Composition? There’s an app for that.

The New York Times website has an awesome editorial blog on composition called the Score, which I peruse from time to time to keep updated with the whole “art music/classical” thing (whatever that means). Recently composer Jason Freeman posted a blog entitled “Compose Your Own” about his new etudes for piano that are entirely interactive. There is a page that one can go to that lets the user (the audience of the piece, basically) mix and match musical fragments to create a piece of music. The fragments cannot be strung together randomly – there’s a specific (yet flexible) framework governing where a fragment can go. There are four separate etudes, each with their own framework designed for creating a specific musical mood or effect. Some fragments can repeat indefinitely, some can’t.

The concept is totally awesome, and really should be looked at closely by anybody in the classical world who has bemoaned classical music’s fall from the public eye (in other words, everybody for the past 50 years). Although the composer has the ultimate say in the general feeling of the piece (they write the fragments and the rules governing how the fragments progress), the audience now can make important aesthetic decisions in terms of form, structure and musical effect. In a way, it’s similar to how somebody can mix and match a collection of loops in Apple’s Garage Band. It’s an easy way to bring the thrill and joy of writing music to the masses in a way that’s fun, accessible and meaningful. The added bonus of sharing the final creation on social media sites just underscores how hip this whole project is.

If you read some of the comments on the blog, however, you’d get the impression that Freeman’s etudes somehow represent everything that’s wrong about society and the downfall of classical music. One person wrote:

If you consider “paint by numbers” to be creating a painting, I suppose you could consider rearranging these musical fragments to be “composing”. In a world in which we prize instant gratification above all else, isn’t it great that now even chimps and lab rats can be composers! If you truly want to “share the experience” of composing music, teach music composition to those who have the passion and dedication to work hard, and thus learn about music and themselves. The richness of their discoveries can never be shared by those who simply rearrange the puzzle pieces you have created for them.

Apparently, there’s a reason why classical music is quite nearly obsolete. People like this don’t seem to get it. Music is the universal language – everybody understands it and can relate to it on a very intimate level, but unlike any other language, there are precious few who can speak it (ie, perform it), and even fewer who can write it (compose).  These educated people clearly are NOT the intended audience for composition projects like Freeman’s. Instead, he tries to harness that latent muse that exists in anybody who has ever decided one day that they want to write some poetry, or a book, or paint a painting, or create a sculpture from household items, or go out and dance despite never having done so before. The untrained layman who might want to write a song or write a piece of music should only have the option of years of passionate and dedicated study of composition if you believe that the person who left the above comment is correct in their sentiment. With Freeman’s etudes, now that layman has the option of tinkering in aesthetics and sharing in the wonderful world that is musical composition.

Just as important as tapping this muse for the masses is in the way it’s presented. Integrating composition with social media seems like the next great frontier for art music and composition in general. Social media is all about networks and connections, and for somebody to apply compositional techniques in this way to the brave new world of Web 2.0 is exactly what art music and music in general needs to reach the masses. Understanding how the young and the hip consume media and how they might consume art music is something that precious few in the classical world have considered, even with all of their whining about how nobody listens to classical music. Innovative and exciting compositions and compositional concepts like Freeman’s are exactly what is needed.

I smell an iPhone app.


3 Responses to “Composition? There’s an app for that.”

  1. 1 catefneely April 29, 2010 at 2:36 am

    Bravo….From my view I see anything that brings music application of any kind to the masses only stimulates interest in the “real” thing. And that is good for all of us, performers, teachers, concert goers, etc.

    • 2 catefneely April 29, 2010 at 2:37 am

      Oh, and one other thing. I still have a “paint by numbers” that my grandfather did for me when I was little. I do not have a Picasso or a Rembrandt, however.

  1. 1 In Bb…Who Owns It? « Adam Neely Trackback on May 13, 2010 at 4:57 pm

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