Music Composition: The DH Edition! What counts as “composition” anymore?

Hi gang!

More of a series of questions and less of a proposal (I suppose that’s why were at THATCamp LAC, right?)…

Musicians (specifically composers) in academia are behind the curve in our pedagogical evolution apropos technological advancements and an increase in the number of digitally-native students in music classes.  I’m hoping the questions/problems/concerns I’m going to raise are actually the same as or similar to ones you have already come across in your respective fields!

Here’s the gist: composition is the wielding and manipulating of a musical palette comprised of very small elements: notes.  While some music conservatories will allow undergraduate students to “specialize” in an area (wind ensemble composition), most colleges—particularly LACs—ask students to learn to write coherently and idiomatically in multiple styles and genres.  In these settings, technology has traditionally been used in one of two venues: as a tool for notation (many composers use software like Finale or Sibelius instead of pen and paper), or through the genre of electronic music.

So what’s wrong?

Students who are entering college are part of the iGeneration which touts applications like Apple’s Garageband as a device to aid in composing music.  Using Garageband, burgeoning composers typically manipulate “loops” rather than individual notes to create a piece of music that is self-performing; there is no resulting “score” and the computer is the performer.  Many in academic music feel this process is more akin to digital DJing and not true “composition” and should not be part of the undergraduate curriculum.

Like it or not (and I’m still very much undecided on the issue), Garageband has become a gateway for students interested in pursuing a degree in music composition and they often become upset when they get to college and see that what they’re creating “doesn’t count” as composition despite the process being remarkable similar.

Here are my questions:

What’s the difference between synthesis and composition?

Is analog composition (“traditional” writing) actually different from digital composition (Garageband)?  Is it even “digital composition” or “digital synthesis?”  Are the skills the same at any rate?

Does Garageband fit into the traditional “electronic music” genre that students typically study, or is it really a different animal?  If so, where does it fit into the curriculum?

If a student can compose in multiple genres through Garageband, do they ever need to write note-by-note?

More aptly: if I ask a student to compose a piece for strings and the student turns in a Garageband file that digitally puts together dozens of synthetic or prerecorded string sounds, has the student done what I asked?

Most academic composers I know do NOT consider Garageband as legitimate means of composing, but I’m not so sure…

I’d love your thoughts!  If this is something anyone is interesting in helping me think through, I’d be delighted to demonstrate both types of composition (and hear the products!) so you can see the similarities and differences for yourself!

Categories: Panels |

About Blake Henson

Blake Henson has been praised for his music that Gramophone Magazine says "moves from soothing sentiments to more exultant territory with exceptional harmonic vibrancy; it casts a spell that must be even more thrilling when heard in live performance," and the New Jersey Star-Ledger called "powerful and thoughtful at the same time." Born in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Henson currently resides in De Pere, Wisconsin where he serves as Assistant Professor of Music at St. Norbert College. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in music theory and composition from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as the degree Doctor of Musical Arts in composition from The Ohio State University. He has studied composition with Thomas Wells, Donald Harris, Joel Phillips, Jay Kawarsky, Ron Hemmel, Michael Cox, and John Parker and has collaborated with such noted composers as Mark Adamo, Stephen Paulus, Tarik O'Regan, and Gerald Custer. Sought after for his choral, vocal, and orchestral work, Dr. Henson has received numerous commissions from professional ensembles, colleges and high schools, churches, and community choruses and orchestras including Chanticleer, Westminster Kantorei, Westminster Williamson Voices, Anam Cara, Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra, The Thomas Circle Singers, and the New Jersey Chamber Singers. His music has been performed in some of the finest venues in the United States including Carnegie Hall, The National Cathedral, and Spivey Hall; as well as in concert halls in Canada, Mexico, England, South Africa, Taiwan, Australia, and Japan. His choral works have been performed at ACDA National Conventions as well as by numerous All-State choirs. Dr. Henson’s work as a composer and teacher has awarded him multiple distinctions and recognitions including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his choral-orchestral work “The Good Fence” (an unstaged drama written in response to the terrorist acts on September 11th, 2001), Ars Nova’s “Artist of the Year” award, and an Alumni Merit Award from his alma mater Westminster Choir College, which he received at age twenty-six. An active author and pedagogue, Dr. Henson is completing “The Composer’s Craft,” a book on composition pedagogy and is writing a text for aural training submersion with James Jordan and David Conte. His works are being continually recorded by premiere Philadelphia chamber ensemble Anam Cara under the GIA label. As a performer, Dr. Henson has appeared with the Westminster Choir, Westminster Kantorei, Fuma Sacra, the New York Philharmonic (Davis, Dutoit, Maazel, Gilbert, Hickocks), the Cleveland Orchestra (Boulez), the New Jersey Symphony (Labadie, Jarvi), Dresden Philharmonic (Fruhbeck de Burgos), Fort Worth Symphony (Giordano, Harth-Bedoya), and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Litton) and has collaborated with such noted conductors as Joseph Flummerfelt, Charles Bruffy, Weston Noble, Bruce Chamberlain, Dennis Shrock, Andrew Megill, James Jordan, and Emmanuell Villaume. Henson is a member of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Society for Music Theory (SMT), Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI), and the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); he is also a volunteer for the American Cancer Society. Dr. Henson is published by GIA Music.

7 Responses to Music Composition: The DH Edition! What counts as “composition” anymore?

  1. B”H

    I hadn’t even thought about this aspect of DH, Blake. I should have, though. I have one son who is heavily into dubStep, and classes full of students majoring in Mass Communication or Technology instead of Music because their “instrument” is digital sampling + rap and hiphop.

    I have often wondered to myself whether Philip Glass would have been a music major if he had been going to college today.

    I think this question is bigger than music. It is a question of how we define “art” these days–whether that art is creative writing, music, sculpture, or graphic. The edges are really fraying.

    One of my students asked me, “Why can’t you call what I do as a DJ a ‘composition,’ but you can call a bunch of found objects arranged a certain way ‘sculpture.'”

    The answer may lie in the “gatekeeping” of art. Those from less privileged backgrounds, whose parents couldn’t afford music lessons or instruments, but who made their music out of what they had–old LPs on a turntable, samplings from their iPod, and their voice and experience–are told they aren’t “musicians” the same way folk artists who painted with housepaint on wood or who quilted were told they weren’t “artists.”

    “What is art?” is as central to the making of art as its materials and subjects. Your question is wonderful. This would be a great session–even for those who haven’t played a gig in years!

  2. Dave Carroll says:

    Well obviously (Blake is my theory professor and edits my compositions–which are to date largely “conventional”) I will be on the guest list for any session relating to this.

    I think a great element of this session might be to encourage anyone with a laptop to bring it and spend 15-30 minutes playing in Garageband (or equivalent) to see for themselves how easy it is to assemble raw materials into original work.

  3. Dick Brown says:

    Blake, you have powerfully identified an issue that probably applies to all areas of digital humanities. Which novel methods (involving technology) will a discipline consider acceptable for producing legitimate scholarly work?

    For another example in another field altogether: In the 1970s, two mathematicians proved a famous theorem that had been an unsolved problem for about 100 years. Their method was new: they divided the problem into thousands of special cases, and used a computer to check most of those cases, leaving only a few dozen cases to check by hand. This created a disciplinary controversy at the time. Did this first computer-assisted verification of the theorem constitute a legitimate proof? Mathematicians have long since accepted computer-assisted proofs, but it was a live question at the time.

    This issue of whether to accept technology-assisted methods has concrete implications when it comes to scholarly evaluation, as you indicate. I’m in no position to say how to count things in music composition. But we all need to think carefully about how to advise and evaluate digital humanists (and digital artists) for tenure and promotion, especially in the light of this issue.

  4. B”H

    Dick, I love your question about how digital humanities should be evaluated for tenure and promotion.

    As far as the Garage-Band challenge, I have to ask . . . how much should we be gate-keeping and requiring students to know something they can substitute with technology?

    I get into a lot of conflict with my colleagues about whether or not we should be demanding pencil and paper tests to determine whether or not our students are capable of writing, or if we should be using technology and demanding our students know those tools (You can probably guess which side I am on).

    This seems like the same question of Garage Band, the question of whether math students should be able to use calculators, and whether English students can use grammar and spell-check.

    Do we want students to learn to use the tools we have, or use the tools that people used to have when technology didn’t exist? How much is this legitimate concern and how much of it is trying to keep our fields “elite”?

    • Blake Henson says:

      Thanks for the comments!

      I won’t go into too much detail here since we may have the opportunity to discuss this a bit today, but Michelle I think you’ve actually highlighted my concern: is Garageband ACTUALLY a tool for composition just because that’s how it markets itself?

      Composition has been hip to technology since at least the early 90’s. I personally have only once composed a work using pencil and paper…and that was during undergrad for a notation course (ha!). So I’m not sure this is quite the same thing as “let them use technology that helps them” as much as it is “by using THIS technology, is it still composition? And if not, what is it? Musical synthesis?” I relate programs like Finale or Sibelius more easily to an accountant’s calculator, and Garageband to a chef using a boxed cake mix. But if the results are the same (at least in theory) and if people are using the program out in “the real world” (Nine Inch Nails does their music on Garageband now), does it really matter?

      Of course, the process between composing from notes vs. composing from loops is quite different. Maybe that’s where we want to pay the most attention?

      Hmm… I know it’s my post, but I REALLY don’t have an answer on this one.

  5. Pingback: Session 1: Making Our Schedule | THATCamp Liberal Arts Colleges 2011

  6. Blake Henson says:

    I clicked *post* and then kept thinking about this…

    I’m actually less interested in the validity of Garageband discussion that I’m getting us started on and far more curious about other disciplines that may have had similar experiences. Let me reconfigure my question so as to better relate it to ThatCamp LAC: are there programs in your own disciplines that your students use to facilitate their work that perhaps aren’t as well-suited for the task as something either potentially more complicated or less familiar? And if so, how do you work around the initial hiccup “why should I learn your less-user-friendly program when my simpler version *seems* to work too?

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