Thursday, 23 March 2017

Topics covered in the first hundred blogs

Looking for a simple way to locate topics covered in the blogs? As the first hundred blogs cover only four sheets on the Google blogger we have divided the material into four categories: Composers, Music and Psychology, Musical characteristics and Helping Novice composers.
Feedback and suggestions for improving on this format are welcome!

Webern – order and flexibility / Webern lectures / Webern, repetition // Messiaen: Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum //
Lili Boulanger “Pie Jesu” // George Crumb “Vox Balaenae” // Takemitsu “Les Yeux Clos II” / Takemitsu Art v. architecture

The mode of limited transposition // R. V. Williams 6th symphony // Nielsen 5th symphony (the simplicity of)
George Sollazzi – overview of style // Jeff Lade – overview of style // Satie “Vexations” / Gnossienne 1 // Frank Bridge Sea Idyll,
Lament and Winter Pastoral / Frank Bridge Piano sonata analysis // British music of the 20th century (full PDF) / Chopin:  So you want to write ‘beautiful’ music

Beethoven sonata in D (Architecture v. form) // Mozart rhythmic design (piano sonata K.309) / Rhythmic design in Mozart's piano sonata VII K.309 and Beethoven's Op.110
Links to G+ composer’s works (open invitation to add works) / 6 works and links (examples of G+ composer works)

Music and Psychology:

Creativity and aging / Be serious for a minute / Time Travel and music / Laughter / Repetition and brain worm
Music and the incubation period / Creating and experiencing emotional responses / Musical cues

Chunking and musical attention / further questions on attention / Motivation and musical experience /
What motivates you to write music? / Does your music target the right audience? / Deciphering musical codes / Music for meditation?
Why do we derive pleasure from listening? / Why do we listen to difficult music? / Why write difficult music?
Is human ‘messiness’ better than a synthetic performance? / What is wrong with synthetic music performances?

Musical characteristics:

Alternative approaches to rhythm 1 and 2 / Complex rhythms / Verbs of physical action / Relationships (pitch and rhythm)
The curious case of cyclic symmetric octaves / Nurtan Esmen thoughts on polytonality / Climax / Bitonality and Polytonality /
Symmetric scales (link to PDF) / Using 01 and 02 scales / Processes of transformation / Silence is dead…long live silence /
Harmony, sound colour and Beyond / A rose by any other name / Zen and the composer’s voice / Japanese aesthetics 2 / A
sampler of Japanese music / Jack of all trades? The synthesiser / The contest between live and synthetic sounds /
10 popular songs that deserve study / Bells and repetition / Minimal music past and present / The Tao of musical intentions /

Helping novice composers:

First steps in orchestration / Investigation into folksong (full PDF) / Composers tool box: Composition fault finder / The Zen of
Musical Reasoning / Walkthrough “Zen of Musical Reasoning” / Composer’s toolbox – size matters / Composer’s toolbox – How   to find your muse /
Deciphering musical codes / to compose is to be 3 times human / Where to go when I have run out of ideas 1 and 2 /
Parallel 5ths / Invitation, make a recording of this graphic score / the composer’s perspective /
Composer’s toolbox graphic scores / selecting a brilliant title / word and text / ostinato / drones / dynamics
Inspiration / Preparing to write for String Quartet - 10 suggestions / Esmen an immortal love song, incorporating folk music into
a more complicated structure / An investigation of folksongs

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Relating pitch and rhythm - P.M. Davies

Relationships require a great deal of work to function well, and this is equally true for music as life in general. Recently our blog discussed the "pure work" notion where every component contributes to the potency of the final composition, a perfect marriage. This blog considers some relationships between pitch and rhythm and how the relationship changed in the 20th century.

Ascribing prescribed rhythmic values to a row of pitches is a process of association, they are two separate designs fused into a statement that we regard or perceive as one. Extending the process to include dynamics, timbre or positions in space creates an exotic world of possibilities, these possibilities are so wide that their relationships require a blog all of their own, here we shall restrict ourselves (for the time being) to those arising from melody and rhythm.

While working on Peter Maxwell Davies's "Ave Maris Stella" as a student the first features that became a point of focus for me were the triadic characteristics of the melody, equal phrasing and a rhythmic design associated with the melody.

The opening line played by the cello as pitch classes (C = 0) forms
1, 5, 0, 4, 11, 8, 9, 6, 2
and the associated rhythmic values
1,6, 2, 7, 3, 8, 4, 9, 2

Rhythmic and melodic associations were not new to "Ave Maris Stella", one can hear lengthy melodic lines being conjoined with prescribed rhythms in early works like the organ fantasia “O Magnum Mysterium”. With "Ave Maris Stella" the rhythmic design is varied through a further association of the pitch material with an organizing system arising from a 9x9 magic square. In the first instance one could take these events as rotations and transpositions of the opening line. As a student I was interested by the results that arose from these associations, but I was equally concerned by the question of why such a pairing was made. As a student I found it sufficient to note that the design was numerically simple yet elegant, later I appreciated that such a design was essential to aid clarity when the treatment, particularly contrapuntal treatment became complex.

The rhythms of a magic square worked in wool (Gill Hughes c.1995)

The use of the square when applied to rhythm offers the possibilities of equal and balanced phrasing, those who are familiar with magic squares will understand their feature of consistency in various methods of progressing through the grid. A quick word of warning to those reaching out for their tablets to Google the topic, the grids can throw up a large number of relationships which are interesting from the composer's point of view but the results can also be banal, of course that's true of number based systems in general. For Davies the equal lengths are particularly useful in bring his musical argument to a climax point where lines of different rhythmic durations conclude at the end of a movement. Of course this is possible without the use of a magic square, processes of augmentation and diminution to articulate the form of the work occur in several styles, periods and locations around the world.

When the music is purely linear and contrapuntal how does the composer anticipate the vertical harmony? If only one pitch was used this could make an interesting textural exercise, similarly with a small number of pitches, say the minor third stack, C, E flat, G flat, A. I have used variations on this approach in my own fractal art cycle, and if so inclined one can judge the worth of the exercise at:

We could extend the discussion to familiar constructs like the pentatonic or whole tone scale; perhaps readers would like to explore the possibilities for restricted harmony in the context of association with a magic square. The greater the number of pitches the more care is required to prevent the music becoming harmonically “messy”. In "Ave Maris Stella" the pitch motion and interval structure is very distinct, it (once again) demonstrates a balancing act between simplicity and complexity.

The only movement of Ave Maris Stella on You Tube is the sixth,

primarily a marimba solo, with the later addition of drones and harmonics to build a climax into the seventh movement. Where the square dominates the order and structure of the other movements the construction here is less rigorous. This is not to say that the influence of the square cannot be heard, but the association with the rhythmic values give way to cascades of repeated and accelerating values to achieve a propulsion towards the seventh section. One can relate the phrases used to create the momentum to the square, but in keeping with characteristic writing for the marimba we have phrases repeated in different octaves, octave leaps on the same pitch, wedges of notes expanding outwards, and a number of diatonic runs, even at one point a whole tone collection. Listen out for the C' E F A B D figure which repeats several times in different guises, this is a reordered subset of the opening line.

The whole section has a sense of improvisation and freedom as the various methods of repetition create a sense of musical space.  "Ave Maris Stella" includes freely played figures, in the first movement where the cello plays through fixed values the alto flute plays decorative material (pitches drawn from the square), these form collections of events rhythmically showing accelerando and rit. decorations to the main theme.

One may question whether a greater degree of chance occurs in the vertical harmony when adhering to the strict rhythm and pitch formula of the square. This is particularly so when lengthy lines of triplets, quintuplets etc. are used as a counterpoint to the main line in works like "Stone Litany". In that work there are abundant harmonic references to the minor third, as in the final section with wineglasses tuned to C, E flat and played continuously. Careful listening reveals a number of devices that emphasize the association of the melody with tonal references in "Stone Litany". It seems that the composer is ensuring that the complex array of chords resulting from the counterpoint are underpinned by a foundation that is noticeable through repetition and texture.

The rhythmic character of music in the tonal period drew regularly on dance which originates with the action of human movement. Webern in his lectures (discussed in earlier blogs) makes a great play of the natural evolution of the 12 note system, yet he makes little reference to rhythmic matters in his lectures. Schoenberg however does focus on the rhythms of earlier dance forms, a characteristic which met with criticism from Boulez. How does Schoenberg ‘square the circle’ of relating dance music which depends on tonality and harmonic rhythm to 12 note music? He makes use of a number of associations with the earlier dance forms, accents, anacrusis, phrasing (12 note set per bar) etc. Of course thinking of the 12 note set as producing harmonic rhythm produces very different results in Schoenberg’s work to that of Baroque music. Nurtan and I have been discussing the question of the function of harmonic rhythm outside the tonal system, he condenses the argument to “it requires tweeking”. I agree.

Dance rhythms can be used as a section of parody for dramatic purposes or act as a psychological frame, often used to create nostalgic responses or imply historic associations. Such thinking is not new, all of these elements are present in "Der Rosenkavalier". If you want to explore the associations discussed above why not listen to Thomas Ades Three Mazurkas?  

Three Mazurkas for Piano, Op, 27:

This blog briefly set out to consider relationships in music, whether they are between musical parameters or stylistic pairings.  This blog has restricted itself to the constraints imposed by Western music notation where we have become accustomed to certain types of association. Will contemporary music return to physical movements as the model for rhythm? Where it does, as in the music of Philip Glass and John Adams, the tonic and gravity of tonality is restored. In Peter Maxwell Davies's case tonality became an issue for his critics, it may be that his insights suggested that dance, a powerful influence on his work, requires it, and the price of its use worth paying.

In our next blogs we will explore further the aspect of flexibility; at the present time Nurtan is exploring mathematical systems of generating randomness and the musical quality of the results while I am placing my focus on the various degrees of freedom found in electronic music of the 50’s and 60’s.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Order and flexibility, the transition from serialism to total serialism

Webern’s lectures on 12 note music make a number of bold statements, for the purpose of this blog the following are selected to provide a route into the discussion regarding order and flexibility.

·         12 note music is an inevitable outcome of progressive developments in Western music.

·         12 note music is a method that creates comprehensibility through repetition and order.

·         Comprehensibility requires the control of foreground and background material (gestalt).

·         The overtone series is the basis for the progression to new music; it generates consonance and dissonance, cadences, and is responsible for the eventual development of key change, the weakening of the tonic which results in the liberation of music from the tonic.

Webern’s overriding concern (as it seems to me) is order, an order where gravity and the gluing together of material to create a coherent and strong structure is the substance of art. We have a century of developments after Webern to see how this argument plays out, and in order to take a constructive view on flexibility in music it is necessary to touch on the next musical stage, serial composition up to the period around the 1950’s. While I have inbuilt reservations about composers discussing their own works it is fascinating to read through Boulez’s (changing) views regarding order and structure, and his essays aid our understanding of the different ways of perceiving “flexibility”, so it is to his texts and interviews that this blog turns.

Before engaging with Boulez’s own music it is worth noting his views on Webern in his early essays. The first view concerns Webern’s “technical perfection” and “formal purity”, which he senses acts as a barrier to wider public recognition. This is a concern that Webern addresses in his own lectures. This problem of accessibility in Boulez’s view arises as a result of the newness or “novelty” of the language. He argues that the means of expression makes Webern a significant figure in the development of music.  It is quite clear that Boulez identifies with Webern in this matter: 

I consider that methodical investigation and the search for a coherent system are an indispensable basis for all creation, more so than the actual attainments which are the source or the consequence of this investigation. I hope it will not he said that such a step leads to aridity, that it kills all fantasy and since it is difficult to avoid the fateful word all inspiration.

Boulez also writes about the severance of new music from the earlier tonal period, citing Stravinsky for rhythm and the 12 note composers for their weakening of tonality. He considers this severance as a historical necessity arising out of serialism, and as such continues the processes outlined in the Webern essays.

When writing about his own music Boulez makes use of a number of terms that are of different degrees of intuitive comprehensibility, the following link to Peter Tannenbaum’s work on Boulez has as an appendix a list of some 80+ of these terms which the reader might find of some interest.

Despite the necessity to adapt to the terms which Boulez uses the main arguments are relatively straightforward when we filter out the principal notion of control and freedom.

Like Webern Boulez holds to the idea of comprehensibility being rooted in every part of the composition being necessary; the play between foreground/background materials for Webern is present in Boulez’s idea of a purity in the final composition. The idea that components of a composition have to have a function which relates to the composing intention is not new, what is different after Webern is the model for selecting the composing material, and that this has a prescribed system of organisation.

Boulez discovered that the use of precise ordering effects the number of choices available, where this seen as an advantage by some composers it raised questions in Boulez’s mind. Boulez recognises that complete control necessitates a total overview of the work before the process of realisation begins.  He accepts that in attempting to create the situation in which every musical unit has a necessary function an element of surprise is lost. This surprise is primarily the concern of the composer, though one has to assume that Boulez also feels that is an issue for the listener. One may think that there are parallels with the planning in Beethoven’s notebooks, but the essential difference comes down to the difference between prescriptive and flexible variation of material.

Like Webern Boulez considers processes of evolution, but in his case this evolution arises from the composer’s engagement with the music itself. By employing the techniques of composition one learns to identify mannerisms, regularities and characteristics which in their turn enrich the engagement. While there is little that is new in this, it once again echoes Webern’s lectures regarding the choice of material:

Linking up with my last remarks, I should like to say something today about the purely practical application of the new technique. But first I'll answer a question put to me by one of you: "How is free invention possible when one has to remember to adhere to the order of the series for the work?"

Here is Boulez in conversation with UE:

I think that if you have an interesting and productive relationship with the material, the material certainly will compose for you. But you must know how it is composed. And I find it wonderful to think of it such that the material in fact composes with you, and you compose with the material.

Boulez adopts the stance that there is a difference between the exploration of a plan and its realisation, the logic of the music is not music in itself. The composer is seen as a guide who offers a “pathway” through possibilities by selective, informed choice.  If a situation arises where some element of the work is unplanned (an unexpected encounter on the pathway) then it is outside the control of the composer and therefore valueless in that it does not contribute to the whole. One can immediately recognise the gap between e.g. Boulez and Crumb where quotation in the latter composer’s work is an essential factor, and does not arise specifically from the content of the vessel that contains the quotation.

Boulez explores the notion of a ground plan and its limitations, he writes about “chance by automatism”. He considers the construction of music via number systems and pitch permutations and decides that if a composer fails to select his own “pathway” or impose his will on the material then one is failing to compose, instead the result is a generation of kaleidoscopic, potentially meaningless, patterns. He also considers other composers alternatives to the method of sound selection by less rigorous approaches, “Chance by inadvertence”. Here he includes graphic notation and randomized selection (coin tossing, dice etc.), in fact any music that minimizes the composer’s control. Boulez considers that the outcome of these methods fall on the shoulders of the performer rather than the composer. There are of course many methods of ensuring a partnership between composer and performer, but his concern is the “purity” of the work produced.

Though this is a very brief outline of a stage in Boulez’s thinking about structure, it serves to illustrate the situation that brings this composer to consider alternatives to complete control, alternatives that were of interest to his one-time friend John Cage, mobile form.

The recurrent theme of writings by Boulez and about Boulez is intellectual rigour, and his criticisms of less-rigorous or non-rigorous approaches could be read as weakness in the structure or musical argument of that music. This leads to the question, does flexibility as in the inclusion of quotation in music as in the music of Ives and later George Crumb signify that is a weaker composition?  

For those who wish to read more about the thought processes that lead to Boulez’s aesthetics I would strongly recommend the following link to a thesis by David Walters: