Archive for the 'Classical' Category

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.


“The World Feels Dusty”

A big interest of mine is adapting late 19th and early-mid 20th century classical compositions into the modern jazz idiom. So much of the harmonic and melodic language is similar that it’s kind of hard not to draw the comparisons. I mean, what modern jazz improviser hasn’t gone crazy for Slonimsky or Yamaguchi? The only major difference is in the treatment of rhythm – Jazz in all of its forms is heavily steeped in the language of syncopation and the tension/release of call and response, while “modern” classical…well, isn’t. Yes, form is generally more developed in classical music, but there are plenty of extended jazz compositions that have the same sort of formal development any other classical work might have. Rhythm is key.

One of the classical works I’ve been fascinated with recently is Aaron Copland’s 12-part song cycle based on selected poems of Emily Dickinson. Because Aaron Copland is an American composer, I’ve always felt that there is a smidgeon of jazz’s rhythmic concept already in his work – just like Gershwin, Barber and Ives – so  it’s easy to get ideas from listen to the Emily Dickinson songs. I arranged “Heart We Will Forget Him” for my senior recital at Berklee, and recently I decided to tackle the song “The World Feels Dusty.”

The original is a meditative, melancholy composition in B minor perfectly reflecting the text’s somber reflection on death (hey, what Emily Dickinson poem isn’t a somber reflection on death?). The melody is rife with melodic tensions and some angular intervallic leaps, which only seemed perfect for a conversion into a jazzier setting. There are some very interesting and unusual excursions into other modal settings (B aeolian, dorian, harmonic minor), but for the most part it stays in diatonic B minor.

Check out the original. This is Jill Windes’ Master’s Recital, and I really dig the interpretation.

So what did I do to “Jazzify” it? Part of what struck me was all of the water imagery in the original poem. Here’s the original. In typical Emily Dickinson fashion, there are a few odd lines that seem to interrupt the flow of everything, so Copland changed the last lines to “Dews of thyself to fetch, and holy balms.” Check it.

The World — feels Dusty

When We stop to Die —

We want the Dew — then —

Honors — taste dry —

Flags — vex a Dying face —

But the least Fan

Stirred by a friend’s Hand —

Cools — like the Rain —

Mine be the Ministry

When they Thirst comes —

And Hybla Balms —

Dews of Thessaly, to fetch —

There was a piano ostinato idea I had bumping around in the back of my head for a while that seemed to nicely fit this “water imagery” theme, and I used that for the basis for a lot of the composition. I kept the 3/4 time signature, although I stretched the melodic rhythms considerably, and interpreted it more as a 6/8 kind of pattern in the rhythm section. A lot of the harmonic structures I used are hard to classify with traditional chord symbols, and for the sake of sheet music I’ve had to come up with hybrid structure denotations of the voicings (Gmaj7sus2/Eb, Dadd#4/C, etc). Still, like the original, I keep the key center pretty much focused around the “B minor” idea. Since the melody is so through-composed, the “tune-form” I came up with to roughly represent the melody has a very through-composed feel, although there are certain bass figures that occur more than once to give it some cohesion. Just to add a little bit of interest, I modulate up a half step to C minor for the bass solo (the fact that I really enjoy soloing in C minor helped in that decision), and the form of the solo paraphrases that of the main “tune-form”.

Anyway, here’s the (slightly abridged) lead sheet of the arrangement. Excuse all the commentary, haha.

The World Feels Dusty

And, of course, the arrangement itself in YouTube form. Boston area vocalist Emma Boroson provides the vocals, and I’m there plunking away at the bass. Hope you excuse the bass solo, but hey, I have to let loose once in a while. Hope you enjoy!


Welcome to Adam Neely's blog/website. Check out his compositions, links, and information about lessons on the top bar, and enjoy the music!

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