Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Composing on September 11th

Yesterday was a quiet day. September 11th the past few years has become a day of contemplation and remembrance. Yesterday was the first September 11th in three years I wasn’t composing something directly inspired by the events of that September 11th five years ago. I began my String Quartet a few days before Sept. 11th, 2002, and completed it a few days before Sept. 11th, 2003, a direct emotional response to the terrorist attacks.

The Symphony which grew out of the String Quartet was conceived on Sept. 11th, 2003, though the actual composition wasn’t begun until the next January, once I was done with the quartet’s score and parts. On Sept. 11th, 2004, I was working on the 1st movement’s recapitulation and one of a series of passages where a huge chord from the opening, first heard as a sharp attack, is now sustained before descending into a long shambling scalar collapse, a musical image directly inspired by watching the Towers collapse – this chord, against a long-lined melodic idea in the foreground, changes over a series of restatements, each time lower in register and collapsing at a slower rate of speed, as if its being replayed in the mind as we’d seen it replayed on television time after time. On Sept. 11th, 2005, I was working on a passage from the last movement, finishing the piece at the end of January, 2006.

After two emotionally charged works, I just wanted to write something more lyrical and not involved with any kind of programmatic intuition, so the pieces for violin and piano are a kind of a break for me, a chance to work on some more abstract details of my style, for one thing.

I spent the morning trying to keep my thoughts about the day out of the music, working out another variation for the first piece and coming up with some good ideas. Yeah, it was a productive day for the little bit I got accomplished, but inch by inch, I’ll get there eventually (insert comment about a journey-of-a-thousand-miles here).

This variation is supposed to be a longer, sustained line in the violin with arpeggios in the piano, but using the term ‘arpeggio’ advisedly because that refers to a typical major or minor chord that’s “strung out” note-by-note. My chords are really “pitch aggregates” of six or seven different notes and won’t sound like any major or minor triad you’re familiar with, nor do they move from chord to chord the same way. However, they do have their own way of moving – harmonic progressions and all that – and while they don’t have tonic centers and submediant and dominant relationships to a tonic chord in that sense, they need to flow in a way as if they did. So what I’m doing now is working out what set of notes best follows this set of notes. But to make sure I end up where it needs to be headed, I’m actually working backwards from the cadences, the chords that end each phrase. Once I have the background, then I can put in the foreground, the melodic line.

Doesn’t that work against the natural order of things? Well, only from the sound of it, because the background still needs to sound like the background. Yet it’s what’s driving the foreground: if I wrote the melody first – without any awareness of the harmony – it’s actually harder to find the right chords and then it ends up, often, not being what I had in mind after all.

Think of it this way. Very often, a painter (at least, one from the Old School or perhaps a modern one working in a realistic style) fills in the background before putting the main figures in the foreground, if there’s a concern for symmetry or proportion, so that everything balances. A writer working on a narrative story usually has an idea how it’s going to end, then spins the plot out (with perhaps many stops and side-trips along the way) to get from the opening to the conclusion accordingly: it doesn't mean you the reader know how it's going to end - more like when you get there, it all makes sense.

A composer who writes in the traditional “tonal system” – what musicians call “Common Practice” or the “classical” style that predominated from 1600 on – has certain “received traditions” which have become second nature. What composers choose to do with those traditions creates each individual’s style. They don’t have to think where they’re going: they’ve pretty much determined that subconsciously and a melody can be created by itself that would fit that system almost automatically.

The essentially non-tonal system I’m writing in doesn’t have those traditions and pre-conceived “givens.” But I still have to get from Point A to Point B by moving my chords forward and I’m trying to discover ways I can do that that fit the same kind of logic the Old System has. Or rather, finding the same kind of logic that drives the Old System, too.

If you think of the music’s form or structure (which could be a simple ABA-form or a symphony) as the skeleton of the piece, the harmony which makes the structure “move” is really like the body’s muscles. And then the melody, if one is using melody in a broader sense than “tune,” is like the skin, supported by the skeleton and the muscles. Yeah, I know it’s simplistic but maybe it’s not all that obvious to the casual listener. What you notice (and judge a piece by) is often just the skin-surface but it might be more satisfying because everything underneath the skin is working well to support it.

So I look out my studio window this morning and see the Neighbor Dog looking back at me from his. “How’s it going, Woofgang?” I ask... “Rough!” he says...

Yeah well, I gotta get back to the piano.

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