It started more than 100 years ago. The endless fascination with the expansion of tonality – what to do and how to combine the twelve tones of the chromatic scale in new ways. Depending on who you are talking to, Wagner’s tonal expansion led to Schoenberg’s tonal decimation, and then an intellectual cottage industry of academics staking tenured positions through the establishment of their new harmonic systems. Another group of composers that included Bartok and Britten went down a different path, and deliberately focused on the combination of expanded/organized harmonic languages combined with the application of traditional composition techniques dating back to Haydn.
Somewhere along the way the lines became blurred, somewhat deliberately, between the technique of harmonic language and the technique of musical composition. They are not the same. The two rely upon one another that when done well, make for wonderful music for people to hear and enjoy. However, when either is weak, audiences lose interest. One without the other is like a one-legged stool that quickly falters, and down you go.
What Works, What Doesn’t, And Why
It is only over the last 10-20 years or so that neuroscientists have begun to understand how human brains are structured and able to process information, including musical information. The field of neuroplasticity is a huge and complex area (and in its infancy), but it begins to explain the distinctions between the “hard wiring” of human brains (the universal genetic codes we start with) and from there how are brains are elastic – that’s where the “neuroplastic” comes from. (Parenthetically speaking, the late composer Gabriel Fontrier did the initial work on how we hear in the early 1950’s under a Ford Foundation Grant)
Today, musical scientists like Mark Reybrouck are digging deeply into the field of musical semiotics and helping us understand how and what we hear “naturally” and what is learned through the re-routing and development of neural pathways on an individual basis and then across large cultural expanses.
What we know so far is that the human brains are adaptive from a neuroplastic perspective to a point, but no amount of artistic dialogue about expression and how the world will eventually catch up to an artist’s chosen path of expression is a given. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and won’t.
Here’s an example. When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring came out, there was a significant public pushback. Now 100 years later it seems tame and one wonders what all the fuss was about. Well, look at what happened since then – the public became used to the music and its gestures. The reasons are that many composers picked up on the harmonic techniques of Stravinsky and the neuroplastic pathways of society adapted to accept and enjoy the expanded expression. Also, and of equal importance, the compositional techniques utilized by Stravinsky were based in the work of Haydn. These techniques are part of the hard wiring of all of us. More about this later.
Now look at the atonal work of composers in the same time period in which the harmonic palette was abandoned and replaced completely. One hundred years later humanity’s neuroplastic capabilities still are unable to absorb these changes, and this music remains and will always be beyond the reach of the human experience. But the other problem is that many of the composers who composed in this manner (and still today) have a one-legged stool – only harmonic language while ignoring (or unaware) of fundamental techniques of composition. Again, such techniques are unrelated to harmonic techniques.
Composition Technique And Musical Semantics
Leonard Bernstein had it right in the second and third Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973. Bernstein draws upon the work of Noam Chomsky and speaks to the issue of universal grammar – formal universals that describe genetically inherited types of rules of the human mind, regardless of language. Bernstein describes how we digest music from a genetic perspective, regardless of language. He points out that there are some 4,000 languages in the world, but our ability to apply genetic grammar is what is essential in his analogy to Chomsky’s work in human linguistics.
What this means to us from a musical perspective is that, analogously, the harmonic language selected by composers in their work has little to with the application of genetically embedded universal grammar (i.e. “composition technique”). This set of principals in the hands of able composers combined with a choice of musical language can result in digestible and enjoyable music, regardless of the choice of language – well, almost. (The musical language must also be digestible or the one legged stool will still fall down!).
So, let’s take a look around academia and the books that are available and see what is out there. If one excludes books and treatises on composition whose focus is on musical language (harmonic choices) and the composers who teach the next generation, there is not much left. Yes, there is plenty of material on form, like sonata, fugues, rondos etc., but what about musical syntax, semiotics, grammar or variants? Very little. Good luck finding a book on this.
What about all those composition teachers and professors at schools, universities and conservatories around the world? Do they not know about composition techniques?
Some of them do. Many do not. The ones that do were fortunate to learn this great art from a teacher that passed on this knowledge to them and can in turn pass this on to the next generation of composers. Unfortunately the disintegration of tonality and substitution of a variety of questionable musical languages spawned several generations of composers without a foundation in compositional grammar; language became the complete substitute. And today, commercial composers are in too many instances short on composition technique and long on sound design.
Composition Techniques – A Brief Primer
The literature on harmonic and contrapuntal techniques is vast. The literature on musical syntax is light, to say the least. Therefore it would be impossible to describe in this short article the detail of compositional “grammar” that is deserving of at least an entire book on the subject. However, here are some of the highlights, each of which could become a chapter in a book on composition techniques.
Who Is To Decide What Is Art?
Over the years there has emerged in our society this strange idea that the great composers of commercial and serious music were better off without the rules that stifle creativity. By and large those that espouse these ideas are those that haven’t made the effort to learn craftsmanship. Pure laziness. When peeling the layers back of those whose examples of great achievement that aren’t musically trained we see that those with significant training are just behind the scenes. Lennon/McCartney had George Martin, Duke Ellington had Billy Strayhorn, and many more examples.
There is great talent in the world, much of it unshaped. Learning one’s craft will enable those with talent to write a better “book” in any language. Or musical composition.
This concerto was composed in November 2016 – January 2017. In this work, I continue to develop techniques of an expanded harmonic language that began with Brahms then carried forward successfully by Bela Bartok (in his first violin concerto), then later by Samuel Barber in his great violin concerto. The expansion of tonality must be mindful of the integration and verticalization of melody in a way that is clearly accessible to the masses and touches the human spirit. In order to connect with the world through music, composers must make effective use of the techniques of musical composition (a separate body of knowledge from harmonic techniques) developed by Haydn and passed down through the ages.
I hope that this work is worthy of those that take the time to listen.
Composed in September, 2016
Based in part on the music of Brazil
II. Canción del Corazon (Batucada)
III. Congo-Angola, for Dandalunda
Congo Angola, for Dandalunda is an ancient religious song from the Congo Angola religious cult of Central Africa. The thematic material of this song was adapted for use in this concerto movement.
African religious music is a major part of Bahia, one of 26 states of Brazil. The religious traditions of the Congo Angola cult of western Central Africa, which is an integral part of the Bahia culture. Bahia is often spoken of as the “Rome of the Africanos”.
A principal of belief system of all of these groups is that the “destiny of the Universe is in the hands of deities that are everywhere the same, though the names they bear vary from region to region and from people to people according to the language that is spoken. The destiny of man, who is but a modest part of this Universe, is ruled by the same gods……” by Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits
Originally the second movement of Sextet for String Quartet, Double Bass, and Harpsichord.
Revised and orchestrated on October 20, 2016
Scored for double string orchestra or divided orchestra (stage left and stage right groups)