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  • Peter J Felice

Breaking Convention


Alright, so I only have about an hour before I have to head to my MUS 892 class which is a seminar on the music of Maurice Ravel. So this will likely not be a very long blog. However, it was inspired by an important discussion I had with my composition teacher, Dr. Mark Sullivan, during my lesson today. With the intention of entering a prestigious and high paying competition for wind band composers, I curiously asked him for suggestions on how to draw inspiration and get good ideas. This produced a conversation about breaking convention, and how to embellish off of an untraditional idea. What I took from his implications was that the best way turn a head was to do something that is not done very often, no matter how absurd you initially think it may be. The best resource a person has to do this does not need to be searched for on the internet. Sometimes, great ideas come from just sitting and thinking and that's what it was suggested that I do. Sullivan also warned that I would go through about 90 different ideas before I found one that really worked, but if embraced it would be worth it.

Following our lesson, I began reflecting on the history of my compositional worth. Now, I have written some ambitious pieces of music that had received a lot of praise in the New Albanian Community, and I have been asked by several performers to write more music down there. My music was even considered to have a high dependency on romantic influence, particularly because of the rich, broad melodic textures I quite often use. I don't think you can really fault me for this as I have probably heard more romantic music than any other era of classical - educationally, it's crammed down our throats probably because it is the epitome of advanced theory-based composition. But is that really what I want my identity as a composer to be? Do I want to be known as someone who writes specifically in a neo-romantic style, especially when I prefer neo-classicism? To be completely honest, I'm not so sure I want my identity to be defined by labels at all. Unpredictability is what drives curiosity and keeps people interested, so perhaps it is best to do things as sporadically and spontaneously as possible.

I'm nearing the completion of a work for Piano Trio that I wrote out of inspiration for my relationship with Alison. Named Scenic Impressions due to the fact it was written to evoke the moods surrounding three significant places for Alison I on the campus at IU Southeast, this piece is unlike anything that I have ever written before. But I think the most interesting thing about it is HOW it is perceived by people who listen to it. When I describe it and based on previous works I have written, you know its going to be a tonal piece. It has all of the elements of a tonal piece: tonal centers, suggestive key frames, modal tendencies. However, many of the textures - many of which can only be discovered by a careful analysis of the score - provoke the idea that there is some unconventional writing within the heavy melodic and harmonic construction. Believe me when I say this was done intentionally and understand that I am sitting back and brandishing a big mission accomplished flag above my head.

One critique that Sullivan noted about the third movement, titled Dawning Lake, was that there was an overabundant absence (do those words even belong together?) of melodic writing. It wasn't that I did not have melodic ideas in the piece, but it appeared that they were so short and often times they were quickly abandoned in a way that it was difficult for the listener to pick out and remember. While I did actually have more melodic writing that wasn't as audible because of the overlaying textures surrounding them, he suggested evading the expressionist tendencies to incorporate clever trickery that only I, the composer, would be aware of and be more focused on what the listener's interpretation might be. Without even realizing it, I had fallen prey to a stifling contradiction to my philosophy involving the importance of audience connection that I so adamantly expressed in a previous blog entry. It seems I was trying to break convention, but in way that could lead to the selling of my soul to the composers who's music I once hated. I also found this claim especially interesting, because my Achilles heel for many years was writing these wonderful melodies but never developing them into anything else. I had broken away from that after studying with Dr. Erich Stem, but it would appear that a new potential compositional hazard, or as Sullivan Phrased it, 'melodic death' has surfaced. Easily avoidable, but also a testament that contrary to what some may believe, I am concerned with my own personal feelings when writing music. So what I am really trying to do is to find a balance between my idiomatic melodic writing and innovative techniques. Analogically, instead of making lemonade with lemons....keep the lemons, but try to make a drink that can't be considered lemonade.I love writing music because of my strong capacity for learning. And with music, I am always learning new things. Embracing your curiosity, no matter how radical the ideas may seem at first, is the path to achieving great things. I believe that today's lesson may turn out to be a cornerstone in how I think about music.- PJF


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