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"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   July 16, 2006   next

Yesterday while I was reading some narratives about music theory and considering a response, it occurred to me that my commentaries are full of 'who, what, when and where,' but occasionally very slender on 'why.'

The theory narratives reminded me because the concept of music theory -- teaching composers harmony and counterpoint that date essentially from the 16th century -- is stuck in the realm of first tonal practices. By using terms such as 'common practice' and 'functional harmony,' instruction has created opposing classes of un-common practice of non-functional harmony, aberrations, abnormalities.

The argument has been that composers should not re-invent the wheel -- or the circle of fifths -- and that common-practice, functional harmony underlies the majority of music today as it did for several centuries before. To begin elsewhere is to choose a minority point of view and in effect disable composition students in a common-practice world.

There is no effective response to that viewpoint if one's interest is in preparing composition students (or performers, for that matter, who also take theory and even occasionally use it) as tradespeople. (In some respects, the We Are All Mozart project is a tradesman's tale, that of what David Bailey has called a 'journeyman composer.') Composer-tradespeople fill the ranks of film and television composers, band and pop studio arrangers, industrial videos (somebody writes those cues), travel and entertainment programming (think the Weather Channel's "Storm Stories" or Discovery Channel's "Lobstermen"), event composers (such as fanfares for dedications, music for famous birthdays, tunes for gymnastic or dressage routines), and even advertisements. It is also imperative for composers who improvise their income over song standards at clubs, cross genres into pop, engrave music with attention to errors that knowing common-practice theory will reveal -- and, of course, teaching theory to the next generation of composers.

(And by this thinking, practicing scales & chords is necessary for the nonpop performer, who will face a world awash in traditional harmony and counterpoint -- and pick up extra cash in studio gigs, while being thoroughly unprepared for the theoretical, notational and musical significance of new nonpop that doesn't fit the common-practice mold.)

There is a dilemma here, and no advanced harmony classes for composers will repair it. And let me clarify: I'm not talking about a dearth of instruction in abstract serial methods and pining for ye good olde days of Klangfarbenmelodie or dreary hyper-Sprechstimmification of every melody. That's done. But what isn't done is the continuing growth of post-functional harmony and post-16th17th18th19th20th Century counterpoint. What isn't done is the exploration of modal harmony or consequent verticalization or non-tempered tuning systems or sound objects. What isn't done are the contours of chant or the linearity of multilingual motets. What isn't done is everything else.

Are they the ordinary tools of composers? Yes. Are they the dominant tools? No. But how did universities become a tool of the ordinary? There is no science within that demands some First Principles of Composition. If 16th Century counterpoint were to disappear tomorrow from the composer's palette, who would be worse off? But those questions will wait. There's a 'why' to deal with first.

The 'why' is this: The bulk of composer-tradespeople do not get a grounding outside these basic tools. Yes, there are instructors who slip in 15th century counterpoint or 20th century jazz harmonies, who tackle ancient and contemporary modal melody or offer the values of Valotti or Pythagorean tuning, but by and large they do not assume this knowledge (and treat it in the classroom) as essential to compositional (or theoretical) rudiments -- and usually teach on that very paragon of common practice, the tempered piano. They are broken under the psychological saddle of mythical First Principles.

If a composer survives these contortions, there are more traditional approaches to follow, for by the time a subject reaches the academic sphere, it is either long dead or hardly breathing. So composers get older and move onward to specialties. Even electroacoustics has become a field now grizzled enough to have historical principles.

What has been learned overall in this musical education is that composers must meet expectations. That will be reinforced by performers unfit to play outside traditional practices, by presenters and media uneducated outside traditional practices, by elementary and secondary teachers with only a slender reed of theory and composition and arranging to begin with, and by listeners offered (through the filter of performers, presenters, media, and teachers) only what they already know. The irony of the arts is in its subjectivity. With visual arts, there are elements of the unfolding of everyday culture. With nonpop, those elements are difficult to find outside film, where the image and the sound support each other.

And so we have Splenda music. At each successive stage in a composer's growth, more is learned. But most composers will not move past those first stages, those first principles. They will take their first-principled music out to performers, presenters, media, teachers, and audiences who are also experienced solely in first-principles music. The most successful at any level, whether local or in Andrew Lloyd Weberdom, will exploit those principles. Remember that Puccini, Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg were working at the same time -- and whose music is most part of the public consciousness, right down to antacid commercials.

So Splenda music is heard in those aformentioned industrial video scores, travel and entertainment programs, advertisements and public events. It's at these last that the local Splenda composer is heard with a crown of esteem. With a composer being a relative rarity, the presence of one at the local level baking little loaves of Great Music for a local dedication ceremony or gift presentation or patriotic event (if you can get past Sousa) validates that easy-listening Splenda sound once more. (Can you imagine the Stravinsky Fanfare at one of these?) Hymns to this and that, beautiful scenery sounds, fanfares with pounding drums! Ah! The joy!

It's easy to go for it. Applause is narcotic. But, you're thinking, he hasn't explained why Splenda music is bad. Oooooo, that 'why' question. Yes.

Here's why. Splenda music is commoditized. It is not about excellence, but about adequacy. It is not about art but about entertainment (a desirable consequence, of course, and nonpop artists often do a dreadful job of entertaining). It is not about message, but about style. It is well done, and therein lies the trap, because it is not about beauty, but about prettiness. Not about drama but about excitement. Even when it is the best it can be, it is no more than its nature -- and its nature is still Splenda. Its composition is different, adequate but false. (Yes, Muzak and pop are hard to write, and I could no more compose a decent C&W song than I could build a racecar. That's a parallel issue.)

At heart, Splenda music does not violate expectations. It's consistent. Again and again, like a McDonald's burger or an iPod or season 2 sitcom, it is exactly what you expect it to be. Every time. That's not art.

I'm going to cut the lawn now, speaking of consistency. (Lawns certainly aren't my art, but it's a big one with slopes.) And when I return, I will have composed a splendified music fanfare for Stevie's birthday cookout this afternoon.

After the Lawn

The lawn is done and the fanfare is done. Here is a demo in a broadband stream or a download, and a (messy) pdf score. Nice and splendified!

That's what I mean. Great fun to write, not hard to write -- though I'm afraid it was hard to keep the Dennisness out of it while splendifying.

So did I just contradict myself, writing Splenda music? It was a family event, folks who already know the range of what I write. They had just as much fun as I did laughing at it in auto-repeat mode. Will somebody every play it in the real air? I don't know. It doesn't really matter because it's lighthearted fun. Splenda. For sweet summer afternoons.

Afternoon of the Cookout
The family cookout on a sweet Vermont summer afternoon includes time at the swimming hole.

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