Meta-Composition: Systems Thinking in 20th-Century Music - Spring 2020 - Dr. Thomas Patteson
(Meta-Composition SP20)

Throughout history, composers have explored formulas, algorithms, and other ways of automating the creative process. Medieval musicians developed the technique of isorhythm to determine the large-scale structure of their works. In the Renaissance, an approach called soggetto cavato was used to generate melodic motives from the syllables of a given text. The Classical period saw the brief popularity of musical dice-games (created by Mozart, among others), which used random methods to piece together the pre-composed measures into complete compositions. But while these efforts were intermittent and marginal for most of music history, in the twentieth century they appeared in much greater number. Under a variety of cultural influences, from philosophical movements such as structuralism and poststructuralism to the emergence of new disciplines such as cybernetics and systems theory and the influx of Eastern philosophies such as Zen and Taoism, composers in many different fields and backgrounds called their creative authority into question, increasingly understanding themselves, in the metaphor of Brian Eno, as “no longer the architect of a piece of work but more the designer of a musical ecosystem.” These approaches could be summed up as forms of meta-composition: they allow composers to turn their attention from note-to-note structure to the creation of higher-level systems that generate the specifics of the work to varying degrees of predictability and detail.

In this class, we will explore a wide variety of fields in which twentieth-century composers automated aspects of their music, including serialism and indeterminacy, minimalism and systems music, improvisation and intuition, and electronic and computer music. We will seek to understand both the technical workings of the methods employed and the underlying aesthetic, ethical, and political assumptions that motivated these projects. This will be an intensive, seminar-style course in which students will be expected to do substantial reading and listening assignments and regularly contribute to class conversations. All students will also complete a scholarly or creative final project that explores a relevant topic or theme.

Prerequisites: Music History I and II (can be waived with the permission of the instructor)