Author Topic: John Adams on Harmonic Language  (Read 4954 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Ron

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2,613
  • Karma: 189
    • The Music of Ronald J Brown
John Adams on Harmonic Language
« on: January 11, 2013, 06:49:16 AM »
While idly cruising the net I came across John Adams' blog http://www.earbox.com/biography.html . Fascinating reading. In one entry, on composition master classes http://www.earbox.com/posts/72 , I was struck by the following paragraph I wanted to share:


  • The other issue that plagues so many student compositions is vagueness of harmonic language. We live in a post-style era in contemporary classical music. Students are blessedly free of the kind of bitterly divisive battles of style and orthodoxy that made life so brutal forty years ago. But the down side is that the “anything goes” climate of composing now produces thousands of pieces with no real internal cohesion. The harmonic character of a piece is of absolute, essential importance. It’s how we know immediately that a Messiaen piece is by Messiaen or why we can identify a piece by Ligeti or Feldman or Reich instantaneously. Unfortunately most young composers come to their profession with little awareness and even less interest in creating a unique harmonic profile for their music. This is one reason why so many pieces resort to OSTINATO—it’s a kind of default mode to create a gravitational sense in the music.



Ron
Rules? What rules?

Jamie Kowalski

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 1,466
  • Karma: 139
    • All Hands Music
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #1 on: January 11, 2013, 07:14:37 AM »
Thank you, great article!

I think he has really put his finger on the whole ostinato thing. It is both feeds into and is fed by all the bad film music we are subjected to.

Ostinatos are a more and more nothing but a giant CRUTCH for composers. Sure I use them on occasion, but if it starts to feel the least bit "crutchy," I throw the whole thing out.

I studied composition during a time when most teachers were pushing strict serialism, numerology, chance, and process over product. I'm glad I've wrested that from my system, but it was very hard finding my own sense of harmonic language. It's unfortunate that no one seems to be able to guide students in that particular quest.

winknotes

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 865
  • Karma: 49
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #2 on: January 11, 2013, 08:11:50 AM »
That was an interesting read.  thanks for bringing it to our attention.
Steve Winkler
Finale 2011
Windows 7 64-bit
Garritan GPO4, JABB
VSL SE/SE+ Standard
Reaper (sometimes)

altasilvapuer

  • Full Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 195
  • Karma: 24
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #3 on: January 11, 2013, 03:49:10 PM »
I find myself resorting to ostinati all the time.  I like ostinati a lot, but I hate that I feel like I'm resorting to them, rather than choosing them.  It was refreshing to see it put into words so well; It helps me target better what I need to work on.

-Matthew
R: "How much time do you think it takes to write a book?"
O: "Oh, you know: Not long . . . but long."
[Patrick Rothfuss and his son, Oot, on the nature of writing.]

Ron

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2,613
  • Karma: 189
    • The Music of Ronald J Brown
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #4 on: January 11, 2013, 04:18:32 PM »
I find myself resorting to ostinati all the time.  I like ostinati a lot, but I hate that I feel like I'm resorting to them, rather than choosing them.  It was refreshing to see it put into words so well; It helps me target better what I need to work on.

-Matthew

Me too!
Ron
Rules? What rules?

Jamie Kowalski

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 1,466
  • Karma: 139
    • All Hands Music
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #5 on: January 11, 2013, 05:29:39 PM »
I find myself resorting to ostinati all the time.  I like ostinati a lot, but I hate that I feel like I'm resorting to them, rather than choosing them.

A catchy ostinato can get a grip on your brain where you can't get yourself to want it to stop. What I've done a couple of times when I found myself doing this was to pinpoint the measure where it begins to feel too long, then back up yet another phrase or two and make a giant cut. Then I begin the next measure with something completely different (unrelated harmony, maybe even different instrumentation), but which retains the pulse and general rhythmic feel. This little trick can snap my brain out of it and get me thinking more freely again. Later I might work out a little transition between the two ideas, and then that can lead to my slowly replacing repetitive elements with more interesting material. I realize my methods are rather unstructured compared to most principled composers, so I'm not sure how this idea might pan out for you. But it could be at least a fun experiment if you feel stuck.

winknotes

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 865
  • Karma: 49
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #6 on: January 11, 2013, 06:48:14 PM »
I love the way Stravinsky uses them.  He seems to interrupt himself so as not to let it go on too long.  His work is full of them.  I think Symphony of Psalms provides a pretty good example.  (Not the greatest recording). 

Steve Winkler
Finale 2011
Windows 7 64-bit
Garritan GPO4, JABB
VSL SE/SE+ Standard
Reaper (sometimes)

Michel.R.E

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 3,817
  • Karma: 226
  • B.FA (composition) M.Mus (composition)
    • Les Éditions du Dos Blanc
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #7 on: January 11, 2013, 06:54:19 PM »
hmmm, doesn't anyone find it a teensy bit ironic that a composer who specializes in minimalist music would mention ostinati in that way?
 ;D
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

altasilvapuer

  • Full Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 195
  • Karma: 24
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #8 on: January 12, 2013, 05:56:40 AM »
hmmm, doesn't anyone find it a teensy bit ironic that a composer who specializes in minimalist music would mention ostinati in that way?
 ;D

Perhaps, but the optimist in me says if anyone's going to know something about using too many ostinati, a minimalist composer would.  Plus, irony is just fun.  ;)

-Matthew
R: "How much time do you think it takes to write a book?"
O: "Oh, you know: Not long . . . but long."
[Patrick Rothfuss and his son, Oot, on the nature of writing.]

Ron

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2,613
  • Karma: 189
    • The Music of Ronald J Brown
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #9 on: January 12, 2013, 06:01:37 AM »
On reflection, I wish I had cut that last sentence from the quote, as that is what everyone is focusing on, rather than what I thought was the important point: the lack of harmonic language and development in the works of so many young composers.
Ron
Rules? What rules?

Michel.R.E

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 3,817
  • Karma: 226
  • B.FA (composition) M.Mus (composition)
    • Les Éditions du Dos Blanc
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #10 on: January 12, 2013, 07:36:20 AM »
I'm just joking about the ironic thing...

I think he is ABSOLUTELY right. nothing he said is off the mark in any way, shape, or form.

"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

sandalwood

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 851
  • Karma: 77
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #11 on: January 12, 2013, 09:29:12 AM »
thank you Ron, for the link (had no idea adams was such a witty and pleasant person) and the discussion.

puzzled on the following:

is it only or chiefly harmonic character that makes it possible to identify some music as belonging to a certain composer?

does adams really think the composers he mentions all have consistent and idiosyncratic harmonic languages ("...identify...instantaneously..i")?

cheers all

winknotes

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 865
  • Karma: 49
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #12 on: January 12, 2013, 09:46:12 AM »
thank you Ron, for the link (had no idea adams was such a witty and pleasant person) and the discussion.

puzzled on the following:

is it only or chiefly harmonic character that makes it possible to identify some music as belonging to a certain composer?

does adams really think the composers he mentions all have consistent and idiosyncratic harmonic languages ("...identify...instantaneously..i")?

cheers all

I don't think he was trying to say that a "harmonic profile" as he put it is the sole identifiable feature of a composer.  But it certainly does tend to be a unique aspect, but I think there are other factors that go into "harmony".....like counterpoint for instance :)
Steve Winkler
Finale 2011
Windows 7 64-bit
Garritan GPO4, JABB
VSL SE/SE+ Standard
Reaper (sometimes)

Michel.R.E

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 3,817
  • Karma: 226
  • B.FA (composition) M.Mus (composition)
    • Les Éditions du Dos Blanc
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #13 on: January 12, 2013, 09:52:32 AM »
I think he uses the word "harmonic character" to include melodic contours, rhythm, actual harmonic patterns, harmonic colours, etc...

what makes one composer identifiable from another?

well, it's how he uses the material at hand.

how is it that we identify composers immediately? their little musical quirks.

both Debussy and Ravel use the same harmonic material, more or less, yet they are each easily identifiable in relation to the other. because they simply don't use the material in the same way.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

altasilvapuer

  • Full Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 195
  • Karma: 24
Re: John Adams on Harmonic Language
« Reply #14 on: January 12, 2013, 02:54:41 PM »
On reflection, I wish I had cut that last sentence from the quote, as that is what everyone is focusing on, rather than what I thought was the important point: the lack of harmonic language and development in the works of so many young composers.

To be fair, many of us may have focused on that sentence, but I think a few of us (myself, at least) focused on that because it's a symptom of the problem he's talking about.  It's a symptom I see in my own music all the time, and it's something that was readily identifiable.  In that respect, it's eminently useful, because it connects much of my writing and many of my compositional problems to a stronger root problem that provides a much better goal and guidepost.

-Matthew
R: "How much time do you think it takes to write a book?"
O: "Oh, you know: Not long . . . but long."
[Patrick Rothfuss and his son, Oot, on the nature of writing.]