Confessions of a listening composer

by Andrew Staniland   ¦   August 9 2018

Composers spend a lot of time honing their craft, first in schools under mentorship, and then in practice. The mechanics of writing eventually become fully sublimated, much like the rules of grammar to a writer. As a composer I trust my technique, and I have come to believe that it is through technique that a good piece, effective and moving piece can be made.

Staniland Rules

But when listening to music (this is after all a listening blog!)  I have always suspected that the technical work of the composer functions subliminally and does not require overt attention to be received.  When I listen, I find I am left with impressions, feelings, and perhaps an assessment as to how good or effective the work is, which leads me to wonder:

  • How much of this impression has to do with conscious perception and recognition of the techniques by the composer?
  • Are the basic techniques of the composer such as retrograde and inversion even audible outside the practice of score study?
  • In discovering technical details, does our perception or interpretation of the work change as listeners and performers?

With these questions in mind, I offer a recent choral composition On the surface of Water as a case study. Please listen to it first, before reading on.

Now that you have heard it, I will reveal some of the structural design. Note the work is palindromic, or in arch form, something that composers have been fond of for centuries.

Staniland Exmaple 2

I now invite you to hear the piece again, following the score:

Did you perceive any of the details identified in the analysis on the 1st listen?

How about on the 2nd listen, after seeing the analysis? 

In discovering the technical details, has your perception or interpretation of the work changed?

As for my experience composing, hearing, and analyzing the work, I believe that the technique applied to a piece is foundational to its success. With deliberate listening, I can hear some of the techniques I used, but not all of them.

My favorite listening experiences are a mix of active listening, and what I could call an effortless presence with the work – not struggling to hear, identify and assess, favouring being with the music rather than interrogating it. Ultimately this is how I hope others will experience my work, and I would rather hear that someone found it moving, than  that they ‘heard the palindrome’. Techniques are there not to draw attention to themselves but to serve as structure that supports the magical art that we call music.

I confess that I do not think it is necessary to know the technical aspects of a work to enjoy it. However I would qualify that by pointing out that I believe that greater understanding leads to greater appreciation: the more one notices, the deeper and more meaningful the experience can become. For me, analysis is like a premium upgrade on a work I already know and enjoy.

I leave you with Hindemith’s masterwork Ludus Tonalis.  Will you perhaps like it better knowing that the prelude and postlude are pure retrograde inversions of each other? I certainly do. smiling-emoticon

What do you think? Please comment below.

Happy listening,

Andrew Staniland

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