Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Elusive Right Note & the F-sharp

Over the years, I’ve frequently told how, in my lessons with Samuel Adler, my teacher at Eastman, he’d play through something I’d brought in and say basically “good, that’s good – that should be an F-sharp, though,” pointing to one note somewhere in the harmony or maybe in the melodic line. I’d play back through it with an F-sharp there and, damn, it really did sound better! I’d look at him and ask “why?” and he’d shrug his shoulders and smile.

It was always an F-sharp.

There was never a passage where he’d say “That should be a D-natural” or “try a G-sharp there.” (Pat Long, who also studied with Adler and is now teaching composition at Susquehanna University, said his note was a B-flat. Always a B-flat.)

For the next ten years or so, whenever a new piece would start, the opening pitch would often be an F-sharp. Many of my pieces began with a single note spun out over several measures, usually changing instrumental colors until it would unfold or spring out into some gesture that would then become the material for the piece. But they always started and then usually came back to end on an F-sharp. I didn’t know why. It’s like, that was my pitch.

I figured Scriabin had his favorite key – F-sharp Major – which for him had various mystical properties: this was perhaps my way of tapping into the same emotional potential.

Then, for some reason, with the string quartet and the symphony, both written in the last five years, that pitch became an A. When I began “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” the pitches I started playing with as potential musical gestures - motives or whatever you’d care to call them – also started pointing to A as a focal pitch.

When I started work on the string quartet almost a year to the day after September 11th, 2001, it was several days till that “opening shape” came into focus. The first two notes had now become an A and a B – in my musical shorthand, using numbers on a blank page instead of pitch-notation on a sheet of manuscript paper, that became a 9 and an 11, the kind of symbol for 9-11 that no one would hear but which resonated with me as the quartet began taking shape as an emotional response to the terrorist attacks on that day. But after I’d found the first four notes that seemed right, writing the answering four notes took some time to figure out. I had settled on an F just so I could move forward, but it didn’t feel right. Then I thought I’ll substitute an F-sharp for that F and suddenly I could see Sam Adler smiling over my shoulder: that was the right pitch!

Last summer, when I was thinking about writing a piece in my mother’s memory, I tried turning her name into a musical phrase. Some letters, of course, corresponded to musical pitches automatically: G and A, for instance. For some pitches, you can use another language’s equivalent, the way Bach could spell his name because H in German was really a B-natural (and to make it confusing for us, B is really a B-flat) and S, as in Shostakovich, is in German E-flat. Then you could also substitute D for R because in Italian, D = Re. I is easier, because you have Mi (E) or Ti (B), and with three I’s in my mother’s name, I manipulated it to use both of them so as not be repeating the same pitch so often. In Russian, the letter that looks like B is pronounced V, so I used B to replace the V in Virginia, but I was also using B for one of the I’s... so I arbitrarily chose the German B (really, B-flat) instead.

This left N. What pitch could correspond to N?

For other letters, composers who play these name games find different solutions. By taking notes that are otherwise unassigned, you can spin them out until you find something that could correspond to the letter in question. Some composers simply leave them out. But I had created such an alphabet back in the ‘70s when I was writing my piano piece Poetries, and though I couldn’t find it in my piles of archived sketches, I followed the same process and came up with a C-sharp. So N was now assigned to C-sharp.

Thus my mother’s name, Virginia, became B-flat / E / D / G // E / C-sharp / B / A. For symmetrical purposes, I broke it into two four-note fragments.

It was months before work on the actual songs began: before that, I was thinking more in terms of a choral piece. But on what would’ve been her 88th birthday, the songs took shape and I began working on the opening and, since it was planned to be a mirror of the opening, the closing as well, setting two short parallel texts as a prelude and postlude to the songs. Ultimately, it became a single movement piece rather than seven individual songs, but the seven different texts are laid into the orchestral continuity so as to create both an interrelated cycle and a continuous piece rather than seven songs in seven separate movement, pausing between each one.

Since I write using 6-note sets as my musical building blocks – very loosely, compared to the so-called serial or 12-note style associated with Schoenberg – I looked at these 8 pitches trying to find 6 notes that create a “set”. After working on a number of possibilities, some of which seemed to have less potential than others, I chose two that offered me what I thought would sound best and be different from ones I had used in the very intense string quartet and symphony of the past few years.

This Name-Motive was not intended to be used verbatim constantly. In a way, I thought of the piece unfolding as a set of variations on that motive, but it quickly became more imbedded than obvious in the whole context of the piece’s unfolding. But at points where I wanted it to surface, I started realizing in the past month or so that that “N” was giving me a problem: the harmonies that were working did not work well with the C-sharp of the motive.

Playing several of these instances together – from different parts of the work – I realized that a better pitch instead of the C-sharp would be... uh oh...


Fortunately, I had not been so strict with the Name-Motive and the pitch-sets I wanted to use because by changing it now I would have to go back and start the piece over again using the new pitch-class set! And I am so very close to the end of the piece, now!

This problem was not something that would have surfaced in September when I was playing with all the various possibilities. But by going back and changing just a few spots where the Name-Motive was in the foreground, it could still work out. In fact, in each situation I went back to, the F-sharp sounded like an improvement.

There are lots of intangibles in creativity. It all works differently for each different person. How to explain to someone else why we choose what we choose is not that easy. You can analyze it to the smallest degree, but there is still no easy way to explain what makes it “right.” What sounds right to my ear might not sound any better to someone else than the other notes I’d tried. But there comes a point when, for whatever reason, you try three or four (or forty) possibilities and that one sounds right, not just okay, you begin to think about a lot of things differently.

- Dr. Dick

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