Truth in fiction

Trust me: this blog post really IS about music composition…eventually, so hopefully you’ll read to the end of the post! This is another post after returning to posting my thoughts for aspiring composers after mostly switching to posts generated as part of my job as a working musician/composer during this pandemic (see https://hiltonkeanjones.com/2020/08/12/working-musician-during-a-pandemic/ and https://hiltonkeanjones.com/2020/08/22/tailgate-trombone/ for discussions of this.

Long ago, way before personal computers and the Internet, there was a young woman I knew who, from an early age, collected quotes from books on 3×5 index cards. Even though only in her very early 20s, she’d collected hundreds of these quotes. Almost all of them were from fiction. Although I’ve never had the persistence to accumulate such a storehouse of quotes, from time to time, I noted some passages in fiction that affected me deeply. They expressed a truth about life that resonated with me.

Here’s an example: “As Hagrid had said, what would come, would come…and he would have to meet it when it did.” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling.

I just “Googled” that entire quote for the heck of it and discovered that it was listed on goodreads.com J.K. Rowling > Quotes > Quotable Quote page. Someone else had found it meaningful also.

The older I get, the more slowly I read, the more I return to re-read books I’ve read before, and the more I savor those bits of truth I find. I’ve certainly read my fair share of self-help and applied philosophy books, but I’ve never found as many helpful truths in those books as I have in fiction, for as Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Similarly, never have I found as many helpful truths in literary fiction as I have in genre fiction.

Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Awards acceptance speech is terrific. Not only does he talk about the truth in in the life (fiction), more importantly, he takes to task the academic (“literary”) fiction network and bias. I highly recommend his speech: Stephen King, Recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, 2003 (http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_sking.html).

In an old blog I had, I once posted, “If I were able to write a novel, the kind of novel I’d hope to be able to write is the one I just finished reading, The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont.” The reason I felt that way was because of the underlying truth–a truth that is true for any human being–that was the premise of the story. It affected me deeply because events in my own life vibrated in sympathy with the tones struck in that story.

Part of what makes some authors so great is that they write “as if” they were inside the reader’s own existence. They must have the capacity to experience their books as we do and that inner perception must inform what they write. I also believe that the best musicians, be they performer, conductor, or composer, write/perform what they do for the benefit of the audience, not to aggrandize themselves.

In the field of professional music performers the best musicians also have a knack for hearing what and how they’re playing from the audience’s viewpoint, as part of the whole…as if they were outside themselves, sitting in the audience…quite literally and acoustically. They don’t just play their part from their own viewpoint.

The best composers have a way of doing something similar: they are able to experiencing what they’re writing from within time–just as a listener experiences it–not just from their viewpoint outside of time as a composer looking at the whole. In both cases, the musician/composer is performs/creates for the listener, not for the informed critic. This has always been true. Most people forget that Bach, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven were all writing for the masses, they weren’t writing for the intelligentsia.

So, the moral of this story is to encourage composers to speak to the universal emotional experiences of their listeners. Engage the audience. Don’t write for critics. Write for the audience. You do that by providing them with an emotional experience. Become aware of your own emotions. Get in touch with the fact that we’re one person, that we inhabit a shared emotional world. Don’t just write notes.

 

Books about music

Foyles bookstore, London, UK
Foyles bookstore, London, UK



The Eastman School of Music Sibley Library is possibly the largest music library in the world, rivaled by maybe only the Library of Congress and the other world class state conservatories (Moscow, Paris, London). Despite its size I remember wandering around it as a graduate student and coming to the realization that damn few of the books about music had little to teach that was truly useful, or if they did, perhaps only a scrap or two of ideas in the whole book were of lasting value.

The collection of music scores and recordings (and live performances, of course), however, was an entirely different story. That, mostly, is where I learned what I learned, the music itself (including the musical examples in the books). If you have $10 bucks and a choice between a book about music and the music itself, buy the score!

That said, there are books that I keep beside my desk, even in this world of the Internet in which we keep the sum of the world’s knowledge (and quite a few lies) in our shirt pocket. This is my list. If you can find them and afford to buy them, I recommend them. A few were only of value to me when I was young, but most still help me, and I reach for them often when working.

Next to each book, you’ll see some of the ideas that spoke to me most in that book.

ORCHESTRATION

The Study of Orchestration — Samuel Adler Everything!
The Technique of Orchestration — Kent Kennan Everything…much less info than the Adler, but sometimes that’s just what you need.

ESTHETICS

What to Listen for in Music — Aaron Copland
A Composer’s World — Paul Hindemith
MODAL COUNTERPOINT
Counterpoint — Knud Jeppesen This is the primo modal counterpoint book. If you’re one of those who believes in “the two-voice framework” modal counterpoint is essential
Polyphonic Composition — Owen Swindale While the Jeppesen is practically a primary source, the Swindale actually teaches you how to write points of imitations and motets and such…that’s why it’s named what it’s named.
FORM
Form in Tonal Music — Douglass M. Green Each of these books covers the same material, but each has its own unique observations and techniques of showing them.
Form in Music — Wallace Berry
Musical Form — Ellis B. Kohs
TONAL COUNTERPOINT
Essentials of Eighteenth-Century Counterpoint — Neale B. Mason As Swindale does for the 16th Century, this book does for the 18the Century. It teaches you how to actually compose in its contrapuntal forms.
Counterpoint — Walter Piston An early, but important, counterpoint book, although not as authoritative as the Jeppesen is to modal counterpoint.
“MODERN” HARMONY
The Craft of Musical Composition — Paul Hindemith His unique theory and approach to step progressions (that melodies have skeletons) and his classification of harmonic dissonances make this important; later theories (Heinrich Schenker, for instance, took Hindemith’s step progression theory way too far until it became meaningless. Hindemith keeps it reigned in.)
20th Century Harmony — Vincent Persichetti Not valuable for me any more, but as a high-school student it gave me entry into something beyond J. S. Bach (I was an organist).

TRADITIONAL HARMONY

Harmony — Walter Piston An early, but important, harmony book. Its weakness is, in a way, its strength: it’s only concerned with the order of traditional harmonic progression.
The Contrapuntal Harmonic Technique of the Eighteenth Century — Allen McHose McHose’s approach to analysis was entirely statistical, based on rigorous statistical analysis of important Classical composers. What I like about his approach, other than this statistical grounding, is his chart of traditional harmonic progressions that I will present in my own simplified form at some point in this blog.

I know, I know, I know: yes, I’m betraying my very old-fashioned training; yes, each one of those books (except the Adler and the Kennan) may only contain a few fragments of ideas that are valuable; yes, some of those books are so old they’re probably not in print any more. NEVERTHELESS, they’re my favorites (was raised on ’em) and I was surprised to see that even something as obscure as the McHose is available, used, on the Internet. The Hindemith Craft of Musical Composition is even available in downloadable PDF. So…hunt around, you can find them, and probably pretty cheap. Keep them in your knapsack.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Technique of my Musical Language”




Books by historically significant composers on composing are few and those that do exist are uneven in their approach. My favorite, probably, is Olivier Messiaen‘s book, Technique of my Musical LanguageYou probably won’t find it for sale anywhere and if you do, it will be prohibitively expensive. But, you do occasionally find it in major libraries. Also, most university libraries can get it for you on interlibrary loan from somewhere like the Eastman School of Music Sibley Library (I notice there’s a link on that page to interlibrary loans). Note, the copy at the Sibley Library (Eastman is where I got my master’s degree) is the traditional two-volume version (text in one volume, examples in another) — be sure to get both volumes.

What I like so much about Messiaen’s approach is how thoroughly practical it is. He doesn’t justify anything. He just describes what he does. It’s quite literally about how he composes. He only describes some of the things he, himself, does, certainly not everyone. It’s the most honest book on composition I know. It is completely without pretense.

If you get a chance to look at this book, I recommend it to you. It may give you some ideas.

Here’s a YouTube video with score of Book Two of his Catalogue d’oiseaux.

You might discover you don’t like his music, but you do like some of the ideas in his book. That’s okay. That can happen! Don’t let prejudice against his style blind you to what valuable ideas you might discover in his book. And, you never know…someday you might find you like, at least, some of his music. I know I do.

Who You Were Meant to Be




Who You Were Meant to Be
A Guide to Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose

Lindsay C. Gibson, Psy.D
New Horizon Press
Far Hills, NJ
Copyright @2000 Lindsay C. Gibson
You may wonder why I begin a blog about being a composer with a book about “Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose.” First and foremost, you are a human. Somewhere down the line–nowhere near the top of the list–is a description of what you do, one of those things perhaps being composing. But way before the technical stuff comes the human stuff, including your purpose, your why. That’s what this book is about.

This book may be the most underlined and full of marginalia of any book I own. Something about this subject and her approach to it touches my soul deeply. She could easily have made each chapter a separate full book. I wish she’d do that. I would buy them all.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who feels that one’s inner and outer life are not in sync, or simply doesn’t know what one should focus on, or simply want to better understand one’s choices.

She helped me in many ways and some of her suggestions I remember to this day and use. It’s an old book, and I doubt you’ll even find it for sale used, but if you do, snap it up. It’s the kind people don’t take to the thrift shop. I’m hanging on to mine!