Studying Composition at Uni

I studied music at Roehampton University. Not exactly a world-renowned institution for music, but I applied late in the day and wanted somewhere I could study part-time. It was a bit of a last minute decision, but a good one.

Some of what I studied was a waste of time, and in common with a great many students, I found most of the course tutors lacking. However, my composition tutors were great and I learned a huge amount from their modules.

Electroacoustic/Acousmatic music

I did a couple of modules looking at electroacoustic or acousmatic music. This is a classical approach to electronic composition that comes out of musique concrete. One of my favourite examples is this by Adrian Moore:

We’re used to to thinking of music in terms of harmony, melody, accompaniment. Much electroacoustic material simply can’t be thought of in those terms – there might be tones, but they aren’t necessarily going to be tuned notes. There might be foreground and background, but accompaniment and melody aren’t the right terms. Instead we can think of gesture and texture.

Gesture is almost analogious to melody – it’s those sounds that are focused, moving, perhaps in the foreground – almost a solo voice that moves through time.

Texture is more likely to be in the background, perhaps more static – a feeling that stays for a time rather than a moving foreground sound.

Music as sculpture

The biggest lesson I took from having a go at this kind of music was in putting all those seperate sounds together into one piece. With harmony, melody, rhythm and all the ‘normal’ musical ideas out of the window, I found that my main concerns were things like pace and shape. It seemed sensible to leave long pauses of silence, or to worry about whether the gestural material joins together properly. Tiny details seemed incredibly important, and much use was made of the volume and panning automation in Logic.

Learning about electroacoustic music took me out of my comfort zone. It made me really explore some of the things that can be done with technology, and made music seem more than notes and chords – it’s also about timbre and shape and feeling and texture.

‘Proper’ music

I did lots of more regular composition at uni as well. I don’t really have any recordings made at the time, but the bassoon piece in the middle of this very sensible episode of my old podcast written for my sister’s recital was written just after I left uni.

This piece, Firecracker, was written for a string quartet – probably incompetently – but became a louder more guitary piece on my recent Murder and Parliament album. A lot of the pieces on this began life when I was at uni.

Do I think everything I did at uni was worthwhile? No, and much of it had a classical bias that I found maddening. But I learned a lot about how to write music while I was there, and I‘ve used those skills every day of my life since.