Monday, July 14, 2008

Pecking Away at the New Piece

It’s been several months in the gestation stage and too many weeks in the embryonic stage, but I think now, finally, the new violin and piano piece, a Chaconne, is ready to get started! After all that, I’m just getting started??

In 2006, I'd begun thinking of other pieces to go along with the Nocturne and then a set of variations and a funny little “Blues Interruptus” I was writing to perform with John Clare (formerly WITF’s afternoon music host, now in San Antonio at KPAC). The Nocturne was played (if not heard) at a volunteer brunch (but I can no longer offer you a link to those posts since my old blog there has been closed down following my departure). Originally, there would be three or four pieces, but I wanted something more substantial to end the set of pieces and thought perhaps a Chaconne would do.

Basically, a chaconne is originally an old Baroque-era dance that evolved into an abstract variation form, based on a recurring harmonic pattern. It’s closely related (and unfortunately often interchangeable with) the passacaglia, another variation form that originated as a slow, stately dance (the title comes from the Spanish words “pasar,” to walk, and “calle,” the street, though it might have more to do with the slow regal strutting of a peacock than what “street walker” means to most Americans today). In both, a repetitive pattern forms the basis for a series of continuous variations, the difference supposedly being a passacaglia uses a melodic idea in the bass and a chaconne uses a chordal pattern as its harmonic background.

Many chord progressions would have a clear bass-line anyway which make it seem melodic (or at least linear), and so that’s where the confusion begins to come in. Since it’s usually in the lower register with all the variations happening above it, these kinds of pieces are usually called “Grounds,” given that everything is grounded in the bass, and the pattern itself is often called a “ground bass.”

There are many great examples of these two approaches: perhaps the greatest are the Chaconne that concludes the 2nd Partita for Solo Violin by Bach and the Passacaglia & Fugue in C Minor for organ, also by Bach. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a chaconne was the typical conclusion of a suite of dances or a scene in an opera or a ballet, but by the time Bach died, both forms were considered old-fashioned. The Passacaglia that concludes Brahms’ 4th Symphony, considered “archaic” by his contemporaries, is at times a more of a chaconne, but who cares: it’s still some of the most magnificent music in the repertoire.

More recently, John Corigliano took an idea he’d written for the film The Red Violin and turned it into a concert work for violin and orchestra he called a chaconne (it later became part of a whole violin concerto). It was while listening to this that I thought it might make an interesting challenge for this next violin and piano piece of mine: as in “here’s an interesting problem - how do I solve this one?”

In a way, it was kind of an odd choice for me, because one thing that irritates me as a listener is the constant repetition of something – like the ground bass of Pachelbel’s Canon – that grinds away at my patience. It’s too easy just to play something over and over (and over) again and do something a little different above it: the same pitches, the same chords, the same go-nowhere structure made up of little units that, every few bars, comes to the same stop and then starts all over again, the musical equivalent of counting sheep (Ravel’s Bolero, by the way, is a different kind of animal all together but can be just as maa-aaa-aaadening).

One of the reasons the Bach D Minor Chaconne is so great is because the harmonic background remains in the background: after a while, you completely forget about it but it’s always there, holding everything together. One of the reasons I think the finale of Brahms’ 4th is so great has to do with that very confusion of passacaglia and chaconne because at times, you’re aware of the bass line and at other times you’re not, when the chords become the skeletal glue (especially in the trombone chorale and the flute solo variations), creating a variety of textures and procedures that becomes a variation of the variation process itself.

What took so long for my little chaconne to take shape was trying to figure out ways of subverting these concerns, creating some kind of variety in the procedure while not going too far afield from the basic premise. Figuring out the overall shape – based on the standard arch form I use subdivided by the Golden Section – I discovered there would be nine variations which then meant either the music was going to be too short or, if expanded to fill what I thought would be a reasonable length, the variations would be too long. Then it seemed there would be nineteen variations – nine on either side of the climactic apex of the arch – which now seemed like too many repetitions of this pattern, a pattern which hadn’t been worked out yet, by the way.

Here is the initial statement of my “harmonic pattern”:
There are three parts to this “well-ordered phrase” – the first four chords (using all 12 pitches) consists of a pair of non-triadic chords balanced by two major or minor triads a tritone apart. The middle chord (in whole notes) is another triad related by a common tone to the previous chord. The last four chords are also two non-triadic chords (but based on different intervals) followed by two major or minor triads also a tritone apart. Which chords occur in the last group is determined by the six-note set (or hexachord) available from the middle (or whole-note) chord and the first of the last four.

(You can read more about My Musical Language here and here.)

Most of this part of the process I’d described in an earlier post: it was the project for my May vacation. Now that I’m “in between jobs,” so to speak, and I have all the time in the world, it would appear the old adage “work expands to fill the available time” is in full force. Almost two months have gone by, and I still feel like the round peg at Square One.

Several times, I’ve worked over the structure, working out ways the patterns would change tonality and where they’d be placed on the overall skeletal graph of the piece. It went from strict direct repetition (boring) to obvious similarities with subtle differences which allowed it to sound like it was actually going somewhere harmonically in the larger scope of things.

Even the length of each statement was determined by the proportions of the overall form, subdivided according to the Golden Section: rather than each one being squarely 4 or 8 measures long, as it might be traditionally, many of them would be about 7 measures, but others would be more or less. The longest ones are about 12 measures each, and several are less than 5. In fact, the climactic one is only 3 measures long which means compressing or expanding the energy of this harmonic progression will create a sense of harmonic rhythm that will, in the long run, offer a different level of variety.

Then at one point, the chaconne started telling me it should be the middle of a set of five pieces, not the last of four. Now, these pieces are not interrelated the way a sonata would be, so it’s still X-Number of Pieces for Violin & Piano, not a sonata for violin and piano (ah yes, the Nada Sonata). But there’s something about my innate concern for clarity and logic of structure – so lacking in my personal life – that I felt compelled to shape these pieces into some kind of overall, well-balanced, proportional whole.

The Chaconne should be the apex of the arch, not the conclusion. In order to fit with the other three pieces, then, it would need to be longer than I’d just worked it out to be, by a whole minute. Considering how long it’s taking me to even get the thing started and that it took a year to write a 21 minutes string quartet and two years to write a half-hour long symphony, the idea of adding even a minute on to this piece and then needing to write even a short one parallel to the ‘Blues Interruptus’ was like, “Aaaaaaaugh, no!!!!” But, hey...

So I went back and completely revised the skeleton, re-laying the nineteens statements of the pattern so the climax of each one would meet up with the proportional climaxes of the whole and then worked out some other details, a lot of which involved simply staring at pages and pages of stuff and trying to figure out “this isn’t working: why?”

Each variation itself needed to fit into this Golden Section proportion but it wasn’t happening. For the ones that didn’t fit, I discovered they were in a mirror form, the unequal “halves” reversed: this could become another way of varying the forward motion, slowing it down a bit before pushing to the climax and then pulling away from it toward the end and its final resolution.

You’d think, as the composer, everything was consciously done by me, but that’s not always the case. Another cool thing I discovered was this: with nineteen statements of the pattern – nine of them occurring at major structural points along the skeletal framework and all but one of those having some pitch in common with the central tonality’s D Major or D Minor chord – only one out of the 12 available sets of pitches (analogous to keys) had gone unused. Obviously, with 19 statements and 12 available transpositions, there were some that would be used more than once, so I looked at some of those duplicates and realized this one had another inconsistency that needed to be fixed (not really corrected). Suddenly, by changing one note in one chord, the other notes of the other chords that would balance it turned out to be in the missing transposition!

I also discovered, quite fortuitously, the similarity of the last two statements:

The fact the resolution to the middle (whole-note) chord goes up a half-step (with D-naturals in that chord) rather than by common-tone as the previous eighteen statements had done, gives it a sound like a Piccardy cadence in traditional tonality, where an expected resolution to, say, a G minor chord moves instead to a G major one. But the G chord doesn’t sound like a real resolution: it’s more like a second-inversion IV-chord that still needs to resolve to a tonic D Major chord (double suspension and all that) which, ultimately it does. As it turns out, the final segment of this resolution uses the same exact pitches as the ones that ended the next-to-last statement which ended on the “dominant” A-flat of the central D “tonic.” Only here, the chords within each pair are reversed, giving it finally a more stable resolution.

But that’s only the harmonic frame-work: there will be other notes, other chords, other material of some fashion that will work in and around these basic chords, avoiding the monotony of constant repetition. But I’ll get into that, later.

Despite all the mumbo-jumbinous geek-speak, trying to explain sounds in terms of text and process, it really does sound better than it reads... but that is, from the technical standpoint, how it works. THAT it works is the only real requirement: analysis of music is like understanding how your car’s engine works - you don’t need to know that to drive it, but it comes in handy if you’re going to try building one yourself.

So now I’ve worked out the new piece’s skeleton and finally I have the harmonic material which is like the muscles that make it function. Now I’m ready for the skin, stretching it out over the harmonic muscles to create something, hopefully, you may get a chance to hear, some day.

Now it’s time to get back to the piano, after I clean the cats’ litter boxes...

- Dr. Dick

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