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.