Sunday, December 27, 2009

On the 3rd Day of Christmas

Most of Christmas Day had been spent working – not in the sense of being 'gainfully employed' in the days since I've found myself retired, but composing.

Since springtime, I've been working on a set of seven songs for mezzo and piano, setting poems about inspiration and creativity. There are two left to finish – the opening setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 100 and Rilke's “To Music” which forms the centerpiece of the cycle. The other songs have been finished if not finalized over the intervening eight months (composing, for me, is a slow process).

After about ten days' work outlining the song, work on the Shakespeare setting had been put aside November 1st when I took a month off to write 64,000+ words of a novel for “National Novel Writing Month,” my musical parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol.” While I didn't finish “The Lost Chord,” the further adventures of Dr. Dick attempting to unlock the mysteries of the severed ear found by the fountain at Lincoln Center, once the goal of 50,000 words by the end of 30 days had been met, I decided to get back to work on the interrupted song. Further delays happened when I spent a week writing “Beethoven's Christmas Carol,” another parody (this one based on Charles Dickens' holiday classic): at least I managed to finish it, posting it between Beethoven's Birthday and Christmas Eve.

But on Christmas Day, I managed to “finish” what I call the “first pass at the rough draft.” Notes are in place for the whole song but not yet finalized: there are some minor details to settle and the whole thing must be 'checked' before I can feel it's complete. This aspect of it is a matter of time and concentration but I also want to wait a bit to let it sink in and till I feel it would be a good day: a bad day would be merely wasted time and might do more damage than good, especially if the “inner editor” gains control and scuttles the whole process. Compared to the months it took to write some of the other songs, it's taken only about four weeks to sketch this one, about six minutes' worth of music – but it would only take a few seconds to destroy it.

The song had quickly turned into something more complex that just setting words to music. The idea of a sonnet – especially given the legacy of Shakespeare's language – required something structurally comparable in its music. Since the text is about a poet petitioning an errant muse to come inspire him again (the story, in general, of my life), the idea of a chaconne seemed appropriate: the repetition of a basic harmonic pattern with variations over and around it mirrors the poet's obsession with his errant muse.

I had done something like this last year, spending months working on a chaconne that became the central movement of the Violin Sonata I'd been toying at over the period of a few years. I've never liked the idea of the old-fashioned chaconnes – think Pachelbel's Canon, for better or worse – where the sameness becomes boring in its regularity and repetition if the challenge is not met by the genius of someone like Bach or Purcell. Plus, in writing in a style that is neither entirely tonal nor entirely atonal (despite its use of all twelve notes which does not make it 'twelve-tone' music nor atonal in the strictest sense), the idea of repeating the same chord progressions over and over again – even for a song under six minutes long – was of no interest to me. My harmonic idea – the same basic pattern I'd used in the Violin Sonata's chaconne – would modulate through various “tonalities” before returning to the opening tonality at the end: it thus becomes a “progressive” chaconne rather than a static one.

Without getting into the theoretical details (meaning I just cut 423 words of technical jargon which still hadn't gotten through explaining them), let's say I had planned on three sonic layers.

The first was this harmonic structure on an over-all scope, within which I placed the sixteen statements of this basic chordal pattern, each one cadencing on a different chord (and tonal level) to avoid the sameness of repetition (then, too, some of the chord progressions vary from statement to statement so not every one is exactly the same, like a sequence of one set of chords repeated over and over again spiraling around on different pitch levels).

The second was the vocal line, setting Shakespeare's text of three quatrains and a final couplet (one of the standard sonnet structures). I placed this over the harmonic layer in such a way that the four different “text units” overlap the sixteen harmonic units, creating a greater sense of continuity: ultimately, this makes the music sound less choppy, subdivided by the frequent restatements of the basic chord progression.

The third, though, was going to be tricky. Thinking of the chord progression as basic “left-hand territory,” the “right-hand melody” in the piano would need to be counterpoint to the vocal line and a bit more in the background except at those points where the voice takes a breather.

Now, I'd taken the first layer and superimposed it on a structural grid divided by the Golden Section so rather than moving in the standard operating procedure of parallel phrase lengths – usually 8 measures answered by 8 measures ad infinitem – the phrases (determined by the placement of the chords) seems to move in constantly changing patterns of long beats and short beats, since the Golden Section divides a line or space not in half but according to the fibonacci series, the climax occurring at .617 rather than at the halfway point or the ¾ point or whatever. This gives the impression that the “tempo” of each statement is slightly different: the first one is the longest and they gradually become shorter, so it sounds like, over time, the tempo is accelerating.

When applied to the lines of text, this makes it sound like each quatrain starts out with longer, floating notes that, as the tension increases, become shorter and more dramatic, also giving it a sense that each verse is constantly getting faster (thus, building tension). But it moves at a slightly different rate of speed than the piano's chords move which also creates a kind of tension before the different phrases resolve together. The melody does not move, chunk by chunk, overtop neatly placed chords: both layers are then completely fluid.

So this third layer needed to be somewhere in between and yet still be fluid. This is what counterpoint is all about – the art of writing flowing lines that work independently of each other and are recognizable as complete on their own yet, when combined, operate as a harmonic unit within the larger scope of things. This is the way Bach worked – in fact, it's the way most Renaissance composers worked, too: only the surface language has changed over the centuries.

Just focusing on the piano part, since my “harmonic layer” consisted of triads (three-note chords), the other layer would be more easily differentiated if it's just a single note. That way, you would know which line is which.

Then, around the time of his 101st birthday, I was listening to one of Elliott Carter's piano pieces, the first of Two Diversions (written when he was 90) which consists of one layer of two notes (diads) moving along at a constant rate of speed while the other line (single notes) changes speed constantly.

(You can watch a studio read-through of the piece here: the pianist, Marc Hannaford, sets a metronome for the beat-pulse of the diad, not the written beats you'd see in the score which is constantly changing tempo and meter: check the 'more info' link to see how these notes are grouped together metrically even though the music sounds like it's regular half-notes!)

Anyway, this gave me an idea, though one far simpler to realize than Carter's Diversion.

Without differentiating the registers they'd be played in and calling the harmonic material “left-hand” and the linear material “right-hand” (regardless of which hand will actually end up playing them), I started thinking of this new layer as one starting out very fast and gradually becoming slower toward the end, contrasting with the harmonic layer which starts out very slow and gradually becomes faster.

So now, all layers are mapped out from beginning to end: the next step in the process is going back to make sure how well they interrelate, to fix rhythms, determine the registers for many of the passages (again, to avoid boredom, I don't want all of the harmonic layer to be limited to the “left-hand” register so at some points they'll cross and exchange locations). I also need to determine textures and articulations so they're not all the same with just block chords in the harmony or steady ticking quarter-note-like pulses (regardless of the actual rhythmic values) in the linear layer.

That's something to start working on as soon as I'm done posting this...

Dr. Dick

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