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General Music Theory and Tutorials => Advanced Composition => Topic started by: amdg on April 28, 2011, 06:48:53 PM

Title: Books on contemporary musical form?
Post by: amdg on April 28, 2011, 06:48:53 PM
Hey, Everyone:

I was wondering if anyone knows of some good books that treat contemporary (alright, in the last century even) form or architecture.  The things that I am producing now in terms of musical ideas end up rather disjointed if I try to extend them over a dozen or so measures.  When I wrote in Classical styles, I think I knew enough about the forms to keep the music going from start to finish.  Now I tend to get lost more easily and feel swept away by a new set of musical sounds that I like but have little control over.

I mentioned in another thread that I have the books by Persichetti and Schoenberg on harmony.  Those are helping, along with the fine overviews on structure by Michel and Prof. Belkin.  I'm wondering if there is anything that could help me understand how I can work toward a more solid musical architecture -- a way of writing that  gives purpose and real meaning to the music.

If I'm not being clear with all this, I'll happily try to refine what I'm looking for in response to questions any of you may have.

I hope some of you can help me with this.

Brian Sagraves
Title: Re: Books on contemporary musical form?
Post by: Michel.R.E on April 28, 2011, 07:37:05 PM
I think that the best thing is actually to become very solid with "traditional" form.

In all honesty, in all my years I have yet to come across more than a VERY small handful of "new forms".
In the final analysis, most contemporary music holds to relatively traditional forms. The area where there will be differences are almost all directly related to the actual harmonic/melodic processes involved in the composition.

For example, since a non-tonal work does not rely on tonic/dominant/subdominant relationships, it needs to find other means of creating unity within its harmonic spheres. You can't really learn this from a book, unless it's actually a book about that specific harmonic language.

For example, studying 12-tone writing will give you insight into how other composers created their formal unity.

Other than that, however, there isn't really a "20th century" architecture. It ends up, in the long haul, being the exact same architecture as in the 19th century. There's a reason those "classic" works work so well. The architecture is satisfying. Puttering around, trying to "invent new forms" more often than not ends up creating just more indecipherable chaos.

Title: Re: Books on contemporary musical form?
Post by: Ron on April 28, 2011, 08:37:45 PM
Michel is quite right about form. There really aren't that many options when it comes to presenting ideas. You have an idea, there are only a few ways to present it: straight up; a bit at a time; obscurely; as a supporting structure that becomes dominant? And, one idea by itself is not very satisfying, so you have to mix and match. How many orders can there be: A-A-B-A; A-B-A; A-B-A-A; A-B-C-A? The basic one of presenting two ideas and then mixing them up (development) before referring back to the original is the same as a paragraph structure: the first sentence introduced the topic; you then develop the topic; the final sentence should reference the topic and sum it up.

Even if I were writing serially, I'd probably do pretty much the same thing: here's my premise; here it is developed; here it is summed up.
Title: Re: Books on contemporary musical form?
Post by: Michel.R.E on April 28, 2011, 09:12:40 PM
two examples of using relatively standard forms, but with an interesting twist are:

1) Rachmaninov had a penchant for presenting his "main theme" in an incomplete form at the beginning of the movement. The development would ensue, and the actual "complete" theme would finally appear near the end. So in effect, we are getting a sort of reversed variation form.

2) John Corigliano, in 1st movement of his piano concerto (, did a lovely twist on the perfectly standard sonata-allegro form. He presents a violent near-atonal 1st theme, then a lyrical and richly tonal 2nd theme. Development ensues, and toward the end of the development section, shortly before the recapitulation, he reverses the musical roles of his two themes. The violent atonal 1st theme becomes lyrical and tonal, the 2nd theme in turn becomes rhythmically violent and dissonant. He follows this up with a lovely recapitulation of his themes in their original guise.

If I use one of my own works as an example, the Sonata/Ballet "Amaterasu" has a structure that is entirely based upon a literary form: the story of the ballet. And despite relying on this literary structure, in the end, much of the form dictated by the literary aspect ends up reflecting strongly traditional musical forms.

Title: Re: Books on contemporary musical form?
Post by: amdg on April 29, 2011, 01:47:16 PM
Michel and Ron:

Thank you for taking some time with this.  I appreciate your advice.  I was afraid I might not have been entirely clear about what I think my stumbling blocks seem to be -- probably because I used the word "form."  I think it's not so much the overall idea of how to present a musical thought, then say contrast that thought, develop it and return to it in some new way.  (Just to pick one example of form)

Since I'm in new harmonic territory, I'm getting hung up on the progression or direction the harmony should take so that the piece can hang together coherently.  At times, I'll be going along and all of a sudden find the music is all on the white keys! Other times I guess I get too chromatic and the whole piece resembles a minefield.  Then Kaboom!  The books that I've been reading have introduced me to the elements of newer harmonic language, and perhaps I'm just not at the point yet where it is all familiar enough to carry on an extended conversation.

Don't get me wrong here.  I'm actually having a great deal of fun with all this.  And maybe the answer is just to continue plugging away until I start finding a way that I like.  (Since I bake cakes for a living, I have the luxury of such a leisurely approach!)

At any rate, thanks so much for the help you two have offered so far.

Title: Re: Books on contemporary musical form?
Post by: Michel.R.E on April 29, 2011, 01:53:22 PM
maybe a suggestion, then: try to work within a very restricted harmonic language for a while.

For example, if you are exploring 12-tone music, try to complete as many satisfying short pieces in strict 12-tone technique without incorporating any other elements.

If you are working with quartal harmony, same thing.

The most difficult thing here is when we start learning about a bunch of new techniques the tendency is to want to use them all. That's quite a mouthful to chew. Become fluent in one technique/theory, then move on to another, and another. It is, in the long run, rather pointless to "dabble" in many techniques simultaneously (IMHO). Mastery, or as close as one can come to it depending on our circumstances, is the best way to "understand" something (here the word "grok" seems to encompass the idea of the sort of "understanding" I mean).

Title: Re: Books on contemporary musical form?
Post by: amdg on April 29, 2011, 02:30:25 PM
Michel, I think you've hit on something here!  My tendency has been, I think, to try to use many different, new things by plugging them into structures I already have some familiarity with -- actually the more complex forms one associates with sonatas and the like.

I've been forgetting to start small, using each piece as a real exercise in developing this new musical language.  Time to try that!  Oh, yes... Grok!

Thanks, Michel.