So, continuing on from my previous post about the as-yet-unnamed chamber piece for clarinet ensemble. This new modal way of thinking allows for crunchy discordant harmonies, but without precluding a root note; often a problem I find in writing fully chromatic/atonal music. It’s all too easy to have reams of perceptibly structureless music that go on for ever and ever, tiring an audience and shoring up the (deluded) criticism of contemporary music that it’s just a load of squeaky-bonk rubbish. I recently saw Boulez’s Dérive 2 at the Proms, sandwiched between Beethoen’s 1st and 2nd symphonies. A solid 45 minutes rushing wave of wonderfully complex music, but DAMNif it didn’t rehash a lot of the same old ideas. Seriously, there was about 10 minutes of material there that just got stretched out way too long.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing reams of squeaky-bonk rubbish at all! And I’m by no means a neo-classicist/stuckist/whatevs. But this isn’t the place to have that debate. Anyway, on a pragmatic level, I’m writing with clarinet-playing teenagers in mind. And in my experience, clarinet-playing teenagers are often fiercely resistant to alternative approaches to tonality.
So what should define the root notes of each section? I started thinking about the instruments again. As a clarinettist of – oh jeez, has it been that long? – 14 years, I’d like to think I have a deep knowledge of the instrument that goes beyond my lack of technical mastery. So anyway. I picked the notes of the F major scale as played on the Bb clarinet (So Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D at concert pitch) because it’s probably the easiest scale to play. So the structure of the piece of music is going to be underpinned by conventional tonality! Hooray! So, long story short, I generated a 7-digit chain of 1364572, which trasnslates to E♭, G, C, A♭, B♭, D, F. Generating another 7-digit chain of 6174235 created an order of modes to use for each section. And so! We have created a melodic plan for the piece. It’s vague, nebulous and doesn’t really have any meaning but that’s sort of the point at this stage.
Can you tell I like diagrams? Anyway, the point of this is both that it proves that each section has its own, uh, ‘key’, for want of a better word. The seven notes used in each section are distinct to the other six. It also may prove useful in future in other ways too, as it reveals certain horizontal patterns, and these could easily be adapted to rhythmic figures. Notice how I still haven’t put any notes on paper! Seriously, this is how I write music. I know, right?
Now to consider the overall structure. It’s at this that I should bring in what’s really going on in my head when I write music. For each piece, I tend to have some form of image that sublimates both thematic material and compositional techniques. For a recent sextet, it was a comet flying round narrative space in a certain parabola. For a triptych of trios (the second of which is located here), it was a set of interlocking triangles rotating in three dimensions. For this piece? I see a non-euclidean seven-sided regular solid floating in space, reflecting beams of light that become the music that I’m going to write. I know, so shitting abstract it HURTS.
So anyway. Now to think about how to actually write the music for each section. I initially wanted seven different miniatures that segued together with little sense of repetition (to fit in with the harmonic approach) but on further reflection, I don’t reckon that works too well: since the harmonic system is based on a recognisably “tonal” palette (i.e. there’s a root not), a free structure that floats away into space would sound meandering and crap. Instead, the structure as it stands in my head is based on a partial movement of the aforementioned regular heptoid: swinging in a vaguely parabolic manner through are four distinct styles of music.
- Slow dream-like chords with a free central melody on the lead instrument
- Increased polyphony; flurries of ataxic pitch clusters
- Fugal development between instruments
- High energy, violent.
Speaking of a ‘lead insrument’ (i.e. the part that’s going to get the prominent melodic line within each section) that’s another thing that can be randomly decided. A quick roll of the dice leads to the 7-digit chain 5473261, which means the seven section look thus:
- Alto Clarinet, mode 6, root E♭
- 3rd B ♭ Clarinet, mode 1, root G
- Contrabass Clarinet, mode 7, root C
- 2nd B♭ Clarinet, mode 4, root A♭
- 1st B ♭Clarinet, mode 2, root B♭
- Bass Clarinet, mode 3, root D
- E♭ Clarinet, mode 5, root E
This already creates images of the internal structure of each section, and the manner in which each lead instrument’s going to feature. How to distinguish between B♭ Clarinets? How will the mirrored pair section (1&7, 2&6, 3&5) counteract each other?
With this in mind, it’s almost time to write some actual notes. That’s for next time, though!
I had the good fortune earlier this evening (as I write this at some ungodly hour of the morning fuelled by cottage cheese and cheap vodka) to catch Lawrence Power and the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducting the UK Premier of Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory. And daaaamn was it a good bit of music.
I’d also been fortunate enough to see her interviewed by Andrew McGregor earlier that evening, which gave some insight into her soundworld and methods of writing, featuring performances of her earlier works by students at the Royal College. I don’t recall having heard of her before (though it’s likely she’s cropped up somewhere inside an episode of Late Junction) but god do I feel like I’ve missed out. Put simply, Neuwirth’s music is the type you just want to have written yourself, y’know? Sort of like, somewhere between Lachenmann, Shostakovitch and Derbyshire.
In the talk, Neuwerth cut a dramatic figure. Wearing a jacket covered in various handwritten scrawls, and her hair pushed back in a manner akin to old Ludwig Van’s she immediately took on the role of the composer of genius-touched “other”, the font from which music springs. Normally I’d find the affectation irritating, but her self-effacing manner and obvious propensity to introspection won over my cynicism of the cult of composer-genius. And anyway, she honestly came across as a little charmingly unhinged. As she said herself: “I think you have to be [slightly mentally unstable] to want to write music in the 21st Century”.
But the music itself. The concerto (for it was thus in all but name) was split into five uninterrupted movements of increasingly opaque titling, listed below. I just love the near-complete destruction of any semantic content of the 4th and 5th movements, so alike in their simplicity, but so shockingly dissimilar. It’s almost like a cryptic crossword.1 Wanderer (Präldium) – 2 Sadko – 3 … im Meer versank [… sank to the bottom of the sea …] 4 – 5
An Amphigory is a piece of nonsense verse – think Edward Lear etc – but Neuwirth’s sense of the absurd is matched with a searing honesty to her writing that causes all notions of silliness to be blown away. The nonsense in this case doesn’t refer to the subject matter, but the way in which it’s treated, creating a giddy ride through style and form that creates the mental image (as she said herself) of ripped up posters layered on top of each other.
Power weaved a virtuosic viola line amid swells and snatches of quoted melodies from the orchestra. Dotting between pastiche and ambient soundscape, and flitting between unabashed diatonicism, chromatic harmony and rootless (with a few extended techniques and odd instruments), the opening two movements were a bonkers whirl of postmodern delight.
By the third movement, the music had taken a turn for the darker, with a viola melody scurrying around arpeggiated figures over a menacing low hum from the orchestra, punctuated by sprinkles of percussion. Descending chromatic lines begin to take over, chopped up with frenetic string work from the viola lying somewhere between a satanic barn dance and a particularly acid-fuelled episode of Tom and Jerry.
The final two movements, despite the minimalism hinted at by the title, are as gratifyingly complex as the first three, but tinged wit elements of regret and loss. The harmony has echoes of central European folk music, but never stays in the same place long enough to form any kind of schmaltzy pastoralism. The fifth and final movement, now almost fully displaced from the optimistic pan-tonalism of the earlier sections, starts out as a stark duet between viola and snare drum before ending on a brief and tragic viola solo in the upper end of the range, ending on a harmonic from the opening note.
The earlier comparison to Beethoven is applicable in matters outside of the capillary. Neuwirth’s work is grand, bold and almost sickenly Romantic in its constant shifts in harmonic approach. Almost as if a radio were being scanned through, Imaginary Landscapes–style, and re-orchestrated with a masterful subtlety and sense of colour.
Anyway. Neuwirth doesn’t need my adulation, I’m sure. But yeah. Check her out. I did copy the performance to my hard drive so I may put up an excerpt here after the iPlayer link runs out. But in the mean time, enjoy this.
So I was recently asked to write a piece for a clarinet ensemble. The brief was wide open: something for teenage players of a fairly high standard, playing everything from the Eb to the Contrabass.
Of course, this gave me absolutely no point to start writing from. Of the many neuroses I’ve been developing over the past 3 years, my doubt in the ability to put one note in front of another has been the most prominent. What authority do I have, just an ordinary human, to ordain that an arrangement of sounds should be just so? I mean, I can’t hold Wagnerian levels of control over any music I create because a) I live in a 21st-Century interconnected world full of a billion musics and b) I just don’t have kind of ego. So I tend to use chance methods to create musical rules that write pieces themselves, as well as compositional techniques that allow my subconscious to come to the fore.
So I began with the ensemble itself. Seven distinct parts (Eb, 3 Bbs, Alto, Bass, and Contra). Immediately I was drawn to the number – days of the week, deadly sins, hills of rome, dwarves etc. You name it, the number seven has been culturally attached to it. But most prominently for my purposes was perhaps the most obvious: the amount of notes in a diatonic scale. Of course, this is no way to begin writing music. The seven notes in the major scale have been done to death over the last 350 years. And don’t get me started on minors.
How then to use a seven-note harmonic system in a new and exciting manner? I began to think of modes. Oh, poignant Dorian. Roguish Lydian. Really-hard-to-use-well Locrian. They’re all well and good, but being Caesar-cypher rotations of the original Major tonality I couldn’t really sustain much interest to use them for my own purposes.
It occurs to me at this point that I should break off and briefly clarify both for the sake of anyone at the back of the class and to lay the groundwork for the way of thinking about tonality that I will soon be considering. The major scale is an arrangement of 7 notes picked from the 12 defined within even tempered Western Music, and can be defined as a series of intervals either 1 or 2 semitones in size.
The usual modes, then, can simply be thought of as rotations of this pattern when starting on the same note:
- I – Ionian – TTSTTTS
- II – Dorian – TSTTTST
- III – Phrygian – STTTSTT
- IV – Lydian – TTTSTTS
- V – Mixolydian – TTSTTST
- VI – Aeolian – TSTTSTT
- VII – Locrian – STTSTTT
A simple analysis of these when starting from the same note shows that the note a perfect 5th above the start is the most common across the board (except in the Locrian) – evidence of the dominance of V – I in Western music? Who knows.
So I began to think about other arrangement of 7-note scales. Using only tones and semitones, there are only 2 other sets of modes that repeat at the octave: rotations of TSTTTTS (the ascending melodic scale) and TTTTTSS (a whole-tone scale with a bit on the end). Discounting the latter because its rotations immediately sound boo-o-oooring, I was struck by the distinctly alien set of modes creating by starting on the melodic ascension:
- I – TSTTTTS
- II – STTTTST
- III – TTTTSTS
- IV – TTTSTST
- V – TTSTSTT
- VI – TSTSTTT
- VII – STSTTTT
(note: the prevalence of the 5th is not so strong in this set, lacking as it is in modes III, VI and VII)
With these seven modal areas defined, I decided the piece of music should have seven distinct sections, each one based on each modal area arranged in a random fashion (decided by rolling a dice). But where we go from there is a story for another post…