music is life, music is breath, music is us

Archive for June, 2012

Does Music Have a Future?

I often wonder about the future of music. I wonder where we are going, if we will see any new innovations in the various genres in the near future or if the innovation won’t happen for many years. I have spoken in an earlier post of a new Renaissance that I believe needs to occur in the world of music (whether it is western classical, rock or the many other genres that exist). I think music is currently stagnant; this is not to say that there isn’t good music nowadays, but most of that music is a product of innovation of the past and people following those formulas of innovation.

Even if there is innovation, those people fronting the new art will inevitably be met with opposition from music critics and fans. It always takes some time for people to accept a new era within music, perhaps out of fear or perhaps out of arrogance.

Whatever the case, the innovators of the future are tasked with creating music that hasn’t been heard before, a seemingly daunting task as so much has been said already. Every genre of music in this world has had its virtuosi and geniuses, leaving some to wonder if there is anything new left to be said.

I firmly believe there is still more to be said, as the world will always possess great minds that see the world in a far deeper way than the rest of us. Perhaps the innovators of the future will be M.I.T. students that figure out new algorithms that can be used by composers to approach writing orchestral scores. Perhaps the innovators of the future will draw heavy influence on socio-political movements of the future that will influence public opinion much like the music of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger did during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Perhaps the innovators of the future will be self-taught multi-instrumentalists who see the endless possibilities of music outside of the confines of the rules most musicians are taught through harmony and counterpoint.

Whatever the case is, for this Renaissance to occur, it is going to require individuals that are unafraid to suffer ridicule for flipping music on its head. It is going to require people willing to challenge every pre-conceived notion that may be held by music scholars and music critics. Most of all, it is going to require people that are passionate not only about music, but changing the very fabric of society and how music exists within it.

I believe that someday this Renaissance will occur, it may not be for one hundred years, it may not be for one thousand years, but I believe that one day it will happen. The music world, in turn the world itself, will be set on fire with passionate ideas of musical genius, affecting how everyone chooses to view this art in the future. One can only wait and see if the beginnings of this movement might happen in this generation.

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Learning Music: Notation vs. Oral Tradition

Every culture has a different approach to teaching music. In western nations, there (at least in many traditions) is an emphasis on learning music notation, in turn building sight-reading abilities (which for many performers is an essential attribute to have for auditions). In other parts of the world, such as India and West Africa, there is more of an emphasis on oral tradition (training the musician through example) thus building their ear recognition abilities. Is there an advantage to either system? There have been many arguments for many years regarding this issue, and I honestly believe it depends on the situation.

Music notation’s advantage is that it allows the composer to not risk forgetting their ideas. It also allows for a mass ensemble to sight read through music quickly, thus effectively utilizing the meeting time in a succinct way.

Oral tradition’s advantage is that it allows for more expression on the part of the musician. With oral tradition, the musician rarely plays the same song in the same manner twice, adding unique embellishments to the melodic lines.

It is truly difficult to say which method is better, as at the heart of this topic is specific cultural practices that have been followed for centuries. Hindustani classical music (classical music from North India) has always taught musicians through oral tradition, as it serves a purpose. In traditional Hindustani performance, there are specific sections (most notably the opening unmetered Alap section) that serve as improvisation for developing the raga (or scale). Looking at another tradition that I actually play, that is classical Arabic music, oral tradition is practiced so that the musician absorbs the maqamat (or scales) into their soul. What results is emotional playing in both the fixed melodic sections, as well as the improvisation sections known as the taqasim (in many ways these sections show the skill of the performer in question).

With western music, you do see improvisation (in styles such as jazz and rock), but in those same traditions there is an emphasis as well, even if it is just initially, on music notation (whether it is tablature or lead sheets). Of course where notation is most ardently followed is in western classical music, where improvisation is frowned upon as there is an emphasis on following exactly what composers notated. The use of music notation in the west is, yet again, the result of years of tradition.

When you are dealing with tradition, it really becomes a slippery slope to attempt critique, as many decisions of tradition are relative to your perspective. I see advantages to both systems, and to students of music in the west I strongly encourage immersion in both practices, as the mark of a great performer is versatility. Embrace every practice that music has given us, in every unique cultural perspective, as no one culture has all of the answers musically. This should be encouraging to those who study music, as there are always fresh and brilliant ways of viewing this art that has existed for a long time.


Video Games: The Composers, The Music, and The Future

Ok, I admit it, I’m a gamer. I try to justify the time I spend playing video games as research for potential jobs I may have as a composer (I actually want to write for video games if possible), but I know that at times video games are just a good excuse for procrastination. In all honesty though, through video games I have found new avenues to explore as a composer, from new techniques of writing to new overall sources of melodic and harmonic inspiration. If you ask me about some of the works that inspire me as a composer, I will answer music like the soaring themes by Harry Gregson-Williams for the Metal Gear Solid series, the tragically beautiful score for Final Fantasy X (written by Nobuo Uematsu), the electronic masterpiece of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory by Amon Tobin and Jesper Kyd (arguably the most in-demand composer in the video game world) and finally the other-worldly music of Marty O’Donnell from Halo series.

I doubt the makers of Pong and Space Invaders ever imagined that decades later video games would feature Oscar worthy scores written by world class composers like Hans Zimmer. The scores of the games of today move the hearts of the gamers who play them, so much so that orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic have actually held concerts of solely video game music (apart of a larger organization called Video Games Live).

Writing for video games opens up so many more possibilities, and pitfalls, for the composer. With a good video game score, the music moves with you as the gamer. If you are playing a military-style game like Splinter Cell, your choices in the game should be reflected in the music (i.e. in a game like Splinter Cell which tends to focus on stealth, if the gamer chooses to throw stealth out the window and run in guns-blazing, the music should be affected quickly). This makes a new challenge to the composer, for they may be used to writing for film, television or concert performances where things are set and grounded, but in a video game everything changes according to the individual person. What makes a good video game composer, in turn a good video game score, is not only skill with melody, orchestration etc., but also someone who understands the intricate processes of the gamer (preferably a gamer themselves).

In all honesty, I believe that some large video game companies make a mistake in hiring big-time Hollywood-type composers simply because they are an industry juggernaut. They may have a name that could bring in some more money (of course if the choice fails the company could be in the red as their budget takes a major hit hiring a Hollywood composer), but they may not be the composer best suited for the job. I believe that it is time for major video game companies like Rockstar and others to give independent composers a chance. We may actually be better suited for the job, as we may be huge fans of the games they hire us to write for, and understand the plot-lines and general trajectory of the games better than an industry composer. They just have to give us a chance.

I wonder about the future of video game music, it seems like all that can be accomplished has already. Music is funny though, when you least expect it, an innovator comes out of nowhere and flips everything on its head. I am anxious to see who that innovator, or innovators, are, as new consoles will inevitably be released, unlocking a great deal of uncharted technological territory to work with.


Do Music Purists Have a Point?

I suppose this post can be considered a follow-up in some way to my first post that proposed an integration of world music in western classical music education. Music purists (i.e. individuals who hold that after a certain point their selected genre went wrong) exist in all forms. There are western classical purists, jazz purists, and even heavy metal purists, who all draw a line that they think shouldn’t be crossed in their chosen music. Do these people have a point? Should musicians and composers adhere to a certain understanding of what should and shouldn’t be done with their selected genre?

In all honesty, I don’t know how much of a leg to stand on musical purists, in any genre, truly have. My reasoning is that, firstly, who truly determines these musical boundaries? Is it musicologists? Music critics? Fans? Record Producers? All of these people have differing opinions, so it is difficult to determine set boundaries authoritatively and unanimously.

Secondly, many of the styles that purists actually defend arose out of evolution of other styles of music, or syncretic (combined) interactions of multiple styles of music. Heavy metal came out of rock, rock came out of blues and so on, so it seems slightly absurd to defend something that would not even have existed if people adhered to musical purists of the past.

Thirdly, musicians and composers, when driven, tend to make the music they want to make regardless of the consequences (I am a composer, and pretty much whatever comes to my mind I put down onto staff paper). Philip Glass, along with John Adams and Steve Reich, pioneered minimalism in western classical music, much to the dismay of music critics of the 1960’s and early  to mid 1970’s (the New York Times back then declared the music of these composers to be non-musical and actually instructed their music critics to not write about it). Of course, Glass and others wound up flipping the classical world on its head. Rock music, as it has been well documented, was deemed as a “fad,” “Satanic,” and ultimately something that would die away. That didn’t stop Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and others from changing the course of music forever, no matter what initial obstacles they faced.

Certainly, music should be treated with respect, and especially in the case of music that may not come from your culture you should educate yourself as much as possible before attempting to write it (what results from ignorantly writing “ethnic (I really refrain from using this term as it is charged with Euro-centrism)” is music that inaccurately portrays a culture, possibly leading to incorrect and disrespectful stereotypes). Some instruments around the world, such as the Mbira (lamellophone played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe) have sacred contexts and should be used with the utmost caution (perhaps not used at all).

This is my two-cents on musical purism, but it is just an opinion. I don’t claim to have the authority of musical understanding, as music is an ongoing discussion between scholars, audiences, musicians, and composers. Music is malleable, and will never be totally understood, as it is in many ways a mysterious phenomenon.


A proposal for progress in the western classical world

Western classical music is characterized by some as a genre that is stagnant, a genre of music unwilling to break itself out of the shell of ancient writing practices like counterpoint and harmony. Certain music conservatories (none of which I will name, as I really don’t want to make a bunch of enemies with my very first blog post) rigidly train their students to think like 17th Century composers and musicians, disregarding the current postmodern interaction of cultures throughout the world. What results from this is philharmonic orchestras being known for one thing, ancient western music styles, as many insist on predominantly playing works from the composers of the past (there are of course exceptions to this rule, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic , for instance, is known for playing progressive music). Although there is nothing wrong with this, I feel that the classical world is in need of a renaissance of its own, one that totally re-invigorates the genre.

What would have to happen is a total re-evaluation of what music is understood to be, throwing away the Euro-centric notions that have pervaded a great deal of western music education. This means educating on the music of other cultures, from the classical Hindustani music of North India, to the Silk and Bamboo ensemble music of China. This means understanding music from a perspective that includes varied positions, one that does not state that Palestrina and Bach are the sole authority on music, but rather places emphasis on the masters of traditions from all around the world. Such masters would include Ravi Shankar (although known by many in the west as the “guy who played sitar with the Beatles,” his true genius is found in the ancient and complex ragas (scales) of India), Um Kulthum (arguably the greatest singer to emerge from Egypt), Salif Keita (Mali pop singer in the Jali tradition of West Africa), and so many others that have contributed to the constantly shifting force of music.

There are some signs of this desire to change in the classical world. Yo-yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (part of the Silk Road Project) plays music from all of the nations along the Silk Road, featuring instruments such as the pipa (Chinese plucked pear-shaped lute found in traditional Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo ensembles (properly known as Jiangnan sizhu)) ensembles, oud (plucked fretless lute similar to the guitar found all over the Near East, I actually play this instrument), and the kayagum (Korean zither found in traditional music of South Korea). Furthermore, the composer Philip Glass (one of my biggest personal composition influences) has produced many works that draw on various regions of the world. Most notably, he composed the score for Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun, drawing heavily on traditional Tibetan musical techniques, chants of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and Tibetan instruments like the dungchen (long trumpet).

What I ultimately hope results from this revamping of how western music education and orchestral performance is conducted is a deeper understanding for all parties involved. A deeper understanding of what music is (as it varies from culture to culture), a greater knowledge of how music should be approached, and finally a greater advancement in cultural relations. The barriers to such a movement are great, but in order for the next stage in western classical music to occur, it is vital that such seeds are planted in the minds of those who control the institutions that produce this music.  Only time will tell if such a thing can come to pass, but it is worth the wait. Music must, as all art must, change and move forward, for without progress, it cannot truly be considered art.