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Jean Szulc

Creating an actual "body of work", while having so many vocabularies to use.

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Hello!

Recently I've been thinking about how much choices we have as composers when it comes to using certain vocabularies in our music.

As @Monarcheon said somewhere, during the classical period, being a great composer was about using a limited range of tools to make something novel.

From the late-romantic period to the 20th-century, this changed and became more about coming up with new tools to achieve what you want musicaly.

Now, here we are with many new methods of creating amazing music. Problem is: most of us are not creating our own methods, and we can't be genial in the 'great tendency' of making music because there are just too many tendencies that happen simultaneously.

Why this bothers me: Every piece, I follow a diferent aesthectic, a new vocabulary, new everything. So how could this add up to a concise body of work? Or perhaps I shouldn't try to be concise, but should try taking up on a bigger range of ideas. 

Also, of course I can "do whatever I can, as the music is mine", but I don't feel like this is a satisfactory answer to this dilemma.

 

What do you think?

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I like how thoughtful and introspective you are as a person. I think it makes you an even better composer!

To answer your question, I don't think you're doing anything "wrong." In fact, one could argue you're following the same path every great composer has taken—trying on new and different styles/tools/vocabulary to see which fits the best. You may never arrive at a style that you keep forever.

With time, though, I believe you'll form enough foundation into your intuition that you'll employ subconscious patterns that unify your works. Nothing to worry about, but it's good that you're thinking about it.

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@Tónskáld Thank's for your kind words 🙂

Besides that, I was thinking in more general therms. 

I say that because, very often, I feel like we are in a "in-between" period. Great things have happened in the past, and (hopefuly) many will do in the future. But are we in a particularly good period, or are in between two peaks? If so, shouldn't we be hoping to take the next step in music history? 

For that reason I asked about this: 

27 minutes ago, Jean Szulc said:

most of us are not creating our own methods, and we can't be genial in the 'great tendency' of making music because there are just too many tendencies that happen simultaneously.

Perhaps I (or we) are trying to live off the ashes of the past, and not seeing what comes in the future. 

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Ah, I see what you're getting at.

Idealogically, some say our Western society is in the throes of postmodernism, which is largely a reaction to modernism. So, rather than spending energy looking for news ways of doing things, we focus mainly on not doing things the way they were done during the modern era.  That's a stereotype, of course, but I think it does a fairly accurate job summarizing our cultural/artistic expressions over the past 30 - 40 years. What does this look like? Well, since the modern era was characterized by reason and logic, the postmodern era is characterized by de-emphasizing reason and logic. In music, we saw the advent of atonal music and the gradual displacement of traditional tonalities. Chaos and randomness began to be favored over form and beauty—outflows of logic.

This isn't to say that any of this is somehow wrong or worse, however. It simply is the way things are.

Personally, I think it's rather sad that atonality and tonality need be viewed as the products of opposing idealogies. Why should one be praised and the other devalued? Why should composers of serial or 12-tone music (i.e., atonal) be hailed as "innovative and cutting-edge," while composers of traditional diatonic harmonies be criticized as "commonplace and close-minded?" My goal as a composer is to blend these two.

And maybe that's what will define our era: a melding of old and new. In any case, I do agree with you @Jean Szulc that we seem to be living off the ashes of the past, even if our goal is to wipe those ashes from our memory.

Edit: the goal of postmodernism is to obliterate the ashes of modernism. I wasn't insinuating that's what we should be doing, but rather that's what society is doing.

Edited by Tónskáld
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@Jean Szulc  @Tónskáld

I share and understand your concern about this issue.

Many factors affect the answer (if there is one).

  • what is your (our) goal when composing?
  • how have you studied, how have you arrived to composition?
  • how restless are you about expanding your composition tools?

Perhaps, professional composers would try to define his/her own language? Which I assume, it is quite difficult nowadays. But notice that the vas majority of the great composers of our days have or had not focused only in one language. Richard Strauss, John Cage, ...... Gorécki, Párt, Vasks, etc., etc... Some of them experienced phases but also many others can be defined by a word: eclecticism.

I am amateur composer. I mean, I study music (a lot) and write music because I love it, it's almos a vital need. It's been a very long and satisfying journey to learn all the things I know. When you study new languages, new systems, it's normal you focus your composition on them. I understand this as exercises, but it doesn't mean you can do beautiful things.

But my final vision of this question is I have lots of TOOLS to use at my convenience, and when I want to. Starting on classic tonal harmony and counterpoint, but going to atonality, polytonality, impressionism, PC sets, polychords, Messiaen, mirrored harmonies, new forms, jazz harmony, and a long etc... I believe everything can be combined. The difficulty is to make something expressive with the tools you pick up for a composition. 

So, eclecticism is the answer, for me.

I'm also convinced that a composer with aspiration to evolve has to study and know as many tools as possible. No matter you hate atonalism, you need to know what it is and how it works. We see atonalism mixed with tonal music in many great works (The Rosenkavalier, Cabaret, Psycho.....). If you don't know this tools, you are limited.

I respect people who write music imitating Mozart or Bach or whatever. What's the point? I understand to do it as exercises, to learn those styles. Nobody (of us) can make music 50% as good as theirs, in their strict style. They are happy with it, writing music like that. But I don't understand to be stuck in that period and nothing more, with all there is. Even if you hate atonal music, you can enrich your tonal music with many tools from the 20th century. So, it also depends on "how restless you are". I always value the hard work of composing in any style, but I think many people loose opportunities denying anything further than romanticism. I usually write music based in contemporary tools, but I don't mind mixing with tonal music if I need it. 

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It’s just about all been said. As with many things (in life) we set on a path and progress, sometimes realising we’ve led ourselves up blind alleys, have to backtrack and choose another route. In a way I see the technicalities of composing like running a map – the map contains all the procedures we’ve learned so far along with our experiences of them. We know where we can find what we need. But much remains unexplored. I’m a bit against over-jargonising theory. It’s there but to me it’s about formalising what the expounder thinks is good taste. We may have to expand on established academia if it proves inadequate. The composers in sound organisation quickly learned that the recording studio was their instrument of choice. (As someone once said, the revolutionary is nearer the prison than the professor’s chair - can I substitute “side-lines” for prison? But the notion holds good.) It’s also about communication to me (and I know a few disagree with me, sorry about that). Do you create entirely for your own satisfaction? Is the process more important than the result? Do you expect an audience to listen? Do you expect the audience to have expectations? Is music entertainment? Maybe we do them all.

So I don’t think there’s a formal way to create a body of work. Our work is the sum total of our creative paths to date. Others may disagree.

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I think Jean is irritated that he is forced to build the damn road before he can drive on it. We are composers, right? Not Civic Engineers. I think that this demand upon us is overblown in our minds. And perhaps we are too focused on tonality as being the one thing that we use to define ourselves as artists. But there are so many other ways. I hear great music all the time from artists who are not bound by this neurotic demand. It's in good pop music, good jazz, good multi media work, and good so called serious work.. But the key word is good. I cannot tell you what good means. You already know what good means. These artists use a broad spectrum of aesthetics:  rhythm, rhyme, emotion, new instrumentation, electronics, new combinations of established forms and many other manner of the elements of music to entice the public. But an unrealistic focus on the necessity a new tonality at all costs can be seen as building the road instead of driving on it. In other words, a diversion and a hindrance. Something that is holding you back as a composer because it represents that big, loud irritating voice in the back of your head. Be original! Be original! (just shut up and let me compose)

I agree with Luis that eclecticism is the way forward. Leonard Bernstein said as much before he died. I mean, if you were a chef would you be satisfied with cooking only pasta,  or would you rather cook everything?

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13 hours ago, Jean Szulc said:

Hello!

Recently I've been thinking about how much choices we have as composers when it comes to using certain vocabularies in our music.

As @Monarcheon said somewhere, during the classical period, being a great composer was about using a limited range of tools to make something novel.

From the late-romantic period to the 20th-century, this changed and became more about coming up with new tools to achieve what you want musicaly.

Now, here we are with many new methods of creating amazing music. Problem is: most of us are not creating our own methods, and we can't be genial in the 'great tendency' of making music because there are just too many tendencies that happen simultaneously.

.....So how could this add up to a concise body of work? Or perhaps I shouldn't try to be concise, but should try taking up on a bigger range of ideas.

I think it is true that when we subscribe to a particular school (i.e. romanticism), we naturally narrow our perspective. Despite this, we will still form conceptions about other schools, as well as the philosophies that underpinned them. Such conceptions can be misconstrued, often affected by cognitive bias.

As a result, taste is entirely subjective; one must also appreciate that people from different eras had different ideas as to what constituted a "great" work, or composer. In fact, a great number of "great" composers (assessed by one's relative success) of the 18th century are now utterly neglected. Why? I think it is has something to do with modern concepts of artistry and individualism.

The limitation that composers were subject to during this period was not so much to do with "rules". Rather, it had more to do with the employment model they had to operate in. Most successful composers either worked under the patronage of the church or an aristocrat. Either way, the composer was an employer, and good employees go what is asked of them. There is not a great deal of autonomy within this environment, although there were exceptions such as in the case of Haydn.

Rules were often broken by competent composers, which was encouraged under reasonable justification. The sheer amount of music composed during the common practice period at least demonstrates the flexibility of the concepts and training that underpinned it.

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Hello everyone! It's great to see this topic being welcomed by you all, and I'm glad it you all got hold of it. 

I don't want to "moderate" this conversation, and for this reason I won't answer everyone, unless I feel I have something to add. Please, feel free to take this conversation wherever you please, and don't feel the need to make every comment a direct answer to my initial question. 

I'm only saying this because many of the posts here relate it all directly to me.

Thank you all for posting. 

Best regards, Jean.

@Tónskáld @Quinn @Luis Hernández @Ken320 @Markus Boyd

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3 hours ago, Jean Szulc said:

Hello everyone! It's great to see this topic being welcomed by you all, and I'm glad it you all got hold of it. 

I don't want to "moderate" this conversation, and for this reason I won't answer everyone, unless I feel I have something to add. Please, feel free to take this conversation wherever you please, and don't feel the need to make every comment a direct answer to my initial question. 

I'm only saying this because many of the posts here relate it all directly to me.

Thank you all for posting. 

Best regards, Jean.

@Tónskáld @Quinn @Luis Hernández @Ken320 @Markus Boyd

 

Apologies, perhaps I misunderstood the thread nature. 

What I was really building to in my comment was that I think we should not shy away from applying concepts from the common period. It should certainly not be considered as a limiting endevour, particularly if as an amateur composer one have absolute autonomy as to how one chooses to apply them. Many of the concepts really do help with producing music with form and ideas that are coherent and relatable. 

Edited by Markus Boyd

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On 11/27/2019 at 5:59 PM, Markus Boyd said:

Apologies, perhaps I misunderstood the thread nature. 

What I was really building to in my comment was that I think we should not shy away from applying concepts from the common period. It should certainly not be considered as a limiting endevour, particularly if as an amateur composer one have absolute autonomy as to how one chooses to apply them. Many of the concepts really do help with producing music with form and ideas that are coherent and relatable. 

 

I don’t think many of us would. All these techniques are useful in context.  CP got very comprehensive by the time people like Kitson felt there was little more he could say. Although I write (mostly) atonally (but not I hope too abrasively to the ear) tonal centres creep into my work and the ‘good taste’ of the CP era is very applicable in laying out both vertical and horizontal progression particularly if one relies on chromaticism a lot. It can make a difference between clarity and awkwardness in orchestration/sound organisation. Similar principles apply to musique concrète, electronics, and mixes of all.  

If one relies on intuition it’s useful to be able to move in and out of tonality whatever resources the piece needs.

The big question to me is still ‘Are you going to put it before an audience?’ and if so, what sort of audience? In which case you’re into communication and, like it or not, neurophysiological issues come in on the act. Some musical events are pleasing, some aren’t (which doesn’t mean you don’t use them according to your judgement). So organised sound does possess some of the qualities of linguistics. A huge perfect cadence at the end of a work gets far more riotous applause than a weak fade-out. Semiotics are involved. It’s why some of the modern technocratic composition techniques get such short shrift upon reception. For their work you need an audience that just listens without expectations…

I may have to edit this when I sober up. Hmm...

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6 minutes ago, Quinn said:

I don’t think many of us would. All these techniques are useful in context.  CP got very comprehensive by the time people like Kitson felt there was little more he could say. Although I write (mostly) atonally (but not I hope too abrasively to the ear) tonal centres creep into my work and the ‘good taste’ of the CP era is very applicable in laying out both vertical and horizontal progression particularly if one relies on chromaticism a lot. It can make a difference between clarity and awkwardness in orchestration/sound organisation. Similar principles apply to musique concrète, electronics, and mixes of all.  

If one relies on intuition it’s useful to be able to move in and out of tonality whatever resources the piece needs.

The big question to me is still ‘Are you going to put it before an audience?’ and if so, what sort of audience? In which case you’re into communication and, like it or not, neurophysiological issues come in on the act. Some musical events are pleasing, some aren’t (which doesn’t mean you don’t use them according to your judgement). So organised sound does possess some of the qualities of linguistics. A huge perfect cadence at the end of a work gets far more riotous applause than a weak fade-out. Semiotics are involved. It’s why some of the modern technocratic composition techniques get such short shrift upon reception. For their work you need an audience that just listens without expectations…

I may have to edit this when I sober up. Hmm...

 

I agree entirely. I do compose for an audience and so, to an extent, compose in a manner that is pleasing to the ear. I do draw on ideas from the CP as they work, and still work - its why we still listen to music from this period.

I am not familiar with the work of Kitson... did he write, or try to write in a CP manner?

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Charles  Kitson was a teacher, author of books on "elementary harmony" and counterpoint, a long time ago. It isn't all elementary though! My initial brush with harmony was Part 1 in my pre-teen years when a choirmaster felt I was worth his time helping me. Part 3 was opening Pandora's Box!!! 

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Hello everybody! Well, this thread has really inflenced me.

After listening to a lot (I mean a LOT) of music lately, and I kinda came to @Luis Hernández 's conclusion

On 11/26/2019 at 5:53 PM, Luis Hernández said:

Perhaps, professional composers would try to define his/her own language? Which I assume, it is quite difficult nowadays. But notice that the vas majority of the great composers of our days have or had not focused only in one language. Richard Strauss, John Cage, ...... Gorécki, Párt, Vasks, etc., etc... Some of them experienced phases but also many others can be defined by a word: eclecticism.

Also, I love @Ken320 's  post. I think it explains quite well what I was feeling at the time. Plus, the clever writing in there could extract a laugh or two out of me. However, I think I can find some fun bulding the road. Who knows?

Every post here helped me organize my own thoughs a bit, and I feel more confident now about laying my ideas on the sheets.

Thank you all for posting. (once again, this post wasn't intended to be about me, so feel free to continue the conversation if you all feel like it)

Cheers!

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However you interpret your future, let your musical growth be organic. Don't force it and don't bend to the demands of others, unless they're paying you. (😉)

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7 hours ago, Jean Szulc said:

Hello everybody! Well, this thread has really inflenced me.

After listening to a lot (I mean a LOT) of music lately, and I kinda came to @Luis Hernández 's conclusion

"Perhaps, professional composers would try to define his/her own language? Which I assume, it is quite difficult nowadays. But notice that the vas majority of the great composers of our days have or had not focused only in one language. Richard Strauss, John Cage, ...... Gorécki, Párt, Vasks, etc., etc... Some of them experienced phases but also many others can be defined by a word: eclecticism." 

Apologies. I don't know how to quote within quotes on this site. 

Which is fine, as long as you're willing to accept the concept of language. For a work to be received the listener has to understand at least roughly the language being used. It assumes the composer wants to communicate something. If you had typed your post in Chinese I wouldn't have understood it. Music may not have quite the precision of an information language (words or pictures, say) but some semiotics still apply. As composition techniques have evolved listeners can get the gist of what's going on, if it's within their capture range - enough anchors to cling on to.

More recent serial techniques (among others) haven't done well with conventional audiences for that reason. The works need an audience that can just listen but with no expectations. No communication other than 'there are sounds impinging on my ears' is possible, so language isn't applicable. Consider if you yourself re-coded ideas with new patterns of sound. You wouldn't expect others to understand what you were 'communicating' until you taught them the meanings attached to your sounds - operative word "meanings". Some people would be happy just to listen (as I do to Crèole while understanding almost nothing of it. But we're relatively rare).

Familiarity through repeated listening is its saving grace if any. That sounds too much like work to me.

I've proved that you can get away with anything. It depends who you want to listen to it.

 

Why can't this site allow ordinary BB code?

 

Edited by Quinn
typo and grappling with quotes

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On 11/27/2019 at 5:47 AM, Markus Boyd said:

The limitation that composers were subject to during this period was not so much to do with "rules". Rather, it had more to do with the employment model they had to operate in. Most successful composers either worked under the patronage of the church or an aristocrat.

I don't actually buy this, no offense. It is true, however, that the aristocracy did influence music, but they didn't really influence "rules". The church and the tritone is probably on the only real strong-armed rule. I'd argue that the aristocracy went against the conventions and that's how we got "art" music, which has fallen out of favor in the centuries since, now that rich people have all kinds of other things to spend money on to flex on the peasants with. Most of that art music was intentionally composed differently from the peasant music because it had to be for the rich people to want to pay for it. They weren't going to pay for music that sounded like what all the commoners were playing, but if you look back on Beethoven, Mozart, and so on's most famous pieces of today — they are actually the ones that are closest to what normies of the day would've been listening to, which is quite similar to what we like about music today.

The "rules" most people are referring to here are usually rules of counterpoint or sometimes acceptable harmonies.

All of said rules had logical, at least for the time, reasons for being followed. 

In composing music, people have generally followed whatever doctrine gave them the most-consistently-satisfying results. In the time of the greats, they were simply using what knowledge was available to them at the time, or at least widely understood.

This doctrine has expanded as our understanding of the physics of music and their effect on us has expanded. However, over the last 100 years, this doctrine has not changed very much despite massive leaps in the technology to understand it and ability to share information. This suggests that we are either at, or very near the borders of what tools can be utilized by a composer to create satisfying music — at least in the ears of 99% of people, it seems.

and if you go back through time, and you analyze the most enduring classical pieces, folk music, etc. you will find that they have a great number of consistencies.

Understanding what these consistencies are, and how to employ those same concepts in your own work, is where the "craft" comes from. That's why I'm a big advocate for learning that craft as much as we can; it gives you control over your music. You want to be in total control of what you're doing at all times. It makes composing music, and life in general, so much easier and fun.

Because if anyone was going to throw those "rules" to the wind and stumble upon some better, more reliable method of creating music that would advance the craft to a whole new level of understanding and open up a complete new set of musical devices for us to use — then it stands to reason that it would've happened by now, since tons of people are breaking convention all the time, just out of sheer ignorance. 

With each passing year that it doesn't yield ground-breaking revelations, this point will become only more self-evident.

As long as we focus on writing GOOD music and trying to master the craft, that's all that matters. Our own uniqueness/identity will shine through as the result of our own quirks, favoritism, habits, etc. that rise organically if you let them. 

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw

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@AngelCityOutlaw      @Markus Boyd

Hi,

What do you mean by consistencies?

 

I don't think in the baroque, or classic era the composers had limitations. They used everything they know, and music evolved. We cannot see them through the knowledge of today. They had no idea of impressionism, or atonalism, etc... But we have all those tools available. What I tried to explain is that, by default, if you know just a few systems, languages or whatever..., you are limited. The more things to use in composing, the more spectrum you have.

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On 12/1/2019 at 1:38 PM, AngelCityOutlaw said:

This suggests that we are either at, or very near the borders of what tools can be utilized by a composer to create satisfying music

I don't think this is completely true.

It's not because music hasn't reached levels comparable to the technology available to make it that we can say thet technology doesn't influence the progress of our craft. In fact, it's arguable that music hasn't leaped in tendencies, techniques, etc. lately because we haven't yet figured out ways to use technology available to us other than re-creating what was done in the past by other means. 

For example: Lot's of people compose directly in a daw nowadays, which takes a completely different workflow when compared to writing music in sheets of paper. For that reason, these composers are trying to catch up with the tendencies of our days, each with very different methods that are mostly different from the ones used in the past, adding-up to a seemingly static setting. However, this doesn't prove that technology is unable to propel our craft forwards, but only that we are unable to use it to it's fullest potential.

I also don't want to sound like a Silicon Valley CEO that believes that technology will solve every one of our problems, because it won't. 

Besides that, have you got any bibliography that discuss this particular subject? I'm really interested in finding more about this.

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Sometimes it's just "other people" who hold you back, or try to. Like the Aristocracy, who like to push their weight around with Mozart by warning him that there were too many notes in his music. But his response was spot on. "My Lord, which notes shall I remove?"

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On 12/2/2019 at 11:04 AM, Jean Szulc said:

I don't think this is completely true.

It's not because music hasn't reached levels comparable to the technology available to make it that we can say thet technology doesn't influence the progress of our craft. In fact, it's arguable that music hasn't leaped in tendencies, techniques, etc. lately because we haven't yet figured out ways to use technology available to us other than re-creating what was done in the past by other means. 

For example: Lot's of people compose directly in a daw nowadays, which takes a completely different workflow when compared to writing music in sheets of paper. For that reason, these composers are trying to catch up with the tendencies of our days, each with very different methods that are mostly different from the ones used in the past, adding-up to a seemingly static setting. However, this doesn't prove that technology is unable to propel our craft forwards, but only that we are unable to use it to it's fullest potential.

I also don't want to sound like a Silicon Valley CEO that believes that technology will solve every one of our problems, because it won't. 

Besides that, have you got any bibliography that discuss this particular subject? I'm really interested in finding more about this.

 

You've misunderstood.

I'm not talking about music technology, I'm talking about technology/scientific discovery in general.

Western music would not exist if not for Greek discoveries in physics which basically gave way to the intervals and scales we all use, and German and French advancement polyphony, harmony, etc. that was built from those discoveries. 

For example, when Rameau's Treatise on Harmony came out in 1722, it was considered (probably still is) the most revolutionary work in western music: Describing the modern major/minor keys, the tonal system, and basically how to actually write music using the notes from the chromatic scale.

That work is, almost to the year, 300 years old now.

Since that time, and especially in the last 50-100 years since the end of the Romantic era, we have dramatically improved our understanding of the forces of nature that are responsible for us being able to create music at all.

Despite that, and with the ability to share information to the world on a moment's notice, it has not yielded a discovery that has altered western music in the way that people from hundreds of years ago did. There hasn't been another "Treatise on Harmony", so to speak, in many generations.

The evidence suggests that there is basically nothing about composing music that we are collectively ignorant on at this point — it is doubtful that this "next step" you refer to in your second post in this thread, is actually coming. 

The "vocabulary" (tools) has already been written.

Futurist types would see this as disappointing. I, however, am grateful that our ancestors have already given us the "keys to the kingdom" so that we don't have to find them ourselves as they did. 

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw

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Prokofiev On The Importance Of Melody

I have never questioned the importance of melody. I love melody, and I regard it as the most important element in music. I have worked on the improvement of its quality in my compositions for many years. To find a melody instantly understandable even to the uninitiated listener, and at the same time an original one, is the most difficult tasks for a composer. He is beset by a great multitude of dangers: he may fall into the trivial or the banal, or into the rehashing of something already written by him. In this respect, composition of complex melodies is much easier. It may also happen that a composer, fussing over his melody for a long time, and revising it, unwittingly makes it over-refined and complicated, and departs from simplicity. I fell in to the trap, too, in the process of my work.

Arnold Schoenberg On Artistic Expression

Art is a cry of distress from those who live out within themselves the destiny of humanity, who are not content with it but measure themselves against it, who do not obtusely serve the engine to which the label “unseen forces” is applied, but throw themselves into the moving gears to understand how it works. They are those who do not turn their eyes away to protect themselves from emotions but open them wide to oppose what must be attacked. They do, however, often close their eyes to perceive what the senses do not convey, to look inside of what seems to be happening on the surface. Inside them turns the movement of the world; only an echo of it leaks out -the work of art.

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