Monday, 14 December 2015

Composer's toolbox - size matters

In a toolbox one finds other items of use other than tools, Mrs. H.’s father always has a tub of Vaseline (petroleum jelly) into which he dips screws before working them into wood or stone, this preparation saves him struggling years later when trying to remove the screws.  Forward thinking, preparation, these are the themes of this blog, in this case Vaseline could be compared to thinking about the scale of a composition. 

Clearly some music is written to demand, such music is outside the scope of this blog, but film composers and other composers may gain some musical insights from considering that there are limits to how well particular harmonies, rhythms, textures and musical devices can be used over a period of time.

There are two major considerations in play when a composer contemplates the scale of his / her music, financial and artistic.  This blog is only concerned with the latter.

Instrumental forces are a consideration in the scale of one's music but there is an even more significant issue. When contemplating an artistic venture how many composers consider the length of the music first?  There are merits to this action which may not be immediately clear, so this blog concerns itself with matters arising from the question of scale.  I recall as a student entering the room of a highly respected composer and seeing on the blackboard a multi coloured chalk diagram of the form of a large scale work with periods of time clearly marked out.  I made some comment as to the Beethoven sketch books which had extensive blank spaces between thematic material.  Both composers were considering long term planning which is one aspect of this thorny problem of determining the correct scale.

What decisions determine the size of a composition? Is there a point at which musical material can no longer sustain itself?  Could Ravel's Bolero have doubled its length and be as effective?
Would one more or one less Vexation have made any difference if we follow the notion of it being repeated 840 times? 
Listening to vintage recordings like Schnabel playing Beethoven sonatas, errors and all, we feel a tension when he repeats the first section of the Hammerklavier sonata:

with modern studio performances the repeat could be a cut and paste recording as the performances are near identical each and every time.  Getting to the point one should ask why are there written repeats in Baroque and Classical music? The common answer is usually "it is in binary form" (adapt as required for sonata, ternary etc.).  That may be true, but why repeat the music at all?  There could be matters of ornamentation to provide alteration on a second playing as suggested by Giorgio Sollazzi in a recent e-mail.  I found the repeats of melodies at the octave in part of the Goldberg variations performance by Schiff less than convincing, but that is a matter of taste. One argument is that in a period when repeats were unavailable one had a second chance to become familiar with the music.  Accounts of performances in Beethoven's time suggest that audiences at performances of his symphonies were determined to get their money's worth demanding several repeats of new music, usually movement by movement.

Perhaps a more technical answer is that the main argument of the sonata form is in the exposition where the change of key takes place so we get to hear the ‘trick’ twice before moving on to the development.  It is an architectural matter, the repeat focuses the intensity of the changes preparing us for the development (maximum tension) followed by dissolution in the recap. It may be the case that the architecture of a four part piece is more satisfying than three though I know of no evidence to suggest that it is so.

Is length determined by pre compositional decisions?  The question isn't as simple as it sounds.
If the music is based on a text there will be impositions on the music, if a decision is made to set "A Midsummer's Dream" not only will the composer be faced with illustrative decisions about the music to accompany Bottom but many more about how much text to include and inevitably questions about the degree of variation the motifs used will sustain, and their clarity when it comes to association with character and plot. Could it be that Mendelssohn’s Overture is a superbly crafted work which provides for those who know the play all the detail required in a shorter frame than the opera, and therefore less is more? Again that is a matter of taste.

Does a poem offer a guide to length?  It would be a travesty to remove text from a poem which has structure of its own.  The usual advice offered to young composers is don't select great poetry, which is a covert way of saying select something you can manipulate to your heart’s content.  In the case of “lesser” poetry words can be repeated for any number of good reasons and a short poem can become a lengthy piece of music.  But contrary to expectation Gustav Holst sets Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, (along with fragments of the poet’s notes), in a large scale symphonic structure.  The work came into disrepute for taking such an approach, and the work has unjustly suffered since. In that example I cannot fault the piece on matters of length, it is well, indeed beautifully, proportioned.

Is the difficult question being avoided here?  Are there musical features that determine the length of a piece of music?  For the sake of a sensible discussion we will assume that the length is one of musical satisfaction to an experienced listener.  To discuss the implications of Cage’s work Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow aS Possible) would be fascinating but again outside the “toolbox” considerations.

Let us consider a short composition, Beethoven wrote a number of Bagatelles, Op. 109 No 10 is the shortest I know taking far less than a minute to play. It has a repeat of the first 8 bars. The key is A major but the opening is on B7 rising to E and the fourths cycle is continued to A which is reached in a satisfactory fashion in the 8th bar.  The reduction of the music shows fourths at play in that the melodic material forms a two part architecture the first part a repeat up the perfect fourth The second part of 5 bars continues the rhythmic pattern in the bass (the syncopation lasts the whole piece)over a pedal A. so settling the music back on the tonic after its momentous journey. So the progression reads:
B -  E  -  A - E - A

Having played with Satie's Vexations I was tempted to miss the final bar and loop back to the beginning. For my amusement I arranged the Bagatelle this way as if I was returning to the previous blog on earworm, purists should avoid visiting this performance:

The first composer that comes to mind when considering short pieces is Webern, many do take little time to perform but they are full of complexity which requires considerable repeated listening.
Two longer late works are Variations (Op. 27 and Op 30) here the length is a result of extending the manipulation of the material with an historic eye on the past.  There are two pieces which also suggest brevity in their titles 6 Bagatelles Op. 9 and Op. 11 Three Little Pieces, but when you examine the list of compositions descriptions are far and few between.  There is a reasonable argument for making a short 12 note work, once you have expressed the row in its four forms you have played through the full matrix.  There are a large number of modern works that use a matrix and there is much discussion regarding how one terminates its progression once under way.  “Stone Litany” by Maxwell Davies is such a piece but it has the advantage of setting a text so limiting the progress is less of a problem.
If we are having difficulty with determining what short means perhaps considering reasons for composing a long work might prove easier.
One of the great advantages of composing on a larger scale is that a change of harmony can be prepared over a lengthy period of time so when it arrives it can carry considerable power and musical weight, the opening 15 minutes of "Rheingold" provides excellent examples of 'arrival points'.  Greater length also permits repetition of other musical elements to prepare for drama, such as the final harmonies of the Bolero. Consider how the march in the Leningrad Symphony builds a tension contrasting its extreme banality with a rapid escalation into intensely emotional music.  Banality only works well within a larger scale composition, and it works very well indeed in Mahler, but Mahler's banality is never quite what it seems, Arnold Schoenberg made several points on the 6th symphony which challenge the term. However we must keep in mind that a longer work may be a collection of shorter paragraphs, sometimes quite distinct from each other. 
Let us take as an example the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, the Pastoral, and view it in terms of texture rather than key structure.  It divides into three sections, as might be expected in sonata form, with the central part being dominated by rhythmic design, but that isn't the whole story by any means.
The music opens with a pedal D sustained for 39 bars, this is followed by a link through to the ‘turn’ section, (I suggest this term as it opens with a musical turn in steady quavers), this is followed by a second link, basically a rising scale in dotted minims, leading to the third section based on an internal ostinato figure which closes with cascades, this passage is repeated.  The first third of the movement concludes with a lyrical melody played over staccato chords.  We have 5 sections of different textures. This is contrasted by the middle which for the greater part plays with one idea, the contraction and then expansion of a rhythmic figure.

It is unthinkable for a development section in Classical music to completely turn away from previous melodic material so there is a frame with the pedal section and lyrical melody providing in truncated form an introduction and exit / link to the recap.
The illustration above shows the rhythmic play. 

Following this the recap follows precisely the plan of the exposition but adds a coda consisting of the pedal passage material.
The overall bar length of the music is
Exposition       162 bars
Development 104 bars
Recap             169 bars
Coda               24

an approximate ratio of 7/4/7/1.

Beethoven's sonata shows a balanced (if not architecturally precise) approach to long term planning and serves as an excellent model as to how to refresh his listener’s memory for details, but it is a collection of musical ideas not one extended musical thought.

If one is exploring a process e.g.  a progression through a cycle of fifths then there is a very obvious final goal, the return to the home note.  This process will have an effect on the lengths of sections, dwell over long on one key and the cycle becomes less well defined.
Almost all music designed primarily by length of time will reveal sets of proportions, the precise timings in Bartok's music reveal more than just the duration of the music.  Stockhausen in “Telemusic” is kind enough to provide sound markers to indicate the passage of time.  I’ll take a quotation from an article from News Music Art Info which provides a lot of information on Fibonacci and Stockhausen’s interest in it.

Telemusik consists of 32 so-called structures, or “moments” as Stockhausen also calls them. Every structure is a segment varying from 13 to 144 seconds, and every part opens with the stroke of one of six various Japanese ceremonial percussive instruments, where the instruments with the shortest duration introduce the short structures, and the instruments with the longest decay introduces the long structures.
In this way the structure of the composition becomes very clear, and the introductory percussive sound also gives us an idea of the length of the segment’s duration. Each new attack signals the passage of time, and a change to a new form of modulation and timbre. The structure’s duration is simply taken from the Fibonacci sequence and translated into seconds. The number of times each duration is to be repeated is also multiplied by a number from the Fibonacci sequence, thus leaving us with 32 structures. 

In an interview for the BBC Jonathan Harvey was asked if he knew precisely how his music would end and how it would progress to its conclusion.  His answer was somewhat unexpected,
When young he would know precisely the plan, but as he aged he became increasingly responsive to the narrative of the music.
I will take his suggestion and end this narrative here.

In the e-mail from Giorgio he provided three observations on length and repetition, regarding Classical form the main purpose of repetition is for recollection, which in the case of a development like the Beethoven sonata in D, where the main argument puts the thematic considerations largely aside, is a valid point.  Of the other two I have mentioned embellishment above, but there has been little room to consider dance:

In some compositions like Mazurkas, Waltzs and other dances (Chopin, Listz, Brahms, Dvorak a.s.o.) repetitions give sense of joy or simply the chance to dance and dance and dance ...

Being a dour Welshman I forget that from time to time repetition can be for fun.