Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Variation to Go

At the moment, I'm working on the first of three or four pieces for violin and piano. The first piece is a short set of “Theme & Variations” in an arch-like form where the 7th and last variation is a precis of the theme, more as a kind of reminiscence than a restatement. In that sense, the 1st and 6th variations become a pair, along with the 2nd & 5th and the 3rd & 4th – not mirrors or restatements, just more related to each other in some way (mood, certain motivic ideas) so the intensity builds up toward the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th but then decreases back to the opening’s calmness at the very end. The whole span is planned out so this climax occurs at the “golden section” and each pair of variations also falls into this proportional relationship. The whole piece is only about six minutes long, so the variations themselves are not fully formed, just little more than phrases, perhaps.

While it’s not tonal in the traditional sense, I’m using certain pitches that become “tonal centers” – and the harmony or melody can highlight those pitches in many ways similar to the standard tonal system of classical music. Though the chords may not sound like “tonic” and “dominant,” they serve a similar function where the harmonic motion is more or less intense, more or less resolved: in this way, I’ve come up with chord “successions” (if not progressions) that could still work like IV-V-I chords in C Major. It can also give me “deceptive resolutions” (IV-V-vi, where instead of resolving to C, it resolves to an A Minor chord, or IV-V-bVI, to a totally unexpected A-flat Major chord) once the pattern is set up enough so a listener can hear what is expected and what is not – or one possible resolution that prolongs the need to resolve followed (eventually) by a restatement of that chord succession with a more satisfying resolution.

For this piece, the tonal center is G, but for me the dominant is not the traditional perfect 4th or 5th, D, but a tritone, C-sharp or D-flat. This makes it a little tricky because the tritone to C-sharp is G which means both pitches are in the same relationship to each other which makes it difficult to move away from that to any other pitches or chords. Since the traditional system places chords built on different pitches of the major or minor scale in varying degrees of tension to the tonic (basically in the IV-to-V-to-I formula), part of the choice in finding the “right chord” or the “right pitch” here is discovering and developing similar relationships and logic in my non-traditional-sounding harmonies and melodic lines, not just throwing down pitches and chords here and there that, oh, sound pretty good I think.

So the 3rd Variation, I’d decided, would be a kind of recitative, an operatic formula where the vocal line is not necessarily melodic but is based on speech-like inflections (it developed from pure spoken lines) supported by chords that are used more like punctuation – musical commas and semicolons that only reach the final period at the end of the paragraph. The problem had been to find those chords in the right sequence and then once the framework was in place, “fill in” the violin part based on the main motivic elements of the original theme but not in a thematic way, just a linear one.

In opera, a recitative is an introduction to an aria, and so the plan was to have the next variation be a kind of aria, or at least more lyrical. But since the start of the 4th Variation is also the structural climax of the piece marking the high-point emotionally and from here, like a mirror, everything works its way back to the opening, I wanted to reverse the roles of the instruments. Since the piano starts out playing an entirely supportive role to the violin, at this point it is the piano that takes over the melodic function while the violin plays the harmonies (listen to any Mozart or Beethoven violin sonata and you’ll hear the same thing). And I wanted the piano playing widely spaced octaves with a melodic line that uses the main theme’s two basic motives but spins them out slightly differently.

So that’s where I am this morning. After spending the last two days blogging about Shostakovich, today’s the first morning I’ve had to compose since the weekend: so far, I’d sketched out the opening phrase’s melody, working out some harmonies for the main motive which can be played on natural harmonics on the violin’s open strings, and written in the mid-point’s “half cadence” and the ending’s “full cadence,” keeping in mind how this variation is supposed to fit in as the whole piece works its way back from the dominant center to the tonic center.

Back to the piano - one variation to go, please (you want fries with that?) - and the piece is done.

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