Saturday, 21 May 2016

Some composing outcomes when using O1 and O2 scales

In today’s blog we would like to share some correspondence via e-mail. The material is tidied up a little for clarity but essentially it follows our reactions to writing some (very different sounding) music based on symmetrical scales. We hope that this, and the links, may offer some ideas for further music, and if you do use these scales we would love to hear of your experiences in using them.

(Nurtan’s mail).

I would like to share some thoughts on using the O1 and O2 scales covered in some detail in our blog. (see links below).

Dealing with these particular scales, which were new to both Ken and myself, was like ploughing an unfamiliar field. In order to prepare ourselves for the exploration we required some perspective of the origins of the material. Historically the O1 and O2 scales were first examined when we were trying to understand the methods, scales and sonorities used by Frank Bridge in his Piano Sonata. While they belong to the general class of symmetric scales, these O scales have a cyclic property that results in an abundance of whole tone, whole- half tone, half tone chords. The concurrent melodies have an open chord feeling and relationships that have intriguing sonorities. In addition, as explained in the technical blog on the O scales, they are compactly interchangeable which makes them very useful tools for modulation and creating transitions. The property that facilitates modulation also creates an ambiguity. This can be advantageous in generating an impressionistic sound, but disadvantageous as well. For example, the notes required for a strong cadence or plagal cadence are not in any one O scale. This leads to either to revert to tonal writing for last few bars or define a new cadence that has similarities to the plagal as it is in the 3rd movement of my piano quintet.

My aim was to use the method and the scales in a substantial composition with more than one or two short movements. This is, of course very useful in finding out capabilities of the scales. I chose a piano quintet for several reasons, most important ones were:

a) I am familiar and experience in writing string quartet and piano pieces that are ones both substantial and complex

b) A piano quintet provides for similar and very different voices. This will help to understand the behaviour of the scales under varied sound colour.

c) The different timbres are not too varied – as in an orchestra – to distract attention from the task at hand.

My composition method is very straightforward. I plan a composition, write the music and work out some of the sonorities on my piano. In this case, this process did not change. I made a general sketch, wrote down the music, tried out some sonorities with the piano and edited the manuscript as I went along. The revisions and changes were not excessive. The sonorities did not sound any different than any other 20th/21st century music. However, it felt and it still feels that it was and is different in many aspects, especially in modulation.  Probably, the closest feeling is dabbling with colours without an idea of what to do and at the end coming up with a painting. On the other hand, it is not aleatory like John Cage or Jackson Pollock, it seeks to place motion and stress in the right places using a different harmony. But it is hard to say how that harmony is different. For the most part it sounds like a collection of open chords.

I was thinking about this in conjunction with the Japanese music reviewed in a recent blog. Many of the Japanese concepts are wholly different in practice palette, but the basic response is the same. It is only the composer using the same colours as anybody else to come up with a statement that is individual, universal and Japanese or Welsh or English or whatever all at the same time.


Ken’s reply:

Here are some thoughts regarding the O1 and O2 scales. When I composed with them I started to familiarise myself with the possibilities, filtering out collections and groups of events (as you say they are rich in references to other styles and periods). Knowing that these could be called on to create contrasts with contemporary figurations was useful, particularly as I have been exploring how we react to having a different musical context thrown at us.

As the scales have internal symmetry I made a great play of the notion of formal symmetry – “as below, so above” thinking. There is an obvious danger here in that one could end up with very static, and possibly unappealing progressions and little to offer contrast for the listener.  In order to create interest I wrote the two scales in contrary motion (O and R) crotchet for crotchet, this produced a number of interesting results and more importantly sounded coherent, particularly as the scales land on unisons on occasion and this makes for interesting phrasing.

There are limitations as regards the manipulation of these scales (transposition in particular) but the wealth of references and colour in the chords makes them very easy to work with whatever style you normally use. After a short while one can improvise with these scales and I am sure that jazz players would find them of some interest, they fall under the hands with relative ease, and your comment regarding modulation should create interest for performers of that style.

Nurtan is working on a larger scale composition with symmetric scales, the latest of which is on G+ and sound cloud, this link will take you to the first of the movements:

One of my works using the characteristics of symmetrical scales is Rehearsal Room Memories: