The Imitation Game
*note: the underlined phrases contain links to musical examples. Please click them to enhance your experience with this article.
As the 2010s draws to a close, some of my earliest compositions are turning almost decade old. I recently went back and reviewed and reflected upon some of the pieces composed in 2010-2011 and I was struck by something interesting: a lot of my works from that time period don't sound like I wrote them. Rather they sound like imitations of the classical and romantic masters. I find that my orchestration and choice of compositional techniques of that time closely mirrors decisions that a composer in 1811 would've made. That got me thinking about my compositional journey and how I got to where I am today, not because of what I've written, but because what I was trying to write.
Genesis of a style
It must be noted that some of the earliest scores I've studied were symphonies of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Beethoven. Therefore, it was only natural for me to gravitate toward the classical style in some of my early compositions and so, looking back, I see I that was really strict about form and the construction of music so that everything were equal. Classical era movements are written so that the beginning of the composition is in I, it develops a little then the middle of the piece ends up in V. It develops some more, then finds its way back to I and ends there, all of this using the same musical material stated at the beginning. This is called sonata form and I was doing a lot of this in my earliest days.
In April 2011, I composed 'How not to Write a Symphony' and used the instrumentation of Beethoven's 4th symphony as my canvas. It was originally called 'Symphony No. 8 in D Major' but in 2014, I wrote my official first symphony and revised the '8th'. I retitled it 'How not to Write a Symphony' after seeing that it was just a really bad imitation at a classical style symphony. Later in 2011, I turned to neo-romanticism after one of my favorite composers, Tchaikovsky.
I ended up learning how to work with musical material I had written and how to develop that fully into a properly formed composition. That helped me in the long run, and now whenever I compose, I think deeply about what I'm writing, even when I'm not writing with a specific form in mind. When you write with limits, you end up seeing things a lot differently.
In 2012, I discovered and became infatuated with the early work of Philip Glass. I can't remember exactly where I first heard it, but I do know that the piece of his that got me hooked was part 2 of Music in 12 parts. There was something hypnotizing about that very repetitive music that got me hooked real quick. In June of that year, I tried my hand at writing like Glass, and composed a 40-minute 5-part epic called 'Glass Mirrors', based it on the style on Music in 12 parts and set it for the instrumentation of the Philip Glass Ensemble. Of course, it was purely an experiment and I wrote it without the intention of being performed.
So what did I learn from trying to write like Philip Glass? Well....it's not easy to write like Philip Glass. Glass' music may seem like its easy to imitate, and to an extent, it is. However, looking back at part 2 of Music in 12 parts, you find that the music is meticulously constructed so that the changes are subtle and therefore almost unnoticed as the music goes along. The changes happen over the characteristic triplet arpeggios that drive the music forward. That was aspect that was by far the hardest to reproduce. Glass is a master of the subtle change, and that's what gives his earliest pieces their hypnotic quality. My attempt was like trying to recreate a restaurant's signature dish at home without the top notch ingredients. And the subtle changes are definitely not there; mine are more sudden and you can tell when they happen, as opposed to them flowing seamlessly into each other.
Excerpt from the Part 2 of 'Glass Mirrors' (2012):
My 'Philip Glass' period extended all the way into 2013, utilizing the style for a symphonic poem called 'The Precipice' (from January 2013) and my String Quartet No. 2 (completed in May 2013). After that, I pretty much reverted back to a neo-romantic style.
I made one last attempt at trying to write like Glass in my 2016 composition 'Minimalist Symphony', based on his 9th symphony. Listening to that work one night and studying the score available online, I was curious as to whether I could compose something using the same devices that Glass used (for example, syncopated chords in the winds and brass, and emphasis on motor rhythms in the percussion with the temple blocks being featured more than once), along with his unique orchestration (contrabass clarinet, piano, two bass trombones). By this point, I had had more experience with composition and so I had been around the block a few times and could easily reproduce an imitation fairly easily. Plus, it helps that Glass' symphonies aren't as hardcore minimalist as his early work, so the resulting composition was actually fun to write.
Excerpt from the 2nd movement of 'Minimalist Symphony' (2016):
Orchestration from the laboratory
Around 2014, I began to get adventurous with my orchestration. My experimenting with unusual orchestral elements goes back to September 2011 with my large scale work Loveless, which uses a huge orchestra with unusual instruments such as organ, bass trumpet, cimbasso and wagner tubas. Was I crazy? Possibly. This was another work purely from the laboratory intended to be an outlet to try things out. In this case, I was curious to see if I could pull off a work on the scale of Mahler with an orchestra slightly larger than his (Mahler never used bass trumpet, cimbasso or wagner tubas). The final work is about an hour long, and not like Mahler at all.
One of the most individual orchestral work from my early period has to be the Symphony in A-flat Major, subtitled The Quiet Girl. Composed 2012 to 2017, I sought to use the orchestra to tell a story and evoke an image of a teenager in love with a beautiful girl who has never even said a word to him. (and no, not like Symphonie Fantastique. No drugs or murder involved)
With the Symphony No. 1 (2007-2014), I was faced with the challenge of creating a certain sound and keeping that sound consistent. From the very beginning, with the fanfare in the low trumpets and trombones, I knew I had it. I knew I wanted a gritty and raw but warm and nostalgic tone to the work, and I used this work to see exactly what I could do with an expanded form and a large orchestra. Some of the techniques I tried out in the first symphony I'm still using in my compositions today.
Journeys into other Genres
If you really want to expand your listening, world music is worth checking out, especially depending on the country it came from. You'll find unusual scales with gamelan music, resulting in some otherworldly sounds rife with overtones, giving the music performed an always bright quality. Kora music from west Africa (with the kora almost always tuned in or around F major) is improvisational and spontaneous. The kora can be described as an african harp, with 21 strings, instead of 47. The music can be relaxing, but the real attraction here is the virtuosity of kora player, at times sounding like there's more than one player.
World music was a struggle to recreate properly, because of the unusual scales utilized. There are many gamelan scales, and the overtones of the gamelans themselves make it difficult to transcribe. It was also hard to write something that didn't sound like a random cacophonous mess. It seems that gamelan music is tradition that is taught and passed down, and that is the only way it can be done effectively. It cannot simply be 'picked up'.
Another style of music that was a struggle to imitate properly was ragtime. It's such a distinct and sophisticated style that every attempt to emulate it has proven futile. There exists a ragtime-esque attempt at a composition from 2011 called 'Broadway Rag' that....really doesn't sound like ragtime at all.
I listen to a lot of latin music (salsa, merengue, mariachi, etc.) and find that the construction of the tracks is very simple, yet very effective. The formula that makes up most latin music is the intro, hook, chorus, development and variation. It's always exciting to hear the instruments (usually trumpets and trombones) dialogue with the singer (called 'voz'), the singer dialogue with the chorus (called 'coro') or the singer improvise over the ostinato being laid down by the band. Hector Lavoe, known as 'La Voz', was really good at this.
The most exciting salsa has to be the Fania records of the early to mid 1970s. The artists and bands associated with Fania were extremely popular and can only be described as a phenomenon.
You'll also find little habits that salsa bands incorporate into their tracks; for example, Grupo Niche has a habit of tuning the cowbell to the key of the song they're playing.
Now, latin music was very fun to write. I composed a set of 6 mariachi pieces in 2013 that turned out well, and later, I expanded to banda sinaloense in 2014, merengue in 2015 and hardcore salsa with vocalists in 2016. All along, I kept in mind that simple formula that made latin tracks so effective and so irresistible to listen to. I wrote all of these under a pseudonym, so when I showed them to people, they could make their own judgement as to whether it sounded authentic or not.
So who else wrote like other composers?
It's worth noting that composers throughout history have always written like other composers. Take a look at Beethoven's first two symphonies, very obviously in the style of his teacher Haydn and the late Mozart. Even in Symphony No. 2, you can hear that's something there, especially in the last movement which is deceptively lighthearted. In Symphony No. 3, the real Beethoven emerged.
In the early part of his career, Tchaikovsky adopted a Russian nationalist style that was popular at the time. It's most present in the 2nd Symphony, called 'Little Russian'. Tchaikovsky became recognizable as himself around the time of the Violin Concerto and 4th symphony (1877-1878).
Stravinsky's 1910 ballet 'The Firebird' incorporates elements of Russian folktales and orchestration characteristics that his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov worked effectively with. The success of this ballet led to two more commissions, Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) in which Stravinsky's individual voice emerged.
With two of these composers, there is a trend of trying to imitate their composition teacher, which is no doubt a close source of inspiration. In my personal experience, I've never sought to write like any of my composition teachers. Instead, I took inspiration from the music I was listening to not only by the masters, but by some of composer colleagues.
Towards an individual style
Perhaps the number one teacher has been the live performers I have worked with. As I receive more performances of my music, I get the chance to see what works and what doesn't. Believe it or not, hearing your music with live performers is extremely beneficial to forming an individual sound. It can also be thought as a laboratory of sorts, where you can try out things like tone combinations or instrumental sonorities. I'm very fortunate to be in the early part of my career and to have supportive performers, which gets me one step closer toward an individual style. It's safe to say that I'll probably never stop experimenting either. Even composers like Beethoven and Stravinsky were still experimenting at the end of their careers.
The takeaway from all this? Don't be afraid to write like other composers. Who knows? The real you may hiding in one of those experiments.