Friday, September 2, 2016

Composer Challenges 3.0: Building a Playlist

When I was in college, I spent a good portion of each week in the music library, pouring over scores and listening to recordings. I wanted to study what composers have already experimented with musically, to see what things worked, what things didn’t, and what I can learn from these pieces. Over the years, I’ve maintained this habit for a variety of reasons: to expand my knowledge base, to challenge my own composing process and sonic world, and to prepare for composing a new piece by saturating my brain with music of similar instrumentation or dimensions (this helps me to figure out what kinds of sounds I like and what I don’t, what I might want to experiment with, and so on). In other words, score study gets the creative juices flowing!

So, as another academic year begins, I’ve created Composer Challenges 3.0 for my composition students at Roosevelt University, where I’m serving as artist faculty this year. I’m sharing the challenges here for anyone to try. Ideally, each challenge is to be done in one week (to match an academic semester), but these can be done over any length of time.

This round of challenges is for students to develop a “playlist” of a wide range of works. The goal of this project is to familiarize students with researching works in different genres/idioms, learning a bit about what repertoire has been created within each genre (and by whom), and then studying works (with scores if possible; definitely with audio). These activities will be beneficial not only while the students are in school, but after graduation as well.

As part of the assignment, I have students focus on a 5-7 minute segment of a piece (since some of these will get quite large), doing careful analysis of any music parameters that they find interesting in the excerpt. These music parameters can be anything – melody, harmony, pitch content, counterpoint, orchestration, texture, form, tension/relaxation – basically whatever the student thinks the composer is utilizing in an interesting manner. Students are welcome to study more or all of a piece if they wish, but as lesson time is limited, we will focus our time on a small segment as to not impede too much on the main focus of their lesson (i.e. the pieces they’re composing).

There’s one stipulation in building their playlist: students can choose composers from any century (unless otherwise indicated), but a composer can only be chosen once. This will help diversify their playlist. Here goes:

1. Solo instrument (not piano)
2. Voice with piano
3. Duo or trio (with or without piano)
4. String quartet
5. Woodwind quintet, reed quintet, saxophone quartet, or brass quintet
6. Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion)
7. American idiom #1: folk, pop, rap, or rock
8. American idiom #2: jazz, blues, Motown, or R&B
9. A cappella choir
10. Orchestra, post 1920
11. Wind ensemble
12. Opera or musical
13. Anything goes! Choose a piece that somehow relates to what you’re composing now.

Finally, students should choose works that not only bring them much enjoyment, but will also challenge the way they currently perceive music. As composers, we need to get out of our comfort zones every now and then – these are the works that can help our music develop in new and exciting directions.

Enjoy the process of building your playlist!