Monday, September 17, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Modern Music Technology for the Composer

Tools have have advanced drastically in the past decade than any other time period in history for composing music.  There once a time that a working composer had only their piano, writing materials and music paper.  Since the early 1990s MIDI sequencing and music notation software have become a major part of composing tools for the working composer.  

In the last decade music software, such as Logic Pro,  have come into the market.  The software makes it very easy for a composer to work.  They can use MIDI Software instruments to compose and attach to a MIDI keyboard controller.  A film composer can add video to the software.  Applications have time codes installed so when the video is added the composer can view and synchronize the music to the video.  With the use of the MIDI Controller, composers can create musical phrases to MIDI sounds that are similar to orchestral instruments.   After this part is done, the music can be exported as Standard MIDI files and imported into a music notation application.  At this point, the composer can now create music that will be prepared for live performance of the music.  This process has aided many composers to do their work fast and easy.

Logic Pro includes a collection of precomposed audio and MIDI files known as loops.  They are short musical phrases that can be put together to create a musical composition.  Many feel that this is cheating and that the composer is not actually composing.  The concept of composing is in general taking preexisting knowledge and putting them together, much like taking these loops and putting them together to create music.  In many respects, these loops can be an aid and tool for the composer.  These loops also when put into the software are put nicely into a key and time signature.  Therefore a piece of music can quickly sound good.  The benefits of these loops can be a tool or aid in constructing musical compositions. 

This then leads to the cons of the technology.  Anyone who has no musical background can buy Logic Pro and put all these loops together and create musical compositions.  Many have claimed to be composers.  This has become a growing problem in the musical world.  Many people who have no training and background in the structure of musical composition are trying to become composers.  One needs to remember that these loops are only there as a tool, NOT a replacement of musical training.  Musical training includes the knowledge of music theory, musical form and structure, knowing how to create a musical phrase and putting them together to create an organized sense of continuity.  The only way to be able to have this ability is to have musical training, either at an accredited college/ university or private training.  Many of those who have no musical background are trying to compete and “land the same gigs” as the composer who has studied and build their craft for many years.  At the end it can be seen from the results of the musical composition.  If the music is created in traditional harmony with no concept of what has occurred in music in the past 100 years then it will be transparent that the musical composition is resting and living in the past with no evolution.  Ignoring how music has evolved since 1900 and creating music with traditional harmony (which is how music is created in the loops) means that the composer has not done their job in understanding the development of musical composition.  

Technology has certainly helped the composer in aide of composer, but with all positives are the negatives.  I personally don’t think it’s going to be very challenging for the trained composer.  It does not matter how much a software is used for composing, at the end, the knowledge and skill (or the lack of it) will show no matter how advanced technology continues to grow.  If someone who has no musical background or training wants to become a composer they simply need to start at the beginning and work their way up instead of taking the quick and fast path.  We all know that the quick and fast path never leads towards development of knowledge.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

John Williams: A Great American Composer of Film & Classical Music

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For the past 4 decades, John Williams has been a household name as a composer for films.  His music can be heard on the loved Star Wars Saga Series, Jaws, ET, Harry Potter, Memoirs of a Geisha, Superman, Munich, and many many others.  However there is a larger picture that most are not aware about John Williams. He composes music of the Classical Genre (or Music for the Concert Stage; the true name of the genre).
John Williams is a classically trained and well rounded musician who studied at UCLA and the Juilliard School with a degree in Bachelor and Masters of Music respectively.  He had gained much knowledge of music of all ages, which is the foundation of his musical output.  He mainly studied piano, but went on to becoming a composer rather than a performer for the duration of his life’s work.
Most of his classical music are Concerti ranging from a Violin Concerto, a Flute Concerto, and several others.  A noted concerto he composed is for the bassoon and orchestra, a commission for the New York Philharmonic for their 100 year anniversary.  The musical composition is titled The Five Sacred Trees.  It has five movements where the bassoon is represented by a different tree in each movement.  The story is inspired by Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess, also a well known book among the Neo- Pagan Community.  He composed a Cello Concerto for notable cellist Yo yo Ma and a Violin concerto called Treesong for Gil Shaham.  Additionally, He composed solo violin and cello pieces for both these performers.
Williams is a true composer in the realms of American Music.  Much of his works has the “American Sound” that was defined by Aaron Copland.  Williams was the conductor for two of the recent Olympic journeys to the USA.  He was commissioned to compose music for the events.  One of  which became the “official” music for the Olympics, Summon the Heroes for the Atlantic 1996 Summer Games and Call of the Champions for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games.  These also triggered several other “American Sounds” in his music including American Journey, Jubilee 350, and Celebrate Discovery.  These were also composed in relation to the Olympic Games and can be heard in the two Olympic Sony Records  Summon the Heroes and American Journey, both of which can be downloaded from iTunes.
Very recently, Williams was commissioned to compose music for Obama’s Inauguration.  That morning, after Aretha Franklin’s amazing performance of the American Anthem, was the premiere of Air and Simple Gifts for Chamber Ensemble.  Simple Gifts is an American Folk Song which has the “true” deep rich sounds of American music.  The first time this folk song was used in a musical composition was by Aaron Copland in Appalachian Spring.
John Williams is a true American Composer.  He is both an accomplished Film Composer and an accomplished composer of the music for the concert stage.  The music mentioned in this blog are those that can be found on iTunes or at a local record store.  There are still many others that he has composed that have never been recorded.  When I was an undergraduate at Cal State Northridge one of my professors had found several scores to some compositions by Williams in the style of Schoenberg, a technique called  the 12 tone row.  It is not a surprise that Williams has composed and studied that style of music as he was trained not only in the university, but the university that Arnold Schoenberg himself taught.  He will be one composer that will be among those remembered centuries from now.  I would highly recommend for anyone to listen to his musical compositions for the concert stage.  They are integrate and passionate, full of life and magic.
List of Musical Works
Summon the Heroes
The Olympic Spirit
Call of the Champions
American Journey
Happy Birthday Variations
Midway March
Olympic Fanfare and Theme
The Cowboys Overture
Liberty Fanfare
The Mission Theme (From NBC News)
The Star Spangled Banner
Song for World Peace
Jubilee 350
For New York (variations on a theme by Bernstein)
Sound the Bells
Hymn to New England
Celebrate Discovery
Violin Concerto
Flute Concerto
The Five Sacred Trees (Concerto for bassoon and Orchestra)
Treesong for violin and Orchestra
Cello Concerto
Elegy for Cello and Orchestra
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra
Clarinet Concerto
Tango (Por Una Cabeza) for solo Violin and orchestra
Concerto for Horn and Orchestra
On Willows and Birches (Concerto for Harp and Orchestra)
Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra
Seven for Luck (Song Cycle)
Rosewood for Solo Cello
Air and Simple Gifts for Violin, Cello, Clarinet and Piano
Three pieces for Solo Cello
Duo Concertante for Violin and Viola

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Classical Music Vs. Film Music: The Differences Between the Two Art Forms

As a composer, I have been approached by many people for many years with the same questions regarding musical composition.  These questions arise from lack of knowledge and misunderstanding.  Not that it’s their fault, but rather they have never been given the knowledge.  This I personally blame for the weakness of the modern Public Education System in this country.   One question that has been asked many times by many is “What film has that composer done?”  A composer does not have to be scoring for film to be a composer, but yet many think that modern classical music is film music so they totally feel that is the only place a composer does work.  This is a myth to say the least.  Another question that arises is “Why don’t you compose for films or why doesn’t that composer do film?”  Many composers do not work in the film genre, thus they would not have anything to their credit.  
The truth of the matter is that both Classical and Film music are totally different styles of music.  Both are valid and both are an art form of their own.  Classical Music includes a vast portion of genres including Symphonic works, Chamber Works, Concerti, and functional music (Religious Music, Opera, Ballet, Dance, and Theatre).  Film Music is a type of functional music that stems and comes from Classical Music, as the composers of the Golden Age of Hollywood were actually classical composers. 
A bit of history on Film Music. Max Steiner, sometimes I refer him as the Father of Film Music, invented the genre.  He composed the very first original film soundtrack in 1933 for King Kong.  He was a classically trained composer who happened to work in Hollywood.  When “talkies” appeared in Hollywood he found that composing original music to the work was a crucial part of the overall form.  He was the first of the composers to use a technique known as leitmotif, a recurring theme that represents a character, thing or event.  This is a technique from Opera and noted to be used for the first time by Richard Wagner.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a classical composer who has composed may Operas, became a film composer as well.  He called Film Music as “An Opera without words.”  This being said now let’s look at the differences between the two.  
Classical Music, a poorly given title by the Record Industry, is music for the concert stage.  It is music that stands on its own.  The musical context is created for listening,enjoyment, and analysis.  The concept of most of the music is a serious large form of thematic materials interwoven as an artistic expression, much like a painting.  The musical composition is the themes, phrases, and melodic lines.  The actual orchestration is a different element that the composer uses in order to express this musical composition.  The orchestration can be for solo piano, small ensemble, or a large orchestra.  No matter what the arrangement or genre holds, all of the work is done by one composer.  There is no collaboration in the creation of the work.  It is the sole art form of a single man or woman.  There might be a musical phrase by another composer or a folk tune in the composition, but this is another part of the style of the music.  It is where the composer takes a preexisting theme and creates something new out of it, an old technique that goes back to the Middle Ages.  Therefore, classical music can be understood as the same thing as a painting or a sculpture of one artist.
It is a style of music that continues to be composed to this very day.  Many feel it is a style that no longer exists or think that Film Music is the modern version of it.   However, there are 1000’s of composers who continue to work in this genre, including many composers who create film music.  Some classical composers have also composed in the Film Music genre as well.  This is because there is such a subtle line of difference between the two, many composers who love musical art forms have worked in them.
Now let’s look at Film Music.  Historically it stems from Classical Music.  The first Film composers where Eurocentric in style.   Over the decades it evolved into an art form of its own right.  Anyone who feels that it is not an art form needs to reevaluate that Film is an art form and therefore the music composed for it is part of the package.  Much like Classical Music, Film Scores have melodic lines that are orchestrated for a large ensemble or full orchestra. Since Hollywood Music has become a commodity like all other departments of film production, there is a composer who creates the melodies, thematic materials and phrases, then it is orchestrated or arranged by another musician or composer.  Unlike Classical Music, it is collaborative work.  Many times this is due to the fact of several reasons 1) The Composer does not have time to orchestrate or 2) The Composer does not know how to orchestrate.  Whatever the reason is, the music is an artistic style and expression of several people working together.  Yet one important element to remember is that many of the film composers may not be orchestrating the music but rather using “short hand” orchestration as to let the orchestrator know what they want.  This again depends on the composer and the collaboration of others in the music department.
Anther important aspect to remember on Film Music is that it so not always the “genre” of classical music.  Orchestral music does not mean it’s classical in style.  Orchestral just means “larger than life” sound.  You can orchestrate any genre of music, and many film music after the 1950’s has explored in different genres.  Jazz and Rock style has been used in film music, therefore the orchestral music now is not the “classical” sound but the genre of the musical composition.  As film music evolved so did the styles.  The Classical style still remains in film music, but you can have any other styles.  You can even orchestrate Rap Music to have the Orchestral sound.  
So here are the reasons why both Classical Music and Film Music are not the same genre as many understand.  They are both wonderful expressions of art.   Both are different styles; Film music stemming from Classical but have their own right as artistic forms.  We can’t judge one or the other and we can’t say a composer is a film composer when they say they are classical composers.  We also can’t assume a film composer does not work in the classical genre.  It is probably better to research into the credits of individual composers and see what they have composed.  I bet that if Mozart was alive today he would be composing for films as much as working with Opera, Concerti, and Symphonic Works.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Careers in Music: They are real and important to our society

Music as a career has always had misconceptions and stereotypes.  It has been known that music does not lead to a steady flow of income or a structured career for a living.  However these are extreme misconceptions.  My favorite expressions are “majoring in music, how the hell are you going to earn a living?” or “Well music is one of those jobs either you make it or you don’t.”  Here is my ultimate favorite expression that is said after hearing a performance, “That was good but what about a real job?”

A career in music is not “let’s go and put a band together and get a record deal.”  That is the “artistic” end of music, which can lead to something big or not, but ultimately that is not a career in music.  A career in music is no different than any other career.  You go to college with a major and then find a job in that field.  Simple and easy.  A degree in music can lead to many types of jobs that bring in a regular paycheck.  Some of these jobs are an audio engineer, music librarian, music teacher, secondary school and college, music critic, and even to the administration of an arts organization. 

Many of these jobs require a musical background.  The website lists countless jobs in music.  Where does this begin?  It begins with music lessons and the choir and band in Elementary, Middle and High school.  These classes are now getting cut from school.  So where are we going to have trained professionals to record music in the studio?  If you speak to any audio engineer they all have learned a musical instrument and have taken band in school.  The foundation of the skills needed to do their work.  Of course what does their work bring?  It brings us music when we listen to the radio, watch a movie, go grocery shopping, and listen to music at the office.  Imagine yourself at work and not listening to music all day or going to the grocery store and not hearing music.  How about watching a motion picture that has no music?  Well this will become a reality if we do not have music in schools.  It’s just like taking away English or Math from school.  They are taking away the chance for a good career for something that is required for the survival of human kind.

Now let’s take a look at other careers.  Many of the music students who have decided to focus their attention on playing become performers.  They get a regular job playing in an orchestra or in the studio.  They go to it like any typical job.  They perform on stage a symphonic work, not for the artistic reason, but fact they are trained musicians who do their job and bringing home the pay.  The studio musician plays the music you listen to while watching Harry Potter and other motion pictures.  I guess we’re no longer going to have motion pictures with music since the option of playing in band is no longer there.  So let’s get use to it, turn the volume off of your film and turn on the close capture to read the script.

Performance is not the only career in music.  There are tons of background jobs that require a music education.  A composer can’t compose music unless he or she is musically trained.  A songwriter can’t write the next hit song unless he or she knows how to play the piano.  How about that wonderful musical Wicked and Beauty and the Best that everyone loved so much.  A composer wrote the music and a lyricist wrote the words.  A conductor directed it and the musicians performed the music while the singers sang on stage.  All these jobs are stemmed from learning how to play a musical instrument in grade school.  It does not happen over night.  These are trained jobs and they do it as a job.  They punch a time clock just like everyone else. 

There is even a union for musicians.  I know because I am in the union myself.  My last job was being the librarian for an orchestra.  It is a union position and requires a lot of musical training.  The job is the second most important job of an orchestra.  The librarian puts together the music for the concerts.  They order, purchase, and rent the music from various publishers.  Then they put them in the folders and place the bow markings as indicated by the principal string players in each part.  Oh and sometimes re-orchestration is needed in order to fit the budget of the orchestra.  Not many can do this; only a trained composer can do it.  I don’t think anyone off the street can be a music librarian.  Only someone who has learned to play a musical instrument the studied music in college can do such a job.

So do you think learning music from k- 12 should be optional or required?  Why take away an education that can lead to a career?  As to music being a real career, well let’s see.  Is music an option in the survival of our race?  Take one day out of your life and do not listen to music at all.  Do not plug in your ipod, do not watch a movie, and do not listen to music on your drive home from work.  See how that works out.  Oh and remember to plug your ears when you are at the next football came when the band starts playing music.  I don’t think many can do this.  Music is a part of our lives and as long as the human race exists music will be a viable profession like Law, Medicine, and many other service oriented career.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Many Uses of Garageband

If you are an owner of a Mac computer than you are an owner of the Garageband software.  It is part of the iLife suite of software and is pre-installed when you purchase your iMac, Mac Mini, Macbook or Macbook Pro.  Most people don’t use it stating that it’s a bit confusing or some just feel too intimidated by music software.  It is, in reality, software that can be used by many people for many different purposes.  It is a MIDI sequencer and an audio recording/ editing software all rolled up into one.  It can be used by the professional musician, the amateur musician, a music student or for anyone who has a need to create simple audio recordings. 

When I first bought a Mac that had it installed I actually ignored it myself.  My computer usually has the high tech Pro Music software and felt that it is something that I did not have to use.  However, one day about four years ago I opened it up and played around with it and realized that it was actually software I can use for many purposes.  Over the years as it developed further I became very fond of Garageband.  I used it for simple recordings, podcasts, and when I needed background music while I played the piano.  I also found that it was great for the student so I started to teach how to use it.  I want to explain some of the uses of Garageband and how it can be useful for the musician, the music student, and the average non-musician.

The software is a multi-rack recording studio and you can hook up a MIDI keyboard and audio microphones.  With the MIDI keyboard you can create tracks of musical lines and assign them different musical instruments.  The software already includes a library of musical instruments such as strings, guitars, keyboards, winds, percussion, and even sound effects.  Apple also has available extra library of sounds and instruments that you can optionally install to add to the library.  This then can be a great way for a musician to create background music while they are playing their instrument or singing.  They can edit it and then create a CD or mp3 file that they can take with them to their gigs or performances. 

There is also pre-programmed library of audio tracks of musical instruments.  You can then set the parameters of different instruments and then record yourself playing or singing on another track.  For example, let’s say you have been practicing the famous Bette Midler song The Rose.  You can then set parameters of a track of drums, a bass line, and even a guitar.  Then after editing and setting this up you then can create another empty audio track.  Add a microphone and press the record button then record yourself while the background tracks are playing.  You now have a recording of yourself just like in a professional studio. 

There are several options of how you can add microphones.  The first one is a bit expensive.  An audio interface such as the MBox or M-Audio can be attached to the computer either USB or firewire.  Then you can add XLR or RCA microphones to the audio interface.  If you don’t want to or don’t have the budget to spend several hundred dollars on microphones then there are the other two options.  You can add a USB or even an RCA microphone right into the computer.  This uses the internal input and output scource of the computer for audio.  It is less expensive and works just as good.

There are many other ways Garageband can be used.  If you are one who creates podcasts, then this software is perfect.  It has a pre-programmed wizard to set it up for you.  All you need is a microphone and headphones.  Then you record like a tape recorder.  You can then add tracks of music or sound effects right from your itunes library.  The software is smart sensitive and when there are spoken words the music will reduce in sound rather than you select or change parameters.  Unlike the professional recording software, Gargeband will set this up for you.

Remember the good old days when you wanted to record and owned a tape recorder?  Everyone owned one.  Some used it to record voice notes while other used it to record interviews (such as journalists).  You have this capability right there on your computer (if you have the Mac).  Garageband works the same way.  You also have a large advantage with Garageband, it can record multi- tracks so you can add several audio tracks.  Then you can have music or sounds that you can import from your itunes library.  A person recording their diary can add the song they are talking about or nature sounds for the person who is recording meditation/spoken words.   Having Garageband on your Macbook with a simple USB microphone and small headphones anyone can travel and have a “digital” recorder with them all day long.  Journalists can use it for their interviews, students can record class lectures, business meetings can be recorded, and Mom and Dad can record the first words of baby.  The uses are endless and with many possibilities.  By learning the simple operations of Garageband it can be a great tool for everyone.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The importance of a Music Education

The economy has been very challenging and in the last couple of years we have seen many budget cuts in government programs, arts organizations, and businesses.  The worst situation has been the cuts to the education system, both secondary and post-secondary.  In the last couple of weeks here in Los Angeles we have faced some real sad news.  Hamilton Music Academy, a High School in the LAUSD dedicated to music education, is scheduled to close its doors.  Hamilton has served the Los Angeles area for many years and to many generations of students who have been trained to move on to professional careers in music.  With this school closing not only will many teachers be unemployed, but also students who want a serious music education will be denied their education. 

This has not stopped there.  Over the last few weeks LAUSD not only served pink slips to the teachers at Hamilton but also to many music programs in the district, including Walter Reed Middle School where the music teacher had created an orchestra for each grade level.  This week many frustrated students even protested against the cutting of their program.  Several schools had students walking out of their classes playing musical instruments in the hopes they will be heard over the cutting of their education.
Yes we do understand that the state has cut educational budgets, however there are other ways to remedy this rather than take away one of the most academic subjects in a student’s education.  Music is not only an art, but also a math and language class.  It builds the skills required to be successful in both of these subjects.

Let’s look at history for a moment.  In the Middle Ages, Music was not considered an art form.  Schools did not teach how to perform or compose for musical instruments, but rather they taught music theory.  It was taught as part of the Mathematics.  They learned the relationship of intervals of notes, the linear movements of notes, pitches, and harmonics among other theory topics.  This was a very integral part of their studies and was considered to be very important.  It was not until the Renaissance that music was finally considered an art form in the education system. 

Nevertheless, in modern days when music is taught in schools they are taught how to read music, which are the basics of music theory.  They are taught interval relationships, harmonies, and musical phrases, among other musical topics.  This goes back to the mathematics portion of music, but also includes musical language and the “art” of creating music.  This follows in line with language arts.  A musical composition when created and performed is no different than reading a novel or writing an essay.
So looking at the big picture, Music is an important academic subject.  It teaches the student the skill required to be successful in math and language arts.  By taking away music, administration is creating more challenges for the Math and English teacher.  If anything, perhaps the Math and English teacher is very thankful of the music teacher for helping build the skills needed for their classes.  If anything music should not be an elective.  It should be a required class at some level for all students from k-12.  For the early development there needs to be general music with singing, movement, recorders, and percussion.  For the later students, they should have at least two years of a chosen musical instrument.  For the High School level, not only should they be allowed to either be in the band/ orchestra or choir with a music theory class, but also a music history class to enhance their education.  Music needs to be a required subject.  If this is done, then by the time students graduate High School they will have a good solid foundation for Math and English and be well prepared for College.  It well also serve as an exciting part of their education because what kid does not like music?

It has already been proven that music is “a window into higher brain function.”  Gordon Shaw, a physicist who taught at Irvine University, did a lot of research in these theories.  He proved that “music enhances spatial- temporal reasoning and learning math, and is of scientific and educational relevance.”  If anyone recalls about ten years or so there was a series of recordings called the Mozart Effect.  These were created from Dr. Shaw’s research.  The concept of listening to Mozart or to classical music from early childhood to the teen years of a child would help develop these functioning skills.  If this research can only be taken seriously over money then the education system would have made better decisions.

Where is the future of children going if they are going to be denied a music education?  What will happen to the future of musical performance if new students are not going to be trained?  Without schools like Hamilton and strong music programs across the board not only will this country lack a music education but future performers for film scores, jazz bands, orchestras, and operas as well as other musical ensembles and bands.  I hope that the “officials” will understand this with reasoning and bring back one of the most important subjects in education.