Key Concepts and Methods
In the attached syllabus, I have worked from my primary teaching goals outward toward specific learning outcomes (see syllabus) with an emphasis on two specific key compositional concepts: re-imagining materials - using borrowed materials, and reconfiguring assumptions - re-examining what we already know in a different light. As stated in one of the learning objectives, inter-medial connections and perceptual understandings will frame much of our explorations. Rooted in weekly discussions about highlighted pieces of music and ancillary materials (texts, audio recordings, scores, video art, performance video, film, audio documentary), as a group we will build compositional tools and strategies that emerge from connections that surface between the materials and processes. By using this method, students will gain agency over the development of their own artistic voice while expanding their knowledge and refining their craft. Furthermore, I have come to understand the contemporary craft of composition as a process that connects compositional skills, knowledge bases, experiences, technologies, disciplines, media, and concepts, all of which a composer constantly reconfigures in critical and creative ways. In this way, additional goals of this method are to give students for broad understanding of craft and to prepare them for a composer’s practice that operates outside of an academic context.
To illustrate this method more concretely, I describe the approach to the first work examined in the class: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Meditation on the Bach Chorale 'Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit' (1995) for amplified harpsichord, 2 violins, viola, violoncello, and double bass. This is one of my favourite chamber works, and I have learned so many lessons from it over the years. For the class, I have programmed three ways for us to consider the piece over two lessons: 1) through an examination of Gubaidulina’s pre-compositional serial procedures, 2) through the lens of auditory scene analysis (ASA), and 3) as a narrative form in relation to David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive.
From Gubaidulina’s serial approach, we can can begin to build a toolbox for working from borrowed musical material. Through Milne’s report of Gubaidulina’s work, we will trace rhythmic invention, texture/gesture creation, pacing, and overall structure for the piece. From there we will begin to ask questions about our understanding of the piece as listeners and composers for the purpose of understanding the impact of compositional processes on the listening experience. For example: Can we hear the serial/pre-composition processes when we listen to the recording? How does knowing Gubaidulina’s process affect how we hear the piece? What can we leverage from her approach for our own compositional uses? What potential problems need to be addressed when using serial methods?
Following this, we will introduce ASA as a way to frame further interrogation of what we hear in the piece. Through the ASA lens, we will go back to the rhythm, texture, gesture, pacing, and form and start to understand how processes of composition and reception may differ or correlate. Additionally, using the ASA lens, we will incorporate the ancillary listening materials into our discussions and begin to compare the methods and the results of Martin Arnold’s Tam Lin and Cassandra Miller’s For Mira, both of which were composed with the use of borrowed material.
Lastly, using a more speculative approach, we will draw a connections between David Lynch’s narrative rhetoric in Mulholland Drive and one potential way of hearing narrative form in Gubaidulina’s work. By discussing Meditations... from three different perspectives, the goal is to understand that each piece of music is a site for multiple perspectives and limitless connections from which we can draw our own compositional tools.
Throughout the rest of the syllabus, I have predominantly applied an inter-medial and/or perceptual approach, while connecting these methods to a more traditional interrogation of musical material. Similarly, by dividing the course into two-key concepts, and using a number of pieces to illustrate each, the desired outcome is one in which the learner understands that each compositional underpinning, like a musical work, has multiple differing perspectives. This highlights that there is no one way to write, understand, or listen to music, thus giving composers limitless ideas to leverage into their own work.
More generally, I have addressed what I believe to be key areas of a contemporary education in music composition. I think it is important for a student composer to focus on a personal composition voice/practice, craft, critical connections, listening, and professionalism.