Thesis: Careerism helps a composer write better music.
Argument: A careerist composer finds ways to promote themselves and their music. Through such promotion, their music gets performed more frequently. Hearing one's music performed is one of the best ways to learn and grow as a composer -- that is, to learn to write better music.
The argument could afford to be fleshed out more, especially the last sentence. And exactly what is meant by writing "better" music can be a huge point of contention. But, at its basic level logic is pretty sound.
So often "careerism" is thrown around as an negative thing, especially among composers. For example, a review (by Allen Gimbel of the American Record Guide) of a recording of John Corigliano's Circus Maximus and Gazebo Dances states, "[the Gazebo Dances] serve to remind us of this composer's youthful genius before careerist distractions set in." But what, exactly, is so distracting about careerism? I suppose if your idea of a career in composition is to get a professorship somewhere so you don't have to care whether your music gets played, then maybe this would detract from the quality of the music-making, but seriously, who does that?
There's also the notion of the careerist composer who writes works specifically designed for audience appeal rather than artistic merit, or who capitalizes on the success of an early work by churning out countless other works in imitation of that breakthrough work. And I suppose there are composers who work like that, though they will generally tell you they write only to satisfy themselves or some similar nonsense. But even in that case, if that is your musical goal, then certainly careerism will advance your goal.
But even if your goal is simply to write music that is the best expression of your artistic ideals that you can muster, a little careerism can go a long way. As long as you do not lose sight of your musical ideals, self-promotion can only help. Obviously it will help your career, and if you are dependent on your music to make a living, then this is a basic necessity. But it will also help your music, in the long run.
Now, the idea that hearing your music performed helps you to grow as a composer may be debated. Certainly there are counterexamples in the form of composers who wrote wonderful music without hearing much of it performed -- Ives and Scelsi both come to mind. To be fair, Ives and Scelsi have both had their share of detractors, decrying their music as amateurish, but I think each of them has left an enduring legacy of important works displaying a great deal of originality and creativity. Perhaps if your musical ideas are as revolutionary as theirs, you too can afford to languish in obscurity for most of your musical career (provided as well that you are independently wealthy, whether by virtue of your success as an insurance executive or your station in Italian nobility). But in general, learning to effectively channel your creative impulses into a finished composition takes a lifetime of work, and there is much to be learned from hearing your own work. Thus, a healthy dose of careerism will improve your musical output.
This is all well and good, but often I wish it were not so. I'm just not good at promoting myself, for a variety of reasons. In college, my preference for hanging out with the math nerds meant that I didn't form useful contacts among my fellow musicians, one of the first steps in building a network. My social anxiety makes it excruciatingly difficult to even send an email to an unfamiliar director, and working by phone is harder still. And for a long time -- even to this day, to a degree -- I clung to the idea that if my music was good enough, it would get out into the world without my having to work at it. As a result, my musical career has had a hard time getting off the ground, and what's more, my music has suffered. I don't mean to say that it has gotten worse -- I consider myself a better composer than I was five years ago -- but I haven't developed my skills as well as I might have. I'm trying to make improvements, both musically and professionally, but I have quite a way to go, and when I compare myself to other composers near my age, it often feels like I'll never catch up. Building a career won't be easy, but it will definitely be worth it.
Apologies once again for the long silence. Fortunately, I'm doing much better than I was when I wrote my last post, both emotionally and musically. In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on a 15-minute work for concert band, tentatively titled Siren Fantasy. I started right around Thanksgiving, arrived at a double bar a few days ago, and will be editing like mad shortly. I hope to get it wrapped up by the end of the month, and if I'm lucky, get a performance by the end of the semester. After having made many abortive attempts at writing for band, I'm very excited to have this one under my belt.
But for now, I am too busy to savor that feeling. I have been gearing up for the MIT Mystery Hunt, which starts tomorrow, and today I have a lot of packing to do. Puzzles are perhaps my greatest vice, and the Mystery Hunt is a weekend-long all-you-can-solve buffet of 100 or more delightfully difficult puzzles, perfect for a junkie like me. My team, Just for the Halibut, is in no danger of winning -- rather fortunately, as the winning team must then write the next year's Hunt -- but we have a lot of fun nonetheless.
The puzzles at the Mystery Hunt run the gamut from crosswords to logic puzzles to trivia to everything in between, including a fair number of music-related puzzles. Most music puzzles are centered around pop song identification, which I leave to my teammates, but there have been a few puzzles that skewed more towards my areas of expertise:
If I ever get to help write the Mystery Hunt, I have some ideas for music-related puzzles I'd like to try, but I have to show some restraint. While I could easily write a 12-tone composition which encodes the letters of the answer in the different row operations, I can't imagine that being fun to solve for most teams. But I have other tricks up my sleeve...
In any event, I should go finish packing. And don't be surprised if I wind up gushing about the Mystery Hunt sometime next week. And yes, I will try to write about music, too.
You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything in a while. There hasn't been much to talk about, unfortunately, as I've been in a creative dry spell for a while. I've been working at composing, but at the end of the day, very little that I come up with seems to be worth keeping. It's not a good situation for a composer to be in, but it's really a symptom of a larger problem: my chronic struggle with depression.
I bring this up not because I want to whine about it, but because I feel that depression is not often discussed seriously, particularly among creative artists. It's a very real problem for a lot of people, but societally it seems like we are encouraged to ignore that reality, or, if you are suffering from depression, to medicate until the problem goes away. For many, depression and other mental illnesses carry a stigma. And for artists...well, it's tricky.
Among the various music texts on my shelf is The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler. I am under no delusions that a textbook will help me to orchestrate like Rimsky-Korsakov or Ravel or John Williams or whomever you care to name, but it is still a useful resource. I can quickly get a good idea of what is feasible on a given instrument, what techniques are generally available for me to use, and how to notate them. It's no substitute for first-hand instrumental knowledge or an imaginative ear, but it's a start.
Of course, I already have a fair bit of first-hand instrumental knowledge. I've played piano, trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, flute, tuba, and clarinet, all for at least two years. That's over half the instruments in the brass family, and at least one instrument in about half of the different woodwind families. Conspicuously absent from that list, however, are strings (and also percussion, but that's a different beast altogether). Consequently, I tend to feel more at ease writing for winds than I do writing for strings. Now, I certainly won't shy away from writing for strings when the situation calls for it -- Midnight Blue, one of the compositions I'm most pleased with, was first conceived as a piece for bass trombone and piano, until I realized that my ideas were just better suited for the cello. But it still feels foreign sometimes. Sometimes I make questionable choices -- what was I thinking when I gave the violin a melody in awkward double-stops in the lowest octave, expecting it to project over two-fisted piano chords and cello in the meat of their ranges, at the climax of Recombinant? And sometimes...well, sometimes I just don't know what I'm doing.
A common technique for strings is to have them play pizzicato, that is, plucked rather than bowed. Along with scordatura -- retuning the open strings of an instrument -- it's one of the earliest "extended techniques" known, dating back to the 17th century. In fact, most musicians don't consider it an extended technique at all, since it has been in common use for so long. When a composer wants to employ pizzicato playing in a passage, they will write "pizz." at the beginning of the passage, and "arco" when they wish for the strings to resume bowing the instrument. Sometimes, particularly in solo work, a composer may call for pizzicato and arco in quick alternation, or even simultaneously, having the performer pluck strings with the free fingers of their left hand, while bowing with the right. Of course, this calls for the transitions between arco and pizzicato to be notated with precision.
I am no stranger to pizzicato writing. I have written four works for string instruments to date, with a fifth one in the works, and all of them include some amount of pizzicato. But every time I write one of these passages, I manage to forget one thing: do "pizz." and "arco" go above the staff, or below? Every time, I have to go to my shelf and pull out Adler and look at the examples. And more often than not, my guess turned out to be wrong. I've even had to do this mutiple times for a given piece, when I go back and make revisions on an older version. Just now, I was editing the score to Recombinant, a piece which I have revised since its last performance, and prepping the parts before uploading them to the site. I looked at the markings in the violin and cello parts, which may or may not have already been checked back at the last performance, got confused, and consulted Adler. It's a question with a binary answer. One bit of information. You'd think, after five or six or seven times, I'd be able to remember. But I can't.
For the record? Above the staff.
The past couple of weeks, I've been putting a lot of work into this site, and I still have plenty more to do before I'm ready to unveil it to the public. I enjoy working on the site for the most part, but it's also occasionally stressful. Diving headfirst into web design, barely knowing HTML and having no prior experience with CSS, PHP, SQL, and other related acronyms is a bit of a challenge, even when I have a great set of tools to work with. So, to clear my head, I thought I'd work on composing for a little bit.
For a while, I've been intrigued by just intonation, and I'm finally dipping my toe into the water. Let me say up front that just intonation (JI) is one of the most mathematically fertile areas in music. You get number theory: JI is all about the comparison of various products and ratios of whole numbers, and the reason why we historically had to make compromises in our tuning systems in the first place is tied to the Fundamental Turkey of Arithmetic. You get group theory: some tunings can be constructed to be isomorphic to the free abelian group on n elements, with a set of relations. You get linear algebra: that same tuning is also isomorphic to a set of n-dimensional lattice points bordered by some hyperparallelepiped. You get topology: either way, when you're actually looking at where that group or lattice lies in the pitch continuum, you homomorphicaly map it to the unit circle. It's possible to do a lot of music without every dirtying your hands with mathematics, but not if you're a modern composer working in JI.
Basically, just intonation is the practice of tuning musical intervals according to (preferably small) whole number ratios like 3/2, 4/3, 5/4, and the like. Most musical instruments today, and consequently most music today, is tuned according to the idea that every half-step -- the distance between two immediately adjacent notes on a piano keyboard -- should be of equal size, and this results in every half-step having a ratio of the 12th root of 2, which is irrational. So in order to perform music in just intonation, contemporary musicians have a limited range of options:
1) Make their own instruments, specifically constructed to be in tune in some variety of JI. This is the route most famously followed by Harry Partch, and was at first the only option JI composers had.
2) Compose for synthesizers, or other electronic instruments whose pitch can be absolutely controlled. In terms of available pitch inventory, this is the most versatile option, though obviously a more recent development
3) Use or adapt existing musical instruments to produce pitches in JI. This method can be implemented with varying degrees of success. Fretless stringed instruments have the ability to produce notes across the entire pitch continuum; all the performer needs to learn is where to put their fingers. Keyboard instruments can be retuned, but this is a major undertaking, and the instrument is essentially limited to playing in a single 12-pitch JI scale indefinitely. Nonetheless, some notable works have been written for justly-retuned piano, most notably The Well-Tuned Piano by La Monte Young. Woodwind instruments can approximate JI pitches with nonstandard fingerings and embouchure adjustments, but the performer must learn a new fingering and adjustment for each note. For brass instruments, it is possible to get a certain set of JI scales by properly tuning the individual valves on a trumpet, horn, or tuba, and the trombone, like the strings, can play any desired pitch with little difficulty. It's difficult for an individual keyed brass player to change their scale in the midst of a piece, but with, say, a brass quintet, it's possible for the different players to achieve a variety of related tunings between them.
That last bit is the route I'm taking. I've got a good idea of a tuning that works for any individual instrument, and by using instruments which are naturally pitched in different keys -- one trumpet in C, the other in Bb, a double horn in F and Bb, a trombone which can play anything but most naturally gravitates toward Bb -- I can get multiple overlapping scales for a good bit of harmonic variety. And I think that the tuba, with longer tuning slides, might have enough leeway for me to give it a slightly different tuning. I'd have to try it out with an actual tubist to be sure. Also, different tuba players favor instruments in a surprising variety of keys -- Bb, C, Eb, and F -- so I should probably nail down a particular brass quintet and find out which key their tuba is in, before commiting too much to paper.
In the meantime, I've been doing some preliminary exercises, to get myself used to working in JI. The first order of business is notation. Actually, that's the second order of business, but I already took care of the first -- figuring out a JI scheme for (most of) the instruments. But while I know what pitches I can get from each instrument, it isn't as clear to me, from the start, what available harmonies I will have spanning disparate tunings, and one way for me to figure that out is to get everything written out on paper. After all, it's a little easier for me to deal with the notes B, C, and D than it is to deal with the ratios 15:16:18.
Now, just intonation uses a different set of pitches than equal temperament, so some notational changes are necessary. However, our modern equal temperament, and its concomitant notational system of naturals, sharps, and flats, evolved in steps from older tunings based on whole-number ratios -- just intonation is not merely a recent innovation. Accordingly, the system I am using, devised by Ben Johnston, is in some ways merely an extension of traditional notation.
The first step is to define the natural pitches, those without accidentals. In Johnston's notation, the chords C-E-G, F-A-C, and G-B-D are all tuned as perfect major triads, in the ratio 4:5:6. If you work out all the pairwise intervals involved, you see that F-C, C-G, G-D, A-E, and E-B all form perfect fifths in the ratio 3:2, as one might expect from looking at the keyboard and counting semitones (each of those intervals is 7 semitones wide). However, D-A, which also looks like it should be a perfect fifth, is decidedly not -- those notes are in the ratio 40:27, which is in fact a pretty severe dissonance. So, right from the start, some of our assumptions are shaken up. But we're only just beginning!
Next, we have to define the accidentals, and there are a lot of them. We do have sharps and flats, though. We said that C-E-G was a 4:5:6 major triad; can we make C-Eb-G a minor triad? Sure! A purely tuned minor triad has ratios of 1/6:1/5:1/4, or 10:12:15. Now, that means that, if the frequency of Eb is 12/10=6/5 times that of C, and the frequency of E is 5/4 times that of C, then the frequency of Eb is (6/5)/(5/4) times that of E, or 24/25. So a flat sign (b) lowers a pitch, any pitch, by a factor of 24:25. Conversely, a sharp (#) raises a pitch by an interval of 25/24. To deal with the fact that D-A wasn't a perfect fifth, we use the symbols + and - to indicate altering a pitch by 81/80 and 80/81, respectively. To get pitches relating to the seventh harmonic of the overtone series, we use 7 to lower a pitch by the interval 35/36, and L (an upside-down 7) to raise the pitch by the interval 36/35. There are also accidental symbols incorporating numbers with factors of 11 and 13, but they don't come into play in the tuning system I'm using, so I won't go into them. Any of these symbols can be combined -- compared to C, a Bb7 is 3/2 (C-G) x5/4 (G-B) x24/25 (b) x35/36 (7) = 7/4, which is precisely the seventh harmonic of C (two octaves removed, but we tend to ignore octaves -- or powers of two, from a mathematical perspective -- when comparing intervals). We can even repeat accidentals on a single note, just like the occasional double-sharps and double-flats in traditional notation. We have lots and lots of accidentals!
Now, in my case, I can't just go around writing #s and +s and Ls willy-nilly. I have a very definite set of pitches that I can work with, and I have to make the accidentals work with what I got. Since the JI notation is centered around the key of C, I started out with the C trumpet. I worked out all the ratios I was going to get in a single partial, applied those ratios to the available harmonics in the overtone series, and for each resulting ratio, factored it into a product of the appropriate accidentals. But I'm going to be working in Finale, so I have to define a bunch of expressions to attach to notes for the weird accidentals. But I don't just have to define +, -, 7, and L. I want to be able to hear the resulting pitches and intervals accurately, and since these pitches are not covered by the equal-tempered scales, I have to define pitch adjustments. Usually, intervals in general -- JI, equal-tempered, and anything in between -- are measured in cents. There are 100 cents in a semitone, and 1200 cents in an octave. However, Finale defines microtonal pitch adjustments in terms of the pitchwheel, and after some experimentation, I was able to determine that there were 8192 equally-spaced pitchwheel divisions in an octave, at least as my computer played it back. But wait, there's more. Since the naturals in Johnston's JI notation are not the same as their equal-tempered counterparts, I have to define separate accidentals, with separate pitch adjustments, for each note. The difference between JI C#L and equal-tempered C# is different from the difference between F#L and equal-tempered F#, so they need to be different Ls. I even need to make invisible markings to apply to the diatonic pitches, to make sure they're in tune. For every note in my desired scale, I had to go back to the ratio, look it up in Kyle Gann's Anatomy of an Octave, use Google's built-in calculator to convert from cents to pitchwheel increments, and define an accidental just for that pitch, complete with a description telling me which pitch it's defined for. Sounds like a lot of work? It is. Fortunately, I can save all my JI accidentals in a library, so it'll get easier as I go along.
Now, that was for the trumpet in C. Other instruments have the same overall shape of their scale, but built on different starting pitches. Also, some of these instruments -- the Bb trumpet and horn -- are transposing instruments, which means that the notes on the page are a certain transposition away from the actual sounding notes. Working in equal temperament, this isn't a big deal at all -- I got used to reading most of the standard transpositions in high school, due to my general interest in band music. In JI, or at least my current flavor of JI, it wreaks havoc on the system. I have a different set of pitches, some of which overlap with the pitches of the trumpet. They're certainly related to the trumpet's pitches -- in fact, if I'm working on the F side of the horn, they're just the same pitches as the C trumpet, transposed down a perfect fifth. But because of the transposition, the written notes, including accidentals, are the same as the trumpet. When the actual pitches do coincide with some of the C trumpet's, I can reuse the already defined markings -- after all, the same pitches are going to have the same pitch adjustments. Except that sometimes the actual written accidentals aren't the same: the pitch that was a B in the trumpet is not an F# in the horn, but an F#+ -- again going back to the fact that some of the "fifths" in the diatonic JI collection were not actually perfect fifths. Similarly, when defining new pitches, I have to not only do all of the above calculations and lookups, but I also have to keep reminding asking myself, "was this a written A+ but a sounding D, or a written A and a sounding D-?" It's almost enough to make my head go 'splode. And I haven't even gotten to the Bb side (technically the Bb- side, if you're being JI-precise about it) of the horn yet. I'm half afraid that that will make my head go 'splode.
Maybe I should go unwind, and work on debugging the online store.