How I Wanted to Learn Composition

My title is shamelessly lifted from the title of an autobiographical essay by the German artist George Grosz. When I first encountered this essay in a literary journal purchased from the bookstore at Lucky Platt and Co., in my hometown of Poughkeepsie New York, I was intrigued, because I too wanted to learn composition. In fact all my life - or at least all my life since the age of fifteen, that is exactly what I wanted to learn. And as I look back on my life I realize that, very early on, this desire became an obsession.

This particular journal - I think it may have been called "Seven Arts" -- was about the last thing I expected to find in Lucky Platt, where most of the books on sale were the usual sort of thing one might expect in a small town department store. Another surprising discovery I made there was a thick paperback that intrigued me with its strange title, and caused me no end of head-scratching puzzlement: Leaves of Grass. But that's another story.

Grosz's essay wound up as an episode in his enormously entertaining autobiography, A Little Yes and a Big NO. It tells the story of how, as a teenager, he entered the Royal Academy of Art in Dresden in the magical years prior to World War I. He describes the pictures that were in his head at that time, filled with "soldiers and those happy monks drinking golden wine out of shiny glasses" and how real everything looked. "Well, that was what I wanted. I wanted to paint such pictures, and needed to learn 'composition,' something one could only get at an Academy, or so I had read."

However, when he confesses his interest in learning composition to a fellow student, "he simply laughed at me. Composition was completely out, was passé; my God, thirty years ago they did that." Undeterred, he learns that "there was - or had been - a composition class at the Academy, there was something to that effect on the schedule. . . but nobody seemed to place any value on this."

One day, as he's wandering through the halls of the Academy, he notices a door on which an old sign is printed: Composition Class. He tries to get in, but the door is locked. He decides to take the class but when he arrives at the day and hour posted on the door, no one answers his knock. A half hour later, he tries again and this time he is greeted by an old professor, "a morose old man with a slight smell of red wine and cigars." When he informs him of his desire to study composition, the professor is suspicious. "WHAT? What do you want? You - you want to study? You want to study composition?" (George Grosz:An Autobiography, translated by Nora Hodges. Macmillan, New York, 1946, 1955, 1983, pp. 54-58.)

Grosz's story reminds me of a famous tale from Kafka's The Trial, about a man who wishes to enter the house of the law, but the way is barred by a doorman, who keeps assuring him that he is about to be admitted. Only he never is. This was how I felt when endeavoring to learn the arcane laws of musical composition from those who, as I felt certain, held within their grasp the keys to the kingdom of musical art. I did manage to learn quite a bit about the traditional laws, of course, as practiced by masters such as Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, etc. I understood quite well what triads, were, seventh chords, ninth chords, secondary dominants, non-harmonic tones, modulation, etc., and also sonata form, song form, rondo form, and all the other forms. What I needed to know, and what no one seemed prepared to tell me, were the corresponding laws of Twentieth Century composition, the laws that informed the work of the modernist composers I most admired: Stravinsky, Bartok, Sibelius, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, William Schuman, Eliot Carter and the many others whose work I listened to over and over on the little phonograph in my bedroom.

During the course of my many years as a willing and eager supplicant in the halls of academe, I had the opportunity to study with several composers, some world renowned, others not: Ernst Bacon, Franklin Morris, Joseph McGrath, Darius Milhaud, Richard Winslow, Leo Smit, Henri Pousseur and Lejarin Hiller. I even had the opportunity, during the autumn of 1968, to study, on scholarship, at the Cologne Course for New Music, and participate, along with 20 or so fellow acolytes from all over the world, in the composition "seminars" of Karlheinz Stockhausen, during which the great man held forth, for hours at a time, in no fewer than four languages: German, English, French and Italian. I sometimes list Stockhausen among the composers with whom I've studied, but in truth I never had a meaningful face to face encounter with him - I participated strictly as a sometimes impatient, but nevertheless fascinated, observer. Which does not mean I learned nothing from him, because his early music was certainly a powerful influence.

As a grad student in Ethnomusicology, at Wesleyan University, I also had the priceless opportunity, on several occasions, to observe, converse with, and learn from another great artist: John Cage. I was even invited to have lunch with Cage, a delicious meal he meticulously prepared in his apartment at the Wesleyan Center for the Humanities. When I spoke to him of my plans to create a theater piece using only light and music, his response surprised me with its directness: "Do it." This was actually excellent advice. It never occurred to me that I could simply go ahead and do it, rather than talk endlessly about the "compositional problems" involved in such a presentation, which I'd been hoping he could advise me on.

In fact, none of my many music teachers were much help at all in this very important matter of "composition." What I learned from Milhaud (or at least what stuck with me) was to never, ever, place the oboe above the flute, and also to at all costs avoid diminished seventh chords. What I learned from Leo Smit was in the form of a question: "how much longer is it going to go on that way?" What Pousseur and Stockhausen taught me was how they went about creating their own compositions, each of which was completely different from all the others, thus not really models for what I might want to do. What Hiller taught me was to place a certain note an octave lower than where I had written it. This was actually excellent advice, because what he was really teaching me was not to be afraid of melodic disjunction. Actually Hiller stood out as a teacher who took the time to dig into all the details of my music, making a great many very meaningful and useful suggestions.

But, as far as the laws of composition per se were concerned, none of them appeared to have much of a clue, or even an interest in the topic. It didn't occur to me that composers spend most of their time composing, rather than thinking about the process of composition itself. I remember when, as a student at Aspen, I asked Eliot Carter to explain the first chord of his Piano Sonata, and he actually had to think about it for a while before responding, and seemed puzzled. He then said that he "supposed" it was "some kind of appoggiatura chord." "What, don't you know how your own piece is constructed?" I thought, disappointed. Actually that was the first time I'd ever encountered that term, "appoggiatura chord," which turned out to be very useful in analyzing a great many chords in a great many pieces. But wasn't much help in putting together my own compositions.

I finally did learn composition, but I had to teach it to myself through trial and error. What I learned was that composers no longer adhered to hard and fast rules of any kind, but that each composer created not only a body of music, but the rules on which that body of music was based. And in many cases, a new set of rules had to be devised for each piece. Thus modern (and post-modern) composers needed to be that much more creative than their predecessors, which may be why I've always felt more challenged by the music of my own time. It wasn't until I was at least fifty, I think, that I really began to feel that I understood what composition was all about. It's not really about laws at all. It's about having a clear sense of the materials one is working with and then struggling mightily with these materials, with all the intensity of Jacob, struggling for his blessing with the Angel of God.

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As a student at Syracuse University, I developed a strong interest in electronic music, possibly in response to a lecture by Karlheinz Stockhausen, during which he played his recently composed Gesang der Jünglinge. I managed to find a sine wave generator, probably at the campus radio station, and did some very primitive overdubbings, but was unable to accomplish anything much with so little to work with. In any case, by the time I graduated from Syracuse, with a Bachelor of Music degree in composition, I felt discouraged by my inability to understand how the "modernist" music I so much admired was composed, and as a result decided to give up composing and devote myself to the study of ethnomusicology.

A few years later, while doing research on world music with Alan Lomax, I started experimenting with the two Ampex tape decks in Lomax's studio. The first piece I completed was a musique concrète composition I called Inferno, because it sounded kind of scary and weird. I liked it a lot and decided to send it off to Moe Asch, who ran a record company called Folkways. I knew Folkways specialized in folk and "primitive" music, but they'd also published some items that were pretty strange and offbeat, so I thought, "what the hell" and sent them a tape.

Inferno was originally composed in stereo, but I sent Asch a mono mix because I wasn't sure Folkways had stereo equipment at that early date (ca. 1965). This was intended purely as a demo, for evaluation purposes only. After hearing nothing about this for about a year, I contacted Folkways, talked with Asch, and discovered that the piece had already been published -- in the mono version -- as part of an LP called, simply, Electronic Music. Not only was this a first for Folkways (which has since published several volumes of electronic music) but also one of the first electronic music LPs ever. Since I liked Asch, and was pleased to learn my music had been published after all, I didn't make a fuss about it being released in mono, but it really sounds a lot better in stereo. (Nor did I make a fuss about it being released as part of an album supposedly devoted to music composed at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio. For reasons known only to himself, Asch had simply folded my piece into the Toronto mix. Contrary to the information provided at the website, Inferno was not composed at the Toronto studio, but at Alan Lomax's studio in New York City.)

For a great many years, the tape of Inferno was stored in various attics. Since I lacked a reel to reel tape deck, I wasn't in a position to do anything more with it, until last summer, when I was finally able to get hold of a reel to reel deck at the University of Pittsburgh Music Dept. (thanks to dept. chair Matt Rosenblum) and make a digital dub of the original stereo version. In the process, I cleaned it up a bit, but not too much, since, as I see it, the many rough edges are part of its pioneering "charm." And there are rough edges, for sure, partly due to the primitive tools I had at hand, partly due to my inexperience, but mostly due to a deliberate effort to incorporate certain distortions and system noises into the fabric of the composition.

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Song from Vladimir

Song from Vladimir is based on an old recording of a traditional shawm ensemble, from the Russian province of Vladimir, as found in Alan Lomax's archive. I'm not sure whether I'd heard Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain at that time, but the concept is somewhat similar, i.e., a composition based on the overlaying of a single recording on itself (though what Reich did was far more elegant). In this case, I simply added another track each time through, using a very simple temporal displacement scheme. This is the first "process piece" I ever composed, and one of the first examples, after Reich (and also Terry Riley), of minimalist process music ever written.

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Small Dog

In January 1967, I left New York City, and my "perfect" job as Alan Lomax's musicological assistant, to enroll as a grad student in the music program in the frigid tundra of the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNYAB). I didn't want to leave New York, where I was beginning to have some success as a film maker, nor did I have any desire to return to the halls of academe, but felt compelled to make this move nevertheless, for reasons I won't get into here (it's a long story). One of the attractions of Buffalo was the promise of an electronic music studio, to be implemented "real soon now," as the saying goes. Unfortunately, construction of the promised studio kept being delayed and I was getting increasingly impatient. Finally, in the summer of 1968, I finagled permission to work at the electronic music studio of the University of Illinois, in Urbana. Since the studio was heavily used by both students and faculty, I agreed to work there at night, which was actually an advantage, since the nights were long and I had the equipment to myself for hours at a time.

The Urbana studio had some truly wonderful tone generators, originally intended for precision research by physicists, and I fell particularly in love with the sound of the sine wave oscillators. I experimented with combining these sine waves with one another to produce acoustic "beats." I wasn't so much interested in creating music, but in producing effects that hovered somewhere between subliminally sensed vibrations and audible sounds. At one point, I made a recording of some extremely low pitches, and then, to get them even lower, played the tape back at half speed. The result was pretty feeble, and I wasn't sure what to do next. Then, for some reason that didn't appear to make much sense, I decided to try playing the sounds back at twice the original speed. The result was magical, exactly the effect I was looking for, but at the same time puzzling, as the sounds appeared to be even lower than before, rather than higher, as one might expect. Apparently, in speeding up the tape, subsonic frequencies that weren't originally audible became perceptible, more as vibrations than actual sounds.

Since I was more intent on creating a sort of subliminal experience rather than a piece of "music," I decided to construct the piece on the basis of an essentially simple process, where certain tonal components very gradually increase in pitch, until the vibrations finally "emerge" toward the end as clearly audible sounds. Thanks to the complexity of the tonal interactions, the increase in pitch isn't readily apparent until the final segment.

As for the title, it's based on a strange idea I came up with, that each of us is being continually followed by a small dog that no one else can see. We can't see it either, because it's always just behind us. And if we look behind us it moves along with us, so we can never actually get it into our field of vision. In my mind, this notion related to the idea of subliminal experience, where we are continually being affected by hidden "presences" that we can sometimes feel, but can never directly observe.

In this spirit, Small Dog should not so much be listened to as experienced. What is required is not only patience but a relaxed state of mind. The better the audio system, the more effective the experience will be. It won't be very effective on your built-in computer speakers, so I suggest connecting the computer to your stereo system if possible. One can also listen on headphones, provided they have an adequate bass response. And please, for the sake of your sound system as well as your ears, do NOT play this music at high or even medium volume. It may sound soft, but very powerful acoustic forces are at work beneath the surface.

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The Temptation of St. Anthony

In the Fall of 1968, I received a scholarship to study with Henri Pousseur and Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Kölner Kurse für Neue Musik (it sounds cooler in German) in Cologne, Germany. I was hoping my enrollment in this course would give me access to Stockhausen's legendary electronic music studio, but this was extremely naïve, as Stockhausen had many students and only a very few, if any, were granted access to the sanctum sanctorum. After attending several of Stockhausen's "seminars," more accurately described as monologues, or, better still, tours de force, which lasted hours at a time, during which the master lectured incessantly in as many as four different languages, I was getting extremely antsy and increasingly eager to find something more creative to do with my time. (Not that I didn't admire Stockhausen's genius, which I did, and still do, but by this time it seems that his most original and creative work was behind him and he was busy recycling the ideas of others.)

After explaining my predicament to the very sympathetic and understanding Pousseur, he offered the use of the studio in which he wrote most of his own electronic music, the APELAC studio, in Brussels (actually the sound studio of a film production company). After moving into the apartment Pousseur had very generously arranged for me, I began working at APELAC, which was at that time not being used at all, giving me almost total access. As a result I practically lived at the place - and for a while actually did live there.

The project that occupied me during most of this time was inspired by the work of the great visionary Renaissance artist, Hieronymous Bosch. While in Germany, I had purchased a small book with excellent reproductions of his work and was particularly fascinated with his triptych, "The Temptation of St. Anthony." An excellent copy of this work, made by a contemporary, possibly one of his students, was on display at the Brussels Museum, and ever since viewing it there, I associated Brussels with Bosch and felt his presence everywhere I walked.

St. Anthony Abbot, or "Anthony the Great," lived in Egypt during the 3rd and 4th centuries, became a hermit, and for a while, according to legend, actually had himself walled into an Egyptian tomb, where he apparently experienced various hallucinations and other "altered states," which may or may not have resembled the images in Bosch's paintings. He became known for his ability to cure what became known as "St. Anthony's Fire," an affliction thought now to be due to ergot "poisoning" - and since ergot, a rye fungus, is related chemically to LSD, it's interesting to speculate on the possibility that Bosch himself may have fallen "victim" to a similar substance. You can hear the fire in my music, if you listen carefully.

The Apelac studio contained an excellent band pass filter, which enabled one to filter sounds into extremely narrow segments of the audible spectrum. I used feedback to create extremely distorted sounds of various kinds, often very loud, and then fed them into this filter, which I used as a kind of probe, in a search for "interesting" effects. Since the feedback was so extreme, the filter produced lively dynamic effects which I found endlessly fascinating. In addition, I incorporated a Spanish folk song, featuring a rhythm instrument called the ximbomba, and some remarkable female voices; a chanson by Josquin Despres (Parfons Regrets); and a segment of Gregorian chant, played backwards to function as a Black Mass.

I came up with about 20 minutes of music at this time, but then got stuck and was unable to continue. The piece haunted me for many years and I always hoped I'd have a chance to complete it. However, it wasn't until this last summer, when I located a professional quality reel to reel tape deck, and was able to make a digital transfer from my original 10 inch tape onto my laptop, that I was finally able to do so - thanks to a wonderful digital mixing program, Mixcraft 5, which I highly recommend.

The organization of this piece is based on an idea inspired, as I recall, by the film L'Avventura, which contains a protracted scene of unusual length presented in "real time," during which most of the action stops and we simply observe the characters and the setting. (They are searching for a missing woman.) Temptation is intended, therefore, not as a symbolic representation of Anthony's experiences in general, as might be expected, but an almost literal representation of his inner experiences on a moment by moment basis, during a specific length of time (ca 45 minutes), including long stretches where very little actually "happens." Listening to such a work requires considerable patience, as events flow more as they might in real life than they would in a typical piece of "program music," whether electronic or instrumental, conventional or "avant garde."

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I returned to Buffalo from my trip to Europe (see above) during the winter of '68-'69. And, as I recall, the promised electronic music studio was finally up and running. At its core was a brand new Moog synthesizer, the ultimate cool device of that period. The sounds weren't as impressive as the scientific quality audio generators of the classical studios I was used to, but the possibilities for tonal manipulation were greater, as the Moog had a built-in keyboard-controlled sequencer. Unfortunately, I had no interest in manipulating sounds, so the sequencer wasn't much help.

What I discovered, however, was a little known secret about this device: it had voltage controlled synthesizers that could be "programmed" to produce very interesting music on their own, with little or no human interference. The secret was the setup of feedback loops that controlled voltages rather than sounds. The two pieces I called Pipes1 and Pipes2 were composed in this manner, but "composed" isn't really the word, because the hidden feedback loops I set up were what actually produced the flow of sounds. The possibility of working this way was a great lesson to me because 1. it was my first exposure to the possibilities of "algorithmic" music, since I'd figured out how to get the Moog to function as a kind of analog computer; 2. I discovered an approach to generating music based on a kind of tuning process, and thereby recognized for the first time that tuning could be applied not simply to adjusting pitches, but also adjusting the elements of an entire composition.

I spent a lot of time "tuning" my feedback loops and gradually tuned in to certain remarkable possibilities inherent in the design of the synthesizer itself. When everything was just right, what emerged was an astonishing flow of pure, ever-changing melody, a process that reminded me of certain bagpipe pieces based on a long series of increasingly complex variations. The synthesizer produced the melodies on its own, while I carefully adjusted the feedback so the piece would gradually pick up speed and complexity as it went. I made two pieces based on essentially the same approach, one emphasizing pure melody (with fourth and fifth doublings), the other emphasizing harmonies, sometimes extremely dissonant. Because they reminded me so much of bagpipe music, I decided to name them Pipes1 and Pipes2.

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In 1970, after completing my Ph. D. requirements at SUNY Buffalo, I got a job as Assistant Professor in the Music Dept. at the University of Pittsburgh. My predecessor, Morton Subotnick, had recently supervised the installation of an electronic music lab at Pitt., featuring a Buchla synthesizer. But my methods were very different from those of Subotnick and I never took to the Buchla, since I couldn't find a way to "program" it like the Moog system I'd worked with in Buffalo (see above). For a variety of reasons, I lost interest in electronic music and focused for many years exclusively on instrumental and vocal music -- in addition to the film and performance work that had become so important to me since my time in New York City.

It wasn't until I was able to purchase a computer, in the early 1980's, that I returned to electronic music. The Commodore 64 was a remarkable device for its time, and at that time really the only one with interesting musical -- and also visual -- capabilities. While primitive by today's standards -- it only had three rather thin sounding oscillators -- it was nevertheless an exciting tool for experimentation with the possibilities of programmed sound.

Ever since my exposure to Schillinger's The Mathematical Basis of the Arts, back in the 60's, I'd been interested in the possibilities, both perceptual and structural, of resultants based on interferences between repeated visual or musical patterns moving simultaneously at different tempi. My first experiments along these lines took the form of solid color (or "flicker") films (Angel Eyes and Archangel), constructed frame by frame on the basis of interference patterns I found in Schillinger's book. Another early influence was Conlon Nancarrow, whose player piano compositions are also based on resultants produced through the juxtaposition of multiple tempi. Resultant effects are important in African music as well, especially that of the Pygmies and Bushmen, whose polyphonic/polyrhythmic vocalizing is an important factor in my musicological research.

In order to produce the resultant effects that interested me, it was necessary to program the Commodore 64 from scratch, since none of the existing commercial software had the ability to play musical lines at different tempi simultaneously. Since I was attracted to programming in any case, I decided to teach myself C64 machine language and "roll my own" programs - a great source of endless puzzlement, frustration and amusement to myself, and bewilderment to my long suffering, but very patient, wife, Holly. I managed to invent a fairly sophisticated piece of software I called "Program Music," and started experimenting with its polyrhythmic possibilities, which were impressive if I say so myself. For example, I could combine the same melody with itself at virtually any tempo ratio I desired, not simply three against four or five against six, but also 400:375 or even 1000:999, if needed. Since I wanted to work with more than the three voice limit of the C64, I decided to buy a second C64 and link the two, so I could work with a total of six voices. A friend at the local Commodore club (whose name I unfortunately forget) offered to design a circuit box that plugged into both machines, and with a little programming ingenuity I was able to get them into sync with one another.

While experimenting, I accidentally came up with a melody that struck me as both attractive in itself and suitable for the sort of multi-tempo canonic writing I had in mind. For no reason in particular, I decided to call it "Mondo," the Italian word for "world." Mondo 1 is essentially a theme and variations, based on various ways of combining the melody with itself in a more or less conventional manner, i.e., without the use of multiple tempi. The original melody keeps returning, as a kind of refrain. Aside from the tremendous speed, it could be performed by live musicians. Mondo 2 through Mondo 5 are all based on multi-tempo resultant patterns, using very complex ratios which can only be performed by a computer. All are based exclusively on the same melody, "Mondo," combined with itself at various tempi.

Ultimately, I was able to port all the Mondo pieces to a Mac computer, using the sequencing program "Performer," which, unlike many of today's sequencers, was also capable of producing multi-tempo resultants at very complex ratios. With the aid of this program, I was able to finally make a professional sounding recording of all these pieces, using the Mac to drive a Kawai K5 synthesizer.

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Millennium Fanfares

Already by the early 1990's, the forthcoming New Millennium was a hot topic and a great many predictions were being tossed around in the media and elsewhere. As far as music was concerned, I could predict two things: 1. many composers would be commissioned to write commemorative works, especially fanfares; and 2. I was not going to be one of them. Which was OK, because I had my own ideas about the coming Millennium and intended to write a commemorative work of my own. My piece was NOT going to be celebratory and was therefore NOT going to sound like any of the commissioned works.

The title Millennium Fanfares was intended as an ironic commentary on all the hype surrounding the coming millennium and also the silliness of commissioning fanfares to celebrate such occasions -- the piece was also intended as a rather bitter and even tragic commentary on the new era, which, as I anticipated, was not going to be a particularly happy time. In purely musical terms what most interested me was further exploration of the possibilities inherent in the cycling of musical elements in multiple tempi, and the various resultants, in the form of textures, melodies, harmonies and structures, that such a method was capable of producing (see my commentary on the Mondo set, above).

This time I decided to try something more ambitious than any of my earlier cycling compositions. By now I had a Commodore Amiga computer and an exceptionally powerful program, "Dr. T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer," capable of generating the complex timing ratios that interested me. The sounds themselves were produced by my new Yamaha TX 802 synthesizer. Unlike the Mondo pieces, each based on the same melody, Millennium Fanfares is based on a set of related chords, presented in an arpeggiated format, from lowest to highest, each moving at a slightly different tempo. Resultant melodies and harmonies are produced from the continually shifting interactions among the pitches of these chords as they gradually rise. The piece can be thought of as a series of variations, each marked by a gradual rise in overall pitch, with the pitch suddenly dropping at the beginning of each new cycle.

I "orchestrated" my fanfares according to three conventional instrument families: brass, piano, and percussion -- and the pricipal divisions can clearly be heard as changes in orchestration articulating the major sections. Thanks to my choice of sounds, the piece could easily be confused, at first, with a conventional "fanfare" composition, which was part of the ironic intent. At a certain point, I altered the basic chords somewhat, but aside from this and the changes in instrumental combination, the piece is essentially algorithmic, i.e. almost completely based on a predetermined scheme, which unfolds on its own from beginning to end. All I did was set up the fundamental elements, and "tune" them ahead of time, as carefully as I could. What surprised me as I worked, continually "tuning" and "retuning," was the way in which the piece seemed to be developing a mind of its own. And at a certain point I was astonished to hear the computer producing a music far more emotional and even poignant than anything I could have anticipated. It was almost as though my Amiga had developed a soul!

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