ear training

Pitch is less important than you think?

Hey ho - time I checked in in these parts. Happy news today, as I put the double bar down on my new composition, which is called Takes One To Know One. It's a 10.5 minute single-movement piece for bass clarinet, cello, double bass, and percussion (floor tom and kick drum), and I will be playing the percussion part at the premiere on July 26 at the Frontier cafe in Brunwick Maine. As was the case with the last time I wrote myself into a piece, I imagine I may expend more blood, sweat and tears learning the thing than I did these past two weeks writing it. I suppose it is good to occasionally write myself into the hot seat, if only to feel the pain I so routinely inflict on others. For whatever reason, I was not born to write easy music. My pieces never just fall together like buttah, first reading. It's a haul each and every time, no matter how simple I think I've been. I think I said somewhere in this blog about turning 40 and embracing my limitations. Yeah. That.

Anyhoo, I got some nice composerly feedback from the last post, so I'm emboldened to throw my hat further into the ring on the whole Ima-tell-you-how-I-compose thing. I was thinking, in particular, of one of the items in my bulleted list.  I wrote that "pitch is less important than you think," and then I thought about that for a couple of days. In some ways - at least in my music - it's rather obviously not true. Pitch matters a whole heck of a lot to me. My music doesn't rely much on dramatic extended techniques such as multiphonics, and really does in fact tend to foreground pitch. I suppose it's more that I've reached a place in my own composing where I've decided I'm not going to worry about pitch anymore.

We composers go through rigorous training, and so much of it involves learning new and ever-more-complicated ways to think about and grapple with pitch. As a music educator, I am as guilty of extending this tradition as anyone. Ask anyone who's taken my Music Theory and Aural Skills 4 class, where poor undergraduates are asked not only to memorize ALL of the Forte set-class labels (ok...that's a JOKE, but I think to some it feels that way)...(you get the picture, it's taxing). So many of these methods, be it the tonal system, set-class theory, 12-tone technique, or what have you, seem to have at their core a fundamental mistrust of the composer's ear. Well, at least if they are being taught from the compositional perspective. In music theory classes there is something almost sinful about composing "by ear." That's not what we're there for! We're there to EXPAND the ear's capacity, to force ourselves to make music of strange, unfamiliar and even forbidding materials. This is, for the most part, good and proper in my book.

But so much of this thinking expands beyond the academy. And indeed - post-academic life (well actually, have I ever experienced THAT??), or rather post-school composing, seems for many to be a years-long process of shedding the accrued baggage, the ways of thinking and ordering and labeling that seem, while one is Ivory Tower-confined, to be essential. Or, for some, continuing to drink the Kool Aid. So many composers, when presenting their work, talk of the elaborate pitch schemata at play in their music, the synthetic scales, the set transformations, the large-scale key structures, and on it goes. Some of the music then turns out to be very good, so I shan't fault them. My old teacher Daron Hagen used to tell me, "whatever it takes to trick yourself into writing music," and I wholeheartedly agree.

But it occurs to ME that a good musical thinker, one with ears, one with years and years of jumping through these various pitch hoops, has much of this magic brewing within, on a deeper and more unconscious level, than can every really be ecompassed by theory-speak. There comes a time, I believe, when composing "by ear alone" is a necessity. This may seem simplistic or a truism, but I hope it really isn't.

I used to be worried about my pieces starting and ending in the same key. I also used to feel that my music suffered for not having the elaborate key architectures of, say, a Mahler Symphony. Who knows, maybe it's in fact true! But I don't worry that way any more. I have come to trust my instincts on pitch, both in the immediate, microcosmic sense (this chord to that chord), and in the grander, macrocosmic, structural sense. When I listen through to my work-in-progress, over and over, I have an inner sense of when the key (to the extent that there are, in fact keys - I use this term VERY loosely here) needs to change, where home is, if home can change, and how pieces need to develop in the realm of pitch. I've let go of the feeling - drilled into me during years of schooling - that pieces with tonal overtones all have essentially the same mission in this world. Much as I praised Schenker in my prior post, that aspect of his thought seems inapplicable to my own writing. I do believe my current pieces have very satisfying, logical, and complex journies in pitchspace - but I can't sit down and map them out for you. (I actually probably could, if I took the time, but I don't wanna).

Furthermore, I believe I've developed a sensibility about melody such that I don't really need to limit myself to particular scales, or to be aware at all times what labels I'm invoking with my melodic grasping. There's some kind of irony here, perhaps, because as a theory instructor and suriving dissertator, I can take my superman analytical gaze to just about anything and make some egghead sense of it. But I prefer to keep myself willfully in the dark when it comes to my own music, more and more relying on the logic of the ear, and a deep trust in my unconscious. It's basic stuff, but hard won in this case.

Of course, there are certain times in which theoretical chops just sort of kick in. Certainly in writing chorale-like passages, of which my new piece has plenty - my voice-leading sensibilities, honed over years of evaluating student counterpoint and harmony exercises - do tend to kick in. But even there, my thinking is about 99% voice leading, and only 1% about resulting simultaneities, which I prefer to evaluate and tweak...again...(don't get annoyed)...exclusively by ear. Also, I actually love the sound of 12-tone music, but for me 12-tone has always been a seasoning, sprinkled judiciously at just the right moment - never a core-defining grail. I think it's possible to write 12-tone or almost-12-tone music by ear, but it's a LOT quicker to make yourself a Babbitt Square!

So, pitch is NOT less important than you think. But THINKING about pitch IS! Obviously, my points extend to those composers who did NOT go through endless schooling. Though the sad fact is, they tend to have greater trust in their ears to begin with. For myself, it's about learning to really believe in my ears, and that they'll guide me through a complex web of pitch relationships each time out, as long as I listen carefully, and listen again and again to the whole piece (it's impossible to overstress that). I think this newfound trust is part of the reason I'm composing fast now. I make decisions quickly, and trust that the inner computer is working, guiding me in ways my theory-teacher brain never could.