Sunday, 31 January 2016

Harmony, Sound Colour and Beyond

We have been working on Bax symphonies and trying to solve many puzzles this impressive collection of musical material presented. 1st symphony opens with an announcement.  The dark diminished 7th Eb chord is played by the low register dark woodwind accompanied by tremolo gong – crescendo pp to p. This is stabbed by two harps ff playing the same chord arpeggiated over two octaves. This is dramatic enough. But the announcement continues with the same chord and entirely different timbre of strings, bass-oboe and flutes to present a ferocious rhythmic figure leading to yet another statement of the chord with a different timbre. All this drama packed into a few bars is achieved by the repetition of the same chord using different timbre. This hard to forget opening statement is not really harmonically very interesting. After all it is only one chord. Rhythmically it is Taaaa Tram, tah  ta ta ta taaah. Not earth-shaking either. So what makes this opening phrase memorable? One may suggest that is meticulous orchestration and in this case the orchestration is excellent, unfortunately the answer is not that straight forward. In fact, the question posed is not the right question; I think it is just as important to ask: Did we miss something? Is there another musical property we should include into our considerations when we are dealing with music produced by a group of dissimilar instruments rather than a single type? The answer to this is yes, there is another property that is rarely mentioned or considered.

In his book "Sound Colour", Wayne Slawson described what he called sound colour which is not the same as timbre. The timbre is defined by "All ways that two sounds of the same pitch, loudness, and apparent duration may differ". Timbre is a flexible definition that may or may not include vague descriptor such as tone quality; but when all said and done timbre is a measurable quality which can be fully defined using physical parameters and measured or codified by the properties of the sound wave spectrum. On the other hand, according to Slawson's definition, "sound colour is a property or attribute of auditory sensation; it is not an acoustic property. Similarly visual colour is a perceptual attribute, not a property of light." (1)

Without going into the technical details of the sound colour theory or using its principles, it is easy to see that the mixture of timbres in the opening phrase of Bax's first Symphony provide the colours of the sound painting. I am sure these colours will be perceived differently by each listener. Even if a general agreement can be achieved with respect to the implied general meaning of the phrase, the emotional details, filtered by the experiences of each listener will differ. That is not the significant point. The distinction between orchestration and use of sound colour is similar to mixing of paints (orchestration) and using the mixed paint in ways that will enable the composer to convey his/her ideas in creative ways. To demonstrate this is possible. In an old composition, I used only two instruments that were capable of producing different pitches (Timpani and orchestral tubular bells) and each instrument was limited to 3 pitches, (Timpani; A, F, D and bells E, G, B) the rest of the instruments were percussion instruments without defined pitch. The choice of beaters and the attack was left to the eight (8) players who played bass, snare and taiko drums, cymbals, Large and medium gongs, and eight orchestral stationary tom-toms. Clearly, harmony and tone centres of this composition are undefined. But listening to it, one senses an undefinable (of course) but palpably perceivable harmonic progression. The rhythms are not regular, or march like and often enough they are not very interesting, and the mesmerising quality of some dance rhythms are not there. Yet, in combination with other colours the piece provides a coherent picture and a friend very familiar with open hearth steel mills remarked how well it captured the work atmosphere in any one of those old fashioned mills.

While I have a number of percussion rich pieces, this is the closest to a pure undefined pitch composition I know of.  Probably, there are other and better pieces in the literature that would fit the only colour requirement, and I would have preferred to use a piece written by someone else instead of my piece.

This is also a brief note on the potential opportunity for discovering new colours through combination of percussion instruments. It requires experimentation and that requires assistance from a friend or colleague. It is another tool in the composer's tool-kit. However, the use entails availability of a music store with a friendly proprietor who would let you and one or more friends try out combinations of percussion instruments. There might be a few such locations that would be willing to help you out but it requires considerable luck to find one. The music director or the percussion tutor of a local school orchestra or marching band as well as the percussionists from a local symphony orchestra might be willing to make suggestions and help you.

A possible but less satisfactory solution is the use of computer generated or sampled percussion instruments. It is definitely a less inconvenient possibility but the sounds are generally not as rich as the acoustic instruments, I have not found one that will accommodate different beaters –  if there is one, most likely it is a very pricey venture.

In addition to percussion instruments a great deal of sounds can be generated using a digital synthesis technique. This also opens up possibilities for experimentation and discovery of different colours. Those who would like to carry out experiments to discover new colours would be well advised to plan the experiment carefully, record the trials and assess the quality of combinations for your artistic needs. With so many variables associated with percussion (such as beaters, the contact point from centre towards the rim, etc. will have a significant effect on the combination of sounds produced).

"Sounds of an  Old Steel Mill" can be found in Soundcloud through the link:

The score can be Downloaded from IMSLP – Its number is #408862, If you wish to print it, please note that it is on a B4 paper and must be shrunk to fit A4 or 8 ½ x 11 paper

(1) Wayne Slawson "Sound Color " University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London (1985) pp(18 – 21)

The Ken Hannaford reworking of "Sounds of an  Old Steel Mill" using sampled metal sounds can be heard at:

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Jeff Lade - Music review

Jeff Lade is a regular poster on G+, when one encounters a person in this fashion it is Impossible not to construct some sort of mental image of the character.  I mention this because there seems to be a discrepancy between the written word and the music.  The G+ posts are often straight speaking and political, the music is far more inward directed and reflective. There are other types of messages which spread information, e.g. helpful and supportive news, this is reflected in music which is intimate and companionable, sometimes not far off the four part harmonies of chorales / hymns. Jannnat has many of these characteristics, with its repetitive and lyrical linear movement.  Listening to the phrase structure not only is there repetition and gradual variation, but the rhythms produce lines of music close to the rhythms of speech, quite intimate speech.  In this work the linear progressions form some dissonant chords but it is gentle resolution that closes the music that is most memorable.  The melodic phrasing is regularly repeated and works like a fixed motif.

Another contrast between text and music arises from the titles. While these are personal they are not always wholly revealing. At the worst when they seem descriptive as in Composer - odd rhythm, and jazz world, and western harmonies, to have the video then display "Little ditties" throws the listener off balance. However once inside the music clarity prevails, in this piece there is a warm conclusion generated again from simple figures (mostly descending in this case). From these short motifs the composer manages to conjure many different types of music, everything from fairground music to gamelan.  The performance in my mind should be faster than in the video shared and the metronomic playing on the marimba detracts rather than enhances the movement of the music.
Tina's Chatter again has rolling events based on diatonic and pentatonic material.  The recurring material is used like a 'head' in jazz binding fragments of music together but permitting various degrees of play to follow.
The movement "Ricare 3 Stoogies" displays a score and the sparseness of material is apparent to anybody takes time to follow the reductions and expansions of the fifth based material.  It is wonderful how simple rhythmic and melodic figures combine and sustain repetition here.  It seems strange to me that with the composer's passion for matters American including many of its composers, that the music, especially in this style, sounds so un-American, Jeff might like to comment on this, and several other points and give us a clearer picture of his background and intentions.
The last two pieces Bach Ala Mode and Bach rhythmic cross phase both have, as indicated in the titles quotation at their heart, it would be hard to miss.  The latter piece is skillfully worked; the concluding section from the sul ponticello is delightfully worked and logical in its outcome.  The Bach Ala Mode has two layers constantly contrasting, as if presenting two different aspects of a personality.  What comes through in both is a linear progression that sustains the intention of the music. The interplay between pulses is well crafted in both works.
The works that Jeff Lade has chosen to share have many common characteristics and intentions; I would like to hear more of the music to understand the development of his musical thought.  It is no easy matter to express oneself with the bare minimum of musical material, and easy to hide behind complexity. It is refreshing and a pleasure to know of composers who aim for this level of craftsmanship.

Nurtan’s opinion:

Jeff's pieces reminded me of Allen Ginsberg poetry: Read without paying attention to detail they sound hollow and at times childish, but when read with care they are thoughtful and carry their message with an aesthetically sound, musically clear manner. The message is not always obvious – sometimes obfuscated by the title - but, the compositions as a whole are compact and complete and all said and done they represent a commendable effort. They show expertise and sensitivity as well as a tinge of humour which enriches the generally Spartan approach. I am very impressed.

Jeff Lade compositions on you tube are found below:

Jannnat is on soundcloud only:

Looped 3 Stoogies Ricare
Miniscule ditty/odd rhythms and jazz world and western harmonies
Tina's Chatter
Bach ala mode 1
Electronic crossphasing, rhythmic mash up

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Links to G+ composer's works

KHannafordFantasy on Fragments of Frank Bridge
KHannafordAbbey Arches
KHannafordDreams in Extreme Old Age for String Quartet
KHannafordOdd is Love
KHannafordIn Memoriam J. Harvey
KEsmenAftershock Op. 60
NEsmenA Murder Mystery
NEsmenRhythmic Variations No 1 Op. 5
NEsmen4 Miniatures with the Same Cadence Op.38
NEsmenAncient Airs and Dances Op. 68
NEsmenOctet Op.52
GSollazziFreud and the Moon
GSollazziEvoked Potential Cult
GSollazziForse neanche il futuro (Perhaps even the future)
GSollazziPiano Sonata the first movement
GSollazziGelida torre (Cold tower)
GSollazziFor Maurizio Pollini
JLadeLooped 3 Stoogies Ricare
JLadeMiniscule ditty/odd rhythms and jazz world and western harmonies
JLadeTina's Chatter
JLadeBach ala mode 1
JLadeElectronic crossphasing, rhythmic mash up

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Zen of Musical reasoning.

The following section added some thoughts to the diagram and has been moved here at a later date.

A walk through the use of the "Zen of Musical Reasoning" as a tool to analysis. 

The music chosen to illustrate the use of the mind map is the third section of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.  The blog is written more or less in real time and models my way of thinking about a composition in the process of analysis.  It would be useful to have a copy of the mind map to follow my train of thought, but it isn't vital.

The music, if it has a single intention, seems to be artistic in that it is a song of praise, based on Psalm 133 verse 1, and the whole of Psalm 131.
As my Hebrew is nonexistent I went to my copy of the RSV for translations.131 reads:
O Lord my heart is not lifted up,
My eyes are not raised too high,
I do not occupy myself with things
Too great and too marvelous for me
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a child quieted at its mother's breast....

133 reads:
behold, how good and pleasant it is
When brothers dwell in unity.

So we have a meditative and humble attitude (which some might see as contrary to the flamboyant figure in Bernstein) and a coda about reconciliation and accord.

As this seems to have covered the top boxes on the artistic side the third criteria should be dealt with, does the music engage the emotions?  Clearly the answer is yes, but there is mixed emotions here, the opening is quite severe but each of the alternating phrases has a different character.  The opening 19 bars are like a dialogue where the fourths based opening phrase is adamant and the stepwise phrase gradually yields to the main body of the music from 20.  It seems we have a self-portrait preparing us for the Psalm.

Working the technical side it seems that the main intention is to explore a pair of fourths as a motive, C/G with F/B flat, taken from the opening phrase. This is reworked in the Adonai section which opens with a pentatonic figure D,E, A,G,B, itself rich in fourths,/fifths. The answering phrase is chromatic though the placing of the fifths in the bass resolves the tension at the close of the phrase.  This call and respond like arrangement continues until bar 27 when the phrases overlap and the calming effect of long pedal notes brings increased calm to the music. 

With a work that is dominated by artistic intention (Bernstein describes how he had turned his back on serialsim in a poem written about the Chichester Psalms) it is not surprising to find that the design is in part determined by the text with word painting.  At bar 35 with "my soul is as a weaned child" we have a stream of sixths on D/B and C'/A' suggesting a gentle rocking motion, such as in a lullaby, so satisfying the concept of a cliché in the music.  Why 6ths when the main material is based on fifths?  Sixths are more gentle and appropriate; the pitches B/D open the answering phrase at the opening of the movement leading to a chain of third's in the upper part against a chain of fourths in the lower.

The history of Chichester Psalms is easy enough to research so I shall save time and avoid comment on that.

I’ll  express a personal point of view and say that Bernstein is exploring a love of sound based on studies of composers close to his own heart.  There is an element of homage to Stravinsky both in technique and pure sound. 
One can never really know another person's religious views but there is great empathy with the text and the sound of the words (no English translation in the score).  There are several references to church music in the score, particularly in the harmonies for and placement of the voices.

Having generated the main body of my commentary my intention would be to concentrate further on the technical side and resolve some of the following questions:

Is the music bitonal in sections? If not what is the logic behind the progression of the chords particularly in the opening 20 bars.
There appears to be a continual progression towards G particularly from 45 onwards, is this prepared for throughout the movement.
Does the movement stand alone in the progression or are the three movements linked by motifs and design.

When Nurtan read through this commentary he became quite enthusiastic about the matter of bitonality, so I’ll enclose his reply:

Is the music bitonal in sections? if not what is the logic behind the progression of the chords particularly in the opening 20 bars. I think it
is. Minor third or sixth bitonal arrangements provide for natural
pentatonic relationship - like the pentatonic chords in the Fabric of
Sounds. Also bitonal arrangements will transfer between the tonic and the
dominant seamlessly. Following this logic if G is the primary tonic any
operation on its dominant D (for that matter on subdominant C the will be
seamlessly transferred to G. D/B bitonal fits this picture pretty well.

There appears to be a continual progression towards G particularly from 45
onwards, is this prepared for throughout the movement. If G is the principal
tonality then this may not be prepared for throughout the movement. Without
saying that it is not a continual progression towards G, the bitonality will
make the progression very natural so that it will feel like a continual
progression towards this center.

With bitonal writing, the relationships and the chords are naturally developed or suggested, 
so even if it is an unintentional or deliberate progression, the combinations generated with the bitonality, D may suggest one.

Does the movement stand alone in the progression or are the three movements linked by motifs and design?
I think it is a continuous piece with respect to both motives and design. I am not sure at this point; I haven't listened to the Psalms for some time. 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Art v architecture.  The music of Takemitsu.

There is no shortage of commentaries on Takemitsu's music, and there is a great deal of agreement on the main issues.  For this reason the blog will restrict itself to matters of interest for composers and the general listener of contemporary music.

The main point of interest is that Takemitsu's music does not conform to the principles of strict organisation.  This makes Takemitsu more of a craftsman in his approach than an architect, or as the music historians would have us understand, a gardener who places his timbres and phrases with an eye for balance of colour and form.  For those who enjoy gardening (like my wife) there is a need to form collections or groups of plants in groups, as singular plants are easily lost, having heard this stated throughout my life I shall take it as gospel!  If the metaphor holds one should hear collections of phrases of similar material with spaces to articulate the design of the garden, much as seen in the image below.

There are early works which make use chance elements and as such fall outside the restricted and ordered world of modality, these include "Ring" 1961, "Corona"  1962, and "Dorian Horizon" 1966.  There is a recording of "Corona" by Roger Woodward which demonstrates admirably the contrast between control and freedom in Takemitsu's hands. There is no You Tube video of this, the Jim O’ Rourke version is more restrained with the drone / improvisation contrast discussed in previous blogs more apparent.

 Images of the graphic scores, those I have been able to find, show an artistic economy of line and space with some musical indicators to provide recurring motifs or approximations of motifs.
The modal interest which is the main concern of these articles can be heard from the earliest works, "Green" contrasts dissonant music and gentle modality. That description underplays the range of expression in the music where he first impression one gets is the influence of Messiaen, bird song included.  Repeated hearings bring out a wealth of detail which eventually binds into a stream of continuous lyricism behind the orchestral fragmentation.
Reading about Takemitsu's early life there was an appear in the lyrical quality of popular songs heard on the radio, and there are biographical indications that Takemitsu regularly sang through his musical ideas whilst involved in their creation. The distillation of sounds in the final minute of the work is masterful in its economy.  The recording with Knussen is available on You Tube, where it has received less than a hundred views at this time!

The use of modality becomes increasingly refined throughout his artistic life, with age there is refinement of style and simplicity. The restrictions placed on the use of modes will be illustrated with examples from Les Yeux Clos II (1988).  There is a score with this music so readers may follow up in greater detail the ideas presented here.

Takemitsu's music makes use of a wide range of techniques of organisation, modes, counterpoint, and repetition in abundance, all of which gives a clarity to the music which makes it immediately accessible. Taking a chordal progression from Les Yeux Clos one can hear that the motion is quite simple, a movement of parallel perfect and augmented fourths spiced with a further semitone dissonance, the result is a series of closely related chords lacking the precision of serial music, but beautiful and clearly distinct as a unit for repetition and development in the work as a whole.

Analysts have found several methods of working around the in exact placement of notes chords and sections including reasonable percentage levels of accuracy on one hand and non-musical accounts on the other.  Perhaps the best indicator of use for inexperienced composers is that Takemitsu reserves the right to add and subtract notes from collections as he pleases; the antithesis of serial approaches, and perhaps a reaction against slavish imitation, which would be frowned upon in the Tao!
For the composers reading this blog the association between Cage and Takemitsu requires comment, though I will try and keep the Zen references to the minimum (despite the fact that both Nurtan and I have some interest in this philosophy / religion). For me the most important musical influence lies as much in Taoism as Zen, the balance of forces in Ying and Yang, and where there is balance, the tension created between the two extremes. It may have been Cage that made Takemitsu aware of the musical importance of silence, but in Japanese culture the philosophical theory would be well understood.  While silence is a feature of Takemitsu's thinking, sustained and dying sounds (decrescendo) are most significant, particularly in the piano works where the pedal is of considerable importance. These long ‘pauses’ are useful for shaping the composition by breaking the music into short paragraphs of evolving textures, they also permit intense and complex figures to be heard and musically "examined" by the listener.
The movement of parallel chords and similar sounding chords is familiar to any audience of jazz music particularly from Oscar Peterson onwards, and it is of little surprise that Takemitsu experienced and enjoyed the sounds of jazz from an early age.  Add to the mix his fondness for  the music of Debussy, Faure, Frank and most importantly Messiaen, one has no difficulty relating his ‘modern’ textures to these roots.
As stated, the clarity and simplicity of Takemitsu's style becomes ever more apparent in his late period, Nostalghia is one of the most accessible of his late works.  Before listening to the recording play the 0,1,4,5,8,9 hexachord and get the sound of the superimposed augmented triads in your head (use C natural for 0) and the music becomes remarkably clear to follow.
The music is a reflection on a film by Tarkovsky of the same name, there are two short clips of the film available on YouTube which speak volumes about pace, dwelling on a moment in time and the tension created between sounds.

The symbolism in the second clip of making the journey with a candle without its being extinguished may be comprehended by a practitioner of Zen as being similar to the task of reaching for a goal (enlightenment) in which the achievement results in the death of self. The use of Verdi’s music at the final moment is as chilling as it is beautiful.  It is of little wonder that Takemitsu wanted to write a musical commentary on this remarkable film.
Of the modes used the octatonic mode (2nd mode of limited transposition) occurs with some frequency, the example below is again taken from Les Yeux Clos.

It may be noted that mode 6 is also used regularly by Takemitsu, in Forte's classification the two modes are 8-25 0,1,2,4,6,7,8,10 and 8-28 0,1,3,4,6,7,9,10.  One characteristic of both modes is that the regularity of spacing prevents hierarchical references such as found in tonal music, as a result the music can create a sense of stillness, valuable to his creation of contrast between paragraphs of music.  There is no naivety in the use of these modes, the placement of notes show both an awareness of articulating localised harmonic areas and creating tension by voicing the progression of individual phrases.

The self-imposed restriction of a thousand words for these blogs means that a number of beautiful and remarkable extracts have been passed over, but I hope that the blog has opened a window on Takemitsu’s method and philosophy. Most of all as a guide to younger composers one should take away two ideas, firstly that exact and rigorous control is not an absolute necessity, and secondly the old adage “be true to yourself” is an essential part of the creative process, even if it isn’t taught on academic courses.

Monday, 11 January 2016

So you want to write beautiful music?

The analysis of this Mazurka by Chopin is intended for younger composers who may be surprised by how relevant a composer he is to their study of composing techniques, the control of dissonance, and the aesthetics of music.
The music below is a reduction of the Op. 17 no. 2 Mazurka by Chopin. I came upon it as I had been persuaded by my wife to alter my habit of playing Bach Preludes and Fugues each night before sleeping, finding an alternative didn't come easily, but eventually I decided to turn to these Chopin dances. This Mazurka seemed to please and I was told it was remarkably beautiful. I decided to try and uncover what it was that my wife was responding to in this music.

The dance rhythms are apparent in the outer sections but the music isn't dominated by these rhythms, this is noticeable when comparing it to the Op. 17 no. 1. The central section marked dolce has a lengthy (for the length of the music) transition which is in straight crotchets, again suggesting that the cohesive quality of the music is in the melodic or harmonic design.

Observing the contour of the melody one notices that it is little more than a descending scale with octave shifts to draw the ear from too obvious an outline. The supporting harmony in rising fourths plays between E minor and G major.

The following 8 bars shows a more chromatic nature, always playing between B and E and G and C, the slower harmony is based on B to E with a brief 5ths descent from C' through F' to B. Ten bars of the section are replayed with a change of harmony for the following 2 bars to avoid the F sharp and instead play once again with the E minor G major ambiguity where the harmony pulls towards G particularly in the 13 bars of the transition based on a pedal G. 

The blue ink section marks out the use of fourths with a progression to E natural as the focal point of the first part of the second section, marked by three consecutive octave E's before switching to G.  The orange highlighter demonstrates how the melody has retained the descending scale characteristic. The most delightful harmony occurs four bars before the stretto (marked in turquoise ink) where the earlier chromatic rise is reworked to switch back chromatically to B for the final statement a reworking of the A section with the harmony reworked for the final cadence.
The long term harmonic thinking can be reduced further (refer to the bottom stave) to show the simplicity of the progressions, with the minimal use of chromaticism to add spice to the final section. When playing through the music the chromatic and dissonant nature of the chords is apparent particularly towards the close. What may be less obvious is the degree of preparation to permit these chords to function so well in context.

The question posed is why this music is beautiful? It seems to be answered by the response being directed by the simplicity of its design and progressive harmony.  While it would be difficult to compose a contemporary work using the same harmonic progressions there is nothing to prevent other intervals and harmonies reworking the approach taken by Chopin. It is also a significant example of the importance of the architecture of a work in its aesthetic integrity and its comprehensibility by the audience. Even an aleatory piece must have some logic or design behind it; otherwise it would be akin to a pile of bricks rather than a structure.  Clearly a well-designed opus is not unique to Chopin, It is present in every coherent composition. The architecture analogy holds true for the music of any kind; thus enables this article to be applicable to any musical creation from the simplest tune to the most complicated modern composition.

Having observed at least part of the thinking behind Chopin’s work I wanted to rework some of the ideas in a contemporary language. At this time I have been (with Nurtan) looking at the third mode of limited transposition, which could be heard as a mid-point between old and new harmony.  This is ideal material for making references to the past.

The string quartet which I am concerned with at the moment consists of musical scenes suggested by a discussion I had with my very elderly mother about her dreams / nightmares which had become increasingly vivid and colourful.  The second section is the reworking of the Chopin, and the following two examples demonstrate the reworking of the scale based melody (A) and a reworking of the left hand pulse (B). 

The close of the first part of the melody closes with a perfect fourth which is worked into the second section melody in a simple rising sequence.  To show the connection with the Mazurka the opening notes are played towards the end by violin 1 in the upper registers to suggest one of the patients singing (or whistling) the melody while dancing around the floor.  The only feature not reworked is the pedal transition as I wish to use this idea in a later section of the quartet.

I can anticipate several possible criticisms after revealing the connection between the two works, and the most likely is that the quartet goes against the concept of beautiful music.  However if we take Keats and work on the notion that truth is beauty, and confront the reality that we are imperfect and sometimes cruel creatures in our dealings with our fellows, then there has to be a type of beauty in honesty.

A recording with score of the Mazurka is available here:

and a link to the short second section of the string quartet "dreams in extreme old age"