Monday, January 05, 2009

On the 12th Day of Christmas: Wow, a Revelation

So these past few days, I’ve been trying to work pretty hard on this last of a set of five violin and piano pieces when I started realizing how much I’ve been integrating different aspects from the other pieces into this one. Paging through my notebook full of sketches from the earlier pieces, I saw, back in April of 2006 when I started on what became the first of the set (the second piece to be written after the initial “Nocturne”), I was already anticipating there would be a five pieces and that in September of ‘06 (when the “Theme & Variations” were finished) the 4th one would be marked “scorrevole” or scurrying.

Since everything’s based on an arch-form (and subdivided proportionally according to the principals of the Golden Section), this brief 55-measure, 2-minute scherzo is supposed to balance the 2nd of the pieces, the “Blues Interruptus.” I hadn’t realized it, at first, but the sudden shifts between the four different “elements” of this piece is itself a kind of “interruption” and some of it over-laps much the same way things did in the 2nd piece. I’ve described the form of No. 4 as being four separate, easily identifiable fragments as if its four consecutive segments had been put through a blender so they’re all jumbled together in no particular sequence. But this morning I realized it would be more like putting them through a shredder and then reassembling them in no particular order – a few measures here, a few measures there.

I’ve written – or more officially, sketched – about 42% of the piece so far, just working on the individual segments or “elements.” But yesterday, after a couple of days spent largely looking at a blank sheet of paper, I got the idea how to end the piece.

For me, this is very important because now I can more easily shape the opening (which I hadn’t started working on, yet) and pace the piece as it moves toward the end. Unlike the other pieces which climax in the “middle,” this one ultimately drives toward the ending. I can see how that will work better, now.

And the interesting thing that happened this morning was realizing that the last notes lead directly into the opening notes of the last piece of the set, the “Nocturne” which I finished in November 2005, another way of bringing this set of supposedly disparate pieces full circle.

But more “eureka”-like was the realization how to begin this one – and more importantly, why.

I never really felt comfortable with the set of pieces making something as organic a whole as a Sonata ought to be, by definition: the primary issue was how the Nocturne started and ended. “Closed form” is a term we use in classical theory to indicate something that begins and ends in the same tonality. “Open form” means it doesn’t: in other words, there’s no sense of tonal closure. The Nocturne began on E-flat and ended on A – I’m not saying “in” E-flat or A because I’m not using the pitches as key areas, but they’re emphasized pitches and create tonal attractions, regardless how the harmony sounds around them – and I did that primarily because, when I quickly wrote this one, it was going to be the middle of something, maybe the 2nd of three pieces.

But once I started thinking about the other pieces, it eventually migrated to last place, a quiet, rather soft ending - “vague” would be a good way to describe it, as far as finales go. When I wrote the Theme and Variations that were intended to open the set, it never occurred to me I should have paid more attention to how this opening piece balanced the closing piece because at the time, the Nocturne was not yet the last of the pieces. They’re based on different pitch collections and focus on different pitches as tonal centers: in fact, the variations are pretty vague about that in the first place. So between that and this “open form” finale, it was like “okay, so what: they’re just a bunch of separate pieces, not movements of a single, long-form work.”

As the arch form balances the pieces structurally, the 4th and 5th pieces equal the length of the first piece; the first and second piece equal the length of the third piece. The climax of the whole set of pieces occurs at the “mid-point” of the middle piece.

But if I open the 4th piece in the tonal area the 5th ends in, I create a two-part unit that is, then, closed: No. 4 starts on A and builds to the E-flat; No. 5 starts on E-flat and ends on A. In fact, except for the natural break between them, the last note of No. 4 is really the first note of No. 5.

Now, initially, I had thought of this 4th piece as a scary little scherzo, “A Little Nightmare Music,” but as I started sketching out three of the four elements, “scary” didn’t really cut it any more. But once I started planning the very last segment, all five measures of it, it suddenly took on very scary possibilities. This cutting back-and-forth from one element to another is kind of unsettling if not exactly scary but often that’s the way nightmares are: we experience a bunch of things, sometimes seemingly disconnected and at random, which may not seem scary by themselves but there’s something underlying them that scares us, that begins putting the other things into a different context and there, at the end, it’s staring us in the face. And we wake up. Sweating.

That’s how this short little piece works. The “scorrevole” at the end starts quietly but grows quickly louder and more aggressive, the music speeding along with 6 notes to a quick beat. The violinist bows 12 notes to a bow, first, then 6 notes, then after a climax 3 notes and finally a separate attack for each rapid-fire note, sawing away frantically with these rushing scale-like patterns that run from the lowest notes of the instrument to the top register. The piano, meanwhile, is playing similar kinds of patterns first with just a single line, legato, then in octaves, then three octaves apart and then finally alternating right and left hands in a rapid-fire four-octave rush. The last note, an up-beat, leaves you hanging. And I’m sure the performers will be sweating...

So I’m dropping the cute little “Four C Interludes” I’d thought of calling it and going back to the nightmare aspect of it: which fits like a glove with the dreamier mood of the Nocturne that follows: calm is restored and resolution has, by the end, been accomplished. Thus, these two pieces become “Nightmare & Nocturne.”

And – eureka! – suddenly I start realizing how different aspects of the other pieces were accounted for in writing the “Aria & Chaconne” for the middle piece, how the Blues Interruptus, though a complete contrast, was reflected in the more manic Nightmare, and how the mood of the Theme & Variations is reflected in the Nocturne – as well as certain technical things about pitch-sets between the pieces themselves, in lieu of one overall primary pitch-set or tonal scheme that might indicate a more unified whole piece. But it is, now, far more unified than just being five separate pieces. Yeah, they could still be played separately, independently, and stand more or less on their own, but there’s still a quality about them that makes them parts of a whole piece.

And so now, instead of “Five Pieces for Violin and Piano,” I’m going to call it “Sonata for Violin and Piano.”

And that just kind of made my day.

But then let’s not get into the Reality Episode that began a half-hour later over my health care coverage, speaking of nightmares: I had to call them about some form I received that didn’t, as usual, make any sense to me. Since this was really a problem further down the line, this entailed several other calls, one of which involved 28 minutes on hold listening to the most god-awful smooth jazz muzac, as if the rabbit-hole this was leading me into wasn’t bad enough already. When faced with such a byzantine labyrinth – a few years ago, I even took one of these forms into a doctor’s business office and they couldn’t figure it out either – sometimes I think Anna Karenina had the right idea... But though this one seems to have been addressed and perhaps solved, it will still entail more follow-up calls in the next few days just to make sure. While I thought this was all settled before, since I’ve scheduled some minor surgery for next month and it’s still not settled, I can only hope for another epiphany on this front – soon!

By comparison, composing music is simple!

- Dr. Dick

No comments:

Post a Comment