for the comments- always much appreciated.

    Ken

  9. composerbastard

    “…I don’t think there is a composition here” vs ” … he’s composing in the legal sense. ”

    Cant have it both ways. Yes, he is composing in the legal sense, which is a much more tried and true bar to meet than your or my opinion.

    1)
    Dieter is the composer – not sure he is. He wrote an algorithm, not the music. He has no relationship to the compositions themselves. The compositions are created by the algorithm, which by the way uses a Back-Feeding AI learning module to improve its techniques. So, in affect, it has a brain.

    the program is the notation – this program can only run on the Rossini machine which Dieter invented. In fact, Dieter doesnt remember how he wired the dang thing. So, in affect “a composition is something that can be recreated by different performers using non-aural tools” doesnt hold. In fact, someone offered Dieter 1 million dollars for his Rossini Machine. Unfortunately, it was on a Symphony day, so the person who got it received a receipt for a work.

    Copyright office – form PA:
    Under the statute, a work is “created” when it is fixed in a copy or
    phonorecord for the first time. Where a work has been prepared over a period of
    time, the part of the work existing in fixed form on a particular date constitutes
    the created work on that date. The date you give here should be the year in which
    the author completed the particular version for which registration is now being sought, even if other versions exist or if further changes or additions are planned.

    You can get the full form here: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formpai.pdf. See SPACE 3 and MORE INFORMATION.
    * * *
    Please, Sir Kenneth, when you make a hypothesis, its good science to try and falsify it yourself to see if it can stand up to your own criticism first ,before subjecting us to try and do it. I’d like to hear how you tried to falsify it

  10. Reid

    I think it’s interesting to see the contrasts between performers, interpreters, and those who compose. I have some less important thoughts:
    In the main, it seems as if string players and wind/brass/piano players learn to read music in different stages of their musical development. (Mostly) Suzuki taught string players hear the music, translate it to their instrument, and then seem to have to translate what they’ve heard and the sound they produce back to notation. Wind players in most band programs learn to make sound through notation. One note at a time, almost. I think, after enough time is passed, while we may not be able to hear as well, there’s a certain something to learning a piece through its notation.
    Sketches or no, a piece is not a piece unless it is realized. Unless there is notation. This, I think, is because all music is rhythm, temporal, time. No melody I’ve thought up exists because I often cannot write it down in a way that makes musical sense.
    As for music of the spheres, it’s time to get back to the wille, so I’m going to have to read that turgid junk again before sounding uneducated.

  11. Reid

    I wanted to add one other thing: Have you ever gotten one of those interactive CDs that have the score that scrolls along with the music? I mean, I’ve had one or two cracks at conducting a piece with an orchestra, but watching it scroll bar by bar impressed upon me the speed at which the music is being played. You don’t read the music as it goes. You know what you’re playing; the music’s just there as a roadmap to make sure you get there without hitting too many potholes.

  12. Kenneth Woods

    Some more interesting thoughts on this one from Reid and CB. I liked “Sketches or no, a piece is not a piece unless it is realized. Unless there is notation. ” from Reid. Also, I understand CB’s point, (” Notation is an afterthought of the compositional process”) although afterthought is too strong a word for many composers.

    In any case, my real interest here is composition the noun, not composition the verb. Beethoven 5 is not what he heard in his head or what he did to create it or what it sounds like when its performed. Beethoven 5 is the score to Beethoven 5, and I’m sure he knew that.

    My point is that we look at scores too casually- they’re not an imperfect guide to performance of a piece, they are the piece. Performances are imperfect realizations of pieces, but they’re still damn cool things. If we didn’t have performances, I’d be SOL, or be doing a lot more composing than I am, but I’m still aware that the audience isn’t hearing Beethoven 5 or Schumann 2 or Berio Serenata. They’re hearing a realization of it. Maybe, as I get bettter, I hear a closer version of it in my head when I study than what I can get out of an orchestra, but the only true representation of those pieces is in the score. That’s the version that the composer decided was the piece- the notation is the piece.

    Anyway, enough of this silliness/”turgid junk.” We’re not trying to win the college debating society most-improved arugment former award here, just to encourage everyone to dig a bit deeper next time they grab a score off the shelf…

  13. ComposerBastard

    “…My point is that we look at scores too casually- they’re not an imperfect guide to performance of a piece, they are the piece… “

    But, Dude Kenneth, they are…all scores are flawed and not perfect. Even Beethoven’s 5 has some real problems.

    I think you might be taking the singluar view of a performer here, since that is all you have to work with. Composer might have a different viewpoint of what the piece is or isn’t – such as a living document which might even be revised ongoing…just as software…

  14. Kenneth Woods

    Hey CB

    Of course, scores are flawed. Pieces are flawed, but the score is the piece.

    Of course, pieces get revised, but a revision creates a new work of art- the original version of Sibelius 5 is a different piece from the final version. That’s why we label them in programs, so people know which piece they’re hearing.

    Now, of course, you may decide that the piece you’ve written down isn’t the piece you hear, or that you weren’t hearing the whole piece when you wrote it down. Fair enough, but isn’t the creation of a new version the same as the creation of a new piece, even if you intend to make the old one go away….

    However, I like the software analogy, but perhaps then you’re getting into something like open form music, in which the revision process is actually not changing the piece, but an inherent part of the piece itself? One piece might give the perform the choice to repeat a figure a different number of times each time (like “In C”), while another might create a sort of revision loop where the need to revise is actually part of the form of the work….

    Hmmm

    K

    Ah yes.. .Problems in Beethoven 5…. that may be a blog post in and of itself.

  15. ComposerBastard

    Yes yes you got it! Like…like… “IN C” or some of hmmm…Earl Brown…etc…Yeah!

    But…then there is Bruckner..hmm? How about that stuff? Aye? How do you reconcile which version is the best to arm wave? Stravinsky and his ROS is another troubling revisionist…

  16. Daniel Pyle

    ‘The now-quaint terminology masks a somewhat interesting and important differentiation that is actually an important part of any musician’s relationship to music.

    ‘The original concert of “music of the spheres” came from imagining the mathematical interplay of the movement of celestial bodies as expressing an idealized form of music expressed as pure mathematics, or pure mathematics expressed as music. This idea later evolved into a broader concept of a “pure” form of music that exists in the realm of concept, not in performance. If one thinks of “spheres” music as being that which exists in your inner ear, in your imagination as opposed to the “practical” music one hears ringing in space, then maybe it allows one to see music notation in a different light.’

    After many years of teaching Music Appreciation, and grappling with the question of “what is music?”, I have arrived at the conclusion that the Medieval thinkers were much closer to the truth of the matter than we like to think. It is my thought that music is not sounds, or sound: music is a set of relationships that are revealed to the listener through sounds. I demonstrate this concept to my classes by playing on the piano a recognizable song (usually “My Country, ’tis of thee”/”God Save the Queen”), first in one key (F) and then in another (B). The question to the class is, “Are these two the same piece of music?” If music is the sounds , then they are not, because the pitches are as different as I can make them. But of course the answer from the students is that they are — and they are quite right. But that means then that the music is not the notes, but the intricate network of relationships that exists between the notes — and that network of relationships is preserved when I transpose the song from one key to another.

    And so the Medieval scholars were right to group music in the Quadrivium with geometry, mathematics, and astronomy, and not in the Trivium with history and theology and rhetoric, because the Quadrivium are all about relationships. And so also is the “music of the spheres,” as you observed in your blog, about relationships. The distinction is that in mathematics the relationships are perceived and expressed through numbers; in geometry through shapes; in astronomy (which is the “music of the spheres”) through the motions of bodies in space; and in music through sounds.

    And if this is true, then perhaps this is why — out of the other “fine arts” — it is in architecture that one finds analogues to music most often, because the other arts are mostly about things that we see or say or do (dance), but architecture is primarily about gravity and distribution of mass and downward thrust, intangibles not unlike the kinds of relationships expressed in mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music.

    Then there is the question, if this conception of music is valid, how does that alter the way we think about studying and performing it?

    daniel (danielspyle@bellsouth.net)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *