Jump to content
jgaddas

Structuring Music in the 21st Century

Recommended Posts

This is a thought that has nagged at me for years now, ever since I started to compose.

Let me make it clear, I am not referring to what forms are available on a larger scale (e.g. Concerto, Sting Quartet and so on), nor do I mean how do we handle and develop our themes and ideas – all be this closer to what I mean.

I am referring specifically to our use of form and its originality. For example if I say ‘Sonata form’ or ‘Scherzo’, immediately one conjures up a preconception of an inner form – a ‘middle-ground’ form perhaps, if we were to borrow a term from Schenker. Taking a sonata for example, the inner form using the most basic model would be: Exposition (AB-codetta), Development (A’B’), and Recapitulation (AB-coda). However, such middle-ground structures and their subsequent tonal implications seem unsatisfactory in contemporary composition. So, how on this level should we structure music?

Obviously some forms are tied to their preconceptions more so than others, the Scherzo for example is little more than a name nowadays rather than form set in stone. On the other hand the sonata despite its many permutations is still a sonata; it is still tied to the concepts of exposition, development, and recapitulation no matter how blurred the boundaries are. Staying strictly within the realms of ‘absolute music’, – i.e. music with no extra-musical connotations such as the tone poem, or other music in which a narrative governs its structure – if the sonata as a form is redundant in 21st century what do we replace it with?

As soon as we say this, a whole world of possible alternatives to the sonata opens up. Unfortunately many, (though for different reasons) seem equally unsatisfactory as the sonata. For example, opening a concerto with a (strict) fugue would probably be unsustainable. Using an essentially made up form e.g. ABABACDEBA, lacks the academic rigour required in contemporary composition – at least in this ‘middle-ground’. We could develop forms based upon mathematical principals such as the Golden Ratio, but this is more of an overall form (like the scherzo) and so would leave questions regarding thematic coherence relative to the structure.

In short I am at a loss, any suggestions?

J

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Saying sonata form was redundant was a bad way of putting what I meant. What I meant was that if we were to open a work with a movement other than sonata form, what could possibly it be!?

I must say, I certainly don’t feel limited by the use of sonata form... I simply think organising themes in such a manner has become somewhat stale.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Some of my more recent compositions (e.g my guitar quintet) mixes several different forms together to create some very interesting new ones. One of them that I quite liked was a mixture of theme and variations and ritornello forms.

If you like you can totally abandon any sense of 'form' by never repeating anything that has happened before. Schönberg did this in some of his compositions and it works quite well.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That certainly works, an example which first sprung to my mind there was Thomas Adés’ Piano quintet, which is fugue mixed with variations I believe! That works really well! Still it is hardly something new, forms have been combined since the renaissance. Like everything the concept has simply been taken to an extreme.

By the way, you’re a classical guitarist, a pianist, and string play that only uses pencil and manuscript paper when composing.... SO AM I! Rather weird..

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Very interesting discussion here. I'll have to comment more after work BUT... I just wanted to say that:

I love utilizing forms of all types, old and new. Form to me is an essential aspect to music - and one that I feel a lot of younger composers don't really give much creedence to. Anyways, I'll add more after work !

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

^^^agreed

A lot of works are sonata form. It, to me, is absolutely breath-taking. However, within the EDR in Sonata Form, I still use other forms.

In the Exposition, I might use Sonata Allegro; in the Development I might use Bar Form, and Binary for the Recapitulation.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

So, I didn't get a chance to respond after work last night... got to busy.

So let's talk forms.....

I think a lot of people misconstrue the modern usage of Sonata-Allegro to a great degree. Depending on what period of music you look at you see a lot of variance/change within the overall structure of sonata-allegro. At one time.. it was pretty cookie cutter (Exposition - Development - Recap <---- I/V - ? - V/I). Then you had the entire romantic explosion where the form expanded in over 9000 directions - but a strong emphasis placed on the tension/release aspect so prevalent within that literature. With today's expanded, mature usage of harmony it's not so cookie cutter. Some composers don't even consider the harmonic progression integral to the overall form - whereas a small minority of composers still adhere to the 'tried and true' progression originally exhibited in the form. I digress though, the truth is that the formal framework of sonata-allegro STILL makes it a very viable, fresh form to utilize.

One thing I love doing formally, is reviving older forms from the Renaissance, Middle Ages, and early Baroque period. Some forms are quite sectional (like the estampie), others allow odd usage of contrapuntal possibilities (like Organum), and others are rich for expansion (like the long-lasting Rondo form). Other times I don't even place an overall formal framework to a piece and instead go for a more freer and organic form that places a central motif or cell under development/expansion. This type of through composition can be difficult though and you really have to focus on expanding your material enough to provide some sort of variance - my string quartet I'm currently working on does this to a great success, I think.

My best advice in approaching form is to have an open mind and keep yourself open to the possibilities that can exist within your material. Sometimes forcing an overall framework can be debilitating to the material itself. Hope this helps :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Actually the main form of "development" of material in many 20th century works is permutation -- an example can be found in Bach's sinfonia in F minor for keyboard. In regard to the Bach, the medium range planning is to use a ground figure against a very chromatic motive which undergoes some permutations. Of course, the main driver of the whole thing is canonic procedures. So, canon - ground - permutation at respectively the global-medium- and small levels of organizations.

Of course today there are algorithmic procedures being explored with the computation power of computers and application of late 19th and 20th century advances in mathematics which create interesting new forms which could be traced in some respects to very old ones. For a more intutive example, Phrygian Gates of John Adams and a good deal of early minimalism could be said to be based on the medium scale of organization variation form using on the small scale older methods of working out the elemental material (for example, the additive process found in a piece such as Reich's Octet has an incipient precedent in Sibelius' works). The radical thing about some minimalism is the work does not end in a traditional sense - it stops seemingly on no cadential point - or the whole journey to a cadential point or the actual time for the development processes to occur over a large span of time. Sometimes, it arrives exactly back to its start but eschews traditional means to establish a sense of ending (Reich's Clapping Music).

As an aside, what is fascinating is a few of Chopin's Mazurkas which just fall on a dominant or tonic but have no strong sense of ending. Partly it comes from the folk material he uses (certain types of mazurkas would have this harmonically static feel from circling two tonal points .. one examples -

) but it is novel he brings this into the concert hall and salons.

In sum. to me form is what arises from simply planning a piece. For me, it can be just finding a few sounds you want to arrive at and explore. The actually journey, well, it doesn't seem too interesting if you stick with textbook examples. It is like boarding the safe and secure tour bus of the most popular sites of a destination and then return to you hotel outfitted just like your home. (And anyway, the term sonata in the 1st Venniesse school had never established a very specific form - it was quite flexible.. When the term sonata first arose, itsimply meant a piece where several instruments will sound together. Here is an example from CPE Bach -

.)
  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
That certainly works, an example which first sprung to my mind there was Thomas Adés’ Piano quintet, which is fugue mixed with variations I believe! That works really well! Still it is hardly something new, forms have been combined since the renaissance. Like everything the concept has simply been taken to an extreme.

By the way, you’re a classical guitarist, a pianist, and string play that only uses pencil and manuscript paper when composing.... SO AM I! Rather weird..

BTW It's 'Adès.' Notice the acute accent. Not the grave.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Form is one of those things that needs to be internalized. I like to separate my composing into two different camps. The first camp is more like practice. I want to internalize something that I have studied, in this case, maybe sonata form. So I plan out a piece that covers what is generally accepted as sonata-allegro form. Exposition-Development-Recapitulation.

From there I will break down each part into smaller parts that also conform to specific things that I want to learn. So for the exposition, I'll pre-plan a main theme that is a period, then maybe a transition to a subordinate theme that is a sentence. I'll also make sure to put in certain devices like expansion and extension, all done consciously and pre-meditated.

What this does is help to cement concepts that are only notional after being read.

Then there is the other side of the coin. Composing out of inspiration or just letting the music take you wherever.

When I have internalized concepts through deliberate practice, I find the forms will manifest naturally, maybe with more variation. They will also tend to be more complete and logical sounding, instead of academic, because they are guided by intuition.

So form is not outdated. We can still learn a whole lot from the past and apply it today.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I guess outdated wasn't a great word. I guess my deeper point was, there is a lot of wisdom rolled up into the older forms. They didn't just get created over night. I've found the forms quickly become a lot looser than a group of letters can really portray.

For instance in something like an exposition to a sonata. "A" could mean a simple main theme and subordinate theme in dominant, but it could also mean a main theme, plus a transition that leads to a key other than dominant, a first subordinate theme, which brings a cadence in dominant of the home key, and then a second subordinate theme, with multiple codettas.

Both examples could be looked at as "A" but ultimately bring about different forms.

I do agree, music with any or no organization behind it can sound good. But normally you can tell when someone is making the choice of no organization, versus not understanding traditional organization techniques. And it is just as easy to sound bad with organization if you don't have any real inspiration in the music. That is why I like to take the middle ground, really try and learn the form, and then let music just happen.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

BTW It's 'Adès.' Notice the acute accent. Not the grave.

Terribly sorry! I just found out that the accent in this case Adès is called grave. I get the names of different accents and diaereses mixed up sometimes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I never said that, I actually said the contrary lol 0_0

Music without even the broadest sense of organization is....well....just an arbitrary collection. Even composers who venture into various degrees of aleatoricism (at least those worth mentioning), organize the unraveling in some kind of way to achieve coherence.

And yes: I agree that the prescribed forms from past eras still are very much potent in harboring new musical ideas and approaches. Ternary, binary form and their extensions are ever present. I wouldn't exactly say the sonata allegro form is quite as heavily utilized, however (composers enjoying certain liberties using words like 'sonata', 'toccata', 'cantata', ect in describing their music).

Yes I certainly agree with you there in your last point. I just wrote a solo guitar sonata for myself Webernian in length but Wagnerian in motific development. None of its three movements are in sonata form at all, but in saying that the first two are binary and the last is ternary. So I don't think that there is any chance in leaving these fabulous simple forms behind!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Form is what you make it. Writing mostly vocal works, I let the text determine my form. But, when I do write non-vocal works, I tend to allow motifs to expand and contract and be mangled up.

Basically, I choose a subject and a second, related subject, and figure out at least 20 different ways to say each. I go from there. That's with you know, shorter works.

But, generally, it is how I structure stuff. If I was writing a string quartet, I would probably do that too. However, if I was going Philip Glass on yo donkey, I might choose a subject and just do it over and over again... MAYBE ADDING THE MINOR SIXTH MAKING A VI6 chord. But, only maybe.

Seriously, though, there are countless ways. And, yes, we keep a lot of the old forms, but it's all to just provide comfort for the listener and creative guidelines for the composer.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like Glass. I wouldn't put him on my favourite composer list, but there are some pieces of his that I like. I think the most repetitive piece that he's ever written is 600 lines. It is pretty much a motif repeated over and over in unison with some slight changes every few minutes. It lasts for something like three quarters of an hour.

I think the last decent thing he wrote before his more melody/harmony focus was his opera 'White Raven.' It was written in 1991 and deals with the idea of discovery and tells some of the great discoveries made in history. The opera isn't exactly meant to be that historically accurate, but it's pretty good.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Cool!

I dunno. Minimalistic form is weird to me. I don't really understand it. I mean, I get the aesthetic feel of similarity it is supposed to have. But, the lack of development sometimes leads me to feel like I am staring at a Rothko. Which, I can, but not for an hour. hahaha.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


×
×
  • Create New...