One of the basic problems that a composer has these days is the necessity to market themselves to get more work while continuing to compose. Marketing and composing are two diametrically opposed activities. Composing requires total immersion in what you are doing and leaving the world behind. To really reach a place where your creativity fully emerges you need to be submerged in what you are doing. And it is hard to get out of that space to do other things, when you are really into it. Even when I take a break, sometimes my attention is still in the work and I can be poor company if I go on a social outing and I leave my work in the middle of a phrase or a section or when I was addressing a poblem. So it takes a lot of concentration to bring out what you are creating within. Marketing is the opposite. You have to be thinking about what is happening outside, about contacting people, about posting things interesting to others while using social media, the phone, email campaigns. And I, for one, don’t have the ability to switch modalities in an instant. Actually, sometimes it takes me a full day or two to get into a new piece. So in composing you are looking within and in marketing you are looking withot. And you have to do both things. It is easier to do this when you are writing small works (like 3-4 minutes) but a big piece is a beast that commands respect and if you want to create something with some personality you have to commit your time to do it. And that is one of the biggest problem that I face on a day to day basis.
This is a question that I have pondered since I started composing. One wants to add one’s voice to the chorus looking to identify and resolve the pressing issues of the day and yet, one wonders if talking, or writing music, in this case, about them is the best way to go. Maybe the problems will resolve if one focuses, instead, in the values that are needed to solve them. If you have a corrupt official, do you write about him or do you write a work about the values of honesty and integrity and emphasize that? I have tended, so far to write about the problems themselves and the factors involved. In fact, I just did a piece about immigrants, telling the stories of 25 immigrants I interviewed as part of my McKnight Visiting Composer residency. The piece is not judgemental and it portrays the immigrants in a sympathetic light. So it is not really a negative piece, it’s a narrative piece, of which I am looking to do more. However, with all the negativity that we have seen the last few years, I think we should emphasize now the positive values that we have to aspire to. It appears to me that too many people are pointing out what’s wrong and not enough people are looking for what’s right. And there are a lot of things right, but to see them, we have to start to emphasize them. I will start working on that as I continue working on my Immigrants project. If you disagree with me about the need to bring out the good, go and see one of the latest films about Mr. Rogers. He knew how to do positive right.
One question I have had to answer a few times is why did I chose to compose classical music as opposed to popular music or jazz. I remember an answer I gave on a TV interview some years ago about the difference between popular music and classical. You may not agree with me but this is what I told the interviewer:
The basic difference between classical and popular music is that popular music addresses the body and classical music addresses the spirit. That difference has become more marked with the passage of time. Nowadays a great deal of popular music is based on rhythm more than on melody, especially hip-hop and rap. It makes you want to dance. The rock and roll music prevalent from the 60s to the 80s sometimes made you want dance but at least made you want to clap or move to it. The rhythmical part and the beat were already important.
In classical music, the spirit gets addressed. The music, when it comes through, manages to engross your attention and as a result, when you are attending a great concert, you get complete silence. You have 2000 people together and you can hear a pin drop. Everybody’s attention is totally taken by the music and the experience is very personal. You feel it inside. And everything else that your mind was occupied with gets displaced and discarded for the time being.
Probably the first times that happened to me was when I listened to my mentor, pianist Mario Feninger, in concert. I had heard some of the pieces he played, like the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven and some Chopin waltzes, but the effect they created on me that day was totally different than what I had experienced before. The music took me somewhere else.
And that experience is what I have been trying to recreate for others, first as a pianist, and now, as a composer. I want to take you somewhere else, forget the corporeal and enter into the spiritual. The piece doesn’t have to be necessarily very consonant or very slow. You just have to feel, after it is over, that something happened, that you experienced something, that it took you on a trip and that, when it brought you back, you were a little better off for it. That’s the whole idea. And I think it is worth it.
I decided to write about this subject because I am writing choral music and most of my works are through-composed. So what does that mean? It basically means that you start setting a text to music and you write original music until you reach the end of the text without following any particular structure. You just follow the text and use the music to enhance the communication of those ideas, to highlight certain parts and to add emotion and meaning to the message. Schubert wrote 600 songs and they were through-composed, changing the music for every stanza of the poem, according to the mood. Click here to hear”Caminante”, a work commisioned by the Culver City Middle School Choir. It is through-composed.
In the popular music world, most songs have the same music for every verse, with a chorus that repeats. It has other elements, of course, but repetition is an important factor. I like to through-compose works because it allows me to express more fully the sentiments of a poem or a text. That does not mean that I haven’t composed songs that include a repeating chorus. My Hanukkah song, which you can hear by clicking here, A Hanukkah Gathering, has three verses with different melodies and a chorus that repeats after every verse. But I try to give different melodies to different verses even when I have a chorus. It takes longer to learn the song for a choir but I think the variety makes the music more interesting.
Do you have any question about music, especially classical music? Let me know. I’ll try to answer it. Ta-ta for now.
I am currently writing a choral piece called The Immigrants that is going to be performed in Minneapolis by several choirs in different concerts: A professional choir, a community choir and a high school choir. One of the most difficults aspects of writing this work is writing it at a level of difficulty that the three ensembles will find both doable and interesting. This is tricky because you can write something that is too difficult, which is kind of easy to do, at least for me, or you can write something that is too easy, which has more chances of being performed but, at the same time, might not be attractive for choral ensembles at the upper end of the spectrum; or to you, as a composer, for that matter.
In choral music, consonant music is always easier to perform than dissonant music and conventional music is easier to perform than avant-gard. I love to write music that is somewhat dissonant but I know that it will not be performed as often as more conventional music. Actually, the first two choral pieces I wrote have not been performed yet, as the idiom in which they are written is difficult. I like the works, though, and I show it to conductors every now and then but, so far, no luck.
That taught me that you cannot do whatever you want in a choral work. And yet, recently I did a very simple work which I wanted to be even simpler, with almost all the choir singing in unison. I did this because Pre-Columbian music in Mexico was not based on harmonies, like Western music, and the conductor was a little taken aback by the simplicity of the piece. After I explained my ideas, the piece was performed and well received, but I also found out that too simple doesn’t cut it.
So, back to Minneapolis. The piece I am writing will be 12-15 minutes in length for choir and piano and I am writing it more with the High School choir than with the proffessional ensemble in mind. I am tempted to introduce some difficult elements for variety’s sake but I am refraining from doing so because what I want the most is the stories of these immigrants (I interviewed 25 immigrants for the text) to be known and the piece to have broad exposure. It is a bit risky as it may sound too much like other works from other composers but I am trusting that the melodic and textual elements will pull it through. That’s my bet right now.
I define my music, for music fans, as normal music with more dissonance than usual. The added dissonance adds interest to the piece and is used to emphasize emotional moments as well as to serve as a greater contrast to beautiful segments. In Moses, an Oratorio, for example, in the segment called The Burning Bush, we have the orchestra sometimes in one key while Moses and the choir are in a different key. This creates a clash that the moment warrants. However, if you just listen to the soloist, you realize that the melody is easy to follow.
I refuse to believe that modern composers cannot use beautiful chords, that the traditional chords are the exclusive property of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. However, I also refuse to write using only those chords, as contemporary music has opened up the color palette of the composer and it would be silly not to use all the resources we have available to create more interesting music. In addition to that, I use devices of my own creation for transitions and many of my phrases end up in question marks.
One more thing. In choral music I tend to be more traditional than in my instrumental music. That is bdue to the nature of singing in a group as opposed to playing instruments. The singer orients himself with the notes of the other singers and the level of difficulty of a piece is raised exponentially if one decides not to use the traditional harmonic system. When playing an instrument you depend more on the written note than on other performers, so it is harder to get disoriented. So I go less far afield in my choral works than in my instrumental creations.
With the premiere of my String Quartet, I realized that writing New Music keeps being a big priority for me. It is a great challenge to write music that is accesible, yet fresh, which is what I want to do. I just finished writing a 5 minute work for a group collaboration, the story of David, which will be presented in November at UCLA. The project is to tell the story of David through the eyes of about a dozen composers, each chapter told through a very different lens, as we have all sorts of composers in the group, including atonal writers, Jazz writers, songwriters, TV and movie composers, and people that write with extended harmonies, like me. After writing Moses, which is a modal piece, which would sound familiar to you but a bit odd in some places, it was a relief to write something not so constrained by the normal rules. I actually think that I can write effective, even beautiful, melodies that do not have a particular key, which was a great discovery for me. We will see how that piece is received in November. And hearing the quartet made me realize I abandoned an experimental path I liked very much about 10 years ago. I am now looking forward to writing new works by retaking that path, following some of the new forms I was working on and abandoning others which, after 10 years, do not seem as promising.
wrote the String Quartet, almost 10 years ago
In the XXI century, by breaking the conventions and the traditional relations of sounds as used in the XVIII and XIX centuries, sometimes the music seems to go nowhere. There are changes in the music but one is expecting the music to go somewhere in a certain way and it does not. The chords don’t change too much and although you hear that the notes are changing, you cannot detect a melodic thread that is pushing you forward. IN other words, the instruments may be playing all kinds of notes and yet you feel you aren’t going anywhere.
I found this happening recently when I was hearing new choral music at the American Choral Directors Association convention. Much music didn’t have a clear melodic element, you couldn’t come out of the concert remembering even one melody, and yet the compositions were varied, interesting and sometimes emotionally moving. So the music might feel like is not really moving, it might feel static and yet be able to affect you emotionally in a different way.
I’m still a fan of melodies but I can see the emergence of music that can impact you emotionally and intellectually without leaving you humming anything. It is something new. And I am seeing it more in choral than in instrumental music. But I am talking about classical music, not pop or rock or commercial music. That music is still using the harmonies of the past, the patterns and conventions of Western Music as practiced in the XVIII and XIX centuries, the “common practice” period of music. But I feel there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there is something new coming. We’ll see how that affects my writing in the future.
This is another dichotomy that is in evidence in the XXI century. While music during the Romantic era tried to appeal to our emotions and to make us feel our humanity, music became more interested in appealing to the intellect in the XX century. Schoenberg and his music based on numerical sequences was trying to develop a system that would make people listen to his sequences of pitches in a different way than they were used to, guided by a concept of series of numbers, trying to follow that sequence of numbers throughout a piece, regardless of past usage of thos pitches or of conventions. This, I think, was an attempt of breaking our emotional bonds with the musical structures of the past through the use of our intellect. I think Schoenberg might have been trying to develop different conventions and have certain series of notes mean something emotionally different that they had meant up to that point. However, I think that the effort, in general, failed. That type of music has not changed popular music to any marked degree. Maybe it has expanded the chords that one can use. Maybe it has allowed us to envision a different music but we are still in a tonal universe, where major and minor scales are used all the time. Which leads me to another dichotomy:
This is an important dichotomy in order to understand music of the XX century and classical music in general. Many times there is a great simplicity associated with beauty. Some of Beethoven’s most beloved works are simple works, like the piano piece “Fur Elise” or the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Bach wrote works of great complexity but the “Air for the G String” has been heard many times in all kinds of settings and arrangements. However, complexity can make a piece more interesting if the listener agrees to commit to unravel the complexity of the piece and to make an effort to understand it..
I find that there is an optimum level of the ratio of simplicity to complexity for each individual. Too much simplicity makes the work boring. Too much complexity makes the work frustrating as the listener feels left out of the game. This is a very basic dichotomy and I think that much of XX century music tended toward the complex and that is the reason that minimalism was able to thrive. People were so tired of complexity that when Phillip Glass appeared on the scene, the door was wide open for a more repetitive, simplistic approach to music making.
So these dichotomies are like swinging pendulums. Sometimes you get complex music, sometimes simple. This phenomenon happened also at the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Classical period. The complexity of Johann Sebastian Bach was such that the arrival of Mozart and Haydn, with their “galant style” which consisted mainly of a melody with an accompaniment was very welcome.
But there is another factor involved here, another dichotomy: