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  Format of works  MartinY at 09:55 on 06 February 2009

This may sound like an anti-aesthetic question but on several occaisons I have had to write a piece (of about 80 bars) where the score has to fit on an open double A4 spread so as to be published in a magazine. (This is a very common format for early music where, particularly for didactic purposes everyone, including a tutor, has a score and no page turns.) (Page turns are one of my bete noires. They ruin many otherwise excellent publications.) (So are scores. They can cause players not to listen and read too much.)

So I have now found a need for lots of 1 page pieces (either in parts or score) to use as fillers in part books. I am thinking about what the aesthetic requirements of such a piece are now that we can't just write a 4 phrase song anymore. Webern had no trouble writing pieces that run out after 24 notes but I do not want to write 100 little pieces that sound like 2nd rate Webern. Should I give up and print 'This page intentionally left blank'. I know one publisher who could never bear to waste paper and always went to press only when all the part pages were full.

  Re: Format of works  scott_good at 05:06 on 07 February 2009


you ask the most intriguing and bizarre questions :-)

"we can't just write a 4 phrase song anymore".

once again, my basic response is "why not?" really, i just don't get it - perhaps it is where i am from or something, but "can't" is not in my vocab in terms of what one can do in composition. in fact, i would say the word can't is very dangerous creatively.

so, here are some ideas:

1. write a lead sheet for a "jazz" tune. what i mean is some kid of melodic idea pared with some harmonic ideas, and leave it at that.

2. graphical piece - these can be fun, and i always like coming across them, and will often perform them.

3. a little solo trombone piece (heh heh)

4. ummm...why not a 1st rate "webern" piece. well, not webern, but you. but you could use webern as a model.

5. something like 10 repeated bars with each one saying "repeat 5-500 times"

6. why not scribe out your own cadenza for a famous concerto in a part for that instrument?

7. a round

8. a highly complex piano piece using serial techniques for every parameter that is ridiculously impossible to play but only 15 seconds. have each serial procedure must completed by the end of the piece.

9. a 4 phrase song!

make people go "huh, what is this?". intrigue.

just a few ideas of the top of my head.

but please, explain why you said "can't".

thanks for keeping the forum alive!



  Re: Format of works  Misuc at 13:05 on 08 February 2009

I can't see what the problem is. I've written loads of one-page pieces (without gimmicks). These have been for friends, pupils and mostly myself. Nearly all composers - including contemporaries - have written short pieces as well as big ones. There was only one case which posed a problem, and that was when there was a possible commission/publication involved, and the piece HAD to be no more than one page long. I couldn't squeeze my material into the A4 page without sellotaping an extra bit, photocopying and reducing the lot. [But, in the, end they chose a four-page piece by Boulez instead!]

  Re: Format of works  MartinY at 19:53 on 08 February 2009

Can't. Yes it is maybe a UK thing again...... We worry about if we are to get university or BBC work the music must be acceptable to the 'thought police'. I ought to be immune to this as I do not necessarially need the work but I still worry about it. I know of composers who keep separate portfolios of work, one for university eyes and another for music societies etc.. This is another symptom of division and alienation in the UK music scene. Another slightly humorous thing is I have to conceal the existence of my clarinet in Bb and horn in F parts for Giovanni Gabrieli from the 'authenticity police'.

So - very good point Scott, and very useful advice about the detailed genres. I should ignore what I think other people will think. Howard Skempton seems to go on writing the music he wants to and not worry. I will now even think about a strophic song, which has the same music for each verse.

  Re: Format of works  MartinY at 20:15 on 08 February 2009

My mention of the BBC may be misguided but it comes from hearing their pundits in the interval talks in the prom season where they make it quite clear that music's quality comes from how 'advanced' it is that any looking back to Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartok etc. immediately consigns the music to unimaginative inferiority.

I have recently edited a little piece by Max Reger. I was rather surprised by how 'conservative' it was so I suppose I am suffering from the same mindset. Anyway we must compose more than we write words. I am sure that is a good aspiration, not to be employed as a pundit but to keep writing notes. I am going to get up early in the morning, clean the ice of my wife's car then think short musical thoughts.

  Re: Format of works  Misuc at 21:03 on 08 February 2009

Howard Skempton seems to go on writing the music he wants to and not worry. Yes but anybody who has to hear his attempts does. Everybody writes the music they want to. Beethoven went on writing the music he wanted to, but he worried. That's one reason why he's better than Howard Skempton.

I don't think you're accurate about the BBC either. What you mean is in any case just BBC Radio Three. There was a time (20 - 30 years ago) when what you say did partially apply. When Glock was in charge and did the amazingly thing of inviting Boulez to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra.This did more British musical culture than any other single act in its long and undistinguished history. Those were the days of Hanns Keller's insufferably opinionated rants and lectures. Looking back on them, they were wonderful: a man with passion, intelligence, knowledge and opinions!! That has been abolished in a mind-bogglingly dumbed-down chat-show morass of ignorant uninformative sickly patronising snobbish conformist gossip motivated by the need to keep up audience-ratings and save its license-fee. Gone is any sense of trying to set standards or indeed stand for anything. In general, there is next to no public service element even to the BBC's broadcasting, let alone the openly commercial channels - hence there is little serious music at all with an edgy point of view except what had passed through the cosy chit-chat world which people like Skempton are so at home in.

By the way I was amused at Scott's list too. Surely he was being sarceastic? Weren't you, Scott? Please tell me you didn't mean all that, did you?


paragraph 2 line 5 should read: This did more FOR British.....

  Re: Format of works  MartinY at 08:59 on 09 February 2009

Works to be forced into a fixed format / fixed occaison.......

As you may know Britain is about to choose a new Poet Laureate and someone said on one of these silly cosy chat shows that Misuc so loves 'The Poet Laureate should not be expected to write poetry to order'. I was flabbergasted by this. I was thinking 'Baroque composers should not be expected to write a cantata and get it ready for Sunday'. I have never heard it suggested that Bach's church music is 2nd rate because it was written to order.

However this set me thinking about what it would be like to write against the clock, say a fanfare for the launching of a ship or background music for an official banquet. These are things composers do not seem to get asked to do these days. (I once performed in providing background music for a group of people at a banquet where the performers were not allowed to know who they were...... interesting story but can't be put on the web for a few years. It was a politically sensitive meeting.)

I remember reading somewhere Stravinsky's description of a cocktail party where the background music was by Milton Babbitt, which lead to some very baffled looking people.

Three possible solutions to this problem...

1) Composers should not be expected to write background music.

2) Some composer's music should only be used for background music, which explains why some baroque music is as it is....

3) Some composer's music should never be used for background music.

  Re: Format of works  scott_good at 17:55 on 09 February 2009

"Works forced into a format"

Well, I have been "forced" to write music for many kinds of occasions. I enjoy the challenge of fitting the request.

Sometimes it was more for the cash than anything (a bunch of fanfares in this regard - opening of buildings, anniversaries etc..). Sometimes they provided excellent opportunities to do something I have wanted to do (such as provide music for a party - one time I arranged techno tunes for jazz band which was great - in fact they had asked for one thing and I convinced them this is what they wanted because I wanted to do it). One occasion which was recently brought to mind, was composing music for the unveiling of the AIDS quilt whilst the names of the deceased were being recited...for 20 minutes. As I had only 2 weeks to compose and put the ensemble together, I only had about 12min of music ready. But when the music came in in the ceremony, it had an immediate emotional impact on the thousand or so in attendance. Not a dry eye in the house - which was the point - and would not have been achieved to such a state without the music. I felt a great sense of accomplishment.

So, these ARE things that composers do. And I fully support it. As long as the request does not go against your belief system, which is why I will never compose commercial music.

Ok, so, background music. Hummm, not so sure if this is a composers game, but more of a performers game. It is an interesting gig to fill, and once again, I have done it many times. The best music I find for this is jazz (but remember, I'm a trombonist!) It is a kind of music that can easily tune in or tune out. When it is out, it provides a stimulating but kind of monotonous backdrop - not overly dynamic, but when you tune in, you can become instantly stimulated by the interactions between the players, or the swing, or the voicings on the piano or... + as a performer, it is so easy to just enjoy playing the music with your ensemble.

And, well, sorry to disappoint, but my little off the cuff list above wasn't sarcastic - perhaps a bit cheeky and certainly not definitive - but honest. I was just brain storming ideas, and those were the first to pop into my head. I don't have any rules as to what style or genre or length or edgy-ness or modernity or whatever. I think, Misuc, you do have rules about this. We agree on many things, but not all. But, glad I could provide some chuckles :-)

And to be honest, I think gimmick pieces are in very short supply. I am reminded of the table music or the cannons etc that some olden day composers would write - little trick pieces that are much fun to play. Simple and clever. These are the perfect kinds of things to tack onto the end of a printed score. A little after dinner mint. But why not open our minds to what the gimmick could be?


  Re: Format of works  Misuc at 19:18 on 09 February 2009


1. There are none.
Anything may happen or not happen, it may not even involve sounds: call it music or don't.It may accompany something else or may not.

It all depends on what you want to do and what you are doing it for. Talking about background music, there has been very little in the whole tradition of Western music ever which has not been background music. Foreground music just there to be listened to dates only from the time when composers thought they could own entrepreneurs and communicate with a public directly, without the need for an occasion or patron Church, Prince, Dance.... (The Opera House was half way there).

Composers had been striving to create their own links to the world for centuries, stepping out of the costumes given them by Church, State and 'Society' The Vatican at the time of the Counter-reformation was the body which was able to put an end to potential rival bureaucracies: to put composers in their place and enforce the rules on how they must curb and confine their techniques and styles to the composing of suitable background music [see the wonderfully revealing extracts in rint/XXXIX/4/576]

Hence e.g. Fux's rules on 'Palestrina' polyphony (which amount to "avoid anything which draws attention to the music"):

1. Begin and end on either the unison, octave, or fifth,
2. Use no unisons except at the beginning or end.
3. Avoid parallel fifths or octaves between any two parts; and avoid "hidden" parallel fifths or octaves:
4. Avoid moving in parallel fourths.
5. Avoid moving in parallel thirds or sixths for very long.
6. Attempt to keep any two adjacent parts within a tenth of each other,
7. Avoid having any two parts move in the same direction by skip.
8. Attempt to have as much contrary motion as possible.
9. Avoid dissonant intervals between any two parts

And yet, what heavenly, deliriously vertiginous 'background' music these petty, officious, narrow-minded, obstructive, mean, envious dictats created!


Coincidentally, this was written before I had seen Scott's comments about rules. It seems that even here, we don't disagree that much. A technical device or clever 'trick' is perfectly honourable, and not at all a gimmick in the sense that I meant which is the usual commercial stuff - the kind of thing which brings out the schoolmaster in sensitive people and makes them want to say: "now come on now, just stop it! It's not clever you know."

There are no rules but, if in there are, then I agree with Schumann: "the rules of art are the rules of morality" (no more but also no less)

Anyway the chief reason for this extra comment is to point out another 'misprint'. Towards the end of the 2nd paragraph should have read: "...composers thought they could BE THEIR own entrepreneurs...."

  Re: Format of works  scott_good at 20:50 on 09 February 2009

"the rules of art are the rules of morality"


life and art - same rules.

It is so interesting what you have written about Fux - I always thought the guy was a kind of fake - his "rules" are misleading and have almost nothing to do with artistic composition. My "parallel" is his rules have as much to do with composing as push-ups have to do with boxing. It absolutely amazes me how his species exercises are still considered "rules of composing".

I feel very fortunate to have studied 16th century counterpoint with Robert Gauldin. He shows that all of these tendencies (not rules...) of the music have much more to do with the ease of singing with melodic line, proper text enunciation, and perfect intonation. Talk to an early music singer and they will tell you why this music is the only music they want to sing - it is the only music that can be sung in tune!

At any rate, if you are studying this music with Fux, quickly run out and get Gauldin's books for a different perspective!!!

  Re: Format of works  Misuc at 13:31 on 10 February 2009

Yesterday I spent some hours digging out examples to show you what I mean. Suddenly everything I had written and researched disappeared into some cyberspace wormhole. [This has happened to me before on this forum].

Today I have spent some more hours trying to find it and put it all together again. First I find that you now suddenly have to pay to see the pages to which I saw yesterday for free - and posted a link to yesterday giving pages of quotes from Popes and their lackeys about the disgusting liberties singers, congregations and composers were taking with their Holy rituals. Second I had great difficulty in finding the MP3 samples I had found.


Anyway to get back to Fux (in case anybody gives a Fxxx}...: is it the old story again? first composers and musicians do it - then a paid academic comes along perhaps a fdew centuries later and gives you the 'rules' [i.e. a long list of things you MUSTN'T do - but not the principles to inspire you with ideas about what you can do] This is after all what happened to the Church modes, serial and 12-tone music etc. - and it's even happening to 'Minimalism' now (which was a glint in the dead eye of the academic before it was even conceived).

Well, yes. But I find Fux quite a creative and dynamic composer in his own right, and his rules did wonders for Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven etc. The original principles were surely a more or less immediate response to the 'rulings' of the Church fathers....?

As one of them put it: "Inasmuch as it has come to our attention that the Antiphoners, Graduals, and Psalters that have been provided with music for the celebration of the divine praises and offices in plainsong (as it is called) since the publication of the Breviary and Missal ordered by the Council of Trent have been filled to overflowing with barbarisms, obscurities, contrarieties, and superfluities as a result of the clumsiness or negligence or even wickedness of the composers, scribes, and printers......" and "All things should indeed be so ordered that the masses may reach tranquilly into the ears and hearts of those who hear them, when everything is executed clearly and at the correct speed.... let nothing profane be intermingled, but only hymns and divine praises. The whole plan of singing should be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear: the hearts of listeners be drawn to desire of heavenly harmonies in the contemplation of the joys of the Blessed. They shall also banish from church all music that contains things that are lascivious or impure.

But No. I never studied with Fux. I studied with one of Europe's leading experts on Palestrina who, already in the '50s, had gone through his every cadence, checking for consecutive 5ths, and not surprisingly had found only [I think] three examples, and thus proved for all time that the rules were correct!! [When I showed him one of my compositions, he asked me if I had done any of this during term-time. ""You shouldn't have any time for that sort of thing", he confided in me: "Yes. I wanted to be a composer, but then I got this job at Eton...."]

Later I went on to study with Thomas Morley - as you can now do online [ and I also got some help from Thomas Campion's " A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counterpoint."

In this way I was able to find a way of letting completely untrained and inexperienced musicians improvise 16th-century polyphonic music in 4+ 'correct' parts. The main model was not to be found in books - even practical and authentic ones like these - but in the scores and in the recordings of real musicians/worshippers who are to this day improvising motets in Corsica (and Sardinia - and there are amazing traditions in a similar vein in Georgia and even in some South Pacific islands - or there were until globalisation really took off a few years ago)

Here are some examples:-


[You will note that none of these stunning musicians has studied his H K Andrews, Fux, nor do they follow Palestinian aesthetic ideals, but the people I was teaching were required shortly to pass exams testing their ability to pass exams.(London Uni Extramural). This meant that they could tell me a whole load of undigested crap about Lydian modes and Neapolitan cadences, the French and Italian style etc. but could not harmonise "Twinkle,twinkle little star" convincingly. This was to give them a taste of the real world of music out there and to experience the brush of Heaven in the daily ever-new discovery of melody, harmony and all the elements of music
(some of us went to on to create creative groups of one kind and another..)

When it came to my own 'doctorate' (Musiktheorielehrerdiplom) I handed in pieces using the idioms and techniques of Dufay, Frescobaldi, Muffat, Blow and some other favourites (and was told this was 'difficult' because no one had 'done' them - i.e. performed the statistical analysis to give me marks out of ten for whether I'd got it right or not. That, presumably, and snobbery, is why students are required to do mock-Palestrina before, say, the easier and therefore more instructive Italian Renaissance carnival music (as full of consecutive 5ths as the Corsican music - hence the need for the Papal rules and/or Palestrina's interpretation of them) and why they do mock-Bach without attempting mock-Corelli etc.

  Re: Format of works  MartinY at 20:59 on 10 February 2009

Thank you Scott for reminding me about the table pieces. In the end I used short renaissance motets for the filler pieces but I now realise that I should conserve some short pieces, both original and editions for the filler purpose. The discussion about Fux is very interesting and I will have something to say about that.......

I wrote a few table canons (is that the right word) a couple of years ago and tried to write an 'In Nomine' which works in the same way. You can only make it work with conventional harmony if you use the constrained notes as principal notes and let the other notes be passing / ornaments.

The mirror image ideas made me think about what happens if you use a screw symmetry which corresponds to symmetry potentially in a helix, which can still have symmetry even though it is a chiral object. But then I realised that Bach does something similar in the Musical Offering with the perpetually ascending canon which rises a tone each repetition. May your notes go up Frederick.......

  Re: Format of works  MartinY at 21:02 on 10 February 2009

Thank you Scott for reminding me about the table pieces. In the end I used short renaissance motets for the filler pieces but I now realise that I should conserve some short pieces, both original and editions for the filler purpose. The discussion about Fux is very interesting and I will have something to say about that.......

I wrote a few table canons (is that the right word) a couple of years ago and tried to write an 'In Nomine' which works in the same way. You can only make it work with conventional harmony if you use the constrained notes as principal notes and let the other notes be passing / ornaments.

The mirror image ideas made me think about what happens if you use a screw symmetry which corresponds to symmetry potentially in a helix, which can still have symmetry even though it is a chiral object. But then I realised that Bach does something similar in the Musical Offering with the perpetually ascending canon which rises a tone each repetition. May your notes go up Frederick.......

  Re: Format of works  MartinY at 21:23 on 10 February 2009

The interesting thing about Fux' rules is that his Trio Sonatas etc. are rather interesting so he does not appear to follow them, though I have only played the Nuremberg Partita not studied it.... If as Misuc says pedants require analysis before reproducing styles and then marking them against a benchmark set of rules what would such analysis make of Purcell, particularly truely 'baroque' pieces such as 'Remember Not Lord Our Offences'. But I think we have covered this before re: transitional styles like Lawes, Biber, Monteverdi, Purcell etc.

However the 'Palestrina Style' does create a neutral background against which suspensions, anticipations and ornaments can create tension and at times incredible discords. The books largely concentrate on the main notes though if you play from figured bass the 4s and 7s, which can be in long running chains, (the 76 trombones suspension trick). You may remember I had ideas about neutral musical backgrounds against which objects could be placed and deleted in last months posts.

This discussion makes me want to go out and play the Purcell 4 part fantasias, and even see if there are any Fux Trio Sonatas I do not have..... (Talking of writing to order are the 4 part fantasies which took longer than a day to write better than the ones written in one day?)

  Re: Format of works  Misuc at 14:39 on 14 February 2009

Re Fux's rules: they were meant to apply to an antiquated musical style, not his own. They were the basis of and perhaps more applicable to e.g. Beethoven's and Berlioz' inventive recreations of 'early music', than to the original music itself.

But back to the original topic: [was there an original topic?]I was listening to the radio this morning an they played some pieces by 1. Debussy 2. Satie 3. Messiaen. This demonstrated to me with excruciating precision the truth of the saying I quoted earlier about art and morality [after all, art - music in particular - is a social act, even though at one remove]. Debussy and also to some extent Messiaen put out some good ideas in their pieces (respectively "La Cathedrale Engloutie" and a piece for the 1937 festival, for six Ondes Martinots) but their totally cavalier and irresponsible dismissal or ignorance of issues to do with time-scale causes a great deal of unnecessary suffering and offence. To cut the rambling dithering longeurs, the note-spinning repetitions and sequences, failed climaxes, meaningless build-ups and false cadences, and, perhaps, to repaste some of the lucky ideas into different pieces would serve the cause of truth, beauty and virtue.

This really brings us back to the idea of short pieces etc. a lot of Satie is misunderstood (sometimes deliberately) because it is part of a tradition which nowadays is not altogether appreciated: music not suited or intended for the concert-format. There are literally millions of pieces from all periods intended for recreation/instruction/private perusal or to accompany other activities etc. Satie gives us examples of how it is possible to pack a few short and innocent-sounding bars with an immense amount of dynamic, contradictory but strangely balanced content. And once the point is made, the piece ends, and its power starts to take effect.

This is the awareness of time-scale at its most intensely focussed. (Other examples can be found in e.g. Stravinsky's last works, some late Beethoven and late Carter).

[The 'rules' of morality must include prohibitions on boring, bullying or browbeating or insulting the listener's intelligence/
imagination. Give the listener a look in, please!]

But in general timescale is the very foundation of classical (i.e. 18th century) tonality: the function behind 'functional harmony' the root of motif-, phrase- and sonata-form etc. structures. It had not been a crucial issue in 16th century music. The length of a piece at that time was not a part of the composer's domain. (Time-scale was determined by the nature of the occasion and the demands of its sponsors) There is nothing at any point in the score which intrinsically determines how long the piece is going to go on for. The same material may be deployed for a piece lasting 3 minutes or 3 hours: there is comparatively little differentiation between material for beginnings, middles and ends... Perhaps surprisingly the harmonic resources at any given point are far richer than in the later 18th century, but, by the same token, their 'reach' (their power to control a time scale) is that much shorter. It is this very fragility/indeterminacy which is used to such hair-raising effect in the best music of the renaissance.

In some of his earlier compositions (e.g. the amazing 'Suite Bergamasque' Debussy had shown himself capable of great sensitivity to this subtle play of vertical [harmony] and horizontal [time-scale] but, as so often, delusions of grandeur got in the way.