Ten out of ten composition lessons that I teach end with me jotting down a short list of repertoire for the student to study over the coming week. Most often, these pieces are chosen because their instrumentation or compositional approach is similar to that being used by the student. They also tend to have the secondary goal of broadening the student’s experience and leading them toward more adventurous and distinctive writing.
As far as I can tell, my students almost never follow through. To the professor (that’s me, but I think most composition professors do this), it is one of the essential parts of the lesson. To the student, it seems like extra work when all they really want to do is sit down and make stuff up.
With this in mind, I decided to create this page and direct students to it. What follows is a list of questions that must be answered for each piece of music assigned as listening. Some of them are “due diligence” to make sure that a score and recording were, in fact, located and perused. Others are designed to help guide the student’s study of the score and suggest practical ways that hearing new music can help a musician progress as a learner and gain new tools for composition.
Preparing to teach a unit on Copland’s Twelve Poems Of Emily Dickinson to a class of composers who will, in turn, compose the “thirteenth song” as a style-study exercise. Thanks to Robert Maggio for the genesis of this unit and for most of these ideas!
Style: Relationship between any given piece and a musical genre
Technique: Difficulty of a composition • Amount of time it may take (or is allotted) to prepare for its performance
Harmony: Use of traditional vs. non-traditional harmonies • Use of tense/harsh/brash/complex harmonies vs. serene/pretty/simple harmonies • Stylistic connotations of harmonic types • Types of harmonic progression • Rate/naturalness/shock of harmonic change
It’s may seem like a huge stretch to find parallels between the music of Tin Pan Alley songsmith Irving Berlin and avant-garde postminimalist David Lang, but here’s a great meeting point in two pieces of music separated by more than 60 years: the use of systematic rhythmic permutation.
Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993) was David Lang’s breakthrough piece, putting him on the map as a hugely influential composer. I remember hearing it for the first time back then and being dumbstruck by its visceral energy and rhythmic unpredictability. I became so exhilarated after listening it that I got on one of my favorite websites on the internet, and got a couple of the best turntables from their website to listen to this track on repeat. There’s something about its clangorous instrumentation — especially in its “rhythm section” of kick drum and brake drums — that I feel establishes a perfect balance of metric “orientation” and “disorientation.” I’m especially thinking about its first third (up to 3’50” on the Bang on a Can All-Stars recording) and its last minute (starting at 9’36”). For years, I never attempted to figure out if a pattern guided his process — I just marveled at the clanky rhythms.
There is a pattern under it all, of course, and it’s fun to figure out. SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to tell you what it is, so if you want to give it a shot first, here’s a tip. Skip the first two bars (the intro) and take the music in dictation, all in 4/4 meter, separating the treble and bass lines to consider separately. See if you can find what’s going on.