Thinking About Structure or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Abstraction

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.

It makes sense, honest!

Sections progress left-to-right: utilised notes are shaded in grey, roots are in bold.

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.

Sections 1 to 7, described with relative length, with thematically linked section in similar shading.

  1. Slow dream-like chords with a free central melody on the lead instrument
  2. Increased polyphony; flurries of ataxic pitch clusters
  3. Fugal development between instruments
  4. 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:

  1. Alto Clarinet, mode 6, root E♭
  2. 3rd B ♭ Clarinet, mode 1, root G
  3. Contrabass Clarinet, mode 7, root C
  4. 2nd B♭ Clarinet, mode 4, root A♭
  5. 1st B ♭Clarinet, mode 2, root B♭
  6. Bass Clarinet, mode 3, root D
  7. 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!


About thmsbsh

Sound poet, gauche leftist, occasional clarinettist.

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