Composing: Effective Communication with Your Listeners Through Your Music...My two cents...
Throughout the catacombs of music history, we have identified composers by the intriguing characteristics that make their music attractive and unique, each catering to the specific societal norms and cultural influences of their time.
Today, we live in a contemporary period of music where "anything goes," sort of. The "sort of" seems to be this sea of subjective "rules" that composition scholars/academics & colleagues apply to most pieces they hear of their fellow composers; to determine its relevance as a successful contribution to the field. Today, it seems too easy for us composers to fall into the "trap" of attempting to be too innovative or not quite thoughtful enough with our creative processes.
Some might argue that we're "artists!" "You must respect my aesthetic!" That premise is undoubtedly the foundation of who we are as artists, and I firmly believe that we as composers have the responsibility of contributing to our listeners the most honest and uncompromising experience possible. However, this entails not only a thoughtful artistic imagination, but also a thorough execution of compositional technique that supports the realization of these ideas. This combination is what (I believe) allows the music to communicate with the listener. Music, like many art forms, is one that is meant to be shared, transferring simple and complex ideas and emotions. It is the most human, genuine, and expressive form of communication we have. We owe it to ourselves and listeners to "keep it 100%."
My first composition teacher, Sarana Chou, always told me to fully express myself, but to write from the listener's perspective. She taught me to look at this music as a potential treat for those who listen; that it was my decision making within the piece that would govern their overall experience of my music. This idea got me extremely interested in the subject of musical psychology, and how the way we compose, in whatever context, shapes the listener's perception of us. I find it fascinating that we have the ability to think a piece of music through like a Hollywood screenwriter composes a script, adding or subtracting all of the moments that the viewer/listener will potentially experience; deciding whether or not to insert a surprise, twist, or long awaited conclusion to the "plot" of a piece. "What could the listener be expecting here?" "How satisfying or necessary would it be to bring this idea back?" We have to get ourselves out of the way and jump into the listener's shoes, so that we can enable ourselves to become sensitive to their needs while maintaining our musical integrity. I've often said that composers are "engineers" of music, designing the blueprints that effect the psychology of how a person listens; effectively catering to or challenging the listener's perceptions. I also wonder if this is what determines why/how a person decides if a piece of music is successful or not. That's exactly where the subjectivity of it all comes in. You have a listener that could've come from any walk of life, fashioned and shaped by any set of principles or ideals. Their artistic perceptions and favorable musical interests could be drawn from anywhere. The question is, "How is YOUR music going to communicate to a listener who may have had little or no musical exposure to anything that comes close to what you're producing?" As composers/artists, we are quite easily subject to a listener disliking our most cherished creations. Whether they love or hate it, we have a "point" we're usually trying to get across. I believe if we are to truly deem ourselves "successful artists," the ultimate goal must be to have the music communicate in such a way that even if your most cherished work is not your listener's "cup of tea," it is done with such grace that your message is still clear and there is, at the very least, respect for what you've accomplished.
Ultimately, we are servicemen of music. Think of yourself as a salesman of thought provoking musical ideas. Salesmen have to go out on a daily basis and use effective tools of communication in order to sell their product and meet their quota. A more humble way to think of this is to view yourself as a therapist. So, how in the world can our musical ideas create the type of "sales pitch" or therapeutic experience that affects the listener who just got off of a rough work week, but has decided to attend a concert in hopes of being transported to a place of solace or hope?
The answer is a quite simple one, I think...
I think of it simply as having a conversation. Whatever my compositional aesthetic is, I have to share something with my audience that makes sense, is palatable, and easily understood. This can range from the very tonal to the most avant-garde styles. In many ways, people express disdain for certain styles of writing, not because of the style itself, but how the writing is structured. Our colleagues (if they're honest, haha) will often inform us of what "worked" in the piece and what could be altered for a better overall experience for the audience. This is, hopefully, coming from perspectives that are offering advice that supports the growth of your musical "voice" specifically, and not just reactions that come from minds that have been conditioned by a musical society to inform you of the "correct" way to effectively do something. You must be able to discern the two, but that's a topic for another blog entry. :)
It all parallels how humans communicate to each other verbally. I feel that composers have to master the art of "musical" communication just like we all have to master effective verbal communication to get our ideas across. For example, a lot of great music is told as a narrative. If I began to tell you a story about what a horrible teacher my 9th grade algebra instructor was, and while describing his disposition I begin talking about how bad the school lunch was, most likely there's going to be a disconnect with the person I'm telling the story to. Stories have supporting details that lead up to a climax or result of some kind. If I sabotage the setup of the story in any way, you'll likely begin to lose focus and any anticipation you had for the climax.
Me: "My 9th grade math teacher was SOOOOOOO bad!"
You: "Well, how bad was he?!"
Now, it becomes my responsibility to set this thing up for you in such a way that by the time I'm finished, you're satisfied with the outcome. I've done my job if you don't feel like I've wasted your time with my "meaningless" conversation. There has to be something in it for you, right? Well of course... There has to be some punch line, objective, or emotional gratification that makes the time you sacrificed listening to little old me worth it. It is quite similar, if not exactly the same as how we as composers attempt to appeal to our audiences. A concert goer chooses to take part of their day, with any number of things that could be going on in their world, and transports their butt into a concert seat, where they have the "utmost fortune" of hearing a piece of ours. Sure, they may have come with an open mind ready to experience whatever artistic presentation is rendered. However, it is up to us composers (story tellers) to have held up our end of giving the most effective presentation of our art. We generate a musical theme or idea, in the form of a motif, melody, gesture, or even atmosphere. Upon our listener's first hearing of this, what happens next is crucial! After the initial idea has been presented, the audience is asking all sorts of non-verbal questions within the confines of their mind; questions most of them don't even know how to verbally ask!
"How is this melody/idea/gesture/atmosphere you've presented going to develop in a way that satisfies my musical expectations?" "Is this theme going to come back? I really want to hear more of that! It's so nice!" "This ostinato is so cool! Is this going to come back near the end?" "Is this section going to move on soon? I'm getting bored..."
This is not at all to say that as composers we are "slaves" to our listeners & colleagues; that the ONLY way to receive recognition is by having to shape our music in ways that please everyone! After all, we are artists! In fact, we're highly encouraged by our listeners to express ourselves as best we can.
The fun, yet challenging part about what we do is that we get to decide exactly how difficult it's going to be for our audiences to get the satisfaction they seek. Depending on the context of musical ideas that we present, we must hold ourselves accountable for finding innovative ways to effectively communicate these ideas. That therein lies the "success." It is all about finding common ground in expressing one's artistic vision, while cognitively utilizing the right tools to effectively realize that vision...
...That's just my two cents, though! :)