I find that students are inspired when I emphasise the why of what we do. Why do we compose and play contemporary music? We write and perform this music to provide examples of how to live with courage and beauty. We write to express hope: to take one piece of silence and another piece of silence and then put music in between, we need to have all the hope in the world. We compose to articulate what living feels like today, and we aim to build works that withstand the tests of time and provide the world with a body of music one hundred years from now and beyond.  First and foremost, these are the habits of mind that I would like to instill in young composers.

Technique is also paramount. My mission in teaching is to create a safe but disciplined atmosphere where students internalize and eventually master the fundamental concepts of music composition. All composers create differently but in my experience our tools are universal.  I like to introduce each of them methodically from large-scale to small-scale. Modules are built around each concept:

Form. Students are urged to consider form as a macro-rhythm stretched out over a long period of time. Everything that happens must be inevitable. Material that occurs five seconds away must work with material that occurs twenty minutes away.  

Transitions.  Students are encouraged to think carefully about how transitions in music range from abrupt to gradual.   Examples are presented to show that successful compositions contain a clear understanding of how material moves from one idea to the next.

Gestures. Students explore how gestures inform their music by examining the shapes created by the work’s rhythms, colors and textures and how these structures unfold over time.

Rhythm.  Students are asked to consider that nothing in nature is a steady pulse and that a purely steady rhythm is a human construct. Students are urged to think about rhythms as they appear in the world around us, which is as events over time.

Pitch.  Students are encouraged to think about how pitch is a vibration, or a rhythm on a microscopic scale. Therefore, everything in music including pitch is rhythm. They will also be shown that pitch is a region, not a single pitch. When a piano hammer strikes the three strings bound to a note, for example, we are actually hearing three separate tunings that we perceive as a single pitch.

Melody.  Students are asked to re-consider their previous concept of melody by exploring 21st century treatments of the horizontal organization of pitch.  They learn to create new melodic languages through exercises in writing contrasting textures.

Harmony. Young composers are urged through examples and composition exercises to consider that consonance and dissonance depend on context and that there is no such thing as an inherently consonant or dissonant sonority.

Texture. Students are taught how to measure texture in density and investigate through writing exercises and examination of the literature how textural density is related to tempo.

Color.  Composers are introduced to a post-spectral musical environment where color and harmony can be considered as one and the same thing.  Students are encouraged to work with the latest technology as a tool to realize their coloristic vision. 

My mission as a teacher is also to ensure that young composers are well familiarized with a broad range of repertoire from the last fifty years.  I like to tailor listening lists for each student that will reinforce their interests and at the same time fill in gaps in their musical background.  I am also eager to acquaint students with the outstanding repertoire to be found in non-Western cultures including Georgian folk music, Chinese opera, Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, Bulgarian choral music and Indonesian and Balinese gamelan music. Students live with the selected repertoire and take drop-the-needle tests on a regular basis as well as analyze selected repertoire appropriate to their interests.  Students can compose in any style they wish but they will not, on my watch, unknowingly replicate others.

I also hope to provide practical career strategies after having worked with over a hundred musical organizations both as composer and conductor. I expect students to come away from lessons understanding that composition is a marathon and not a sprint, and that ideas on a grand scale are often the easiest to accomplish because they are the most inspiring.

I teach over Skype and welcome qualified international students to submit a cv and links to 2 pieces for consideration to Melissa Claisse at melissa@latitude45arts.com