Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sketching Impressions on 3MBS

I recently took part in a 3MBS Radio panel discussion about teaching Music Composition, chaired by Thomas Reiner.  The other panelists were Dindy Vaughan, Marc Hannaford and Russell Goodwin.Here are some of my thoughts on the questions Thomas gave us as a starting point for the discussion. 
(The show will air on 3MBS digital on Tuesday 20 November at 7pm AEST

Tertiary Music Composition Interview Questions 

What are the main challenges?
For me as a teacher – The students’ varying levels of technical skill; different expectations; different styles and idioms.  Generally, the need to foster high standards of creative curiosity and engagement; to encourage students to find their own voice as composers and to challenge them to move outside of their comfort zone. 

What purpose or relevance?
Art is always relevant and always has a purpose – this is how our culture develops and evolves and reflects who we are. In terms of the relevance within a University setting; Composition is a high level intellectual discipline, integrating a range of technical and theoretical skills.  Teaching composition at a tertiary level is ONE way of emphasizing the importance of intellectual rigour in the discipline. 

 How important are philosophy and critical theory?
It’s all about context – essential that young composers have an understanding of WHY they are doing what the do and HOW it relates to the broader context of our culture and society.  Art is never created in a vacuum and students need to reflect on where their work is coming from, what informs it, what they are aiming to reflect on and achieve in their work. 

 How important are specific skills and what are they?
If students are working in notated music: the hardest thing is to capture a sonic idea and express it in notated form – so an understanding and technical proficiency with notation and how to capture and express all the subtleties and shapes of sound. In electronic music: proficiency with software so that it is a TOOL not a master – so that the technology allows them to articulate their ideas rather than the technology determining how those ideas are shaped.In either domain: an understanding of how music works in TIME and SPACE: Dramatic pacing, shape and structure, how to unfold and develop a musical idea through TIME.  And also the ability to analyze one’s own work as well as the work of others – to find out how it (the music) works.

Exercises in technique or project-based learning?
A bit of both but this should definitely be driven by the student’s own interests and creative approach. Technical exercises work best when they clearly relate to the student’s creative goals, when they have a clear relevance to a particular creative work.  

Reflective practice: the ability to think and write about your compositional work.
It is very important to be able to interrogate your own work – question your motivation, intention and method.  Again, all about context and being aware of where your work sits in the scheme of things, what it is attempting to say, reflect on.  Why you are doing it. I also think it is really important for artists in all disciplines to be articulate about their own work.  Contemporary Music doesn’t have to be a mystery – we should all be able to discuss our work and explain something of our approach and creative intentions to a wider, non-specialist, audience. 

When does music composition become a form of research?
Practice lead and practice based research is a valid approach – there is increasing interest in cross-disciplinary research at University where Art and Theory can be explored simultaneously. Art can be a reflexive process where the making and the writing about the making inform each other.There is plenty of scope for music composition to be understood as research.  My PhD was entirely by portfolio – the music composition WAS the research.  But I also think some form of analysis and critique of one’s own work can enhance the ‘research’ outcomes. 

Art music vs industry-based composition.
I don’t like the word INDUSTRY.  I think education is about learning the skills and developing the students’ ability to articulate their ideas.  Once they have those skills, they can use them however the want to.  I feel very uncomfortable when people start talking about music as a product or something with a commercial value – that is not what I teach and it is not what I value, personally, in music.  If I can help students to develop their skills and technical proficiency, then they can write music for whatever context interest them.  Writing music for ipad apps or computer games or film or tv or theatre – these are specific skills but you have to have the basics first.  But an understanding of how music functions in time and space is relevant to all these ‘uses’ of music, as well as the more purely ‘art music’ approach.

 Do we still express human emotion and experience?
I like the philosopher Susanne Langer’s description – Music as Symbolic Form.   Through its structure and use of material music can function as a SYMBOL for all kinds of experiences and emotions.  And reflecting on and evoking human experience and emotion is still a really central part of why many of us choose to create, to make ART.  But there are obviously many other motivating factors – music can be just as engaging and aesthetically appealing when it focuses on purely formal and structural concepts.  Fractals, proportions, processes – all can still result in music that is satisfying and enriching to listen to.But then, that has always been the case – a Bach Fugue is just as beautiful to me as a Mahler song.  

What are the key issues for the future?
Don’t lose sight of the musical past and encourage an understanding of how music has got to where it is and WHY is still really important.