Thursday 17 April 2008

Noodling along

I've just been listening to a disc of a new piece which includes quite a number of tunes. The composer has included familiar hymn tunes but also mixed in some of his own tunes to create an accessible mix. Not everyone can write tunes, reportedly Michael Tippett was at one point interested in writing a full blown musical but was put off by the fact that he would have to write tunes. One of the criticisms levelled at Stephen Sondheim's musicals is that he does not write tunes (or not many of them). I happen to think he does and am very fond of his music. But it must be admitted that his music is rather more complex than that of Lloyd Webber or Richard Rogers.

Somehow, this ability to write tunes is something that is no-longer a prerequisite of a composer, it is something that we lost during the 20th century. Partly this is the influence of serialism, but even non serialist composers suffer from it. After all, Britten wrote beautifully for the voice, but his operas contain very few BIG tunes; somehow he manages to be vocally expressive whilst retaining complexity and still create an approachable result. The problem comes when composers are not geniuses and the results start to sound like semi-atonal noodling.

This is something that instrumentally trained composers often lapse into when writing opera, the results are undeniably effective as a totallity but the individual vocal lines are often uninteresting and can be unnecessarily difficult. At its worst this style sounds like a radio play with backing music rather than a music drama where the drama develops through the music AND the voices.

Of course, what constitutes a tune is also a moot point. I have always been able to write tunes, but it is not something that I can necessarily do to order. Particularly, the desire to write long breathed melodies is frustrated by the music's need to keep fragmenting into smaller components. But even when I think I am being tuneful, there is a danger that others think otherwise. I have long been influenced by gregorian chant and this influence finds its way into much of my vocal writing, even when it is not sacred. The result is that I can happily noodle along with just 3 or 4 different but adjacent pitches. I usually think the results tuneful and expressive. Those of my friends who similarly respond to chant are positive, but
others feel that the results are not particularly tunes, even if the music itself is not difficult.

That is another interesting thing about the multiplicity of styles in today's musical world; to write with recognisable tunes does not necessarily mean that your music is difficult. The converse is also true, but there are few composers working in complex styles who write melodically with tunes. Perhaps that is what we should be aiming for.

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