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Classical Music Blog by award-winning composer Kati Agócs


Filtering by Tag: #composition


Kati Agocs

Applying to a conservatory or college as a composition major? As a core composition faculty member at the New England Conservatory, I help host over sixty in-person interviews with prospective students in Boston every year. More and more composers apply each year. Here are my top ten bits of advice for aspiring composers who are thinking of auditioning.

Talk passionately about the music of your own time at your audition. Be able to name and to discuss living composers who have an influence on you.

Composition faculty prefer not to listen to Midi recordings. Arrange to get your works recorded with real instruments, or wait until you have recordings before you apply.

Get to know the school before you meet the faculty by going to visit and talking to other students. When the time of your audition arrives, be able to articulate something personal about what is attractive to you about the school.

Meet the faculty with whom you are interested in studying prior to your audition. The best way to do this is to go to concerts where faculty’s work is being performed, go up and introduce yourself afterwards, and say something intelligent about the piece. This is far preferable to emailing with a few days’ notice asking for a free lesson. Many faculty do not give “trial” lessons - -but that does not mean that we are not interested in your work.

Studying composition involves close mentorship, akin to an apprenticeship. Get to know the music of the faculty where you are applying - - especially of those teachers with whom you are particularly interested in studying - -and take the initiative to bring up one or two specific works of theirs with them when you meet them.

Be thoughtful about your teacher choices when you apply. Conservatories use the studio system, whereby if you list a certain teacher and they have a positive impression of you from the music that you submit and from your audition, they can unilaterally ask that you be admitted into the school.

 Make sure your English is good enough to understand and discuss basic musical concepts before applying to college or conservatory. If your TOEFL score is not high enough, take time off to work on your English. Faculty don’t mind if you are a year older when you are applying - -we need to be able to communicate with you, and it defeats the purpose of study abroad if you are struggling with basic communication for the first year (or more) of your studies.

When you are in town for the interview, go to concerts. It sends faculty the message that, if we admit you, you would be an active participant in our community.

It is perfectly acceptable to take time off and write music before applying to study composition. For any given composer active today, no one knows how old he or she was when they finished school. If we like the music, composition faculty do not care if an applicant is a few years older than their cohort.

Develop yourself as a person and thinker before specializing. I often encourage composers who have a keen intellect to get a liberal arts degree, or a broader undergraduate degree, and then to specialize in composition at the Masters level. (Of course, this is what I did, so that influences my perspective!) The undergraduate years are a time of great intellectual growth, and if you are already specializing in composition at that point, you might be limiting yourself.  Developing the whole person makes you a more interesting composer, and intellectually vibrant young composers may have little to lose by learning their craft slightly later.


Kati Agocs

“The complexity of things -- the things within things -- just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” - Alice Munro

As artists, we constantly look for inspiration. Sometimes it comes from outside of us (daily life, another artist, a transformative experience, religion, art, or literature). Sometimes it comes from within. The kind of person we are indelibly shapes how we find and use inspiration. I used to have a running joke with a friend of mine, when we were going to a lot of new-music concerts in New York City. If someone is a jerk, his or her music is usually annoying. If someone has sublime aspects to their being, you can hear it in the music. The music became a kind of litmus test, the findings of which we would confirm as necessary - - and it was usually spot on. At the same time, we quickly learned that there is much more in people than can be perceived on a first (or second) listening.

Dreams contain imagery that can reveal how our inner selves understand our experiences. Empowered by this knowledge, we can consciously alter how we process (and respond to) these experiences. Jungian analysis is a process by which we actively remember our dreams, write them down, and discuss them on a regular basis with someone who acts as a guide. This person is trained in the analysis of dream imagery - - both with perspectives drawn from Jung’s work, and with the scholarship that has developed since his era - --and has undergone an in-depth analysis themselves. The goal of Jungian analysis is individuation, or becoming more oneself.  Transplanted from the psychoanalytic context into our own, this concept encapsulates the natural process of a composer finding his or her voice. Listening to (and analyzing) our dreams can facilitate this process.

I used to fear that if I knew my inner world better, the mystique of being an artist would disappear, and the strength of things that come from the subconscious would be mitigated, even diminished. On the contrary, cultivating a dialogue with unconscious areas of my mind has helped over time to clarify my expressive intent and to hone my technique as a composer, and the mysterious parts didn’t go away - - they deepened as I began to develop a more active relationship to them.  Like any process that involves humans, it’s not perfect - -but it can make our work shaped to a lesser degree by aspects of who we are as people that we don’t understand.

A dream about a vast, powerful ocean depths once gave me the courage to have faith in the slow gestation of a piece that I was having difficulty beginning.  I discovered a link between the wild ocean imagery and the depths of the undulating, unseen areas where a new work’s genesis lies. Analyzing certain dreams has helped me to handle complexity in a musical texture. By taking away confusion, it allowed me to clarify exactly what the technical issue at hand was. This has led me to be more transparent in my music, and has given me a desire to hear all of the voices clearly when I layer lines. When a texture gets dense, I have clearly audible voices where, in an earlier work, I might have used clusters.

The elusive area where passion meets technique is the realm of dreams. If something is missing or unfulfilled, either in art or in life, it will usually find its way into a dream. If we are listening, these dreams can help us to formulate more potent questions.  In our art, we become more aware of what tools we need to add to our arsenal, and cognizant of when we are doing something in our work because it is the only thing we are able to do at that time.  This can be freeing, because otherwise we might get stuck in the same place, kept there by our technical limitations. Dream interpretation naturally brings us more in touch with our emotions. This can render our work a more agonizing process for us, but can also make it speak more directly to our listeners. We may sense more rich, complex resonances between the past and the future, and among different aspects of our lives that we didn’t know were connected.

The process of exploring dreams also taps into painful things that have been buried.  When you feel the negative emotions more clearly, you also feel the positive ones in your life more precisely. It’s as if the visual scheme of your life experience goes up a notch, to Technicolor. If we are receptive - - by listening to our dreams and writing them down before we forget them- - then more will emerge. The more material from the subconscious that we externalize, the more it is integrated into us, and the less rigid we are - - the less controlled by what we don’t understand. We are able to discern and to change old patterns in our technique and in our expression.  For me, it is difficult to distinguish between the natural process of maturing as a composer, and what is attributable to my investment in learning about my dreams. I’m using Jungian analysis as a tool to help me mature artistically; perhaps I would have arrived at the same place if I simply followed through on where I want to go musically. But it has helped give me the confidence to keep growing, to experience life more fully, and to realize that complexity can be a good thing.

Jungian Analysis requires discipline, patience, faith, and an analyst who is truly able to listen to you and hear you without imposing their own judgments. That particular skill is an extremely rare one. Also, there are times when dream analysis can be distracting - -- when you just need to focus on getting the music realized, and nothing should come in the way of that. But  I encourage everyone, whether or not they pursue this particular path, to consider how working on the whole person can enrich their work as a composer (or artist in any medium). You can’t reap only the benefits you want from your soul. It is the entire person that goes into making your art. The parts that you are surprised to discover about who you are as a person might make your music more interesting: If you do what seems like a simple thing musically, there will be much more behind it. To “own” that can be empowering.

Think of the image of the ocean beach outside my studio in Flatrock, on the eastern coast of Newfoundland, where the sun rises first in all of North America. It is a beach of rocks.  The ocean laps up to the rocky shoreline, and drops off quickly when you go out to sea. Looking out across the water, you see open ocean with a vast horizon. If you went out on it and kept going indefinitely, you would reach the United Kingdom. I asked a fisherman who grew up in the area how deep the water is. He told me that it drops off quickly very close to the shore, to 100 metres quite suddenly --  and then to hundreds of metres. As I look at the beach and the surface of the water, I know that the ocean just beyond is unfathomably deep. Far beyond that, it taps into the entire ocean, and that ocean is part of a system of multiple oceans. I won’t ever see that deeper part. But I gain an incredible serenity - - and an ever-present awareness of a vast, apocalyptic force -- from knowing that it’s there.

Kati Agócs



Kati Agocs

There used to be two camps in the composition world: the modernist camp, and the tonal (or populist) camp. Putting it simply, the modernist camp rejected on principle any music with elements that could be perceived as tonal, and the tonal (or populist) camp resented the modernists for their perceived hegemony. Both cared about pitch, but they approached pitch organization in different ways, and identified themselves on that basis. Now things have become more diffuse but also, in certain circles, more polarized. There is a branch of musical modernism, now sometimes referred to as research music, in which music comprises gestures or effects. Concurrently, there are composers whose harmonic language is strictly tonal -- who may not even go outside of a key signature in a given work. 

One of the defining features of a composer working now is how much pitch matters in his or her music. Pitch (or, in a broader sense, harmony)  -- even if it is not tonal - -can help provide a narrative basis to a composition. The narrative may be linear or non-linear, programmatic or abstract. Pitch has the ability to make a human connection. Harmony that uses a tonal orientation of some kind makes it easier for listeners to connect because it contains sounds they associate viscerally with a certain emotional response, tapping into a deep resonance.

Research music - - music based on a gesture or process, in which pitch is relatively arbitrary  - -might belong in the same category as the strictly tonal music being written today, because the approach to pitch isn't of core importance to the composer of either. Harmonically speaking, they are both coasting. Other elements (rhythm, texture) generate the narrative and the interest. Of course, it’s a matter of degree - -there is a continuum of different music within these aesthetic groupings.

If a composer desires to create something personal, then he or she must face the issue of pitch (or harmony) for themselves, head on. One must carve out one's place in that middle ground. If one is not developing one's personal use of pitch, one is avoiding the issues. The more nuanced and specific one's harmony is, the more personal one's works will sound. I find it challenging to work with students who write tonally and won't be coaxed into including pitches from modal or extended tonality. I approach this by trying to get them to write modally, doing exercises using synthetic scales, or composing with a limited pitch collection, trying to get them to understand that the tonally-oriented music that has entered the repertoire is, most of the time (although not always), more nuanced than a strictly diatonic collection.

It’s simplistic to reject research music. That branch has to be followed as far as it can go. The best of that music will likely incorporate a nuanced treatment of pitch. The ideal, as I envision it, is like a branch from a tree: if you cut it anywhere, you see its grain. Another beautiful analogy is one that a colleague presented me with in a recent conversation about aesthetics: if you cut up a composition and look at a tiny fragment, would you be able to tell it is yours? Certainly, in the case of a work by J.S. Bach, you would be able to tell.

In my music, the approach to embracing the issue of harmony is to develop an expanded tonality that is attentive to tonal implications even if it embraces many more pitches than the triad- - like a spectral array using overtones from over top, respecting the harmonic implications of the notes in the bass while building upwards to where one could use all twelve pitches. This approach relies upon seeking out quiet within daily life, playing the material on the piano as I develop it, listening to how it resonates, carefully refining the disposition of each simultaneity.

It is vital to me to let the ear lead, to remain cognizant of harmonic underpinnings even if my language is not strictly tonal - -to create a sonic landscape where both harmonies with tonal implications and more dissonant ones can co-exits healthily, symbiotically, infused with rhythmical life. The more “out” harmony I can do, but still have a unified piece, the happier I am these days. So you might get a 12-note cluster in the same piece that you have a tonally-oriented tune, but that makes sense to me. I’ve found that jazz theory (added chords, specifically) is one of the most helpful ways to conceptualize this use of extended harmony.

I’m drawn to working with sound masses - - complex, resonant, rich sonorities– and to finding ways for them to juxtapose dynamically with areas of translucence.  It’s easy to pile on sonority until it becomes texture. It’s harder to keep things transparent. Transparency, fluidity, and emotional directness are my goals. It’s important for concert-music composers writing now to value harmony greatly, and to cultivate their own specific use of it. It's also important not to be afraid of a good tune, and not to obfuscate by piling on sonority that is harmonically undefined, or has a vague structural role. My own process of cultivating a more and more nuanced and evolved harmonic language is a process of individuation– becoming more oneself.


Kati Agócs





Kati Agocs

with Olivia Sarai Beaser on January 13, 2012, the day after she was born

with Olivia Sarai Beaser on January 13, 2012, the day after she was born

An artist often fears that her creative life and career will take an enormous hit when she has a baby. No matter what discipline they are working in, new mothers who are concurrently building lives as artists share many similar challenges. Eighteen months after the birth of my daughter, my life as a composer is thriving, deepened by my family life.  It helps that I had a strong work ethic, and had refined many of my writing methods before she was born. But it hasn’t been easy. Here are ten things that worked for me in the first year.

1.     Get back to your creative work soon after you give birth. It’s harder if you wait.  While you obviously want to enjoy your baby to the fullest, in order to be a whole person and do your own work, you need discipline, whether you’re a creative or a re-creative artist. That discipline is strengthened by practice. Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re doing much, each time you work (or practice your instrument, or whatever it is you do) contributes to getting you on track.

2.     Feed the baby your own milk for six months or more. It builds the baby’s immune system, and you’ll have fewer interruptions and cancellations from him or her getting sick (not to mention amazing health benefits for them later in life). There are all sorts of ways to make this work, from traditional breast-feeding to pumping partially or exclusively.  As long as the baby gets your milk, the benefits are there.

3.     Find and cultivate people in your creative circle who have been there. Here is one important example: Line up a lactation consultant recommended by someone from within your circle a few months before your due date. Breast-feeding is easy for some people, but can be very difficult for others. If it’s your first child, you won’t know until a couple of days after your baby is born. Learning from sympathetic colleagues can even be a great networking opportunity.

4.     If you have to pump in order to feed your baby (like I did for at least some of the time!) be creative about it. Get one of those hands-free bras and get used to pumping at your desk. You can get those emails (and the other busywork for your professional life) done while knowing you’re doing the best for your baby.

5.     Get a jogging stroller. Life with a new baby is chaotic. Physical exercise makes you feel better about yourself, and helps you to gain control (or the illusion of it!), which contributes to building the discipline you need to do your work.

6.     Get comfortable with full-time child-care, if you can find a way to afford it. There are lots of debates about this, but remember that you are setting an example for your baby. I believe that your child seeing that you have a vocation can only be a positive thing. The only way to finish commissions and keep up your creative activity and presence anywhere near what it was before you had a baby is full time child-care. If you’re making money from your creative work, the returns will be higher in a shorter amount of time. In my experience the result is a baby who is very social, comfortable around people, but still loves her parents best!

7.     Integrate your baby into your creative life. Let yourself be inspired by the experience. Bring him or her to work occasionally, and let the people who know your work get to know her as well. People will see the whole you, and appreciate you more as an artist. Share your excitement about your work with your baby.

8.     Learn to ask for help. Many of us are extremely independent, accustomed to being in our own spaces and doing everything ourselves. You may have pulled a few all-nighters and handled some tough deadlines, but a baby is more challenging to take care of than anything you’ve done so far. You can’t handle this one on your own! Articulate your changing needs to your significant other. With family, find ways to let the new baby help redefine things that you were not happy about before. 

9.     Set small, realizable goals for the first year. For instance, I found it helpful to work on a slightly smaller scale. For me this meant song-length compositions instead of extended architectures. Longer structures were hard to fulfill both while pregnant and while sleep-deprived during the first year, because the brain has trouble maintaining and forging continuity. I know that this is a common phenomenon from talking with other composers who have given birth. Someone needs to do a scientific study on it.

10. Sing to your baby. It made me feel musical even when I was not working. This is wonderful for babies - -it trains their ears and gets them phonating, since they love to imitate what they hear. Soon your baby will be singing along with you. There may be no sounds in the world more beautiful.

-Kati Agócs (8/2013)

With Olivia, 7 years old, in May 2019

With Olivia, 7 years old, in May 2019