Re: Playing your own music... Just a though

Subject: Re: Playing your own music... Just a though
From: Katharine Norman (
Date: Fri Sep 09 2005 - 16:24:08 EDT

First my apologies, Jef , if my 'short form' response to your posting
was aggravatingly off the point. I understand what you mean in your
clarification, yet remain interested in your choice of words. I'm
grateful for David's offering of his personal story to explain,
actually, much of what I had also been trying to get at, in a much more
lucid fashion. Email's a pain, words break easily enough as it is - as
someone who increasingly writes for a living, I find this particularly
annoying! In email I resort to emoticons (despite the fact they make me
want to vomit...) ;-) - and to sending brief messages. I hope we meet
face to face some time!

I'll now ruin my defence with an overly long message...and an avoidance
of emoticons.

Kevin Austin wrote:

> Undergraduate composition (perhaps an oxymoron) has become a
> class(room) activity for many of us, so it is essential to develop
> tools and techniques that address the situation.

Yes....Like you Kevin I've had to teach 'composition' to large, mixed
undergrad groups (127 once, in a heady year at Dartington College of
Arts) and - like many on this list, I know -struggled to develop
effective tools to offer something relevant and flexible enough for all.
But although it may say 'composition teaching' on the timetable, surely
this is a techniques class by any other name, albeit one with room for
some creativity on the part of the students? I agree, tools and
techniques are in short supply.

And yet teaching compositional techniques and approaches is different
from the one-to-one (or more often now, in universities, group)
composition tutorial. More and more I don't think there's even a tenuous
thread to pull them together. A true tutorial isn't primarily teaching,
I think, but mentoring. A mentor can 'encourage' a composer towards what
seems a good, fruitful line of endeavour for that composer, doing this
within a group or not. That encouragement may include teaching
techniques (or suggesting how someone might learn them) or analysis, or
skills of critique, but those are in service to a different priority.
And the mentor's whole sensibility and 'direction' is going to be bound
up with something they can't articulate, and yet can't remove from their
self - what it is that is the 'experience of music' is in relation to
them, their self.

 Eliot so cogently elucidates this I think. I've read this over and over
- I find it very helpful.

"You have to be taken or interested in some way to get into a work and
what that is isn't likely to be some "synthetic" element that can be
decomposed into more basic categories. The further we get into music, I
think, the more particular to ourselves the experience of music is.
Rather than moving towards the general -- amenable to analysis --
through art we might only get towards ourselves."

And actually, at a fundamental level, it's this - and perhaps only this
- that, I think, a mentor can usefully 'show' another composer (not
necessarily in a conscious way, and not necessarily, but sometimes, by
focusing on their own work). That's not to say that the mentoring
composer is or should be in any way teaching the composer to be 'like
them' - please, no.

A problem as I see it is that institutions can't offer more than a
limited 'range' of mentors - yet composers (or any artists) need to shop
around quite a bit to find what and who will serve them best. And I
guess this is partly why I left teaching in a dept which, I felt, didn't
- and just couldn't, of course - really allow for this (I'm not saying
this dept was any worse or better than others). Yet at Goldsmiths,
where I used to teach, the Fine Art department doesn't 'teach' its
postgrads as such. It provides a budget for individual students to
'meet with' artists of their choice in a mentoring situation. I was
hugely jealous of this, and tried to eke my budget out to allow this
sometimes, as well as as many 'visiting composer/musician' slots as
possible. A stab at a compromise. But it's not the same.

Yes, someone who is already being an artist (at whatever age or stage,
and also my definition of 'artist' is broad) may certainly benefit from
more technical studies, more exposure to repertoire and more analysis of
it, more ability in verbalizing critique.... Or they might not. Or they
might not right now. Or they might not be able to right now. It's an
individual matter.

I was once tutored by a composer who took apart Debussy's l'isle joyeuse
before my very eyes, with the aid of Roy Howatt's analysis. It was like
having a marvellous Byzantine ceiling deconstructed, and then put back
together again. It took me a while to refocus: I immediately wrote a
work heavily indebted to the Debussy, and was thoroughly exhilarated by
the experience of 'understanding something' about it at a deep level.
Three years later I made a work which was, for me, a similar journey of
meticulous construction, completely in my own terms -terms I might not
have reached without that analysis.

I was once tutored by a composer who barely said anything. He would
bring in his tea collection and I would choose and make tea while he
looked at my scores, or he would make tea while I listened to his work.
He would occasonally say something deeply encouraging, but that was
about it. He'd grab a score or CD/record (by someone else) off the
library shelf just as I left, offering only 'you must listen to this'
before scuttling off. He always chose something that appeared
irrelevant, and hardly ever was.

I've had interesting electracoustic composition tutorials too, but don't
offer them here - since you guys probably know who they, or you, are.

I increasingly believe that being, or becoming, an artist is not
something that any amount of training can initiate, although it may do
wonders to make an artist better (in their own terms) at what they are
trying to do - whether 'better' in a purely technical sense or in a more
fundamental 'getting my idee out there' sense. But deciding not to
continue as an artist can be something, I fear, that an unfortunate
teaching or mentoring experience can provoke. Not necessarily a 'bad
mentor' but a 'wrong mentor' perhaps. (I'm sitting on my hands so as
not to type reassuring emoticons here...).

;-) (whoops)


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