Monday, December 25, 2006

The 12 Days of Theory

To anybody who's ever been a music student and their teachers everywhere, some Christmas Cheer for this holiday break (something I presented to my own theory students long ago in a galaxy far, far away):

On the first day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
a mess in the figured bass.

On the second day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the third day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
Six foul inversions, FIVE PARALLEL FIFTHS!!!!!
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
seven rising sevenths, six foul inversions, FIVE PARALLEL FIFTHS!!!!!
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
eight bad suspensions, seven rising sevenths, six foul inversions,
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
nine tenors screaming, eight bad suspensions, seven rising sevenths, six foul inversions,
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
ten altos droning, nine tenors screaming, eight bad suspensions, seven rising sevenths, six foul inversions,
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
eleven basses leaping, ten altos droning, nine tenors screaming, eight bad suspensions, seven rising sevenths, six foul inversions,
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my students gave to me:
twelve rotten discords, eleven basses leaping, ten altos droning, nine tenors screaming, eight bad suspensions, seven rising sevenths, six foul inversions,
four tritones, three French sixths, two doubled thirds...
and a mess in the figured bass.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas Project 3: Ave Maria

With a few days before Christmas, composition has slowed down considerably, unfortunately, now that I’m back to work, but I managed to finish one layer of the opening section of this “Christmas Project” of mine I’ve been posting about, otherwise known generically as “A Christmas Story” for lack of a better working title (see previous two posts). There’s a narration (sung by a tenor soloist) which is one line, and there’s the voice of the angel (sung by a high soprano soloist) which is another line that leads into a setting of the Ave Maria (sung by a three-part men’s chorus) which then continues as other lines and layers resume or begin: there will be a mezzo-soprano solo singing a verse of the Magnificat which will overlap with a chant-like setting of another verse of the Magnificat in the women’s voices. These weave in and out of each other in the course of this “Advent” section I've been working on.

Here, basically, is the “Ave Maria” written out as best I could manage without spending lots of time in this notepad software I’m trying out just for examples on the blog. Here’s the first verse which opens with the chant-like “incipit” sung by tenors:

Here’s the second verse which opens with a comparable “incipit” sung by baritones:

Though it’s not part of the Ave Maria text, I close the section with the men singing the Doxology, which essentially becomes the second half of Verse 2:

In this sense, it becomes (musically) a two-part form but with slight alterations between the first and second parts, primarily in the final cadence.

The whole thing uses three hexachords: 6-8 (which is the Angel’s six-note ‘set’ of pitches), 6-20 (which is associated with God or heaven) and 6-30 (with earthly or human associations). The chords are not, basically, standard triads but combinations of pitches that mix major and minor 2nds and more open intervals like 4ths and 5ths (the occasional tritone or augmented 4th), with less prominent major or minor 3rds, differently than one hears them in a standard major or minor triad. So it comes as a surprise to hear – at the end of each part – a progression of standard triads, but not exactly in a standard progression. The first verse cadences from an A Major to an E-flat Major triad. In the Doxology, on the words “Holy Ghost,” what should be A Major to E-flat like the first verse becomes a deceptive resolution from A Major to F Minor (from the set, 6-20), extending the phrase which then ends with a progression of four chords: B Minor to F Minor, A Major now resolving to E-flat Major, each pair of chords a worldly tritone apart and each pair the complement of the other – in all, a progression of four chords consisting of all 12 chromatic notes of the scale.

These three segments are placed to fit into the overall structure of the other layers: together, they make the whole, but the Ave Maria, for example, exists individually as a complete unit in itself. If counterpoint is the juxtaposition of melodic lines against each other to create (vertical) harmony out of their (linear) melodies, I’m doing the same thing here but with complete little pieces.

I had done this, on a more complex scale, thirty years ago when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut and writing a piece for the excellent choir we had there. Called “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” it set two different texts in three different languages and styles: and it was also spaced around the auditorium. On stage were the women’s voices singing a rather English (quasi-Britten) style setting of the Nunc dimittis in English with two soprano soloists who sang lines from Walt Whitman. In the stage-left balcony was a small madrigal choir singing the Nunc dimittis in Latin (but with changing meters and independent of the choir on stage). In the stage-right balcony was the men’s choir singing the Nunc dimittis in Russian in a style more similar to Penderecki in the 1970s: not only was it stylistically independent of the others, it was in a wholly different tempo! Along with this was a brass quintet and a vibraphone: the vibraphone was on stage with the two soloists and the horn on stage with the women’s choir, but the tenor trombone was up with the madrigal choir on the left and the bass trombone with the men on the right. At the very end, the two trumpets came in from the very back of the hall for the benediction.

Not only was it a polyphonic piece with different layers (instead of just lines) moving independently, it was a poly-stylistic and poly-temporal piece that required three conductors. As complex as it sounds, it all fit together very well and sounded great (though I only heard it from my place, conducting the men’s choir in the balcony: I was the only one who could conduct 1/4 note = 45 against the main conductor’s 1/4 note = 60). More amazing, to me, was the fact that on that Thanksgiving morning back in 1976, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do but not sure how to go about it: by dinner time that evening, the entire piece was complete! So it’s annoying to realize now I’m trying to work out something infinitely simpler but it’s taking several weeks just to get started and who knows how long to complete! (Ah, those were the days, my friend...)

This new piece, however, is nowhere near as complicated as all that: everything works comfortably for one conductor: anything that might sound like it’s a different tempo will be written out in the general one-conductor tempo. And in two weeks, I have about 2 minutes of it done. But at least, it’s a start. Now we’ll see whether I get any more done as Christmas comes and, eventually, goes...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Christmas Project Part 2

As the saying goes, “what a difference a day makes,” no to mention taking the age-old advice about sleeping on it. Most writers and probably a good many composers will tell you the benefit of “sleeping on a problem.” Somehow, the subconscious works things out in your sleep so when you awake the next morning, suddenly there’s the solution that had been so elusive the night before.

Of course, it also helped to feel brighter and refreshed the next morning, too (despite the fact I was up till 3am blogging), even though I still would not consider myself a morning person. Over the years, I find I am less able to do creative work at night – even blogging goes more smoothly in the morning, something I dislike because it takes away so much of what little creative time there is in my schedule. Working second shift at the station, I often find programming and research there can go much better after I’m off the air, but that uses, I guess, a different part of the brain, though in a way it’s creative, too, just in a different way.

Anyway, on Saturday morning, things in general just looked better: not to so much what I’d written and scribbled over and crossed out the night before, but that I now saw things that I could do and – wait, that looks kind of interesting, so if I... YES! That note, that’s the one – it works! I must have filled three pages with attempts at finding that note – and all I did, really, was take one note in this chord and exchange it for one note in that chord: not only did it sound better, the harmonies it created worked much better (or rather, worked period!) theoretically as well as just sounded better.

(My apologies for all the technical mumble-jumble that follows: I know it’s about as exciting as reading computer programming texts for non-Geeks or all those blah-blah EULAs or whatever they’re called – you know, the on-line agreements for your downloaded free software that you never scroll all the way down to find out that the third Tuesday of every month is your day to go clean out Bill Gates’ cat-litter boxes, right? But bear with me: if it’s not your thing and your eyes are already rolling, check in later for another post.)

What I’d started with was this, the opening chords from the 2003 sketch:

It doesn’t really do anything and doesn’t present a lot of potential. It may have been one reason why I suddenly stopped working on it a couple of weeks later: it wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t feel like I wanted to take the time to sort it out. At the time, I was working on the Symphony and what I was looking for was some seasonal relaxation, not another major complication!

Thinking back to the magical sound that opens one of my favorite works (and one that I first discovered in high school), I decided to get out my score of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” (yes, after going into New York City to see two different productions at the Met and at City Opera, I broke down and bought the full score, convinced that $100, these days, really was a bargain for such a masterpiece...) and check out the first two chords which represent the “Voice of God” calling out of the Burning Bush.

They’re just two parallel major 7ths a whole step apart: it’s the middle note that defines them, gives them their “color.”

I didn’t want to use the same ones (and wanted them to start on different pitches, anyway), just use them as a kind of reference point and a kind of ‘hommage’ – my first attempt (see ex.3a above) made a subtle alteration: the first of the two Schoenberg chords consists of 4ths – well, officially a Perfect 5th which is the inversion of a Perfect 4th and a tritone or augmented 4th (the “Devil in Music” as they always say – at least that’s how they described it centuries ago) – and the second one is built on 3rds, basically: a minor 3rd below the top note, but also a minor 6th (the inversion of a Major 3rd) above the lower note. My first chords are just based on 3rds – a 3rd below the top note and then, symmetrically, a 3rd above the bottom note for the second chord. Eh... However, if I just switch those two inner notes, I get two very different sonorities, going back to the first of Schoenberg’s chords: this time, they’re both based on Perfect 4ths and Tritones, and have a more open and, I thought, more interesting sonority for what I was looking for.

That was when things started to roll.

Anyway, I’m writing a Christmas Piece, okay? This is supposed to be, I guess, the Voice of God sending the Angel Gabriel to Nazareth to tell Mary the Good News. So how can I have intervals like “The Devil in Music” in God’s Chords? Hmmmm...

Now, it’s curious, but composers have often dealt with symbolism in their selections of chords and pitches and keys – I mentioned in the last post the idea of using E-flat and A Major chords because of the three flats or sharps in their respective key signatures representing The Trinity and I have to admit that’s really simplistic: I mean, shouldn’t all religious pieces then be in either E-flat or A Major? Regardless, I thought I should use something a little less dependent on the tritone, at least for these particular chords.

I also wanted to find some kind of “contrapuntal” symmetry beyond just two chords sitting there on a piece of paper. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how those two chords from the Burning Bush actually ignited Schoenberg's whole opera, just from those six notes – well, okay, not a whole opera, since he never figured out how to end the opera: he stopped working at it after the end of the 2nd Act, but that’s another issue.

So I have two chords (now transposed to begin on E-flat in the bass) – six pitches, which is a hexachord of a particular number of notes and intervals. Allen Forte labels this one 6-Z42. Its complement – the other six pitches – will either be the inversion of the first six or some other form from a closely-related hexachord (represented in Forte’s language as a Z-related pair), in this case, 6-Z13. By arranging these six notes into two pairs of three – two sub-motives or linear cells – I got an arpeggiated chord similar to the harmony: instead of perfect 4ths & tritones, it’s a major 7th with a minor third below the top note and a major 7th with a minor third above the lower note: now I have both sonorities from Schoenberg’s Burning Bush. Curiously, I found that the linear aspect of each set produced 6-Z13/42 but looking harmonically at it, the first 3 notes of the upper line and the first chord produced a different set: 6-5. Because they’re symmetrical, the second 3 notes and its chord is the first one’s complement.

Now, one set of six notes and some other set of six notes could be related by the number of pitches or the number of intervals they have in common – or perhaps, don’t have in common. In this case, the relationship between 6-5 and 6-Z13/42 is kind of weak. I wanted to find something stronger. Or more outstanding.

A few transfigurations later and I’ve changed the opening chords a little and found different notes for the upper line. But now it started evolving into other possibilities: Schoenberg used to call his style a “continuous variation” where everything grows organically out of a set of notes, one way or another. In this next example, I found I could take the six notes of the harmony (lower line) and stretch them out linearly in the 2nd half of the example (ignore the rhythms, it was only for spacing), and then also take the first half’s upper line and bunch them together in three-note chords. They look pretty different from each other but they’re really “the same.” This is one way a composer can get variety and yet still maintain “unity.” On a less artistic level, we might just call it “getting more mileage.”

Now, another transformation (see below) shows this contrapuntal harmony/linear thing: while the vertical analysis of the 12 pitches is still a form of 6-Z13/42, the linear analysis – the upper line and then the lower line – create a new set, 6-20.

This is a very curious set. First of all, most of these groupings of pitches can be transposed to start on any note of the chromatic scale, each of which can, usually, be inverted to create a slightly different collection. But here, there are only four such transpositions possible with 6-20 before it starts duplicating itself. This sense of limitation intrigued me: more intriguing was the fact it’s almost entirely made up of major and minor thirds and minor (but not major) seconds – and no tritones! It is a set that is also known as “Genus tertium” which basically means “Third Race” but which I was looking at (since it seems to do this on its own) as a “generator of thirds,” which is basically what I liked about it: the symbolism of the Trinity and the fact it had no “devil in the music.”

But the relation between 6-Z13/42 and 6-20 was even weaker than it was with 6-5. Could I find something better? Then I arbitrarily took one pitch in one segment and interchanged it with one pitch in the other segment and got this:

...which doesn’t seem vastly different. But it creates not only a different vertical sonority, it creates a set with a much more striking relationship with the linear sonority, 6-20. Now, 6-30, the new set, is one that’s closely related to 6-Z13/42, but what I found so interesting was that there is an almost minimal amount of pitches and intervals in common between these two sets. It struck me as odd, in my naive way of looking at things, to think that two sets that are hardly related at all could actually coexist in the same musical passage.

But this was what got me going: 6-20 was one principal set with its own intervalic sonorities, and 6-30 was another one which, if you look carefully, consists of three tritones! The D-flat in the upper voice & the G in the first chord; the A & the E-flat in the bass; the C and the F-sharp. So now I had a new symbolism to go by: 6-20 was my spiritual realm (if not specifically God’s Voice) and 6-30 was my earthly realm (if only to have God’s Word [or Music] made flesh).

And from there, I was scribbling away.

Now granted, after an 8-hour day on Saturday and a nearly 10-hour day composing on Sunday – including a successful late-night shift for two hours before midnight – and a less successful but still productive day on Monday, you’d think I’d have more than about 28 measures done by the time I had to go back to work at the end of my vacation Tuesday afternoon. But I prefer to judge it on the quality of that productivity rather than its quantity and the realization that, whether a listener could hear some of these relationships or not (it’s arguable that most listeners today are aware of the fairly obvious ones in traditional tonal music whether they’re listening to Beethoven or the Beatles), this makes it inherently a stronger (if not a better) piece, one that sounds better to me and one that makes more theoretic or logical sense, as well.

If nothing else, the past few days have been exciting just to realize how quickly I was able to get myself, somehow, over the hump that was so depressing on Thursday night when I was almost ready to chuck the whole piece (again). But a little more perspiration helped ignite a little bit of inspiration and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done so far, 28 measures (just shy of 2 minutes) all coming out of those first six notes.

And just in time: I wanted to use this week’s vacation to get a good strong start on this new piece, whether I finish it in six weeks or six months. I needed to get this much down now because, as I mentioned before, the upstairs apartment has been empty for almost a month. Who knows who the new neighbors will be, if their schedule will work with mine so I can compose uninterrupted or without being self-conscious of disturbing them (what a treat to think “It’s midnight, but I can go compose at the piano now because there’s no one upstairs to worry about waking up!”). The “For Rent” sign came down today: I have no idea who it will be or when they’ll move in, but at least I got a good week’s worth of work in beforehand.

And tomorrow is another day: at least I can still work in the mornings, for a while longer.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Christmas Project

Three years ago, something inspired me at Christmas time to begin writing a Christmas piece. I usually don’t get “into” the Christmas Holiday Spirit until Christmas Day itself, if I’m lucky, given the incessant barrage of commercialism that is commonly mistaken for Christmas these days (when someone says “don’t you wish Christmas could last all year long,” I look at them and say in my best curmudgeonly graveltones, having seen Christmas ornaments for sale in mid-September and hearing Christmas carols in the stores in mid-November, “don’t you think it does already?”). In past lives, after spending the 4th of July weekend orchestrating Christmas carols for symphony concerts and then programming WITF’s Christmas music by mid-October when the listings still appeared in the magazine – different times, now, different deadlines – I was pretty much sick of Christmas by the time Black Friday even showed up on the horizon. I still get out my Bah Humbug scarf, but this year I was wearing it a week earlier since, for all intents and purposes, the shopping season that is the equivalent of Lent had likewise begun earlier.

So last week, sorting through some papers piled up on the piano, I found the sketches I had begun that Christmas Day of 2003 and wondered what possessed me to do this and then, just as quickly, abandon it. This was not, like “The Christmas Carillon” of the mid-80s, a collection of familiar carols I’d arranged: it was my own version of what would become “The Christmas Story.” Having just seen the Waverly Consort’s medieval version of “The Christmas Story” again (at Gretna Music’s Leffler Chapel performance on Dec. 2nd), it occurred to me I should come back to this and see what I can make of it. I have been wanting to get back to writing something vocal or choral again after several years of purely instrumental and largely abstract music – the scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians not likely to materialize – and certainly, ‘tis the season. Plus, I needed to take a break from the violin and piano “Blues” piece: it was just getting to me, after a while. It’s done, mostly, but I’ll get back to it in January.

Another reason, not to be taken too lightly: my upstairs neighbors had moved out last month and the apartment is still empty. So before new tenants arrive, I have this rare opportunity for an expanse of quietude that I should take advantage of, getting some serious work done on a new piece. Even though it was inconvenient to take vacation time on short notice, I was able to work out a week off, much of which can be spent composing. I set about reacquainting myself with these three-year-old sketches.

One of the things I liked about them was the different texts and overlapping elements of the story. Given my preference for arch-forms and subdivisions according to the Golden Section, there was not much needed to convince me to consider taking this up again: there are seven sections around the central panel that would basically be a meditation on the Holy Family and the text, possibly, “Hodie Christus natus est (This day Christ is born)” – bounded by the Gloria of the Angels and the visit of the Shepherds on one side, then by the visit of the Three Kings and the scene at Herod’s Court on the other side. The Nativity scene and the Birth of Christ (“O magnum mysterium”) is balanced on the other side of the graph by the Slaying of the Innocents (reworking the same material as the lament on the death of the children, “Vox in Rama”). The opening segment for Advent, covering the Annunciation of the Archangel with its “Ave Maria” and “Magnificat” is balanced by the concluding “Nunc dimittis,” St. Simeon’s prayer when Jesus is presented at the temple (“Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”). It’s all very neat, reminding me of an icon screen in several panels, self-contained musical images of the story, complete with the narration of an Evangelist (in the old Baroque sense of the term).

If I could map out the structure with its various details, I could then “fill in the notes” at a later time, the way a painter might outline the figures and their placement in the foreground before going back to paint in the details of the background, the features of the faces, the colors of the clothes and so on. With any luck, if I can get the Advent portion done before Christmas, work on the Nativity and the Shepherd and the Holy Family’s panels ON Christmas, sketch out the Kings by Epiphany (first week of January) and then the conclusion (later in the month, perhaps), I might be able to have enough to go on to get the work done before summer, not that it might be ready to perform at Christmas 2007. On the other hand, considering I could just as easily do one segment per year – or every three years, the way it’s been going – I’m only hoping I can get it to jump off the drawing board before another decade has passed...

It’s scored for fairly light forces – so far, at least: I’m thinking primarily in terms of organ, since I’m not inclined to get into a large chorus-and-orchestra piece, here. While the Evangelist appears throughout and would ordinarily be a tenor (I’m wondering about using different voices at different segments), there are two incidental solos in this opening section: a high soprano who would sing the wordless “angel solo” that is counterpoint to the recitative describing the appearance of Gabriel to Mary; and a mezzo who then sings the Magnificat in Part 1 (I’m not sure if these solos will continue with any crucial roles in subsequent sections or not). It is primarily a work for chamber choir and so could be done in a church as part of a concert or a non-liturgical service.

The narration becomes one layer with the voice of the angel (wordless) and then the men’s voices singing a chant-like Ave Maria (the angel’s words), three layers in all. Having mapped out the text’s syllables according to the Golden Section (and not surprisingly discovered that each of the texts I’d chosen so far divide fairly well according to these natural proportions), these were then mapped onto the overall structure of the piece, placing certain points to match the individual texts’ structures and arranging them in such a way the climaxes of the Evangelist’s narration (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive”) and the first verse of the “Ave Maria” coincide on the word “Jesus” in a luminous E-flat major triad. At this point, the Magnificat (in English in the mezzo solo) begins and at the climax of the first verse, the women’s voices begin singing the second verse (in Latin), so the two overlap, each continuing under the narration. At the end of the segment, the men’s voices return with the Doxology, chanted to a progression of four triads that will include all twelve pitches before cadencing on E-flat.

While my basic language may not sound traditionally tonal (I’ve posted about this before), it will, at points, open up into standard major and minor triads, though not used in the traditional tonal ways. My “tonic” and “dominant” keys are tritone-related, so the E-flat Major of the opening is answered by the A Major of the central panel. Just as Bach or Mozart might have worked with musical symbolism, I’ve chosen these two keys for the trinity of flats or sharps in their respective key signatures: coincidentally, the birth of Jesus will occur in pure, unadulterated C Major (without sharps or flats, a kind of virgin key, if you will) like a burst of light; the death of the Holy Innocents will focus around a darker F-sharp minor (three sharps). That, basically, is my tonal scheme, before the final segment’s return to E-flat Major.

Unfortunately, it took longer than I had hoped to do what I thought might be fairly mechanical mapping. It was like each text was suddenly fluid and I could expand or contract them proportionally according to how well they might place on the framework. So many possibilities! It was like writing out the rhythms and textures of the piece before even thinking about a specific pitch, finding out how much space between this text and that text, or where this overlap should begin and what the organ might be doing here or there (thinking in terms of “gestures”).

This was finished on the third day of my vacation which has, unfortunately, turned into a kind of half-sick/half-working holiday as I try to rest my back after Thanksgiving’s move and try to get rid of the headaches that have been bothering me for the past week. It has been difficult to concentrate, even though I was only working a few hours in the morning and then a few hours again in the evening. Today, finally getting down to the last basic preparatory phase – what collection of pitches will be the basic source-set for the notes that go onto this framework? – nothing satisfactory was coming up and everything else started acting up until I found myself annoyed by, for instance, the ticking of a clock in another room, the refrigerator running out in the kitchen, the neighbor Doberman barking incessantly (honestly, he’ll bark almost constantly for 20 minutes and then take 10 minutes off, just like a union break, off and on for most of the day) and the rushing sound that is probably only the blood flowing through my head.

Looking at the notes I’d written three years ago to open the piece, they didn’t seem (pardon the pun) pregnant enough, lacking developable ideas and not creating the relationships between pitch-sets I would like to have, now. Ironically, what I had was similar to the opening chords of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, one of my favorite works, that magical sonority that begins the opera with the Voice of God out of the Burning Bush. By reworking my two chords, prefacing the arrival of the Archangel, I managed something closer to Schoenberg’s sonority, more by way of homage rather than plagiarism. This may have created a greater pressure than I needed because everything from here on out couldn’t measure up to the homage. Finally, I had to put the pen down and go do something else. Tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Blues Interruptus

Sorry there haven’t been many new posts recently: the Move at the Station has taken up a lot of time and, mostly, energy, and though I have managed to complete the rough draft of the “Blues Interruptus” scherzo for the violin & piano pieces, I hadn’t taken the time to transcribe it into the Finale NotePad to post here. But when the back-ache and the head-ache and the buzzing in the ears from the new building’s insidious “white noise” masking system preclude any creativity today, it’s something I can do and still feel moderately productive.

This is the “recap” of the A-Section Blues from my last post. It’s a condensed version, not a literal restatement and, unlike the traditional A-B-A tonal scheme, starts elsewhere in the scheme of things before returning to the “expected” tonal centers (I hesitate using the term “key” since it will only confuse people who are too literal in the old definitions of things). I use “centers” in the plural, also, because the violin is in one center (basically B) while the piano is in another (basically A-flat) – thank you, Darius Milhaud, for inspiring a little bit of poly-centricity...

I’m not keen on a lot of literal or mechanical repetition or, more accurately, restatement – finding our way around a 19th Century sonata form relies on our ability to remember themes and different details, to whatever extent we’re capable: this explains why the exposition is repeated, to reinforce the principal material. In something that evolves more organically, it relies on shapes and patterns rather than themes and modulations to assist the listener's memory. So the problem here was coming up with recognizable fragments of the opening blues segment with recognizable signposts along the way, condensed yet keeping the idea of some kind of linear melodic flow in the violin part while the pianist chugs along with the chords: cadences are reached but are never really “closed,” always pushing ahead with new elements and degrees of tension. But there are linear shapes we are used to – either from the traditional blues style or the patterns we’d heard earlier – that signal “here’s a phrase-cadence” and so on.

This excerpt begins with the end of the B-Section’s “rock interruption,” a pattern which sneaks in at the very end, once more, where the violinist, figuratively speaking, gives up with a kind of Neapolitan “oh well” tag and one last “uh huh” chord in the piano with added tones, all still based on the same hexachords. In the A-Sections, fore and aft, all the violin’s material comes from the inversion of 6-Z47 which is a blues scale pattern; all the chords in the piano are either 6-Z47 (prime or inversion) or its complement, 6-Z25 (prime or inversion).

There are still a few minor details to work out and some notational things that Finale NotePad isn’t designed to do that a pencil on paper can still do better (or more clearly), but that’s basically it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Blues Monday on a Wednesday

This past Monday, I managed to finish transcribing the opening section of the Scherzo -- the middle section is basically done already. So here's my "take" on The Blues. Remember, I'm not trying to write genuine Blues or imitate Gershwin (that's a little out of my league), just trying to absorb it into my own style. This may be a little different than my original scratchings.

The violin part may sound bluesy, even if it begins to lose track of the tonality and the 12-bar structure fairly quickly (it is, after all, a scherzo), and the piano part may sound fairly bluesy with its repeated chord patterns (if you let your imagination roam), but together they probably sound like two guys in a smoky bar who've started to improvise but haven't really figured out which planet they're on.

The tempo is fairly relaxed (quarter note = 90 according to the ol' metrognome). There are a couple of "uh oh" and "oh yeah" chords in the piano part I need to figure out, and the pedal pattern continues throughout the piano's chords, too. But basically, this is it:

and so on...

I wasn't trying to pay hommage to or imitate Ravel's Violin Sonata, either -- rather than embrace it, I thought about just devouring it and moving on. The trick is, now, moving on to the next paragraph. One of the tricks is the interruption of the "rock-n-roll" motive in that next-to-last measure before the pianist gets back on track, as if "oops, sorry, another phrase to go, sorry." Then he ends up restarting on the wrong beat: should I have the violinist continuing adamantly in the strict meter or should I have him drop a beat, too? Maybe a little later.

Today was going to be the day to break through the bar-line to the next paragraph, but it didn't turn out to be a good day, creatively speaking: there were five things about concentration that just gave me the writin'-the-blues blues...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Springing Forward, Falling Back: Cloud Atlas, resumed

It was a cold windy sometimes rainy almost-November kind of day yesterday and I didn’t feel like composing – or doing much of anything – when I woke up, oversleeping and already squandering my extra overnight hour. In effect I actually did “fall behind”... but it was one of those great days to curl up in a comfy chair and read, surrounded by cats.

Though not reading every day – or not much at a time, at that – I slowly worked my way through David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” I would like to read more or spend more time reading, yet my “to read” pile isn’t getting any smaller as I try to get caught up on the one’s I’ve already bought. How many times have I seen something that I just had to buy now and then realize it’s out in paperback before I’d even cracked the cover? It’ll probably be made into a film by the time I’d actually get around to it, the way things are going. Time, I’m telling myself, needs to be spent composing – I’ve got the back burner warming up faster than I can manage the front one – and sometimes the only thing reading does is stoke that burner even more.

One book still on the pile is the paperback edition of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel (The Fates of Human Societies)” (what would Lynn Truss say about that second comma in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” another book further down on the pile). Diamond's book had already been made into a PBS Documentary which I missed (no TV set and I work evenings so who can watch TV even if it is worth watching?) but I read that Diamond’s recounting the fall of the Moriori society, a gentle tribe conquered by the war-like Maori of New Zealand, inspired an episode in the first of the six stories making up Mitchell’s novel, “Cloud Atlas.”

At first, this just seemed to be the setting for a sea-faring adventure story (or part of one) and not much else. The second story was about a young composer working for (and stealing from) an old composer (much like the story of Frederic Delius – there’s a wonderful scene between the fictional old composer and the old factual Edward Elgar, chatting by the fireplace). The third was a mystery of anti-nuclear activism in the 1970s. The fourth, a comedy, pitted a publisher against a client’s rowdy relatives (though his own proved a more serious concern). The fifth took a while for me to get into, set in some future society, a science-fiction interview with a clone created to be a fast-food server (turns out, this one was inspired by “Fast Food Nation”).

The stories are told without much immediate background: you figure out where you are or what has happened almost in passing. If you are familiar with some names and languages, it doesn’t take long to figure out Sonmi-451 is a clone in Korea or what had once been Korea – it is now a corpocracy run by a dictator with a society dominated by the cloning of “fabricants” whose purpose is to serve the people (“purebloods”). Describing modern-day workers in a typical fast food restaurant as personality-devoid clones is clever, but it becomes scarier as you realize some of these clones actually begin to achieve elements of human awareness and development (no comment, thank you) and this, the people find frightening: the clone-type Sonmi was designed to clean tables and assist at the register, but the one known as Sonmi #451 is abducted by one political or social faction for use in scientific research, then presumably is captured by police from the opposite faction and about to be executed for her “ascendancy” into knowledge considered far too dangerous for a mere fabricant. A reference to hunting on the island of Hokkaido in Eastern Korea (if you know that Hokkaido is the northern island of Japan) or a passing reference to a scientist who specializes in dealing with the American boat-people problem gives you a sense of what has happened to the world’s balance, especially chilling given the current situation with North Korea’s recent nuclear test (the novel was published in 2004) and the less recent scandal about the South Korean university scientist who had claimed to have cloned human embryos in early 2004. It is now a land where society is even more divided by class and privilege than we care not to think about now, and where clones designed for specific tasks (and treated as sub-human slaves) are given names like models of cars but where the generic word for car is ford, where people view their world and communicate through an internet-like device called a sony, where they wear nikes rather than shoes, and where movies are called disneys. It is an act of sedition to read old books or view old movies, and it is while watching a classic 21st Century film – very old – about a British publisher (from a deadland far away and long ago) imprisoned against his will in a nursing home that Sonmi-451's story reaches its climax. Just as the old movie gets stuck where the protagonist is eating peas and realizing his predicament, the police burst in to arrest Sonmi-451. The previous story, by the way, ended abruptly as the British publisher, discovering he has been imprisoned in a nursing home from which there is no escape, realized his predicament in the midst of eating peas: very clever, turning this comic moment into a double cliff-hanger.

I thought, throughout the fifth story, how clever everything was, but cleverness is not art. It may be good story telling (and in this case, it was) but I’m not sure this really IS more than a collection of stories.

In a previous post, I blogged about the book’s structure, how the Golden Section of the book occurs where the sixth story ends and the other five stories resume but continue in reverse order. The sixth story is the only one not divided into two parts, with or without a cliff hanger. It was in the midst of this one I began realizing the continuing thread between the stories: not the seemingly incidental strands of a character here, a birthmark there or a work of art passing from one generation to another but the theme that is also behind Diamond’s book – the ways in which civilized societies create their own downfall.

Set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii generations after “the Fall,” this is the story told in a future dialect by Zachary, a valleyman on the Big Island of Hawaii, of the differences and difficulties of their civilization living with the ignorant savages of the north and the brutal barbarians, known as the Kona, of the eastern side of the island. Zachary’s people look down on the Hawi because they believe in a god for everything, unlike his own people who believe in one god named Sonmi (she has gone from being a fast-food clone to a goddess, though the valleymen are completely unaware of her early history). As he approaches manhood, Zachary receives a dream from Sonmi which the local leader interprets as three things he would be tempted to do but must not do.

Into Zachary’s village comes one of the Prescients, a mysterious dark-skinned tribe from a distant northern island who seem to have maintained the magic and wisdom of the world from before the Fall. This woman is there to study their life but Zachary is convinced she’s a spy sent to learn their secrets so the Prescients can conquer them, so he is determined to destroy her. Near the end of her stay, after he’s changed his mind about the Prescient outlander, he is tempted by the realization he could still easily destroy her, whether it’s his old customs and faith speaking to him or the devil (who’s known here as Old Georgie). At the point he decides to go against this temptation, remembering the first of the things from Sonmi’s Dream, the story takes a strong turn: it is not the “climax” of the crucial resolving event but it is the defining event that determines the nature of the ensuing climax.

That was when I decided to figure out where the Golden Section of this chapter would be: a little bit of math and guess what? It’s on the very same page as the story’s “defining moment.” The half-way point (which some might think could be significant) is only eight pages earlier, but that’s in the middle of a stretch of narrative that is not terribly decisive as far as the dramatic development is concerned. It’s that conscious decision of the narrator’s not to destroy the Prescient that changes the story, and that is structurally significant – and it occurs at the story’s Golden Section. Coincidence? Hmmm...

Now, the fact the end of this “last” story occurs at the novel’s Golden Section is more, I discover, than just the point where the stories resume in reverse order. Somewhere I’d read a critic who complained the ending of the novel lacked the kind of neat revelation tying all of these stories together, but I realize now he missed the boat, quite literally – that moment is not at the end of the novel – well, in the last pages of the book you’re reading: it’s at the end of the sixth story, at which point the previous stories, each having been dramatically interrupted only to resume in reverse order, turn back to the first story set on a Pacific Ocean journey of the 1850s, picking up where the ship’s crew is dealing with a “savage” from the islands of the Moriori who has stowed away hoping to reach America. The first story was told by Adam Ewing; this last one, by Zachary – we’ve gone from A to Z – and back again.

Zachary’s story, told as an old man spinning his tale to a young audience, describes his discovery that the Prescient woman had an egg-like device that, when warmed by the hands, revealed the image of a beautiful young woman talking in a language he could not understand that also allowed people to converse through sound and images across great distances. The beautiful young woman, he is told, is the historical Sonmi, giving her pre-execution interview recorded in Story #5. After some discussion about the rise and fall of civilizations (here, btw, is the main theme), the Prescient reveals she has just discovered a plague has wiped out all of her people except the five who have been studying the islands of Hawaii: in order to save her, Zachary must help her escape to reach the others, now gathered on Maui (why Maui? remember the Moriori and the Maori) just as the Kona barbarians have embarked on their war to conquer and enslave all the people on the Big Island, killing or carrying off all of Zachary’s people.

Once Zachary has concluded his tale, having survived the Kona’s attacks and escaped with the Prescient to Maui, a short postlude is offered by his son. Does he believe his father’s yarns about escaping the Big Island? Well, he explains, “most yarnin’s got a bit o’ true, some yarnin’s got some true, an’ a few yarnin’s got a lot o’ true.” He gathers much of it about the Prescient was true, because after he died, the son found the egg-like device where the “beautsome ghost-girl appears in the air an’ speaks in an Old-Un tongue what no un alive und’stands nor never will, nay. It ain’t Smart [ancient technology] you can use ‘cos it don’t kill Kona pirates” [in one generation they have evolved from being land to sea-faring marauders attacking the other islands] “nor fill empty guts,” but he tells how in the evenings sometimes, they’ll wake up the ghost-girl ”jus’ to watch her hoverin’n’shimm’rin’” because she’s beautiful and it amazes the little ones.

“Sit down a beat or two,” he says.

“Hold out your hands.


And then you turn the page to begin reading the rest of the first five stories in reverse order, taking you back to the old ship’s tale about the stowaway from the Moriori tribe escaping his ruined homeland.

It would be standard operating procedure to tell the future of human civilization in a series of interlocking stories that move in a logical, chronological progression. It is “clever” to tell them in such a way the end of the story actually happens in the middle of the book, as it were, and then have them unfold in a reverse order taking you back to the beginning of the story where it concludes. It is art to come up with an ending like that which so neatly wraps up the novel’s themes and sets you up to react entirely differently, now, to each preceding story’s conclusion, reading in the light of already knowing the outcome. These stories are like Sonmi’s egg – whether you understand them or not is not the point, but I will sit down and spend part of today resuming that journey.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Cloud Patterns

The past week, I’ve tried to catch up on a little reading after getting home from work. I’ve been going through different translations of Aeschylus’ “The Persians” which piqued the interest of my cats until they found out it is, at almost 2500 years, the oldest surviving drama in Western literature and has nothing at all to do with long-haired cats. I was having trouble finding enough lines from the Queen’s various laments to come up with a potential concert aria, thinking of writing something for the voice again after all these years. But then I really don’t need to heat up the back burner with anything just yet. To counteract this “creative reading,” I polished off the first volume of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in a few nights, and not even the idea of writing a duet for Zaphod Beeblebrox could entice me into anything even remotely operatic.

One of the books I’d cracked briefly during the summer, given the fact I may only read for an hour or so at night, kept shuffling itself to the top of this growing pile of new and as yet largely unread books: again, several people had recommended it to me and I had rummaged across the first few pages one night at the bookstore – a frequent weekend haunt – feeling perhaps I needed more time to dedicate to concentrated reading for David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” It’s earned high praise from many including those who like complex and often obtuse books. The main reason it was recommended to me concerns one aspect of the novel: it’s about a composer.

Well, 1/6th of it is about a composer. The author described it as a kind of “Russian nesting doll,” the famous Matryoshka dolls: you open it to find a smaller doll inside it that has another, even smaller one inside that one and so on until you’re down to some very tiny dolls that can be lined up in a tall-to-short sequence. Mitchell’s novel consists of six stories each set in a different time and written in a different style. To call these six stories interlocking may be a stretch – so far, the only connection I've seen is the reference to the previous one in an almost tangential way, clever but hardly a major plot element. It begins with a Robinson Crusoe-esque moment from the midst of a journal kept during a Pacific Ocean voyage during the 1850s, written in a style straight out of Melville’s “Moby Dick” (which, ironically, I had begun reading again over the summer). The second story is a series of letters written by a young composer in Belgium between the Wars, working for an old, syphilitic composer: while fleecing the old man of some rare books found in his library, he happens upon part of a journal written during a Pacific Ocean voyage in the 1850s, which appears to have been split in two and would explain the rather abrupt ending to the first story which cuts off mid-sentence. The third story (which I have now just begun) starts with the appearance 40 years later of the man the letters of the 2nd story were written to, setting off a noir-style mystery set in California in the 1970s. From there, it progresses to someone trying to sell this mystery to an ill-fated book dealer in #4 and so on, each one left incomplete until the 6th story, the futuristic ramblings of a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian. At that point, then, the remainder of each of these stories is told but in reverse order so it concludes – if that’s the proper use of the word – with the next segment of the ship’s journal from 1850.

As a composer always thinking how a piece of music is written, I’m also interested in how a novel is put together, too: are there parallel structures to music? Most often, a novel tells a story in the same “way” stories have been told for centuries: you begin at or near the beginning and end at or near the conclusion, and you don’t really veer from the chronological path except by way of devices like “flash-backs” or subsidiary plots to illuminate the main story.
Novels that do fall into that category, however, risk becoming “predictable” and yet if they become too unpredictable risk disappoint readers who are expecting certain things to happen in certain ways, depending on the genre or style.

Novels that don’t fall into that category may be highly regarded but less often read – like James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” which I managed to get 200 pages into before finally thinking, as beautiful and lyrical as it can be, “shouldn’t I be reading something that makes sense?”

So when Mitchell’s ship’s narrative cuts off abruptly mid-sentence, the first thing I did was flip through the rest of the book till I found the starting place of the last chapter – the continuation of the journal’s story – and discovered the rest of that sentence and how it continues in the sequence of journal entries. Now, if I were one to prefer linear stories told strictly chronologically (minus those deviations for cliches like flash-backs and side-plots), I would have just continued reading here, but that apparently is not the way the author wanted me to read it: there must be some reason to interrupt it with these other stories, so I dutifully went back to start Chapter 2 because, from a composerly standpoint, how a writer structures a novel is as interesting to me as its content. A book, as far as I’m concerned, can succeed or fail on any number of levels, and whether I liked Mitchell’s stories or his style – or in this case, his styles and his chameleon-like ability to imitate or absorb them – could be something completely different from the way he handles his material.

Two things occurred to me as soon as I realized the opening story continues several hundred pages later to conclude the book. The most obvious one was the kind of palindrome structure:

#1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #5 - #4 - #3 - #2 - #1

As a musician, I was thinking “Bartok.” This is the standard arch structure he used in most of his mature works, usually five movements surrounding a long central slow movement:

Opening – Scherzo 1 – Slow Movement – Scherzo 2 – Finale

Another structural element that I’ve borrowed from Bartok is his use of the “Golden Section,” where structural subdivisions of the music are based on the proportions of the Fibonacci Series. This is a natural proportion that one can find almost anywhere in nature and it may very well show up, consciously or subconsciously, in a lot of art and music. It’s often described as the “ideal (or divine) proportion.”

Curiously, I figured out the number of pages in the first segment of Mitchell’s Pacific journal and the number of pages in its final segment appeared to be in a direct Fibonacci relationship. Noting there are 508 pages in the book (not counting a few lines on p.509), the Golden Section of the book would occur at p.314. Not that one can use page numbers as a reasonable structural guide in a book – different editions, different sized fonts and any number of other arbitrary factors might ruin the idea – but just as music can be subdivided into the number of measures of a piece or in the number of minutes in which it’s heard, can one use the number of pages (or words) in determining where the climax of a story could occur? So what happens at (or around) p.314 in “Cloud Atlas”?

The last page of Story #6 is p.309. The first page of the resumption of Story #5 – the point where the novel now goes into its mirror arch-like path – is p.314.


I made a graph and determined the “nodes” for the different Golden Sub-Sections along a time-line (or in this case, a page-line) which I’ll arbitrarily label as starting at A and ending at O (for Alpha and Omega: since I use Greek letters in my own graphing, I’ll use English equivalents). Calling the climactic point PHI, the antecedent portion A-to-PHI (one can’t really call it “half”) divides at p.194... call that “B”. The line then further subdivides – In that way, I come up with something like this:
So what else happens along these “nodes”? At “B” (p.194)... eh, well, Story #5 begins at p.185, so that’s off by about 9 pages... Okay, but at G2 (p.268)? Uhm, well... Story #6 begins at p.239, so that's way off... Oh wait: D3 is p.240 – well, that’s VERY close! (I’m figuring if I’d be within, oh, say 5-6 pages – considering also, in this edition, there are 3-4 blank pages between each chapter, including a title page for each one – would be pretty close.) It would be “neater” if Story #6 began at G2, though...

Continuing in similar fashion, Story #4 begins on p.145 – and p.148 would be point E3. Story #3 (the mystery) begins at p.89 but the closest main point would be D1 which is p.74, hmmm... Okay, but Story #2, the letters about the composer, begins on p.43 – and point E1 is p.45. Again, pretty close.

For the second “half” – okay, portion – of the page-line, remember Story #5-b begins at p.314, the main PHI of the entire book. Story #4-b begins at p.353 and ends at p.387. Story #3-b, as the mirror continues, begins at p.391 and ends at p.436. Story #2-b resumes at p.439 and ends at p.471 and the Pacific Journal picks up in mid-sentence from p.39 at p.475. Without even thinking, I assumed the “mirror” of the chapters would include a “mirror” of the structural points where the proportions are reversed: in other words
But then look how these pages stack up: Chapter #5-b ends on p.349 – point G3 is p.342. Close. Chapter #4-b ends on p.387 – point B2 is p.388. Very close! Chapter #3-b ends on p.435 – and point G4 is p.433. Yeah, close. Chapter #2-b ends on p.471 – but point D8 is p.461 – not that close. As Chapter #1 ended close to E1, it resumes at p.475 and the mirror to E1 is E8, p.479, and that’s pretty close.
Then I had to laugh because I went back to check something and realized I made a mistake with the number of pages in the second segment of Story #1: they are in fact NOT in a Golden Section proportion! I was off by 10 – d’oh! Curiously, while the chapters themselves do not add up to the right number of pages, their placement on the “page-line” still rather amazingly corresponds to the Golden Sections. If I’d realized “ugh, no proportional relationship here,” I would not have gone to the trouble of checking out the overall structural subdivisions of the stories within the whole novel and missed that aspect of the book's structure. It's not strict enough to be an issue and it may be no more than me looking for something I can relate to - one critic found the use of the Letter B to be a major structural facet! - just another example of somebody reading whatever they want into it.

Now, does that mean David Mitchell planned it that way? No, not really – but there was a certain amount of planning going into the styles and inter-relations of the different stories, even before he started writing the first story, so you could assume perhaps there were other plans in the making, too. Certainly, the arch idea was a cognitive decision, but probably not the proportional one.

If he had never even thought of this idea as a structural tool, filling in the outline of his projected novel, he would not be the first artist to be amused (or annoyed) at what someone else found that he never knew existed in something he himself had created!

One special irony is the timing, here: these time-lines are exactly the process I’m using for the formal structure of the violin pieces I’m composing right now! As a composer, I know there are lots of things like this that go into my own music: it just intrigues me, sometimes, to wonder if it’s going on in somebody else’s mind, as well.

Will knowing this help you understand the book more? Probably not. But it might explain why certain aspects of it might work better for you – well-balanced, well-paced: those kind of elements could be the perceived result of employing (consciously or subconsciously) the “ideal proportion.” Of course, it still won’t matter if the book (or the music) itself isn’t very interesting.

I was amused to read comments on-line about “Cloud Atlas” from readers who found the lack of continuity getting in the way of enjoying the stories, especially the fact there is no “neat wrapping up” at the end to explain everything. Some people expect the author to do everything for them: a generation brought up on Clift Notes, I guess. Mitchell’s book isn’t designed to do that: each story is independent and could stand alone – more like short stories in a collection – but what you get out of their context is, aside from what you put into it, the result of intuitive responses to that context. I just appreciate the fact there are other things, sometimes, than just “plot summaries” one can notice in a good book. Gives you something to keep coming back to.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Seeing Patterns

Yesterday morning – awaking to a very cold apartment (must remind new landlord heat would be appreciated, especially since I've been fighting the annual change-of-season cold for 2 weeks) – I started futzing around at the piano hoping to come up with some ideas for the next “pattern” with the rock motive I’m using in the scherzo, the 2nd of the pieces for violin and piano I’ve been posting about recently.

Recognizing patterns is something we do all the time, looking at a work of art or a building, the landscape we’re driving by (perhaps too much in a hurry to really appreciate the details) or perhaps even patterns of behavior in friends and co-workers.

The repetition of patterns is something we might sense rather than realize: the rhyming or rhythmic patterns of poetry or lines from Shakespeare, for instance.

In art, patterns may exist in the placement of objects in a realistic setting that may “comfort” us because they’re familiar or, in an abstract sense, amaze us in the way patterns are used to fill space: I’m thinking particularly of MC Escher and his tessellations.

In music, hearing “interval patterns or shapes” in a melody may help us trace that melody as it evolves or develops. Becoming aware of these helps us through a musical style that may not be readily familiar, if you miss the recognizable “musical landscape patterns” we associate with more traditional melodies, harmonies or forms. This is why I often talk about “gestures” and recognizing them as they recur rather than melodies, approaching a piece on its own terms rather than a previous century’s.

The Symphony I’d finished earlier this year grows out of a single four-note cell – see (a) – which consists of a rising major 2nd followed by a rising major 7th. Internally, there’s another pair of intervals, a perfect 5th and a tritone. By switching minor for major and reversing the pitches, there’s another shape that basically inverts the direction of the intervals – see (b).

I could also describe it as “a narrow interval followed by a wider interval” which might allow me to use a minor 3rd and a major 6th and so on to get a slightly different set of pitches, and by doing various things with directions and expansions create a fair bit of variety while sticking to a basically recognizable pattern. The pattern can become integrated into the texture as part of the line or the harmony until it’s almost subliminal, but it creates a consistency and cohesion to the music as it unfolds.

So I’m working on the next phrase of this rock-motive for the violin-and-piano piece which, as part of an inside joke, uses Shostakovich’s musical signature – DSCH – as a tag.

I was noodling at the piano – improvising on what I hoped might work – and came up with this:

That sounded cool, but I wasn’t sure if it “worked.” Then I started looking more closely at the pitches.

If I take the Shostakovich Signature and turn it into a chord, I get (a). If I transpose it up a tritone (my equivalent of tonic to dominant), I get (b).

Now, look at the pitches in the previous example... which I came up with purely spontaneously but which incorporates the DSCH-motive into the harmony. This became the opening of the next pattern – adding a violin “wail” to the rhythmic pattern turned rock-motive:
(Software disclaimer: since Finale NotePad doesn’t permit me to use meters like 7/8, I am stuck writing it out in 4/4 without the easier-to-read-and-play changing meters of 7/8 and 4/4...)

In the original motive, the violin played the 16th-note DSCH tag, but now that it was playing this counter-line, there wasn’t room for the tag, so I switched it to the piano part in measure 2. If you take the DSCH motive (a) – two minor 2nds a minor 3rd apart – turn them into Major 7ths (b) and then expand them in an outward direction, you get a shape – (c) – that is still a recognizable pattern because of its rhythm and its placement in the phrase but is also, more subtly, based on the same interval pattern.
In a neat analytical turn, all these pitches create hexachords that are the closest related sets to the primary set I’ve been using in the Theme & Variations and, so far, in the Scherzo. Which is good because otherwise, theoretically speaking, I would have to go back to the drawing board to find something that still sounds good but also works technically (like somebody’s going to say, “You know, Dr. Dick, there’s no relationship between the notes of the second chord and the notes of the first chord... minus 5 for you” - on the other hand, rules are made to be broken but first I like to make sure the rules don't come up with something better).

Anyway, recuperating from what has now turned into a cold (though not bad enough your computer is in any danger of catching a virus from me), it is time to get back to the piano.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

From Draft to Sketch to... You

The morning was spent not so much trying to figure out my sketches for the first of these violin & piano pieces, but trying to figure out how to realize them into this NotePad version of Finale: true, it’s only meant for simple things – for instance, even as an example, it won’t let me write in 7/8 – but even just to hack out the first 20 measures of the Theme, it’ll give you an idea how it’s going.

So this is the first time I’ve published a real piece of my music on the web! (If you're hoping for audio, even in standard midi-ocrity, luddites move slowly when exposed to new forms of technology... give me time...)

Part of the problem I seem to be having with the notation software - beyond getting it all down in black-and-white - is consistency with triplets (especially on the 4th beat – argh!), but basically this is close to what I would be writing if I had the greater speed and flexibility of a paleopathetic pencil on premodern paper. That is, if my cat Murphy wasn't doing her Lassie impersonation ("what's the matter, Murphy, did Timmy fall down the well?")... It annoys me that it won't indicate a C-natural when there's a C-sharp up to a C-natural in another register, or that a G-sharp in the beat before a bar-line really becomes G-natural after it, but without it, it looks like it could still be a G-sharp, without the cancellation to prove it's not a mistake (fine in Mozart; hell in Schoenberg). But until I figure out certain details about printers and manscuript paper (can I find a printer that will handle the 12"x18" 30-stave paper I need for the Symphony?) as well as various other not-quite-FAQs, this is pretty much a WYSIWYG score...

The tempo is slow – 1/4 note = 60 – and it should be played flexibly and expressively. There are some bowing and phrasing things I need to work out for the violin and I can’t really work on the piano part AT the piano which is in a different room than the computer, of course, but short of some phrasings and pedal marks, that’s the idea of it, anyway.

From there, it moves into the First Variation... but that’s the work-load for today: now it’s time to head into the station. A beautiful fall day and it was a sacrifice to spend it cooped up on my computer getting this much done, but artists are made to suffer (and that's even before the premiere...).

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Musical Joke Blues

"Oh I was listenin' to some Schoenberg..." may not be the best way to start off a blues song, but it reminded me of listening to some of Schoenberg’s “neo-classic serial” pieces like the 4th String Quartet with its Mozartean rhythms and starting an argument over the point of writing serial music still using “tonal rhythms” – since rhythms do not exhibit properties of tonality, what was I trying to imply? Well, basically that it’s the basic rhythmic fingerprints we associate with tonal music: if non-tonal music uses other surface elements of tonal music, doesn’t this create a kind of stylistic dissonance? One composer friend said “good point,” and another, a theorist, said under his breath something like “idiot.”

Novelists tell their students to “write what you know.” Composers, who as a rule were rarely given that same advice, have had access to a lot of different kinds of music, often “knowing” music that would not be considered classical. Just as composers in the 19th Century became inspired by folk-music, composers in the 1920s were inspired by jazz. When I was at Eastman, I don’t remember hearing too many composers influenced by rock music: that was not serious enough. I’m not even sure that many of us listened to it: jazz, certainly, but I don’t remember many evenings sitting around waxing euphoric about the merits of 1970s rock’n’roll.

My own musical tastes generally lie on the classical side of the spectrum. When I was playing a round of that once-popular game called “Trivial Pursuit: the Baby Boomer Edition,” I was appalled to find out 99% of the music questions that were coming up – aside from the one about Heifetz – were all about rock songs and performers. And that two classical musicians in the group could actually quote the fourth line of the third verse of some song by a group I’d never even heard of. What planet did I grow up on?

Anyway, listening to what’s going around me (“because it’s there” and virtually inescapable), I became aware how many times and in how many different contexts I was hearing this one persistent rhythm:

(It should probably be in 2/4 and I’m only indicating register rather than pitch, since it’s more of a percussive thing, anyway, but that’s basically it).

I’m sitting quietly in my living room when I hear it as some mobile boom-box serenades my street passing through long past midnight. On a sunny summer afternoon, the walls reverberate to it as my next-door neighbor fires up the sound-system (then fortunately turns the volume down). It’s in the background of commercials, it’s all over the urban soundscape. I cracked up when I was listening to the title song from Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” in the razzle-dazzle spit-em-out lines, “well there are worse - things - than staring-at-the-water on a Sunnn-daaaay” (which is continually added to with more lines full of breathless 16th-notes) and there it was, in the orchestra. Boom! Chick-a-boom-boom chick!

But Sondheim got me to thinking: rather than being annoyed with it as I often am when I hear it in other contexts, this time I was smiling and my head was twitching to the rhythms. As predicted, it became the next day’s ear-worm and I found myself trying to figure out what to do about it.

Thinking back to Schoenberg writing a Mozartean string quartet, I wondered what it would sound like if I tried writing rock with my own harmonic language, using all 12 notes? Well, I found if I took these two hexachords

and used the first six notes (which Forte labels 6-Z3, inverted) for the first two chords, then took the other six notes (6-Z36, its complement) for the throw-away 16th note between the chords, what I had left over was a pattern of four notes spelling out the musical signature of Dmitri Shostakovich – D-S-C-H or D, E-flat, C and B-natural (using German note-names and spelling his last name with the German phonetic equivalent of the SH). Well, I cracked up on any number of accounts, here: it’s the Shostakovich Centennial, first of all, and John Clare’s been using the D-S-C-H motive as his ring tone, so it seemed a perfect fit: that became the violin part.

After all, this movement is going to be the “scherzo” (which is Italian for “joke”), so why not actually take it at face value?

So out of this, I got a one-measure pattern. Since I want it to grow into a progression rather than just sit there and go “boom-chick-a-boom-boom chick” forever, I wondered what else I could do with that. I looked for some transposition of the hexachord where I could still find the D-S-C-H motive (which also exists in the initial set of six notes) and I came up with a slightly different pattern but with the placement of the two hexachords switched. This produced chords built out of slightly different intervals and compressed its register. Now I have these two patterns.

Now, so to speak, I’m on a roll.

(Extra geekpoints to the ones who might have recognized 6-Z3/Z36 as the same hexachord for the harmonization of the open-strings motive in Example 7 from the Theme & Variations: it’s a closely related hexachord to the primary 6-Z25/Z47 hexachord, not just any old collection of pitches chosen at random.)

This is for the B-Section, but the problem was how to get there. There were various things I could do for the A-Section but nothing seemed to be suitable. It was either too fast, too virtuosic (hey, I have to be able to play this, myself) and above all too much the same high-energy level.

Then, as I mentioned in a previous post, my upstairs neighbor was playing his radio a little louder than usual one morning, some blues song, sweet and mellow. Then suddenly, erupting from next door, a blast of that “it’s-everywhere” rock rhythm – just a measure of it, then cutting out. Several seconds later, it cut in again, totally unrelated in key, rhythm or tempo to the blues song. Charles Ives would’ve been thrilled. That was when I got the idea to start the movement with a kind of bluesy ballad, then at one point the piano just starts flailing away with one measure of this rhythm, like “oops sorry, counted wrong, came in early” but then tries again a bit later before the violin just joins in and they let it rip.

That’s when I realized, looking at the hexachord (6-Z25/47) from the Theme & Variations, if I take the six-note set that gave me the first “open-string motive” and invert it

it becomes a blues scale – hmmm: well, if you start on D, actually, it is. Now, I’m not a frequent listener of jazz or blues, though I enjoy it (more than I can say for most rock music) nor am I conversant with its technical details: my intention is not to try to imitate blues or write real jazz (or for that matter, copy the Blues movement from Ravel’s Violin Sonata), but it seems kind of an appropriate gesture considering the violinist I’m writing it for enjoys playing folk music and blues with friends on a night out (but no, I don’t want to write for his pink electric violin).

Not so much as a sketch, then, but just an example of what I might be able to do with this idea, here’s a mock-bluesy line (the upper melody) which I thought I’d try “harmonizing” (my way) with the complement hexachord.

Then, for a second idea, a kind of standard blues cadence...

(“oh my pianist don’t understand me: I got the ol’ accompanist blues... oh-oh yeah...”)

True, Schoenberg wasn't trying to imitate Mozart's melodic and harmonic language using his serial techniques, but I find it interesting, given the pitch material I accidentally chose, that in this case I can - and some of it doesn't sound all that far-out (to me): not very good, maybe, but not all that far-out.

It’s a chilly autumn morning, the neighborhood is quiet (the houndentenor isn’t singing the blues this morning, either) and I’m going to hear the Billy Joel Piano Concerto tonight: I’m not ready to cross over just yet, personally, but it is time to get some work done.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

An Introduction to My Musical Language: Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I rambled about some of the basic details of the theory behind my musical style, what we usually describe as “language” though perhaps “dialect” would be more appropriate. Today, I wanted to get into a little bit about how this applies to the Theme & Variations I’ve just completed for the set of pieces for violin and piano which I’m composing for John Clare (he's all excited about it) and myself to perform some time next Spring.

Since Allen Forte lists 50 different hexachords, it’s difficult to limit yourself to just 2, so for this piece I decided to look at another pair and see what other kinds of possibilities I could find.

The first thing that came to mind would be something that would contain the notes and intervals of the open strings of the violin – G-D-A-E. I don’t use a lot of open 5ths or 4ths in my typical “language,” so I thought this would add a challenge for me. Part of the issue, basically, was my being attracted to the minor 2nd and its inversion, the major 7th, with whole steps, minor thirds and tritones next in frequency. In standard tonal language, the primary melodic intervals would be the perfect 5th, its inversion the perfect 4th, plus major and minor thirds since that also form the building blocks for the harmony, filled in by passing tones like major and minor 2nds as needed. So my melodic language also reflects the intervals used to build my harmonies as well, following the same logic. Now, with a lot of P4s and P5s (P4 = Perfect 4th), that will change my sound – subtly, to some listeners; hugely, to others.

So I found what Forte labels 6-Z25 and 6-Z47 (without explaining what the Z stands for, which marks other structural components that relate the two). The first one I tried has the open strings (Ex.1a) plus a major 7th (Ex.1b) (okay, let’s call that M7 - upper-case ‘M’ means “major”) which could also be inverted to a minor 2nd (m2 – small-case ‘m’ means “minor”). If I put that into an “abstract form like a scale,” you have the collection of pitches which I can now transpose to any other starting pitch (just like any scale) or create its inversion (but let's save that for another time).

Since I can put these in any order (just like the pitches of any scale), I can come up with a number of melodic possibilities: see Example 2. In (a), I’ve changed the open-strings motive to a series of P4s (same pitches, different order) and tagged it with (b), a descending M7 – it will sound different from the Ex.1a+b but they are the same pitches. This gives me a sense of unity but already some strikingly different variety. If I “mix up” the intervals (see c+d) or insert the M7 “tag” INTO the “open-strings motive” (see notes marked *), it’s still the same pitches but a different ordering and so it’s going to sound different. These can be transposed to other pitches just like any melodic idea could’ve been in 1800.

(By the way, don’t confuse “melody” with “melodic idea” or motive – Beethoven’s 5th starts with that famous “knock-at-the-door” motive but only after two statements of it does he actually build a melody out of it. Likewise, do not confuse “melody” with “tune” though we tend to think of them as synonyms these days.)

Now, if I form the “complement hexachord” from the other six pitches, I come up with Example 3a which still contains the open-strings motive (Ex.3b, now transposed to A-flat) but instead of the m2-M7 tag, it’s a P4-P5 (Ex.3c). This subtlety can come in handy later on. These two hexachords then become my basic “building blocks” just like a scale of a classical era piece, only here, rather than dealing with all the notes of the scale, I can focus on the attributes and potentiality of each half. In that sense, everything (more or less) grows out of six notes, not twelve (since the second half is really a different form of the first half).

If I haven’t lost you yet (and congratulations if you can follow this, whether you’re fluent in Classical Music Theory or not), let’s move on to Harmony.

If a “melody” is the linear aspect of the music, a “harmony” basically is a collection of pitches that form a vertical sonority. We’ve come to think of “harmony” or “harmonic” as meaning restful or pretty. Harmony is more, though, than just a chord: it’s really the language of how these different chords relate to one another, particularly to the tonal center of the piece (whether it’s in D Major or G Minor).

That was one of the things where people started getting lost even before the 20th Century: by weakening our awareness of that tonic center, we lose the element of resolution and so the other chords tend to become vaguer in what they’re “doing” there. Schoenberg did not invent this: in fact, the tonic centers in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” move so flexibly when one resolution becomes a modulation to something else, people thought not only was the music “unhinged,” the composer was, too. But not even Wagner invented this: Mozart did it in the last movement of his Symphony No. 40 (I have read articles where authors discussed whether or not Mozart invented atonality) and Bach did it in something like his “Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue in D Minor” – in both cases, this being thrown out to sea (rather than to C Major) is an example of “extreme tension” which only strengthens the resolution finally to the home key.

So, if I group my six “abstract” pitches into “vertical aggregates” or chords, you will see or hear some that sound pretty gnarly and some which sound pretty familiar: in Ex.4, I list just six possibilities (and some of them the same with just the pitches relocated to create different “voicings” of the same chords), some of which can resolve to an A Major triad and others to a C Major triad. Or a chord built on P4s or another one all on M7s! But they’re all from the same six pitches, just different sounds.

In an earlier piece, I got the idea to start by focusing on the m2/M7-type sonorities but then, without changing the basic hexachord (or six-note scale, loosely speaking), refocusing it into more traditional sounding major and minor triads. In that way, the dramatic climax of my still un-named piece for violin and orchestra (originally inspired by the opening scene of Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” where the world is sung into existence) actually was a big loud C Major Chord – and then from there, the piece progressed back to the opening focus on the m2/M7s. That’s the idea, anyway.

Example 5 does the same thing with the complement hexachord, where something that could work like a Dominant 7th chord in E-flat actually resolves to a B Major triad in the last example. The next to last one is interesting, too: the G-flat-to-F M7 would be an “active-sounding harmony” depending on how it’s used, but with whole-step motion in the outer voices, it resolves to an A-flat Minor triad: thus giving the G-flat-to-F chord an element of tension it might not have on its own, fulfilling itself into a “tonal-sounding” resolution.

Dissonance, after all, is in the ear of the beholder but just as “Harmony” doesn’t originally mean “pretty,” “dissonance” doesn’t originally mean “ugly” – played by itself, the major 7th could actually sound fairly resolved by comparison to what else might come before. That’s the point in the study of “Harmony” – the context is more important than the individual “harmony” or chord.

At the end of my previous post, I explained how I could create “harmonic progressions” out of cadences built out of all 12 notes, using one hexachord and its complement. Here, if I take the one resolution from the end of Ex.5 and follow it with either the C Major or the A Major resolution, I get two very different sounding cadences (see Example 6). Take particular notice of the next-to-last chord in each of them, marked with the (*). In (a), there’s a strong minor 2nd between the top note and the one directly beneath it: this makes it “more dissonant” or gives it “more tension” than the (*)-chord in (b) where it’s a MAJOR 2nd which gives it a less dissonant or active sound and makes (b) sound more final by comparison to (a).

Yet they’re the same pitches, just rearranged: and out of that I have the equivalent of either a half-cadence in the tonal sense (an A Major tonality with a cadence that doesn’t end on A, usually an E chord, its dominant) or a “Deceptive Cadence” where you expect it to end on A but suddenly it diverts to something unexpectedly foreign to A Major like an F Major Chord. That then strengthens my (b) cadence here as a more stable “tonic.” Depending on how I set up the context, of course, but out of an isolated example, you’re not going to sense that context (isn’t that what sound-bytes or examples are: taken “out-of-context”? And you know where THAT can lead you...).

Near the end of an earlier post, “Getting it to Work,” I mentioned one passage where I wanted that open-strings motive (melodic idea) played by the violin as harmonics on the open strings, supported by intervals underneath it (harmonic idea) played by the piano. So what I worked out was Example 7a. Later, I wanted to reverse the instruments’ roles, have the piano play the motive (in widely spaced octaves) with the violin playing double-stops in between. I also wanted the double-stops to include at least one open-string just to be kind to the violinist. What I came up with is Example 7b.

(By the way, if you’ve already noticed that the pitches of these six-notes do NOT form the same hexachord I was using in Examples 1 & 3, it’s actually a closely related one which is allowed as a kind of lateral-move, just as one could modulate to a particular key, but to explain that now would create more bamboozlement than it’s worth: suffice it to say, move to the Head of the Class, Geek, or, if you already know Allen Forte’s book “The Structure of Atonal Music” intimately, please keep in mind I’m not writing this blog for you...)

What I hadn’t noticed until the next day was the linear aspect of each strand of that passage in Ex.7b. Refreshing the “open-strings motive” in Example 8 and reducing it to an “abstract set” starting on D where the notes form a nicely symmetrical chain of intervals – M2, m3, M2 – then notice that the upper voice in the piano becomes the same chain transposed to F, the upper part of the violin’s intervals forms the same chain transposed to C-sharp, and the lower part of the violin is the same chain transposed to A.

Yeah, I know no one listening to it is going to go “oh wow, did you hear THAT?” That’s not the point: there are millions of comparable subtleties in music but it just means to me that the logic is much tighter than if I just arbitrarily chose a bunch of pitches to slam in there. Oh wait, basically that’s what I did: but it came out working logically as well as aesthetically and that, for me, is an important aspect of what strengthens it MUSICALLY.

Well, now I need to get started on the next piece, and I’ve already got some sketches started on that which I’ll save for a later post. As they say in radio, “stay tuned.”

(Or was it the conductor who said to the violinist, “stay tuned”?)