Time for an Ear Cleaning

Occasionally, I find it important to start a class with a fresh perspective, especially in an introductory class for a topic with which I know students are not familiar.  For example, in our introductory computer music class, I have often put together what I call an “ear-cleaning” CD or playlist to give the students a taste of what they can expect. Sometimes, I do this to challenge their assumptions about a topic, or to upset their own sense of normalcy. But in any event, I always try to make these fun and interesting listening sessions that ultimately motivate a student toward success in the course.

Today, I started my Contemporary Compositional Practice seminar for new composition graduate students. It’s a course that in a mere 15 weeks reviews and studies the varying aesthetics and techniques used by composers in music from about 1950 to the present day. We move fast, and there’s never enough time to cover everything.

So this year, I decided to start with an ear-cleaning of some of my favorite contemporary works which when taken as a whole give a nice overview of the recent compositional repertoire. I tweeted about preparing the ear-cleaning playlist last night, and had several requests to post the list.

Let me just say, this list is (a) by no means complete, (b) not meant to be complete, (c) not necessarily the best exemplars of styles or techniques, (d) limited to recordings I had on hand, and (e) meant to pique curiosity, not define genres.  With all of those qualifications, here is my Fall 2011 Ear Cleaning playlist. Enjoy.

  1. New York Counterpoint: mvt 3, by Steve Reich
  2. Speech Songs: The Days Are Ahead, by Charles Dodge
  3. Le désert, from Des Canyons Aux Étoiles, by Olivier Messiaen
  4. Répons: section 1, by Pierre Bouléz
  5. Black Angels: section 2 (Absence), by George Crumb
  6. Short Ride in a Fast Machine, by John Adams
  7. Und So Weiter: part 3, by Luc Ferrari
  8. Jeux Vénitiens: mvt 4, by Witold Lutoslawski
  9. Lix, by James Paul Sain
  10. Fanfare (19-note ET), by Easley Blackwood
  11. Rapid*Fire, by Jennifer Higdon
  12. Kammerkonzert, mvt 4, by György Ligeti

Keep going, going on. Call that going? Call that on?

This summer, I was reminded by one of my students of the importance of ‘compositional stamina’, a concept I use to convey the difficulty in distinguishing between real time and musical time. Real time, the time we perceive on a clock or stopwatch, simply passes by, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. It’s reliable, it’s consistent, and unless you’re speaking of astrophysical phenomena or relativistic physics, it’s the same for everyone.

Musical time is the malleable and flexible path created during a musical performance. Musical time can speed up or slow down, and rarely does it have any actual bearing on real time.  Composers manipulate our perception of real time through variations of tempo, density, and thematic transformations (repetition, fragmentation, modulation). And more often than not, musical time runs a bit faster than real time. That is, 10 minutes of musical time may feel like it only took 7 or 8 minutes.

Young composers often ignore the realities of musical time, resulting in pieces that sound like they are not long enough, or that the musical ideas have not been fully fleshed out. And when you ask them “how long is the piece?” their own perceptions of length are way off. Here is where “compositional stamina” comes in.

When a student comes in with a piece where the musical ideas just don’t seem like they’ve been fully explored, I ask them to think about the stamina of their idea. Could the passage go a bit longer? Can you sustain this idea just a bit more? Push the idea forward with more transformations. When you think you’ve done enough, do some more. And some more. And then, just a bit more.

Keep going, going on. Call that going? Call that on? [reference 1] [reference 2]

It’s always easier to edit a piece down, and we should spend a lot of time making sure that our work’s musical time matches the real-time perceptions of our audiences. After all, it’s this manipulation of musical versus real time that is ultimately at the heart of the musical experience.