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Composition Pedagogy at JAM MUSIC LAB

Richard Graf teaches composition and composition pedagogy and is also the head of the pedagogy master’s program at the JAM MUSIC LAB University. He spoke recently with interviewer Marcus Ratka about the content and significance of this new discipline.

Marcus Ratka: Composition Pedagogy is a relatively new discipline. How did it come about? How is it different from traditional “composition lessons“?

Richard Graf: While traditional composition lessons focus primarily on the creation of new musical works, either songs, symphonies, advertising jingles or film music, in “composition pedagogy“ the process of composing is examined and reflected upon, in order to consequently “translate“ these forms into didactic models. These models can then be utilized in communicating ideas, in teaching lessons, or also in individual artistic activities.

Composition pedagogy was created out of the necessity, or rather the tendency in recent years to view “composing“ not only as an “superior“ activity of an elite few geniuses with their wondrous masterpieces, but rather as a personal activity which shows that the development of individual ideas should be an important process in the creation of music. Through applied methods and structured teaching concepts, students as well as teachers can find their support in completely realizing their musical ideas. This includes “tools“ that go beyond subjects such as harmony and counterpoint, which are comparable rather to the dramaturgy or the direction in the creation of a film.

The application of these methods belongs in my view to the most exciting developments that are currently taking place in the field of music education. We are thereby creating possibilities and new approaches for beginners as well as those more advanced, regardless of age group. Not only is this interesting for composers, but also for all those who create music. This also includes for example the experiences with different approaches to improvisation – idiomatic, thematic, programmatic or completely free; or the handling of sounds: from everyday objects to aural journeys of discovery with sounds on their own instruments and up to live-electronics and computer-generated sounds. Furthermore, this also includes methods of interactive and collaborative musical construction. All of these aspects have made it possible to create new perspectives in the process of music-making and are part of these composition pedagogy methods.

MR: Creating for yourself – let us call it “composing” – your own musical works is an integral part of Pop, Rock, and Jazz, etc. In many of today’s musical styles, interpreter and composer are again one and the same person. Does compositional pedagogy take this also into account?

RG: Composition pedagogy is not limited in principle by any stylistic restrictions. Particularly these aforementioned genres are predestined for the development and application of compositional pedagogy methods. Because of their genesis, they have always cultivated a more impartial and less biased approach to music and its extra-musical elements such as video and performance. A glance at the history of music shows us also that for a long time, interpreter and composer were represented by one and the same person, before increasingly greater technical challenges for playing instruments required specialization, and thereby driving a separation between interpreter and composer. I believe that it will be exciting to create a new self-image: the individual, the independent discovery of inner structures through the process of “creating” will lead to a deeper understanding of the subatomic musical building blocks and their interactive relationships in sound, rhythm, harmony and melody up to interpretation and performance, and also including the interaction on stage between the musicians or even with the audience. No matter if someone produces a pop song or writes a symphony: a relevant “know-how“ of these connections leads in every case to a more intense examination and also, in my opinion, to a more interesting artistic result. The discovery of finding and experiencing the music “from within“ – this is my request and objective. Composing, improvising, arranging or producing are all elements of this creative process.

MR: "Artistic Research" is a brand-new branch of research as well. Are there points of commonality between the areas of artistic research and composition pedagogy?

RG: “Artistic Research“ is always indispensable, especially in a field which examines and employs the creation of music. In the field of composition as well as in composition pedagogy, there is an infinitely wide area of open possibilities. With the help of structured methods, new insights are to be developed both in the artistic and in the didactic field to open up new possibilities of activity in order to enable new artistic and pedagogical spaces. “Artistic Research“ and composition pedagogy not only thereby complement each other greatly, but they show and point to a clear interdependence. Varied approaches to the forms of music can throw questions at “artistic research“, but though on the other hand, in interplay between composition and composition pedagogy, it can enable new insights. The formulation of new questions in the field of “artistic research“ can on the other hand prepare new approaches in the field of composition and composition pedagogy.

MR: Which research questions do you find especially interesting in the context of the teaching of musical compositions?

RG: This certainly includes questions about genre-overlapping and interdisciplinary didactic models and methods. Especially the development of process orientated and collaborative, but also a more “playful“, experimental approaches and the inclusion of digital techniques are the most interesting. And since the term “competence“ has become a keyword in the current European educational landscape, naturally the field of composition and compositional pedagogy poses the question: which capabilities appear important and which can be expected? Which objectives are pointing the way in the 21st century? How are we reacting to the current musical, but also to current social developments?

Music plays a great role in the lives of our young people, and schools are strongly recommended to utilize this opportunity. However, we cannot teach music the same way we did twenty years ago, before the digital revolution had so completely taken place.

Therefore, we need to include research areas such as in digital music, mobile music, and interactive music, but also to find a place for new concepts such as the grey border areas between composition and improvisation, to include and shed light on themes such as production, sound design, microtonality, irrational meters etc.

This means that composition pedagogy is a field of research that examines the concepts, ideas and methods not only of composing, but also improvising and interpretive artists in order to develop new possibilities in the teaching and communication of music and composition. Composing is a process which aims to create something new and reflects the individuality of the musical creator. The possibilities are thereby inexhaustible.

MR: Is there a clear job market for “composition pedagogy“? What advantages could someone expect who completes a degree in this field of studies?

RG: Composition pedagogy is a relatively new profession that has established itself especially in the German-speaking world in recent years out of the primary need to offer composition lessons in music schools, but also to enliven music lessons in all schools through a more interactive participation.

In 2016, a nationwide curriculum plan Germany for composition (and theory) was introduced in Germany. In Austria the curriculum for composition, in which I participated in, was completed in 2017. This means that for the first time in Austrian music schools, composition can be taught as a school subject just like piano or guitar. But also in all educational institutions, the “inventing of music“ should provide a deeper understanding of music.

This in turn means that there is a need for competent teachers who have completed such a degree or course of study and have the appropriate abilities. Viewed pragmatically, with this pedagogical education one has the possibility and capability to teach at public institutions (schools, music schools). Especially the demand for teachers who in the field of contemporary music not only in instrumental pedagogy, but also have capabilities in composition pedagogy, is very large and a relevant, appropriate education is thereby extremely promising. Also subjects such as music theory, ensemble directing, improvisation, and ultimately composition, will offer promising fields of activity.

About Richard Graf

Richard Graf studied in Vienna and the USA, and has received several prizes and awards as a musician and composer. His works have been performed at international festivals in Europe, Asia, USA and Australia. Graf is initiator and artistic leader of the “Max Brand Ensemble“ and the festival “Tage der Neuen Musik“. Most recently a CD with Michael Mantler, Himiko Paganotti and the Max Brand Ensemble has been released by ECM-Records, with Mr. Graf as co-producer and artistic director.

Because of his distinctively high-qualified abilities as presenter and lecturer, he is often invited both domestically and internationally to lead workshops, including the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the IAJE Chicago, the Bremen School of Music, the Berlin Academy, the Folkwang University in Essen, etc. His many teaching positions (JAM MUSIC LAB University, the Danube University in Krems, the University for Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna) as well as his activities as music producer round off his varied talents.

As president of the INÖK – Composers’ Association of Lower Austria, and as board member of the Austrian Composers Society he is strongly dedicated to the creative abilities and musical development of children and young composers. This includes the national composition competition “Jugend komponiert  – prima la musica“, conducted by the jury chairman Mr. Graf.

Authored on February 23rd, 2018