All posts by Michael Edwards

About Michael Edwards

Reader in Music Technology, University of Edinburgh.

The voice in modern composition

There are natural limitations of the human voice which present us with challenges. Amongst these are the difficulty of pitching by ear—as opposed to most instruments’ fingering or key systems—and the concomitant difficulty of realising fast moving lines. There are also the demands and constraints of the specifically Western classical vocal technique, which to at least some degree arose out of a need to project in relatively large spaces and over perhaps a full symphony orchestra.

Have these natural constraints, or indeed the traditional classical vocal training, led to a stagnation in the art of composing for the voice? Are these constraints incompatible with several prevalent concerns of modern composition (e.g., extended techniques, wide timbral ranges, disjunct melodies, atonality in general)?

Could amplification lead to more variety of vocal colour? Furthermore, could increased and more integrated use of amplification lead to a new vocal pedagogy that encourages a more personal development of the voice that can already be witnessed in the jazz/rock/pop scene?

If you believe that the classical voice is still useful to modern composition in its present form, then which properties of it should we draw from when writing new vocal music?

If, on the other hand, you believe that the classical voice is largely no longer relevant to modern composition, then which aspects of its technique should we now be leaving behind, which aspects can we retain, and which new techniques should we be looking to?

Is there a common practice in modern composition today?

If we look back to the compositional world surrounding Bach and Handel, or Mozart and Haydn, most people will see more stylistic commonalities than divergences. Is this merely due to historic distance, i.e., that the passage of time makes us less sensitive to difference and more likely to aurally homogenise widely varying styles? Or was there in fact more of an agreement—tacit or otherwise and for whatever reason—of materials, form, and range of expression in stylistic epochs past?

If you believe that there is a common practice today, then

  1. what are its characteristics?
  2. what has it developed out of?
  3. what has it filtered out from the recent and not-so-recent past?
  4. do any styles or concurrent movements oppose it?
  5. what are the advantages of such a common practice, or indeed a common practice per se?

If, on the other hand, you believe that there is no common practice today, rather, just a myriad of widely varying, even competing styles, then

  1. how do you account for this?
  2. do you think that we need to work towards re-establishing a common practice? If so, for what reason, which practice or style and why?
  3. given the lack of a common practice, how do we establish the context for a particular piece, within the piece itself, so that it may be understood by listeners?
  4. do we need to establish and stick to (or incrementally develop) an individual compositional style—an individual common practice, to be paradoxical for a moment—for which we are recognised?

Is tonality dead?

That autopilot mentality … – and ditto the Classic BRITS’ smorgasbord of stale musical leftovers – freeload off the hard fought-for expressive truths of others, reducing to nought those dark, sometimes unknowable, contradictions that give composers of integrity a reason to get up in the morning. Tonality is asset stripped; removed from the context of its own history and the word ‘soundbite’ becomes wholly apt.”

Philip Clark, Gramophone

Philip Clark also writes in the same article: “Earlier this summer my Gramophone colleague Ivan March wrote a blog post headlined ‘The Art Of Melody’ in which he floated that hoariest assumption of them all – that the word ‘tonality’ is somehow interchangeable with ‘melody’, while ‘atonality’ represents a simple negation of that, as Ivan put it, ‘discordant groups of notes and chords, which entirely fail to appeal to the listener.’ “

Stephen Strauss concludes from Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan‘s research that “children seemed calmer and more content when harmonious sounds were played”.

And Graham Lynch writes “So, is tonality dead or alive? I don’t know. But I do notice that consonant harmony has made more of a return, but within a pacing and context that is clearly 21st century.”

First of all though, what is tonality? And what is the difference between working in tonality and working with tonality—a distinction that Reinhard Febel, my old colleague from the Mozarteum, makes.

Must tonality be functional? Or is it more about consonance?

Must it be triadic? Or is tension and release the key issue?

To be considered alive and well, must tonality still be developing?

Turning this another way, is tonal music dead music? Or is it a matter of the music’s function i.e. to what end the music is being made (entertainment, spiritual services, advertisting)?





What constitutes success?

Self-mastery is the supreme victory–
much more to be valued
than winning control over others.
It is a victory
that no other being whatsoever
can distort or take away.

The Dhammapada

(attr. to Siddhārtha Gautama aka Buddha)

What constitutes success in music and musical composition? High profile popular artists like Robin Thicke are considered runaway successes. But their claims to off-the-cuff songwriting processes–which feed the creativity myth by the way–have been challenged in court. Plagiarism seems the most likely route to success he and his cohort used in the case of the song Blurred Lines. Whichever way the court case goes, Thicke has freely admitted that 75% of the song was made before he even started contributing.

So what we have above are two starkly contrasted views of success. The one being the invisible, personal success of the meditating recluse achieving victory over his own mind, the other being a highly visible success which appears hollow at the core (and indeed offensive to many).

What then, as composers, do you consider to be success? Is widespread recognition essential? If so, how widespread? Do you need to be a household name or just respected amongst your peers?

Are performances essential to your concept of success? If so, how high-profile must they be? Consider, for instance, the difference between a hastily-rehearsed, inadequately performed orchestral commission in front of 3000 people, and the presentation of a detailed collaboration between yourself and a highly-dedicated pianist at a house concert of 15 people. Now that’s a leading question of course, but consider nonetheless which is most successful and in what terms–artistic, musical, technical, career progression, kudos, publicity, etc.?

Is financial gain essential to your concept of success or is Bourdieu’s sense of cultural capital more apt, with a diverse range of assets such as education, social standing, hipness, youtube hits, Facebook followers, etc.?

How is success achieved? Is it more networking than hard technical work? More social than solitary? What ratio of promotion::composition hours should you be aiming for?

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