On Planet-centric Common Practice For Composers

The composer Robert Schumann had a deep love for Bach. He famously suggested that all composers ought to make Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier compositions their "daily bread". Said Schumann, "Let The Well-Tempered Clavier be your daily bread. Then you will certainly become a solid musician." That is to say, it should be studied (or 'consumed') everyday—thus 'daily bread'.

Given that the WTC is 48 pieces for piano, all of which require quite a bit of finger dexterity, on the grounds of technique alone, a pianist will likely be enriched by close study of these masterpieces. Artistically and aesthetically, there is much to the WTC, as well. As I see it, in these pieces Bach crafted aural signs of freedom tempered by responsibility, in a reconciliation between the self-lessness of Jesus, the individual, society, and pointed (through fugue) towards a pluralist worldview.

Now, a person who examines the WTC for its deeper architecture and who wants to apply it gifts to their own aural architecture—in other words, a person who is a composer—will likely gain further insight into much the heart of Western classical harmonic space, beyond piano technique. The WTC is a landmark of counterpoint, voice-leading, and key-modulation. If Bach is an hourglass (everything before enters his music, everything after flows out of his music), then perhaps the WTC are the precise moments when the alchemy of past into future occurs, at least in the West. Bach raised the operative temperature of the musical oven, irrevocably. Music burns hotter because of Bach. Schumann, thus, made a good suggestion.

Much of my art philsophy is concerned with how to translate the insight of older artists into practical experiments for today's artists, to stir new intuition. The way I suggest translating Schumann's suggestion is in the following way—think of composer's as bakers. They bake tone. They bake tonal arrangements. Composers choose raw ingredients, create a mix, kneed the mix into a dough, wait until the proper time arrives, and then it into the oven. One learns the optimal baking time and temperature through trial and error. And so the loafes of composers are compositions, and those compositions are digested by those who listen to their music.

A composer's daily bread is an activity that fosters sustainability in their craft. A daily bread allows the composer to study towards the end of being better able to create and compose. To choose the specifics one's daily bread is a deep, spiritual choice. There are many possible choices, but relatively few resonate with one's deepest ambitions, desires, and essences as an individual composer. To commit to a practice regimen requires everything that you are, as a composer. Schumann suggested Bach's WTC, but you might choose something else, something that works better for your sustainable study and capacity to create from that place. The world is more open and more diverse than in Schumann's day, which means we have more choices of study.

This is another way to say the nitty-gritty of a composer practice. The western European classical tradition has in its past what is called the 'common practice period'. This coincided with the high development of voiceleading and modulation (landmarked by Bach). What it meant is that by and large, composers used a commonality of sonic materials in their creations, generally speaking, as well as common arrangement methods. Composers shared a 'common practice' as each composed music in unique and diverse ways. A common base or palette of rhythmic, tonal, and color sonorities was in the air.

The common practice in the West was ethnocentric. If we were to draw a circle around the geography of what we call the common practice period of Western musical history, it is basically western Europe. But ethnomusicology will quickly show you that ther cultures had or have the equivalent of a common practice in their music, and those common practices are, too, as ethnocentric as the West's—in other words, their base or palette applies to their particular musical tradition and culture, distinct from other cultures. To determine the common practice of the world's musical traditions, look for the overall manner of musical production, and then examine the tonal palette in play in that music. It is the musical experience shared intersubjectively.

For example, 20th century American jazz composers adopted, I believe, a common practice that is basically ethnocentric (i.e., originally contained within American culture). But the composers and improvisers of jazz shared a fundamental musical space, beyond any one person. Of course there were differences in the ways that Ellington, Monk, and Williams composed (to use three examples of many possible). But harmonically-speaking, are their commonalities between the three? Most certainly. Each, we can say, shared a broad harmonic sensibility, spread around the culture for many to experience, and which each manifested and birthed into earthly existance for audiences to hear.

This raises the question of what globalization and aesthetic exchanges across previous walls and borders means for the practice of music composition as we go forward. To honor what it means to have commonality amongst the harmonic experience of composers in the contemporary world, we have to reasonably assess the harmonic realities that operate the world over. In short, the new common practice, if it is to exist as an emergence, will be planet-centrically realized. And If we want to understand what a common experience for harmonic experience can be, at the planet-centric level, we have to ask, "what in music is common to all?"

Another way to frame this inquiry can be: what is it that all composers, no matter what culture or tradition, experience in their subjective perception, or their sense of "I"? What is the meshing, flowing, inner aural tapestry that captures, hooks, infuses, and tortures composers no matter what culture, and no matter what sonic-architectural tradition? What is present for composers the world around, if only for the simple reason that every composer, no matter what the stripe, paints aural wave pictures of tone? This is an important inquiry, for it is from this intersubjective palette that the methods of a planet-centric common practice will be born.

What would a planet-centric common practice include?

I advocate that it include the act of singing. I follow the seminal work of W.A. Mathieu (see his Harmonic Experience) in asserting that singing ought be part of every composer's study. Singing as a means to experience musical resonance. To be able to sing, and ably sing all of the tonal palette, is to be inclusive of that which ultimately forms all of the world's music.

To sing is to cognize pitch. To cognize pitch is to be intimately with its feel. To be intimate with the feel of all tones the capacity to compose in the fullest possible manner. For to be able to compose, one must first hear, internally and externally. And to be able to hear internally and externally is to be exposed to full tonal experience.

And the ultimate ramification of full-tone singing? It might be that through the eventual compositions that come from this kind of study, the music provides listeners with aural signs of a fuller embrace of life, one which we can all recognize, experience, and share with others. An authentic emotional expansion in tone is a spiritual transfer from timelessness into time, and back again. For composers interested in a planet-centric daily bread, that includes singing practice (the kind of which I describe in my writings on Tone Yoga), and say this—onward and outwards with the adventure into harmonic phenomena.

Chicago, Illinois
November 2005

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