Monday, April 21, 2008

Be Galant

For some reason, I get asked a lot to recommend textbooks for composition. I've compiled a list of books that have been useful to me, personally, as a composer, but that list doesn't include much in the way of common practice western repertoire except for Morley's Plaine and Easy Introduction (which is a bit too early music-ish for most) and de la Motte's extraordinary Kontrapunkt (which is too German for many anglophones). I like both the Morley and the de la Motte as they are built around real repertoire of really great music and they cover a number of areas not featured in conventional instruction: Morley, for example, the rhythmic system, and de la Motte for going into depth on Josquin rather than Palestrina, a really good move, as well as going back to Notre Dame polyphony and forward to Wagner's network technique.

But now there's a superb book in English to recommend: Robert O. Gjerdingen's Music in the Galant Style. While this is boxed as a musicological essay, it's really a composition handbook for composing with the VARIOUS SCHEMATA common to a style widely used in the period you probably called the late baroque and early classic back in school ("baroque" and "classic" as terms identifying their musical practice would have been unknown to the composers concerned). Schemata are snippets of music, figure, patterns, routines, or formulae, many of them named, that appear pretty much intact on the surface of a piece of music and are re-encountered again and again in the real repertoire. As Gjerdingen wisely points out, the use of these schemata are precisely analogous to the use of lazzi in Commedia dell'Arte or of figures in modern figure skating. (One of the musical schemata is the Monte, which immediately made me think of routines in card tricks, another performing craft with an elaborate body of self-referential tropes that can be recombined and reworked into countless new compositions).

There are many ways, indeed an undetermined number of ways, of achieving a particular musical surface, a score. In general, in the academy, we have come round to teaching the composition of tonal music as a matter that begins with an abstraction -- i.e. a harmonic progression or, more fashionably, a tonal structure that is prolonged and given detail through processes that can be loosely grouped together under the term diminution -- rather than the assembly of concrete bits of musical material. Of course, this has never been the case in the teaching of vernacular musics, Jazz in particular, where training is closely associated with the acquisition of an ever-larger personal catalogue of possible chords, scales, and riffs, and there have been a number of heterodox theoretical projects: David Cope's experiments, for example, have coalesced into a study of how bodies of musical surface "signatures" can be recombined to replicate compositions in the style of a given work, composer, or repertoire. One is struck, however, by one contrast in these two styles of theory instruction and that is the degree of intimacy between the theory-making and a particular body of music.

In learning music, we need to go both broad and deep. There is a place an expansive and abstract theory-making, as this is how repertoires are fruitfully connected and this is where many new musical ideas are cooked up. As a composer, it's obvious, but for performers and listeners, it's essential, as it is a way of connecting with unknown musics. But there is also a place for depth, and this -- again, largely outside of vernacular music instruction -- is a real and present deficit in contemporary teaching. I can easily imagine a semester spent productively with Josquin and de la Motte, or now, with Gjerdingen and the masters of the Galant. Although the galant style, with its easily recognizeable body of schemata recommends itself well to such in-depth training, in a real way, it is all the same what repertoire is chosen, just so long as young musicians get the experience of a close encounter with a real music. *

Moreover, the Gjerdingen book is both scholarly and fun. I can't wait to try composing in sequences of Montes, Pontes, and Fontes, or Romanescas, Fenarolis, and Sol-Fa-Mi's. Get the book!

* I don't have the fluency with the Galant that a longer study of the Gjerdingen would provide, but I have had the pleasure of singing and playing Central Javanese music, a repertoire in which schemata -- if I can borrow the term -- are shared by text, vocal melody, instrumental compsition, dance, and puppet movement. Amazing stuff.


Scott said...

I don't think you can separate "abstraction based" and "riff-based" theories so cleanly. Schenkerian theory at the end provides a whole list of diminutions, and what is a riff but a type of diminution. Cope's EMI only works when he supplements the Markov chain analysis with some programmed counterpoint and/or harmony rules. Jazz composition teaches ii-V-I and blues forms, along with scales,scales, and more scales.

And many schools offer stylistic composition of various styles. Most common is Palestrina (16th century counterpoint) followed by Bach (18th century counterpoint), but I took a graduate class where I composed Mozartian string trios and Schubertian songs. Perhaps not in as much depth as you are suggesting, but a step.

Bob has been presenting stuff on partimenti and other schemata for many years at SMT conferences, it is fascinating stuff. Monte, Ponte, Fonte!

kraig grady said...

Warren Burt has asked me to lookout for books to order for the Uni here. i will let him know about this!