About Those Jets' Fundamentals

Posted by: Dave Douglas on January 25, 2011 @ 12:19 pm
Filed under: Culture, Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts)

Reader HL asks…

I wanted to ask you a question about composing. In sports, it is said that when two high levels opponents meet, the one with the strongest fundamentals is the one that wins. I was thinking about this watching the NFL playoffs this past weekend when all of the sudden teams were busting out their running game more than they ever had during the regular season. Sports metaphor aside, I was thinking about how great musicians also appear to have the strongest fundamentals.

In playing an instrument the fundamentals are rather obvious. How’s your sound, your intonation, your articulation, your air support, you hand position, etc…? And each instrument has exercises to address this concerns. But in the realm of composition they don’t seem as obvious to me. What do you consider to be the fundamentals of good composition and how do you go about continuing to develop them? How do you write better compositions as opposed to just more compositions?

My first reaction is to say that, well, music is obviously not sports. No one “wins” or “loses.” The basis for judgment is subjective and new music can only be valued on its own terms.

But putting that aside because there is something to this question and asking rather — What are the basic traits that make a composer whose music we like? What do you hear as the “fundamentals of good composition?” Accepting that the answer will be different for everybody (though probably with some healthy overlap) takes you away from the NY Times approach of last week’s Top Ten Composers Of All Time post. Anybody else surprised there were no Americans, women, or Dukes of Ellington?

Curious for all takes on the issue. Listeners and musicians.


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  2. Reflected on this question a bit more this afternoon, and I have a couple thoughts, for what it’s worth.

    I’m a person who likes music from lots of different genres. Because of that there is no one set of qualities that i could set aside as being the most important. You can find beauty and meaning in the most random moments of life in sound, whether intentional or not.

    But the pieces of music I find myself returning to over and over have a quality of balance. Balance between and among the elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, density and so on. A balance between head and heart, between thought and feeling.

    For me, it’s when all those elements come together at the service of expression that music transcends understanding and takes its place among the pleasant mysteries of being human.

    HL, ball is in your court, so to speak…

    Comment by Dave Douglas — January 25, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

  3. Hi Dave,

    I think it’s interesting that you’ve responded with a conceptual premise when I intended my orginal question to be one of craft. Balance is a great concept but how does one develop it? Balance almost seems like taste, but of course everything in music comes down to taste doesn’t it?

    As I’ve reflected on the question, I’ve been thinking about things like: melodic line, pacing, and a sense of drama.

    In the larger sense that I been thinking about, for lack of a better term, I’ll call it “gravity.” It seems like great musical ideas, in any genre, have a sense of inevitability to them. Great composers seem to set things up to where the next idea seems like it had to happen. This begat this begat this. This phenomenon is what allows the listener to feel satisfied or suprised as the music unfolds. Of couse this requires an investigation into what are the devices that create this phenomenon. Whether it is the half step in a V to I progression or the repeated piano chord during the second verse of “Every Breath You
    Take” by the Police.

    I feel like music comes through everyone in a unique way but when I listen to “Miles Ahead” or “The Rite of Spring” I’m made keenly aware that these composers have skills that I don’t but would like to develop. If I’m not as talented or the universe doesn’t bestow upon me ideas as profound, that’s fine and probably another topic altogether, but I want to develop the craft to best execute the ideas I’m given.

    Thanks again

    Comment by HL — January 26, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

  4. This is a very interesting post for me to run across, because I have been pondering same thing lately (and I was almost half expecting to see the answer).
    Every morning, I wake up, and in a matter of minutes, can organize a new set of exercises that I could use to develop my fundamentals. With the basics of any instrument, it’s either, you can, or you can’t. I can play a chromatic scale at 200 beats per minute, or I can’t. If I’m going to work on improvising, it’s less structured. Due to it’s individuality and subjectivity, it requires a lot more conceptualizing and time. However, I have spent many years doing working on my improvisation. At this point, I can identify many aspects that need to be improved, can break them down to a simpler form, and can then create a productive practice routine.
    On composition, this is what I’ve been thinking… (Obviously) composing is just like improvising, only much slower. When I was learning how to improvise, all I did was play along with recordings and copy every nuance that my heroes expressed. I would transcribe them for hours. After days/months/years of hearing the language, I started to understand certain notes and phrases. I began to understand what those notes and phrases meant/felt like, and how they could relate to bigger picture. My ability to express myself greatly improved because I followed the same process that anyone follows to learn their native language.
    When you’re a baby, you hear your parents speak. Then, after hearing thousands upon thousands of words, you utter your first sounds. Eventually, you can mimic your parents words (notes) and sentences (phrases). Then, you begin to try and say your own words and sentences, and begin to express yourself. After that, you go to school and learn the fundamentals of your language which only furthers your ability to share your ideas.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that (for me), writing needs to be developed in the same way. You must spend years copying other people (transcribing, reading scores) to understand the “composition language.” When you do that, you’ll start to see how great composers move melodies, shift through harmony, balance structure, etc. You’ll begin to sift through all of the extraneous information, and understand what it means to you. Over time, you develop the same freedom of expression in your compositions, that you do when you’re improvising, and even when you’re speaking. And fortunately, that freedom of expression, is only further developed by the fundamentals that are so easily obtained.

    Comment by Philip — January 27, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  5. I was not surprised by the absence of “Americans, women, or Dukes of Ellington”, since the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini set out only to make a list of the top ten “classical” music composers of all time. Have a little compassion for the white, European male, Dave. He’s lost his empires; leave him his inane philosophical prerogatives.

    Dave, I agree that HL’s football comparison is odd, but maybe there’s something there. He writes:

    “it is said that when two high levels opponents meet, the one with the strongest fundamentals is the one that wins.”

    Like a great many things that are “said”, it is often untrue. The team with the strongest fundamentals is often the team that wins, but you know which team always wins? With gratitude to John Madden, the team that has more points at the end of the game. As a lifelong Chicago Bears fan, I am intimately familiar with this phenomenon. We play some great team that’s projected to blow us out of the water, and somehow we manage to pull it out. (We are also experts at the reverse strategy, wherein we lose to teams that shouldn’t have had a chance.)

    What does this have to do with composition? Well, ask yourself: would you rather listen to a composer who has strong “fundamentals”, or a “clumsier” composer who grabs you by the collar and takes you for a ride? Music, like football, has no shortage of commentators and things that are “said”. A particular favorite of mine, from music school: “the greatness of Copland lies, in part, in his use of open fifths to evoke the wide-open spaces of America.” Right–just like Hindemith used open fifths to evoke the wide-open spaces of Germany, and McCoy Tyner used open fifths to evoke the wide-open spaces of New York City.

    Talent and greatness are retrospective. So is inevitability, HL. I like “The Rite Of Spring”, but to me, the greatness of Stravinsky is that he had the guts to even attempt such a thing. That’s why I’m always floored when I hear it, even though I know what’s going to happen: because it’s an affirmation of the kind of human courage that the commentators continually count out, but which has literally saved the world over and over again. As a composer, my task is not to catalog my heroes’ fundamentals; my task is to honor their nerve by attempting to do beautiful, impossible, crazy things myself, mostly failing, but perhaps, once in a great while, succeeding.

    To quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “Beauty is enhanced by unashamed irregularities; magnificence by a facade of blunder.”

    Comment by Vikram Devasthali — February 1, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  6. Vikram – Nice quote. I still disagree with you about the top tens, though. The whole idea of “classical” music is so distended that I don’t see how you can dismiss 20th century (and pre-Bach!) hybrid music. But I quibble.

    To go to the much-quoted Thomas Edison, who said:

    “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

    And also said:

    “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

    Not trying to say that music composition is like science. But it does take work, and Philip is talking about the work of transcribing and intensive score study, which I strongly agree with. I think beyond esthetics, HL is looking for a practice of composition to match his instrumental practice and to apply to his intuitive inspirations as a composer. (HL feel free to correct me about that if you wish!)

    One can go to Fux’ Gradus Ad Parnassum, Hindemith’s The Craft of Musical Composition, or Piston’s Counterpoint. And many, many other books, but I’m trying to stick to the basics. Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony is another basic with lots of hands-on practice to do. This smells like work, but I think that’s what comprises fundamentals. Inspiration counts for a lot in composition, but it’s often overlooked that countless hours of work are there to do as well, as is evident with instrumental practice. Great composers sweat over each phrase and each chord, despite how inevitable and effortless the result.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — February 2, 2011 @ 7:01 am

  7. I concede that the football analogy may not have been the best, but it’s interesting how you all have reacted to it. Anecdotally, I’ve observed that musicians are far more comfortable with martial arts analogies than sport analogies. Why is that?

    Comment by HL — February 3, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  8. Can’t speak for the the others, HL, but I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

    Comment by Vikram Devasthali — February 3, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

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