Feedback from the Class > THE "RULES" ARE A DRAG

A few of you have commented that it's difficult to return to a rule-based, restrictive style of composition, after a quarter of blissful avant-garde freedom. You've said that "the style is restricting..." and that it's particularly shocking to move from the 20th century approach to this more historical approach. I've commented on that in other posts in this blog, but I wanted to pay special attention here to the question of "rules."

May 17, 2009 at 11:56 PM | Registered CommenterBen Carson

This isn't really a concern that I anticipated -- in part because neither this nor 100B is supposed to be a course in creative composition; your identity as an artist or a creative personality is not really an issue. If these are theory courses, designed to acquaint you with the techniques and practices of OTHER composers, then maybe it would be better to consider your own imagination elsewhere, in other parts of your education.

That last point right there seems in itself to be a problem for some of you, understandably. Creativity should be valued in all situations. But maybe it needs to be put into perspective a little. We are taught in this culture that personal uniqueness is among a human being's most important characteristics; children are taught to value -- nay, worship -- their precise being as a "self", as a child ever-so-slightly different from every other child. ("Above all to thine own self be true" is one of many Romantic values that typify this wisdom, and many Americans would be surprised to hear the phrase doesn't resonate well in other languages, and isn't considered to be equally wise in all the world's cultures.) I'm not trying to shrug off the importance of creativity here -- I DO want to see your imagination at work in these exercises. But we should be trying for a very different sense of "imagination", than the one commonly valorized and exalted (i.e. beloved) by the culture of art in the American 20th century. Let's try to think of your creativity and your imagination of something that's down-to-earth, something that moves within communities and traditions, rather than against them, a kind of imagination that (to paraphrase Reicha) "walks the streets."

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But wait...what rules are you talking about? There really aren't any in baroque counterpoint. Each of the guidelines on the website was a guideline that I made up (based on the work of other writers, and my own experience). Baroque composers used slightly different versions of these guidelines to teach their students, but after Monteverdi (1567-1643), composers rarely considered musical principles like these to be universal.

Baroque composers wanted music to sound natural, to bring them closer to God, and they didn't believe that rules alone would make that possible. That's why in this course I keep asking you to "breathe a tonal phrase", "immerse yourself in the language", and think instinctively about "harmonic clarity" and "mobility" before applying ANY of these guidelines. The guidelines are what you should work with later, in order to compare your instincts to the features of the baroque style. "Correcting" and modifying your work, so that your instincts are "translated" into the baroque style, is part of the process of learning this language, and understanding the foundations of Europe's musical modernity.

May 21, 2009 at 9:22 AM | Registered CommenterBen Carson