Monthly Archives: March 2014

What The Pro’s Think – Talent

As part of my Honours Thesis, I asked 13 professional Australian composers a bunch of questions about learning to compose. The questionnaire was answered anonymously, so I can’t reveal who said what, but I found the responses incredibly interesting and worth sharing.

Here’s some snippets of what their responses tell us about the perceived importance of Talent as it relates to becoming a composer:

Innate Ability/Talent/Aptitude/Inspiration

“If one does not have the requisite inner ear, imagination and creative drive, then there is nothing you can do!” – 3a. Q1

“Ideas come to those who have acquired fluency and a high level of technique.” – 3a.Q5

“…creativity can be drawn forth and nurtured.” 2.Q1

“Yes, like any skill, some people have more aptitude but totally possible.” 5.Q1

“Only partly. You would have to have the right attitude and sensibility, from thereon you can be taught the musical language.” 6.q1

“Certainly, technically it is. Composition techniques can be taught…” 7.Q1

“Talent will need to win out in the acquisition and development of the above.”7.q3

“Technique can be taught… at a craft level… technique alone is not enough.”8.q.1

“Not from scratch. There needs to be an innate ability already. Then a refinement of that can be assisted by teaching.” 9.q1

“Originality cannot be taught” 6.q3

‘New Music’ is not a genre

I feel like the words ‘new music’ have come to mean a specific genre of music. Yes, it’s mostly synonymous with ‘Contemporary Western Art Music’, but I think the definition is often a bit beyond even that.

A newly written piece of music using more traditional musical ideas from Western art music is often ascribed a weird place of limbo; It’s a newly written work, but one in a well established musical style or genre.

Well, technically ‘new music’ is just new + music. Music written recently.

But because a lot of musical scholarship has tended to focuses on the times when composers did something unexpected, pushed the boundaries, and unintentionally pioneered the new, we have come to, with the Art Music genre, place a lot of emphasis on this as a defining feature of a great composer. It’s good to remember, however, that probably 90% most of Beethoven’s works were fairly conventional, traditional and classical, if still distinctly Beethoven. Perhaps too much emphasis has been put on the times where composers deviate from the norm, rather than seeing the greater whole of their output.

Regardless of why, ‘New Music’ in the art music genre, is often not simply categorised as newly written music. A piece written in 2013 that very convincingly sounds like Mozart, is unlikely to be thought of as ‘new music’ by a lot of people despite its recent composition date.

A lot of arguments happen about what ‘new music’ ought to be – for example, whether it should be tonal or atonal – and I think a big part of this is because a lot of different sub genres are trying to stake out their claim to bad terminology.

Bad labels lead to bad thinking.
If you’ve ever studied music from a cultural foreign to your own, you have likely had to revise your definitions of music to accommodate music that is very different to your own. Even more telling perhaps is when things that sound clearly musical to you are not thought of as music in another culture.

While it’s ridiculously unlikely that the way people think of new music is going to change just because I speculate that it’s a bad name, I nevertheless think we need a better bracket term for all kinds of recently written music in the Western Art Music genre… A ‘New Release’ type of title, which covers the multitude of sub genres without stylistic preference.

‘New Music’ shouldn’t be a style or genre, but primarily description of composition date of the work.

Some better ways of categorising sub-genres would be helpful too…

Is the composer living?
Does the music use traditional harmony – Triadic or Non-triadic?
Does the music place the most emphasis on: Melody & Harmony; Timbre; Process; Soundscape; etc.
And so forth.

Obviously there are not going to always be clear answers, but it’s still better than trying to lump everything into ‘new music’ where it can get a bit rowdy without assigned seating.

Wont Somebody Educate That Composer!

In 2013, I had the opportunity as part of a research project to put a series of questions about teaching and learning composition to thirteen of Australia’s finest composers. While they did so anonymously, they were all composers deemed by the AMC ‘Full Representation’ artists; Composers that are not just professionals, but whose work the AMC has ‘identified as representing a significant artistic contribution within their specific field and community of practice.’ In other words, some of Australia’s ‘creme de la creme’ where composers are concerned.

Here’s an excerpt on what a good education for a composer might mean:

Chapter 6 – Creating a Balanced Curriculum


Cultural, Historical and General Knowledge
  • Historical knowledge (C2, C8, C10)
  • Aesthetics (C1, C2)
  • Study of music outside the Western art music tradition (C1, C8)
Technical Mastery
  • Learning to interrogate material (C4, C12)
  • Composition exercises (includes composing set model-piece “in the style of…”) (C2, C5, C7, C10)
  • Counterpoint & Harmony (C5, C6, C9) & Orchestration (C9, C10)
  • Master every other form of musical material organisation that everyone around you practices (C11)
  • Study of musical form.
Learning Interactively
  • Composer-performer Workshopping (C5, C7, C11)
  • Learning on the Job (C11, C13)
Engagement with Technology
  • Analogue and digital electronics / Music technology (C1, C2, C13)
Experiencing Music-Making
  • Developing an instrumental proficiency
  • Performing music in public or semi-public situations
  • Improvising (alone and with other musicians)
  • Playing as much music as possible (C10)
Developing Uniqueness
  • Thinking, “what am I trying to say” / Improvising and experimenting / Sketching broad ideas. (C8)
  • Reading books, watching films, going to contemporary concerts, theatre, dance, art.
  • Develop original ideas, try to be unconventional in generating ideas.
  • Improvising
  • Self-reflection
  • Challenging students to rethink what he or she is doing (6)

Table 3. The categorisation of responses into applicable thematic groups.

Many universities already include various aspects of the above to different extents; in particular cultural, historical and general knowledge is often a compulsory part of tertiary curriculums in Australian universities. Beyond this, however, an ideal education might consist predominately of intense technical training in musical materials and techniques, combined with the ability to learn interactively by doing. For example, a composer might be expected to master counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, form and compositional techniques through exercises, while developing the application of these to their own music through actively writing for ensembles with workshopping opportunities that allow dialogue and performance outcomes. With regards to the latter, an ideal educational program may in fact cater for exactly this by providing the conditions of a professional engagement through the mock commissioning of works for student or staff ensembles, combined with periodic workshopping opportunities, resulting in real concert performance outcomes.

Also of importance in a composition curriculum is the creation of occasions for the student to be involved in the performance of music and to experience music from this perspective, as was identified in the composers’ questionnaire responses. While it may not be essential to attaining eminence as a composer, and some may already find themselves prepossessing an understanding of musical nuance and musical performance, for the purposes of education, it seems best to err on the side of skill-acquisition whenever possible, rather than depending on pre-existing ability.

The composition teacher’s role will of course vary depending on the student and their individual needs, but generally applicable roles may include:

  • Providing direction, stimulating discussion and encouraging imitation and experimentation
  • Encouraging self-reflection
  • Teaching composition techniques (both historical and contemporary)
  • Suggesting listening/score reading examples
  • Providing the student a tangible developmental pathway – for which Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development could serve as a model
  • Assigning or encouraging the use of technical and compositional exercises to develop technical mastery.

Of utmost importance is that the teacher encourages a supportive environment amongst students as is discussed in The International Handbook on Innovation which states “the presence of a supportive social system including appropriate rewards for creative behaviour, and the like are considered to be instrumental for creativity” (Shavinina 638).

The student’s role will likewise vary, however, from the research of Ericsson and Charness, a daily engagement with relevant composition activates of around four hours, broken into hour-long periods, should serve as a platform for composition students seeking to develop eminence in their domain  (741).

Education: Problems and Solutions?

I am a huge believer in education, and especially in ‘life-long learning’. However, I got an interesting email this morning from one of those many people who somehow get you to subscribe to their emails. You know, the ones you get and delete without reading, but for some reason never unsubscribe from.

Anyway, in this email the guy raised one valid flaw in the education mindset and the way education is presented. Sure, we’ve all heard the criticisms about education such as Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk where he laments about the way education so often is not designed to enable creative thinking.

Whether or not you agree, there is one possibly inherent side effect of the way education at all levels is approached.

It is mostly built on the premise of preparing you to work for someone else. It’s not designed to enable entrepenurship , or to create your own work. It’s a legitimate point I think. Sometime’s there is a basic business course built into a degree,  as is becoming somewhat in vogue for creative arts degrees, or business electives can be taken. These course are normally very basic, very hypothetical, and are too ‘safe’ and real life is not.

Perceived financial risk is likely the biggest discourager for people who have some business aspirations, whether it’s setting up a paid (profitable?) ensemble to setting up a bricks-and-mortar store.

Perhaps what is needed is an education where the establishment of a working business of your design is the outcome. A Postgraduate Diploma of Entrepreneurship where the role of the ‘educator’ is mostly as a mentor and advisor. The assessment is you successfully completing the stages of creating the business. Similarly to choosing a supervisor for research, you could choose a supervisor with the experience in your field to assist you.

I know that they exist in the real world in the form of ‘real world Masters of Business’ but they are costly and not easily accessible, and seem somewhat risky. Perhaps having similar thing accessible as postgraduate study in the form of diplomas could be a real boon to students and to the economy alike. Especially in the Creative Industries where there is such a scarcity of existing jobs, perhaps it’s time to start enabling people to create jobs?

What do you think?