Abstract Theory



Abstract Theory

The great composer Igor Stravinsky once said, “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles…The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” By choosing a set of limitations or “compositional parameters” a composer can find direction and exercise his or her imagination. While it may seem counter-intuitive, this approach tends to encourage creativity rather than stifle it.

Screenwriting pedagogue Robert Mckee suggests that “talent is like a muscle: without something to push against, it atrophies. So we deliberately put rocks in our path, barriers that inspire.” While we can deliberately choose some “limitations” or “parameters” sometimes they occur without choice. Let’s take for instance Olivier Messiaen’s “String Quartet for the End of Time.”  In 1940 he was a prisoner of war and had limited access to musicians or instruments. He made due with the instrumentalists available; a pianist, violinist, cellist, and clarinetist. This unconventional ensemble gave Messiaen a “playing field” to work within and stirred his imagination to create a charming and evocative piece of music. While this is a radical case, limitation also occurs in other more conventional forms.

Classical musicians will often write in a dance form. For instance, Chopin’s mazurkas are commonly in triple meter with accents usually occurring on the second or third beat. A Bach gigue is traditionally in a compound duple meter with a vivacious quality. Although it seems elementary, even the choice of meter and rhythm can be a parameter that can give direction and/or unify a piece. Pitch, melody, and harmony can also be a framework to compose within.

A Bach fugue is limited in that a single melody is used in fugal form throughout a piece. Bach found creative ways of exploring a melody by way of retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion, augmentation, and diminution. Simply put, he would write the melody backwards, upside down, slowed down, or sped up. While this is only a glimpse at a fraction of what is going on in a Bach fugue it certainly illustrates the fact that a single melody did not restrict, but instead inspired. While some of these limitations arise from convention, we can also intentionally choose obstacles.

While I was studying composition in school, I was given an assignment to write a short piano piece. I was given instructions to choose a few “limitations” from a list. The list included rhythms (ex. tango, mazurka) and meters (7/8 , 5/8, Changing meter) , scales (octatonic, whole tone, hybrids) etc. I chose to write a piece using the octatonic scale in 7/8 with exaggerated register changes. This forced me to think differently about music. I was not able to rely on my tendencies to write tonal music with chromatic harmony and traditional melodies. It really forced me out of my comfort zone. Instead of concentrating most of my attention on melody and harmony, I began to consider the rhythms, tone colors, textures, and register of the piece in new ways. If nothing else, the assignment helped me to explore different scales, meters, rhythms, and sonorities.

Obviously this is not the only way to compose as a lot of great music is created sporadically, in the moment while improvising. This exercise simply helps to stir the imagination and push a musician beyond his normal tendencies. Try creating a list of your own, and from that list choose a couple of limitations. The results may be great, or they may be terrible. But at least you will have discovered what works and what doesn’t work for you.

Check back soon for Part II on “Creative Limitation”.


The Human Abstract’s new album Digital Veil comes out in early 2011. Check out THA on MySpace and listen to the new song “Faust” below.

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