This is the third of five articles:
My Vision- The Technique
A number of disciplines have been handed down to us from the Great Masters of Classical music. These disciplines transcend style yet create a sense of destiny and authority throughout the composition of a work. They greatly resemble the Hebrew definition of ‘meditation’, that is, ‘the revolving in one’s mind like a cow chewing the cud’. It is the organic growth of a work, like a seed growing into a full plant. These disciplines create cohesiveness in a work, which in turn creates a sense of unity and wholeness.
There is a reason that these great compositions have lasted for centuries. Thousands of other works were written during the same time, but they have been long forgotten. The reason these Master-Works have withstood the test of time is that they were built to last.
Anything cheap never lasts. It never withstands the wear and tear very long. Products, however, in which great care of design has been given, along with skilled craftsmanship to execute the design, are the products that have historic longevity.
The same is true in music.
These ‘principles of design’ go beyond musical styles, and are intrinsic in all works that have been handed down to us from hundreds of years. It is why a work will still carry a sense meaning, even though we are unfamiliar with its style, when we hear it for the first time in our present historic moment.
The principles have to do with pattern and relationship. It is a mystery, but God made our human souls to respond to patterns. We can innately sense if something is balanced or imbalanced, related or unrelated. We pick up on shades of meaning, even if we don’t know analytically why, based on context and patterns.
Most music, even played by less-than-skilled musicians, operates with these principles, but it usually happens by accident, instead of by design.
Limits of Improvisation
In order for these concepts to function, current-day performing musicians who are used to improvisation as the primary means of production should learn to read notation. Only in notation can the sequence of tones produced by a skilled composer be successfully accomplished by larger numbers of participants in community.
An improviser, by himself, can achieve some degree of success in these areas but it becomes increasingly difficult the more people who are added. This is why in a standard jazz combo or rock group the number of people that can successfully interact is relatively small, compared to a large orchestral or jazz band ensemble with written notation. The small groups can improvise without ‘stepping on each other’s toes’ fairly easily and the discipline in improvisation, while it remains an important skill, is less useful in the context of a community. It is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s remarks in I Corinthians 14 instructing those who speak in tongues to do so privately, giving way to those who would speak in a known language publicly. Paul, in this portion of Scripture, even goes so far as to elude that musical instruments being played are metaphoric of human speech.
Unfortunately, most contemporary musicians will not bring themselves to read successfully on their instruments due to a lack of self-discipline. How powerful it would be to see contemporary instruments being played in consort, with skill and precision, bringing to life a composition of specific events and premeditated order!
There is something else about the use of musical notation which should be brought out. Notation, in and of itself cannot be heard. It represents merely an idea of the composer’s intentions. This, however, is the most important aspect of its use. Because it is outside of the realm of sound and human performance, it therefore is not subject to the flaws of the natural realm. It represents to the imagination a picture of what should be, a concept or idea that is unmarred by physical limitations. It is sort of a spiritual blue-print for the natural house that is being built. Performing musicians who cannot participate in this kind of interaction, because of their inability to read, are like those who go to a movie that was inspired by a book and have never read the book for themselves. How many people who have read the book first then go to the movie to find it disappointing? They discovered that their imagination was much more enjoyable than the film. Such is the case with those who can read music versus those who cannot. The skill and coordination of multiple parts in harmonious activity could not be achieved without this ‘blueprint’. Imagine a bunch of individuals of varying skill levels setting out to build a house without a blue-print. They just started. After a while they would achieve some sort of structure by trial and error, but nothing as successful as those who started with a well-planned blue-print.
I am not saying that improvisation is bad. It is a necessary skill, in and of itself, and it is the seed-bed of compositional creativity. The capability to create and function with a ‘blue-print’ and design, however, is of greater value. The combination of the improvisatory with the scoring is the best of both worlds. I am simply stating that there is a matter of priority between these two subjects.
Before discussing basic technical skills that are derived from great composers of this vast body of materials spanning the centuries we refer to today as ‘Classical’ music, I would like to encourage you to read my article, “What Is Classical Music?” which delves into a more esoteric analysis of why these musical compositions have lasted. These general concepts, used over hundreds of years, gave the works structural integrity causing them to be relevant today.
Basic compositional techniques are condensed to these three areas: 1) thematic development, 2) form and structure, and 3) the orchestration of timbre and texture.
As briefly mentioned above, thematic development is the process of drawing out from a ‘seed’-thought a completed thesis. Much like a literary work with words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, music that uses thematic development functions the same way a thought turns into a book.
God gives us the ‘seed’ but then, upon meditation of that seed, it begins to spring forth out of itself. The God-idea begins to grow eventually producing the fruit of the completed idea.
Subjects such as modulated sequence, inversion, retrograde, retrograde-inversion, imitation, rhythmic expansion, rhythmic contraction, and many others that can be studied through the great works from the past are tools and techniques that facilitate the process of ‘meditation’ of the God-given theme.
One great example of this is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which starts out with four notes. In the subsequent passages those four notes turn into an entire melody, as he repeats them in various transpositions. The theme is then expounded upon throughout the development of the movement.
Modern composers have also continued to create tools to aid in the development of ideas, such as Serialism and Minimalism. It is not so much about the tools themselves but how the tools are utilized, purposefully, to create easily recognizable (as well as subconsciously recognizable) patterns and designs, giving form and order in the expanse of the idea.
In the beginning of Creation God brought forth order out of chaos. Thematic development in music brings compositional order out of an otherwise disorderly group of people and random musical thoughts. It brings community and purpose to a group of people who otherwise would just be ‘doing their own thing’. Unfortunately, most of the music paradigms that exist today in our popular culture are great examples of ‘doing your own thing’.
Glenn Miller, during the jazz era, determined to bring order to his band by carefully writing out parts, limiting individualism for the sake of group clarity. His critics thought that this was too much control. They wanted everything to be improvised. Glenn continued in his quest to bring order and finally made jazz history with this concept. He is not the first to have lived this story, however. J.S. Bach, an avid improviser himself, is recorded to have once complained about the frivolous improvisations of those who were unskilled.
Form and Structure
The principles of form and structure are more easily understood by our current pop-song-based society. How many choruses...how many verses...where we place the bridge can have felt meaning in the context of a song’s delivery. There are higher levels of structure and form, however, than a popular song. To use a metaphor: a bridge can go over the creek, or it can be The Golden Gate Bridge. Musical structures can span a much larger framework than what we are used to in popular genres. Mahler and Bruckner Symphonies lasting up to two hours are evidences of huge layers of compositional structure that lead the listener into an audible story, much like a feature-length movie weaves it’s tale. Again, just like literary works, musical works must have balance of design, climax, contrast and dimension. A poorly planned structure will end in collapse, but a well-designed form will keep the attention of the listener as long as it takes to convey the message completely, whether in one minute or one hour.
Structure and thematic development are integrally linked and dynamic in their interplay.
For a song structure used in worship, I desire to see an extended song form used with thematic musical ties to certain subjects, such as Wagner did with the leitmotif, but with subjects like love, forgiveness, grace, etc. having their own theme woven throughout an extended, yet varied, worship experience. The same techniques used in longer structures could be employed in creating a meaningful, skillfully created worship experience which has thematic unity and cohesiveness.
Someone once analogized today’s worship events as a ‘string of sausages’ in their song 1, song 2, and song 3 structure. The above concept would be a departure from this type of scenario.
Another art-form, used by J.S. Bach in the context of worship, was the Cantata, which told a Scriptural story in song. Portions of the worship experience were sung by soloists who portrayed Biblical characters while other places in the music required congregational participation. Sometimes a choir would sing a phrase then the congregation would echo. It was a participatory event even though it happened in the context of a story. Wouldn't it be wonderful to do this with contemporary instruments and styles? A Biblical Rock opera, combined with worship choruses, all organized and structured in a fresh and contrasting way. We are used to three-and-a-half minute songs on the radio, but take these same sounds and import them into the power of a story, and you have something unique. Add the dynamic of congregational worship to it, and it takes on a whole new meaning!
With the advent of computer screens and electronically distributed scores the potential for improvised musical structures, with a larger ensembles than three or four people, becomes possible. The potential for spontaneously taking an orchestrated group of players in any direction in terms of form and structure, at will, is entirely plausible.
Orchestrated Timbre and Texture
Lastly, orchestrated timbre and texture are the results of careful planning and scoring. Without it there ceases to be variety to the work. How often have you heard someone complain that ‘it all sounds the same’? This is due to the fact that there has been little thought given to texture of instrumentation or voicing. With new and different modern instruments much experimentation will need to take place to create new sounds and combinations of sounds. With careful thought, however, the detail given to this area will set apart one’s music as its own unique sonic environment. Carlos Santana worked diligently to create just one note that sounded right to him on his electric guitar and gear.
Today, too often, once a particular group of musicians find their ‘sound’, there is no further experimentation to give variety or a wider palette to their work. Constant experimentation and focus, with documentation, is key to further development in these areas.
The guitar is an ancient instrument, but it has made the transition from ‘ancient’ to ‘modern and contemporary’ in the minds of today’s listeners. It is no different than any other instrument. The instruments used in a Classical symphony have the same potential for metamorphosis. The same way a guitar has changed in its ability to produce a wide variety of electric tones, so can any other instrument make that transition. The unique human approach as to how that particular instrument develops sound can add a completely new texture to our musical palette when brought into our current-day electronics. Just as the acoustic guitar remains separate and distinct from the electric guitar, so can these other instruments remain separate and distinct as their own preserved art-form.
Computer technology that makes it possible to send click-tracks to live players who can play in sync with a pre-produced track gives even greater sonic possibilities. The addition of the newest technology’s ability to change tempo and form, at will, gives even more flexibility to its use in live applications. The use of this type of tool should not replace the live player’s unique capability to randomly change tone, texture and emotional content at the spur of the moment, but the combination of pre-production, together with live interaction, can produce yet another palette of sonic possibilities.
Many examples of the three basic areas of Thematic Development, Form and Structure and Orchestrated Timbre and Texture can be given, but these will change and adapt with the historical styles, instruments and opportunities that are current to the day. The basic usage of these concepts will continue, however, as they are foundational to the creation of music.
My attempt at condensing a few of these ideas is not to simply be involved in another historical analysis but to encourage the use of these universal tools, which have worked successfully through each generation for hundreds of years. Contemporary artists in the world of ‘Pop’ music have accidentally touched on some of these but, in many cases, have not used them purposefully to create great and lasting art. Since worship ministries are typically parroting that which has been done in the secular ‘Pop’ world, I strongly urge those who are called to the work of creativity for the Church to become acquainted with these enduring tools. Merging a heart of worship with successful craftsmanship will undoubtedly produce a product that will glorify God well into future generations, if not eternally.