Monday, December 26, 2005

A Composer's Bookshelf


The titles that follow have proved to be of great value to me over the years as compositional resources and they have offered (and continue to offer...) tremendous insight and aid in matters of technique, aesthetics, style, formal design and notation. It is a very personal list, which focuses on those books which have been most meaningful to me. My basic test for inclusion on the list was to ask myself if I still continued read from the book ever (we all have those books that we’ve only read once...), and if its contents had ever been influential on the composition of any particular work of mine. Expect periodic additions and revisions...

Adler, Samuel. 'The Study of Orchestration' (Third Edition). New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989
“Sam’s book is like his music: copious.” remarked my teacher Albion Gruber when I asked him about the then recently-published first edition. He also used its substantial heft as a doorstop for his office, and was once embarrassed when Adler paid him a surprise visit one afternoon and saw his proud effort propping Albion’s door open. The text is indeed thorough and reflects Adler’s lifetime summation of experience as a composer and conductor in instrumental scoring. Nits may be picked, as did some of my Eastman chums who complained of his omission of the accordion, among other things. Still and all, accordions aside, this is probably the best single-volume orchestration text today, and it made Adler a millionaire in the process. I have my own complaints about it, but I still use it often. A newer, third edition has just been issued, with many improvements.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 'Musical Composition.' London: Oxford University Press, 2002.
This book could usefully function as the textbook for a composition class, but it also serves as an excellent guide to various compositional issues such as vocal and choral writing, various contemporary modes of style, formal design, etc. Brindle doesn’t have a compositional or ideological ax to grind, but sticks to practical matters. Even experienced composers need to be reminded of musical first principles, and this book has more compositional horse sense per page than many other, more ideological or idealistic writings.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 'Contemporary Percussion.' London: Oxford University Press, 1991.
While not as all-encompassing as James Blades’ gigantic tome on percussion (which I never bought), it covers most issues very thoroughly. Lots of score examples are included throughout and Brindle’s advice is always sound and based on a vast fund of personal experience.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 'Serial Composition.' London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
This is a very good primer for the basics of serial techniques. It was very helpful to me back at a time when I thought that I wanted to be a serial composer. That said, Brindle’s advice on voicings, melodic contour, etc., still carries a lot of water whatever the context—serial or otherwise.

Cook, Theodore Andrea. 'The Curves of Life.' New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1979. (Originally published by Constable and Company, London, in 1914.)
This book is an exhaustive study of the spiral whose fundamental mathematical expression is the Golden Section or Ø. Cook focuses mostly on its relation to natural phenomena, but also connects it to ideas on the essence of beauty and man’s response to that.

Cowell, Henry. 'New Musical Resources.' (with notes and an accompanying essay by David Nicholls) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Originally published in 1930, this volume has held up very well over the years. It continues to offer a wide array of techniques and stylistic possibilities, as well as an important discussion of rhythm as an extension of the harmonic series, later utilized and expanded upon by several post-WW II avant-gardists, notably Stockhausen. The music of Conlon Nancarrow wouldn't exists without this book.

Blackwood, Easley. 'The Structure of Recognizable Diatonic Tunings'. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Blackwood seems to contradict himself at times, by patiently explaining the inner workings of a particular tuning, and then proclaiming the tuning’s drawbacks in the next paragraph. He is particularly harsh on just intonation and declares it unworkable in all keys--that is, it is impossible to construct a system of just intonation which allows one to play in all keys, a statement which LaMonte Young would appear to have effectively refuted with his towering Well-Tuned Piano piece. Ben Johnston, Harry Partch and Terry Riley also have made effective statements in that tuning. Still, Blackwood has made the structure of various temperaments fairly clear to someone with a bit of patience.

Cage, John. 'Silence.' Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Cope, David. 'New Music Composition.' New York: Schirmer Books, 1977.
While I haven’t actively used this book in some time, it was an important step for me to read it. I carried it everywhere I traveled for a number of years. Cope gives a good overview of various compositional techniques that have emerged in the twentieth century.

Erickson, Robert. 'Sound Structure in Music.' Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Now here is a lost gem. I can’t remember where I found my copy, but it’s been on my shelf of treasured music books for nearly twenty years. Erickson gives here the most coherent examination of timbre and its musical implications that I’ve ever read. The acoustical principles underlying his ideas are carefully integrated into each topic.

Feldman, Morton. 'Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman.' Cambridge, MA: Exact Change Press, 2000.
This collection of essays and transcriptions of informal remarks gives a nice insight into the milieu of the New York modernist art scene in the late 50s and early 60s. Feldman was apparently never concerned with creating a theoretical rationale for his music, and none is to be found here, but his remarks about color and proportion, however seemingly offhand, deserve close consideration.

Huntley, H. E. 'The Divine Proportion: A Study in Mathematical Beauty.' New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970.
A superb explication of the Golden Section, with a rather unusually subjective aesthetic viewpoint to have been written by a mathematician. Huntley devotes a large amount of the book to discussing the GS connection to nature and art.

Kandinsky. Wassily. 'Concerning the Spiritual in Art.' New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977

Kandinsky. Wassily. 'Point and Line to Plane.' New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1979

Klee, Paul. 'Pedagogical Sketchbook.' London: Faber and Faber, 1953

Kramer, Jonathan. 'The Time of Music.' New York: Schirmer Books, 1988.
Kramer’s book is a downright pleasurable read and will provoke much thought. His is the first comprehensive attempt to account for the issue of time, as it applies to music. His ideas on proportion and the Golden Section have been very influential on my own composing. His analysis of Stravinsky’s Agon is very interesting, although I was never able to reproduce his results myself.

Mellors, Wilfrid. 'Music in a New Found Land.' New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Mellors has written one of the best overviews of American music that I have encountered. Originally published in 1964, Mellors updated the book with an extensive introduction in ‘87. His views on the aesthetic differences between Reich and Glass in his discussion of the rise of minimalism is very compelling. While a lot has happened in the meantime, I personally find that very few of his assessments are in need of much revision. Also notable is the fact that he treats jazz composers and artists with the same seriousness of purpose that he discusses America’s “classical” composers.

Paynter, John. 'Sound and Structure.' London: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
A book with equally compelling implications for composers and educators, Paynter’s book has a lot of good material and possibilities for the teaching of composition.

Reich, Steve. 'Writings About Music.' Halifax: Press of Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 1974.
I found this in a used bookshop while wandering down Broadway with Tom Hamilton. It chronicles the beginnings of the minimalist trajectories of both Reich and Philip Glass (who were collaborators for a time, playing in each other’s ensembles) and provides the evolution of Reich’s compositional processes. It’s recently been reprinted in a much-expanded form by Oxford University Press.

Salzer, Felix and Schachter, Carl. 'Counterpoint In Composition.' New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1969
Presently out of print, this classic volume covers contrapuntal technique for both Renaissance and Baroque styles. It seems (to me) to be based on the work of Fux and Jeppeson, but viewed through a Schenkerian prism. For an exhaustive overview of species counterpoint, it can’t be beat, although it is essentially mum about rhythmic practices of either era.

Schafer, R. Murray. 'The Thinking Ear.' Toronto: Arcana Editions, 1986, 1988.
Besides being a remarkable composer, Schafer is a remarkable thinker on musical matters. These essays deal with the role of the composer in society, issues of music education and the small matter of what music is in the first place.

Schafer, R. Murray. 'The Tuning of the World.' Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1977.
Schafer here discusses the relationship between Man and his acoustic environment. Schafer’s observations and musings should be read by more than just musicians, but composers will have a lot to ponder from these pages.

Schafer, R. Murray. 'Patria and the Theatre of Confluence.' Indian River, Ontario: Arcana Editions, 1991.
Patria is the title of a cycle of iconoclastic operas and dramatic projects on which this composer has been laboring for many years. Here are Schafer’s essays towards a new kind of musical theatre--one which is integrated with the natural environment and which holds the possibility of real participation from the audience. The book is also an account of the successes and failures that he’s experienced in trying to mount these works over the years.

Stone, Kurt. 'Music Notation in the Twentieth Century.' New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980
If there is a notational question that this book cannot answer, I’ve never had to ask it.

Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. 'On Growth and Form.' New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1992 (Unabridged reprint of the 1942 Cambridge University Press edition.)
This is a classic text in the world of biology and was Harrison Birtwistle’s bedside reading for many years. (Maybe it still is...) Thompson’s book is a minute examination of how creatures’ various forms or shapes determine their function in nature. Beyond the fact that this is a landmark in scientific thinking, Thompson’s writing is a pleasure to read because of his supremely literate style.

Thomson, Virgil. 'A Virgil Thomson Reader.' Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.
Quite simply, this is the best music writer America has yet produced. Thomson’s criticism is peerless; cf. his remarks on Messiaen’s superiority over other post-war avant composers: “...because his music vibrates, and theirs doesn’t.” The book is divided into a large autobiographical section, followed by reviews, essays and an interview with VT by John Rockwell. Thomson’s views can be rather trenchant, but they’ve held up remarkably well over the years. The only place where I think he slips badly, is in his assessment of Sibelius. (“Provincial...”) But few writers of his or our time could write equally comfortably about Xenakis, Beethoven, shape-note singing, or black gospel music and jazz—Thomson could and did—enthusiastically.

2 comments:

Phillip Henry Marshall said...

Dave,
You've just posted a great resource for all composers, fledgling like myself or otherwise. It's gonna take me awhile to sift through it all, but thanks. I'm going to pass it on to Carl Weins, the new theory professor at Nazareth.
Peace!

Peter Kalve, Moulton, UK said...

This makes an interesting list. I wondered, however, why you seem vaguely American-centric in your selection? (Admittedly you do include three of Bridle Smith's books, but most are still Americans?). In addition, I see you have chosen not to include any etnomusicology material, which, again, seems something of a self-imposed limit, to my mind, although I could be wrong!

Your choice for orchestration is impressive, but I have always found Norman Del Mar's wonderful "Anatomy of the Orchestra" (London: Faber) very helpful - and it does include a section with score examples of orchestral writing for the accordion! In addition, you surprise me not to have included Presichetti's "Twentieth Century Harmony" (Norton: NY), as well as a more recent "Techniques and Materials in Music" by Benjamin et al (Thomson: CA). Now aren't I being terribly American-centric?!

What about basic musical grammars? Any suggestions? And, my own special interest, the relationship of indigenous music to compositional technique? And also, what about favourite musical scores?

Nevertheless, an interesting list.