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4 September 2008

Learning and teaching music composition

– sharing innovation across practices

Gerardo Dirié Image: Gerardo Dirié  

This article begins with some questions that relate to the ways in which the teaching of composition may have changed as a consequence of current practices involving technology, and whether tertiary and secondary institutions have a role in defining these new practices.

I feel it is appropriate that I provide some context to the ideas that follow. I joined the Australian community five years ago, having studied, performed and taught music in Argentina and the United States for almost three decades. During those years, I encountered many students and young musicians in diverse'My role when dealing with composition students in any media is to establish a rich dialogue with the artist as a colleague – a colleague with whom I partake in that universe of all things possible.' social contexts, each with their own, individual expectations about artistic practice, its purpose, qualities, and demands. What is expected of or thought about artistic practice can vary dramatically, depending on things such as the size of a population, existence of established institutions, and degrees of dependency from other urban centres – either within a country or in relation to another country or region. A quick browse through the pages of any Australian newspaper will easily show which regions and cultures are commonly included in or excluded from our conversations about the world, consequently aligning our perspectives with what is seemingly available in regard to comparison, benchmarking, modelling and responding reactively or adaptively.

When addressing the issues of teaching composition in institutions, I think it is necessary to keep in mind who we are teaching, from whom we are learning, and so on. A brilliant approach in teaching composition can be ideal in one place and for one individual, yet it can be inadequate or unnecessary in other conditions. Some of the basic ideas I will present in this article may relate only to the context of the Queensland Conservatorium where I have worked in recent years, while other ideas may relate to essential aspects of the teaching and learning relationship with young artists in general.

Those who are reading this publication do not need to be persuaded of the value of artistic practice, of the value of a productive learning process, or the value of teaching practices that favour all of the above. I will focus on aspects that in my experience have shown to be essential in the development of young artists.

Imaginative, seeking minds, willing learners

People who are interested in learning more about creating music go to diverse resources: colleague practitioners, online sources, publications, private instructors, and they can pursue degrees in institutions, private or public. I stress 'learning more', because music creation has always been available to everybody. As expressed by the Brazilian musical genius Hermeto Pascoal (Pascoal 1987), 'only those who don't want to, don't play'. But those whose interest in music creation is concerned with specific manifestations, such as a specific genre, repertoire, instrument, role or purpose, will find it productive to immerse themselves in sustained and prolonged studying and practising in a collective environment where that particular artistic form is held in value and is served by staff profoundly experienced in the form. Students can find such conditions inspiring and stimulating, while the continuous feedback can reassure and consolidate knowledge that is built routinely. This advice, which most of us would find undebatable, would serve well to any creative individual regardless of the outcome of choice, which could be a composition for string quartet, an interactive multimedia installation, or any sonic construction.

During my years of teaching and performing, I have had the pleasure of meeting with young students who are especially creative individuals. They are driven by the force of a mind engaged in creative tasks and are endowed with an insatiable appetite for learning. Usually, they are equipped with a mind that can see things as they could be instead of as they actually are, a contradiction that seems to soften only when the right emphasis is restored through their own creative practices. The value of the practice of such individuals cannot be stressed enough: the mental processes involved in understanding, challenging, modifying, or creating new patterns of relationships between elements of the practice in which they are engaged, are essential processes in the human mind –essential for adapting to existing conditions, as well as for creating and developing new conditions altogether.

My role when dealing with composition students in any media is to establish a rich dialogue with the artist as a colleague – a colleague with whom I partake in that universe of all things possible. In such a dialogue we both seek to understand the core impulses that animate the work at hand, or better yet the impulses that animate the creation of the work at hand, often revealing and understanding our own confusions, too. While we may address some specific technical data that a media may present, my emphasis usually is on the mental processes and the degree of self-awareness of these processes. These are views and strategies that are well known to artists and that have been expressed wonderfully in various areas of scholarship (for example, Bhom 1996; Fregtman 1989). For specific challenges regarding equipment, I can assist the students with basic sources of information, but I prefer to refer them to the instructors who deal with equipment and to assign them research tasks related to their enquiry. This is not different from helping a student with an orchestration problem. We can assist by referring them to key examples in the repertoire as well as meeting and workshopping with the expert instrumentalist. In a world in which the contributing elements of a human activity are atomised, it is natural that the quality of each element be addressed collaboratively by various experts.

Means and final product:
technologies in arts creation


Homer on parchment pages!
The Iliad and all the adventures
Of Ulysses, foe of Priam's Kingdom!
All locked within a piece of skin
Folded into several little sheets !

(Epigrammata, Marcus Valerius Martialis, 1st century AD)

The part of the question that now may arise is whether technology has changed this essential approach to teaching. A simple answer to this is that technology hasn't ceased to be present. It has been there all the time. As the availability of poetry in written form inspired the Iberian-born poet Martial to wonder 'at the magical powers of an object small enough to fit in the hand and yet containing an infinity of marvels' (Manguel 1996), the wonderment hasn't ceased as new hardware and software technologies appear every second. Was Martial in awe because of the sheets of parchment? Or by the illusory possession of Homer epics? Are these overlapping technologies?

Creating a new work involves many technologies. We can view layers of materials, procedures, and tools supporting the development of germinal ideas, like in the circumventing folds of a pine cone. We may have the latest hardware and software at our disposal, and even electricity supporting the technology, but we could also need fine manuscript paper and more traditional instruments. All these for making music, which in itself – as current views would categorise it - is a mood-enhancing technology (Evans 2001).

In cases when the creative work of a student becomes preoccupied with technology itself, it is helpful to discuss the fact that our work during the creative process most often requires distancing ourselves from technology as a foreground concern. It is commonly expressed by artists that an important stage in creation demands thinking without regard to technological issues. The intellectual focus and emphasis seem to remain directed to searching, finding, and further investigating a concept. It is in the subsequent stages that technology becomes a more crucial factor, either for the composer or for those brought in to collaborate in the execution or completion of the work.

When I witness a performance, I can distinguish and differentiate qualities of expression, the handling of component elements, and the quality of thinking processes that impregnate the work. I also remind myself to look through the media. Media has its own attributable quality. I can feel satisfied with the skills behind a virtuoso orchestra as much as with the skillful and refined placement of sound, or the right choice and disposition of speakers, or detailed construction of spectral components. However, the creation is not the same as the means. At least for the artist, the work of art is not in an equal relationship with the tools or technologies that assisted him or her. These thinking stratagems can yield not only innovative and effective works, but actually produce innovative contributions to technology itself. The feedback between the imagined, and the tools that shape it, is in constant flow. A practical and thought-provoking dialogue on the relationship between technology and creative outcomes can be very stimulating during a class session. For example, two distinct opinions: Indian-born artist Anish Kapoor emphasised the importance of distancing himself from technology during the conception stage of his works (in the documentary Melancholia: Chronicle of an Art Work); while Jim Collins presented his ideas of 'technology as accelerator, not as creator, of Momentum' (in his best-seller Good to Great - Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don't ).

All this, a subject at school?

A productive way to address creative awareness and development during the formal education stages of the artist is primarily through a number of specific projects, through which a finite set of problems, skills and possibilities can be addressed in order to bring light on how we process what we perceive, and how we may come about devising something new. In my experience, these projects are enhanced when accompanied by a committed dialogue with the student – through a proprioceptive or self-awareness dialogue, all issues can be brought to light. What is learnt from this process is transferable to all fields of human activity. Thus the processes involved in artistic fancy, ingeniousness, playfulness, sense of occasion, and creativity can inform and benefit all areas of human activity. One-on-one dialogue is essential for investigating creative processes and for developing novel ways of resolving challenges. Although large class size may be an impediment to these exercises, there are ways of organising groups in small arts-learning communities, who can interact, inform and evaluate each other's progress, seeding productive networks for the future development of current practices.

Skillful handling of tools, procedures is not enough

A work of art can be a reflection of the challenges presented by the medium. However, it is something else, something new, and essentially different from the challenges themselves. This is an important distinction that I often talk about with my students. Art offers us a tremendous opportunity to learn novel ways of thinking, and we can choose to learn from observing and understanding such thinking or we can choose to react to the art work only or exclusively with awe, reverie or – as put by David Bohm – with torpor. Obviously we enjoy and get engrossed in these states very much – a reason why people come to the arts. However, there are differences between the unaware reaction (as Yahoos do in the Jorge Luis Borges's short story Brodie's Report) and a more self-aware processing of the artistic experience that builds knowledge and modifies our understanding of the world and of ourselves. I see, or foresee, the role of a tertiary institution more in line with these preoccupations, while the general training on handling specific pieces of equipment, real or virtual, could be spread out through many other institutions, real or virtual, located in this region, or resourced from somewhere else. Each of these options would require the participation and commitment from individuals and institutions – in a number and diversity that attenuates the disproportionate vectoring of occasional local agendas.

Strengthening skills for artistic collaboration

Collaborative projects are extremely common in the practice of new music. If we believe that each individual is naturally inclined to a particular channel of perception, then effectiveness in collaborative arts can be enhanced, firstly, by appropriate education in other art forms. These tributary streams can be part of general education through longer programs, ideally starting in preschool. The immediate result of this is an individual with better chances to give richer, more profound collaboration at the gestation stage as a participant in communal artistic creation. Secondly, working in complex projects with other people can be supported by appropriate education in management, organisational behaviour, group psychology and creative business approaches. Amidst the multitude of sources in these areas, I was particularly enthused by the publications under The Fifth Discipline banner (Senge 1999). These studies can be conveniently integrated to any program through dedicated workshops, coursework, and/or as case-projects integrated into the execution of assigned artistic creations.

In summary, I think that the challenges of teaching composition in general and in the context of new media practices are very similar. I continue emphasising the development of richer mental and emotive processes, the development of individual initiatives to search and understand new personal connections with the act of creating, while advancing on the acquisition of skills in handling the media of choice. I believe this focus offers more valuable experiences for the students as they embark on a life of creating new music, creating new gigs for others, and even contributing to the creation of unimagined future industries, if they so desire.

Dr Gerardo Dirié is a composer, conductor and performer, and the Head of Music Studies at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Brisbane.


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John Coulter University of Auckland

A wonderful article - Bravo.

To me, the most resonant points are as follows:

World View:

We are reminded to look outside our own 'patch', and to be aware of circularity within our own systems

University Responsibilities:

" ....and a more self-aware processing of the artistic experience that builds knowledge and modifies our understanding of the world and of ourselves. I see, or foresee, the role of a tertiary institution more in line with these preoccupations, while the general training on handling specific pieces of equipment, real or virtual, could be spread out through many other institutions, real or virtual, located in this region, or resourced from somewhere else. Each of these options would require the participation and commitment from individuals and institutions – in a number and diversity that attenuates the disproportionate vectoring of occasional local agendas."

I think Dr Dirie has hit the nail on the head here! Australian universities could certainly gain much through adopting this principle - one that is more concerned with the psychological-subjective aspects of sound (psychoacoustics, semiotics and semantics, and aesthetics) than the easier to manage physical-objective qualities (acoustics / production etc) In various places throughout the world, this principle is alive and well; however, it too is not without its shortcomings. In practice, the principle is often hijacked by its lazy cousin - the 'cream rises' principle - a method that involves lecturers doing very little indeed!


I'm not sure that I agree wholeheartedly with the comments made here. To me, a worthwhile creative collaboration is the rarest of birds. My experience as a composer and teacher has [unfortunately] led me to view the term as synonymous with 'a study of process' rather than of product. Perhaps I have convened one too many 'interdisciplinary' special topics.

Kind regards

Good thinking!

I think Gerardo is right by proposing a wider aesthetic discussion as part of the learning process of music composition. This would not discount the technical aspect of it, but I wonder what is exactly that aspect, or if any aspect can be deemed as "technical" knowledge. After all, it is not an easy task to open discussions on issues like psychoacoustics, perception, experience, taste, aesthetics, style, listening patterns, all of which require deep technical knowledge on the subject itself and on how to better deliver contents and methods to help in the creation of an original and personal piece of music. An educational process like that would require more commitment on the side of the institution and teacher and it would change the relationship from a "teaching-learning" process to a "learning-learning" one.

I am all for spreading the multiple aspects of teaching composition into several departments. Multiple views, theories and terminology help the student to be open and critical.

A wider discussion on this subject is long overdue. Thanks,

Jose Halac

Composer and Professor of Composition

Universidad Nacional de Cordoba (Argentina)