This week I’ve dived into digitizing old cassette tapes and waded through a couple of unlistenable options before coming across this thing that you might find interesting. “What happens in music composition class stays in music composition class,” goes the old saying, but I’m letting out some of the hell: a song called “Patriotism,” composed in (I think) 1992 and performed in class with me singing (my TA advised me afterwards that I should really use a real singer for these things) and a classmate named Jeanne (whose name I didn’t know the correct pronunciation to, and so never called her anything) playing piano.
You may, if you listen to this tune, notice that it is really f’in weird. It uses a text that I believe I chose semi-randomly from a book I owned but had not read; by Googling I see that it was Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1956). The melody jumps all over the place and the rhythm has lots of odd stops in it, so the combined effect is of a mad poetry reading. Well, such were the expectations of what constitutes “serious” music in a music school composition class in the early ’90s (I can’t say whether this has changed since then). If you use regular tonality and rhythm, then you’re doing fake Mozart, like writing a poem where you only quote lines from other poems with minor variations off of them (which describes most rock lyrics, come to think of it). Think of tonality like a language; if you want to say something worth saying, i.e. that hasn’t already been said before many many times, then you have to put things together in different combinations, though you’re still using the same tricks in making it non-random than you would ordinarily: you (well, this is the way I did it, anyway) make things more major to arrive at a resolution, you use rhythms to convey energy level (even if in this case the energy is frantic and whimsical, like paint splashes on an avant garde painting). Unlike the extremes of 12-tone anti-melodic, anti-harmonic, mathematically determined music, this is still supposed to be expressive, though maybe not that fun to listen to.
So, anyway, this is the first time I’ve aired one of my six or seven music school creations (only a couple of which I have recorded; posting hand-written sheet music is probably not as fun for you readers). I’ve hung a lot of my “cred” on this over the years, i.e. that I was a composition minor (unofficially… I took a lot of music school classes), and so I had to actually write notes down and learn some theory and how to write parts for horns and strings and things. Truth be told, my exploration into that whole area was interesting and informative for me, but pretty limited: a matter of four or five courses writing two or three pieces in each, never for more than a few instruments, and I never got to the point where my brain was really connected to the notes on paper, enabling me to just write down melodies in my head without the aid of a piano or conversely to sight read or interpret scores with any particular effectiveness. Since leaving undergrad, I only recall one occasion where I actually used my writing/arranging skills: I got a chance to arrange a simple string quartet part for a song used in my wedding ceremony.
Nonetheless, other people may explain the complexity of their artistic world view through extensive experience with drugs; I had this instead.