News

November 7, 2007

The Fine Art of Composing

Skip Wilkins, assistant professor of music, discusses teaching the Composition Seminar

Skip Wilkins is an assistant professor of music. This semester he is teaching the course Composition Seminar, where students compose and perform their own works. The following is a first-person account of Wilkins’ course.

The students in Composition Seminar are all experienced musicians, representing a range of different interest areas and genres of music. For many of the students, this course represents a fifth level of music theory. Each entered the course with a strong background in functional diatonic harmonic techniques in 18th, 19th, and 20th century music. Most also had proficiency with chromatic harmony from the same periods.

All were enrolled together during the fall of 2006 in my 20th Century Harmonic Practices course. In this course, students composed short exercises, utilizing various techniques previously employed by Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland, Claude Debussy, Paul Hindemith, Charles Ives, Maurice Ravel, Krzysztof Penderecki, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and others. The students also studied scores and listened to recordings, completing many detailed analyses of great works from the period. The course required students to experience harmony well outside of the common practice period of 18th and 19th century music.

Bringing all this knowledge into the Composition Seminar, I give the students a lot of freedom, mostly in two ways. The first involves composing. The second involves analysis. First the composing: instead of giving them specific assignments with detailed outcomes and stylistic parameters, I present them with the following charge, “Begin with a blank piece of paper. Fill it up. You set the parameters. You choose the vocabulary. You determine the aesthetics.”

I require them to pitch me the idea or ideas that interest them first. Along the way, we discuss the instrumentation and likely future performers of their works. My requirements include that the works be completed and performed publicly during this semester, in order to be considered for a grade in the course. They organize the rehearsals and prepare the pieces for performance. It is also their responsibility to publicize and build the audience for their performances. They may use standing departmental scheduled events or create their own. Thus, the scale of their pieces is limited to works that can receive a public performance. Students are not writing pieces for the New York Philharmonic-yet!

In addition to our class meetings, I meet with all students privately almost every week to examine and discuss their progress with various pieces. Certainly, this helps keep each of them on task, but it also gives me the chance to offer assistance, encouragement, and sometimes, necessary criticism. Often the students bring their works to class for our examination. Some perform excerpts of their own works, sometimes using other class members in their ensembles, but other times inviting other musicians to play their works. Since many students have already notated their pieces in the music department’s digital music center, some bring their works to class on their laptops and we hear early versions of what will eventually be acoustic instrumental performances.

Some students are choosing to write longer works while others are favoring short works of different types. Some are writing entirely notated pieces. Others are writing jazz pieces, which are meant to serve as vehicles for improvisation.

For a few students, the new freedom to compose music of their own choosing is liberating. A few already had a fair amount of experience as composers. They were accustomed to making choices and trying to define style. For others, however, the freedom is somewhat daunting, and as a result, they are re-examining some basic questions.

In a recent discussion, I asked the class, somewhat rhetorically, “Why is your piece good? Who decides? Who should decide? Is your piece good because you say it is good?” Sometimes I will ask a student, “Why does this particular idea occur in your piece at this point? Why does it belong in your piece?”

Defending works of art can be very complicated. These basic questions will undoubtedly be with the students for the remainder of the semester.

Already, one student has premiered works completed during this course. Pianist Sean Gough ’09 (North Plainfield, N.J.), a history and music double major, performed two new jazz pieces, Morning Rain and Consider Yourself Better Known, on Wednesday, Oct. 3 in the music department’s monthly First Wednesday concert series. Accompanying him in his jazz trio were bassist Patrick D. Kelley ’09 (Shillington, Pa.) a mathematics and music double major who is also in the Composition Seminar, and drummer John O’Keefe ’96. As a student at Lafayette, John was active in the music department. A few years ago, he returned to the campus and he is presently the director of academic technology and network services.

Many more premieres of new works are forthcoming in November and early December.

In addition to their work as composers, each student is completing a range of analysis projects that they have been required to share with their classmates. Similar to my directive that they determine the scope of their own compositions, I have given students more freedom in this course to research pieces and styles of music of their choosing. One requirement is that the works in question be composed during the previous 100 years.

The process begins when the students pitch me the idea. Students have already analyzed music in popular, jazz, and contemporary classical styles. Individual critical listening and analysis, and the ensuing discussions, provide all students with new ideas for their own writing.

Periodically, I show the students my own jazz compositions from many of my recent CD releases. I give them examples of ways that I have dealt with some of the problems that they might be encountering in their jazz and non-jazz pieces.

Some of my students are grappling with their plans for the future. Two students,Kelley and Ray Epstein ’09 (Warren, N.J.), a music and philosophy double major, have applied to music conservatory programs in Europe for study abroad programs for the spring semester. Also, some students have expressed an interest in pursuing graduate studies in music. Still others are considering entering the ranks of professional performers. Composition will be a central activity for some of these students. Others are more inclined to be performers, but they expect to integrate composing in their professional lives eventually.

All students in the class, regardless of their interests in pursuing careers in music, are learning how to plan, develop, and finally realize creative ideas. In addition to Gough, Kelley, and Epstein, the other students in the class are music and American studies double major Jonathan Esser ’09 (Downingtown, Pa.), Chris Jacoby ’08 (Madison, N.J.) who graduated with an A.B. in music and is continuing to pursue a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering, and music major Joseph Racavich ’08 (Taylor, Pa.).

They are learning how to gather and rehearse collaborators (in this case, musicians), and they are learning how to value their accomplishments by organizing and publicizing their work (in the form of public performances). These skills apply to practically any pursuit in contemporary American business, whether it be in the arts or otherwise.

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