Sunday, 22 October 2017

Delius: Elegance and economy.

Frederick Delius Prelude No.2 for piano (completed 1923).

This short prelude of 32 bars is a remarkably elegant composition. I played through the music several years ago and was immediately attracted by a quality of lightness in the texture but put the music aside in my search for newer and more radical ideas. Like so many other piano pieces of the early 20th century it sat on my library shelf gathering dust. I rediscovered the music recently and decided to examine the harmony to see how Delius obtained this quality of elegance and light.

The musical shape is simple enough, ABA, the A section characterised by RH semiquavers throughout in 3/4 time, the B section in 4/4 is little more than a series of arpeggios, A1 has a short transition (harmonically) to a partial repeat of A material with written in rit. via harmonic rhythm and a coda of two bars.

My first thought was to examine the RH part of the A section, this revealed parallel 4ths moving chromatically,  a cohesive feature, but this seemed secondary to the work as a whole, so a vertical examination of the music was required.

The opening bar forms a pair of fourths a tone apart, the next bar adds a D natural to provide a pentatonic figure carried over to bar 3. The introduction of C natural in bar 4 and the B flat semiquaver redirects the harmony to a formation of five tones and a semitone (0,1,3,5,7,9) set 6-34 in Forte’s comprehensive list of chord formations, and it is this formation that provides the glue for the greater part of the music. This chord is paired with one other major formation heard for the first time in bar 5, also a hexachord, 0,2,3,5,7,9 (set 6-33)

The four whole tones account for the lightness of the texture and the additional semitone can act as a pivot between the chords, the first time we hear this between bars four and five we have


B flat
B flat
A flat


Chord 1: 0,2,3,6,8, chord 2: 0,1,5,7, and chord 3: 0,2,3,5,7,9, which are sets 5-28, 4-16, and 6-33, the set 4-16 is a subset (i.e. common) to both hexachords 6-33 and 6-34.

Examine the table below to see how these two formations account for the harmony throughout the music. The one chord that lies outside the logic of construction lies in bar 16, in context a rather beautiful sounding C natural, a composer’s privilege for that reason alone. In tonal terms we could think of it as an accented dissonance resolving on the B natural (prepared by the previous C/B in dotted 1/2 notes). One can of course look at the whole work in terms of conventional, if extended, harmony, but my intention is simply to show the cohesive features which I find best illustrated through reference to sets.

Working within the harmony there is a melodic character to the music, though not cantabile the stepwise character of the left hand part is delightful and I am sure appealing to those who love jazz formations, this is not surprising given the closeness to pentatonic formations within the chords, and to those who know the personal history of Frederick Delius this makes perfect sense.

There are many additional features deserving comment in this short work (and in the 3 Preludes as a set), e.g. I have skipped over the note density and the more rapid alteration of the first section in relation to the second, but I hope that there is sufficient detail here to encourage a closer inspection of the composer’s works.

Further commentary on the Delius 3 Preludes for piano. 27.10.2017

Written in 1923 when he was 61 years of age this set of three short Preludes are delightful works, well written for the pianist and show some fascinating details in their construction.

Where do we place our focus when listening to these Preludes? They do not have a “cantabile” melody, they are not illustrative pieces to conjure images on the inner eye. They do have a touch of Bach’s design in the control of harmony (and they are mostly in two part writing, unlike a great deal of British piano music of the time).

Let’s take the melody of the third Prelude (starting in the second bar), there is a repetition of three bars to assist the listener in recognising the melodic character and rhythm, but then the melody moves (seemingly) freely up to bar 17 where it briefly returns before more rhapsodic material. In reality the melody is more structured than one might suspect.

Just to clarify the opening seven bars of melody forms a hexachord from which nearly all the remaining material is drawn. The E sharp forms a chromatic rise as part of the closing cadence, a feature also seen in the second Prelude. The second part of the melody in 3/4 time is played in octaves but reduced to bare bones in the illustration.

While this set also features vertically Delius would find this too monotonous as a single formation, he blends the music with another hexachord 0,1,3,5,7,9, and makes particular use of the whole tone feature as both four and five note collections. The same process is at play in the first Prelude where the main collection is 024579, and from bar 4 to 11 we can hear this chord alternating with the whole tone pentachord 0,2,4,6,8. It is unlikely that all listeners will be conscious of this detail, far more likely the focus will be on the dotted quaver semiquaver and dotted semiquaver and demisemiquaver skips which give the scherzando marking its character. At its most regular use the exchanges of harmony produce harmonic rhythm, and many listeners will be aware of this characteristic, and once recognised will provide greater coherence to listening pleasure. For all three Preludes the density of music is regulated within hexachords and subsets so the degree of dissonance and compactness of harmony is well regulated, a feature of which most listeners to Delius will be aware. For those who may ask why the progression of the music by chromatic descent has been omitted, I will only say that the feature can be heard, as can ascents. There is much to be discovered through repeated listening.

The pieces may be heard at:

If you want a clearer score one can be downloaded at IMSLP composers – Delius.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Christian Wolff

The notion of experiment, contingent processes, matters because I think it represents an image and attitude which allow for the possibility of change (for the better). 

In an earlier blog (Creativity and aging) we discussed characteristic stages of artistic endeavour at different periods in our lives. It would seem that Wolff is now in a mid-stage between the “Summing-up” phase (looking at the events of one’s past and creating a narrative from these events), and the “Encore” phase (reaffirming beliefs and opinions and exploring variations on those opinions). His lecture in London 2014 available as a podcast from iTunes New Music insight lectures demonstrates this, as in discussing his new music the greater part of the talk focuses on the past. There is no judgement on my part in saying this, time has moved on and reflection on how we arrive at a given point is illuminating particularly when we are hearing it from one closely involved with the great figures of 20th century American music.

It is also part of my own summing up phase as I had the opportunity to talk with and perform some of Wolff’s music many decades ago in Manchester, an event I was reminded of when I came across the scores we used as exercises in a far from regular clean out of music on my shelves. The image below is part of the optional percussion part. There is a multi tracked performance of the pitch material from the first page available on soundcloud:

Having spent some time with his works on You Tube and shared some of the best performances on the New Music Hub on G+ I came to the conclusion that his music is primarily concerned with economy, interaction, adaptability and sonority. It is a style that has many strengths and some limitations.

In essence Wolff’s compositional intentions and methods can be reduced to a small number of significant experiences and beliefs, several of which were formed in the earlier days of his musical development. There was a period of conventional musical study but it was hearing the music of the second Viennese school that sparked a desire to write, particularly after coming into contact with the Webern symphony which he describes as a sounds in isolation but within a logical scheme. It seems that Feldman consolidated that view of the Webern symphony as the unification of parts and wholes. It is the potential for parts to exist as events within and outside a structure that changes the perspective in relation to earlier music, the hint of the possibility in Webern becomes a flowering of new music.

Wolff asks himself a question in the podcast, one which is more significant than it seems at first, “why does one make a deliberate effort to make one’s music different?” He considers his youthful opposition to the ‘tired’ styles, and reflects on the term experimental, starting anew. Every composer that aimed at controlling or even defining experimental brought out divergent views and results, as the following comparison of Cage and Wolff demonstrates.

Cage summarised an experimental action as one where the results of a composition would be unknown. Added to this was the view that with chance you use what you get (never a choice). Neither the composer of the performer is privy to intelligence about the actual outcome, the performance. Wolff has a less severe outlook and believes that the unforeseen in music permits the possibility of ‘useful detachment’, giving consideration from moment to moment without too much anxiety about expression or having to create a narrative. Expression can exist but as a by-product of composing. This difference in the view of detachment takes Wolff into permitting flexibility in the hands of the performer to determine the musicality of his / her actions, and this musicality need not arise from instrumental training but experience and personal artistic insight. The integration of a wider range of performance attitudes brings a different focus and becomes in the composer’s mind a metaphor for social change.

Another significant difference between the two composers is shown in Cage’s opinion that once the piece was complete it was fixed. Wolff’s social attitude integrates the indeterminacy into performance, into music that can be endlessly renewed.

Usefully for less technically proficient performers Wolff’s music is characterised by passages playing with a limited number of different notes, and as he suggests the less material the more invention is required. Let’s restate that after the experience of hearing Webern’s symphony, creating pieces with sounds, permutations of notes, playing individually or sustained became his main intention. It is this economy that diminishes the role of drama and surprise within the music, but as said above, one gains a lot and loses a little.

It seems that on reflection Wolff’s considers his working with Rzewski in 1957 on Duo for Pianists I as a seminal moment.  A piano composition was required with insufficient time to prepare, so a system for improvisation based of time units and sounds was developed. Foe me his view of the outcome on reflection is significant: “It sounded fine, just as complex as the complex music. It was different every time, and different because of what the other performer did.” The significance comes in two parts, the evaluation of the outcome in relation to composers like Boulez and the social interaction.

Performances of Wolff’s improvisatory music are akin to role playing, sometimes one is in charge of the performance other times passive. The notation is designed to make the performer focus on progression in a different way to the conventional demands. The reward is that rhythm takes on a unique character.

Over his career Wolff has explored various degrees of indeterminacy or ‘flexibility’ from largely rigid to very free; no instrument, dynamic, tempo or register specified, free durations and options for repetition. He has also reworked original material though that is outside the consideration of this blog. His music is primarily for smaller forces simply because the degree of interaction becomes more difficult the more people are involved. The possibility of mixing fully composed and indeterminate music was explored, but Wolff cites clarity as an issue in such a scheme, his solution is to divide the forces into coexisting ‘subgroups’.

When Wolff describes his manipulations of pitch and rhythm we are given processes of expansion, transposition, loops and cycles, he could be describing the techniques encountered in Feldman’s compositions, but it isn’t the manipulation that is important it is the outcome, and as in all social interactions each person takes responsibility for the choices made.

 Selected videos from New Music Hub on G+

Preludes for piano

For Morty for Vibraphone, Glockenspiel and Piano (1987) [Score-Video]

Another Possibility (2004)

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Has modern music finally exterminated nuance?

I was listening to a podcast on Elliott Carter’s music the other day (Paul Steenhuisen via iTunes), where the discussion lingered on complexity. The composer played down the complexity issue stating that his ideal was to make the music “live in an expressive and meaningful way”. Robert Aitken illustrated the point and referred to a conversation with Carter where the composer, reflecting on a piece written several months earlier stated:

“Bob – you know that E natural ….. I think we should change the dynamic from mp to mf.”

Most composers will have come across a moment in their music which causes them to feel that the flow of the work is hindered, probably not as refined as the example above, but hindered nevertheless by a detail. It reminds me of “Zen and the Art” where the author explains to his non-mechanical friend that correct running of the engine requires precise adjustment with tools that measure in thousands of an inch.

In today’s music there are works where one senses that finding a wrong pitch or a badly articulated event is impossible, perhaps because we are bombarded with information or that the pathways of logic that we are familiar with have been abandoned for an exploration of terrain utterly foreign to us. We know from previous blogs that repeated exposure adjusts our perception of our experiences, we become less shocked, more accepting. We develop our long term memory of events and so associations between prominent landmarks can be established.  I have frequently asked myself if it is easier to recall works like the Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Schumann’s “Carnaval” selected as both vary their material to construct a number of loosely related scenes or Horatiu Radulescu’s “Das Andere” for solo viola

which I believe explores a single compositional intention. Memory permits me to recognise all these works, I could isolate sections of and then sing or whistle the melodies of the earlier works while that is considerably more difficult with the latter; doing so in the street might raise an eyebrow with Mussorgsky or Schumann while attempting Radulescu’s music might see me being taken away to a secure establishment! This is not a value judgement on my behalf, there are many engaging features in all three works. For many people the vocalisation of music (internal or physical) is part of the act of sharing with the composer, as is moving in time to the work. One has to be careful with this argument of selecting fragments, there are parts of Radulescu’s work that remind me of the Bach solo suites and it is possible that given time one simply adjusts to the style. This is the argument applied to Webern (who we are told would sing parts of his works during rehearsal to articulate the phrasing he wanted); Webern’s works have been heard for the best part of a century, it is still rare to hear fragments of them sung in the street.

Before leaving Radulescu may I also suggest for those who are less familiar with his work this video with Roger Heaton discussing “The Inner Time” it includes a score:

Nuance in music is created through the subtle control of rhythm and dynamics. Listen to the Bernstein rehearsals of Mahler on youtube to experience the way he shapes particular phrases. The continual focus on detail is the bedrock of making the performances identifiably his own, it is the process of connotation, the association or referencing of meaning onto the composition which may or may not be as the composer intended. (I suggest listening to Bernstein’s first movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony as an illustration of the argument, there is a partial recording linked below or the full symphony is available on YT).

How much in depth listening is required to appreciate the nuances in performance in the “complex” world of some new music? The response to this question may be made even more difficult when the composer considers composing outside the structures of pitch organisation.

As my colleague Nurtan Esmen was reading through this blog he suggested that I mention the Murakami book “Absolutely on Music” where his interviews with Osawa focus on Bernstein and Mahler in particular.

There are a number of ways of organising music other than designing structures where pitch dominates. Humans are very good at determining quantities of events and density has a significant part to play in our perception of music. The gradual accumulation or reduction of events can become the basis of design, as could rapid alterations of dense and sparse areas of sound. Previous blogs have dealt with the importance of repetition and to work with this as a composing intention one could take a sample of a sound and repeat with gradual reduction, or reverse the process and start with a fragment and expand. I particularly like technique this when using words that offer new meanings when cut, as in God is love becomes odd is love in one of my R. S. Thomas settings. Expansion could also include interlocking material, nesting one musical chunk inside another. The Part work “Frates” was discussed in an earlier blog, and offers one more conventional example of this process. In the world of sampling transformations are a stock in trade and gradual alteration can become the primary (or sole) characteristic of the music. Transformations can also be applied to pitch, and have been for a long period, as in the opening movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony, or in a more prescribed manner in Maxwell Davies’s music. In an art form that uses a moment to moment argument its use is almost inevitable in one form or another, its use can be as modern or old as the composer wants.

We are very responsive to regular pulses of sound, but we can also expand the pulses to regularity within longer (much longer) periods of time. This is akin to using space as architecture. The placement of music within the golden section is familiar to those who enjoy Bartok and Radulescu but there is no limit to working other proportions which may be populated with sonic events of any description. On a personal level I find that playing with our experience of time has great potential for relating psychology and art, this is not new as can be seen in Dali’s work The “Persistence of Memory” which in the painter’s own symbolizes “the passing of time as one experiences it in sleep or the persistence of time in the eyes of the dreamer.”

When nuance is considered in music we think of elegant and refined control in performance established through many hours of rehearsal and research into the composer’s intentions. The performer or conductor works to produce characteristic phrases, which in context become part of the (reproducible) performance. When recorded the mannerisms are fixed in time and we identify the product as a collaboration between composer and interpreter. Many modern composers have searched for methods of producing music which is more than superficially different each time, in relation to nuance the result is its erosion close to a point of extinction.

When a composer’s score is hugely complex and multilayered repeated performances by individuals will have greater degrees of dissimilarity, (we may disregard performance errors which may or may not be of great significance to the intention of the work). Recording the music gives the performer the opportunity to rework passages, but this may be outside the intention of the composer, after all there is a particular quality to music which is one performance in one place at one time.

Nuance offers the listener the opportunity to use the experience of listening to compare and determine (if of an analytical viewpoint) the quality of a performance, it may also make one performance “sing” where another is more pedestrian.

In techniques of acting we think of nuance as an embellishment which highlights character traits, posture, poise, mannerisms and so on. Music as art expressed in time has something, if not many things, in common with drama. Even music which makes every effort to avoid the types of narrative depicting a Don Juan or Quixote will inevitably have stylistic mannerisms when they are performed by humans. Composers plan and carefully execute their designs, a gradual acceleration, crescendo and increase of density with contrapuntal voices can often be found in Maxwell Davies’s music as a device to create a climax point, but the conductor will also shape that intention. Is the score to be taken as a blueprint or a guide?  

These blogs have restated many times that our minds are fashioned to build narratives into the most complex or sparse designs. In psychological terms we have strong reactions to both over and under stimulation. Musicians have a long tradition of working abstract designs but once these are in the hands of performers the music breathes (consider Bach’s A minor Two Part invention No XIII).

There may be nuances of character in a play that are exterior to the script but essential in the delivery of the character, the gestures and tone of voice that Othello makes to demonstrate love, doubt, jealousy are all essential to our belief that this noble man can be corrupted. The gradual process of change brings about certain arrival points where the alteration is unmissable. In the past music was full of these arrival points; I was reminded of this listening (in particular) to the middle movement of Sibelius’s firth symphony conducted by Sakari Oramo. The layering of different characters (the sustained chords, the pizzicato figures and the melody) along with the conductor’s flexibility of tempo made the movement compelling listening. If one plays Brian Ferneyhough’s “lemma-icon-epigram” after the Sibelius and considers points of arrival, these are there to be heard, what is more difficult to ascertain is the type of relationship between the component parts.

Recent musical trends have gone further than ever in challenging the listener’s attention, this is justifiable as the listener is privileged to turn off or walk away at any time. It is also justifiable in that music has always presented us with challenging and/or puzzling moments, e.g. the purpose and design of the Quodlibet in Bach’s Goldberg variations or the presence of the Dancing Letters in Schumann’s “Carnaval”. Once we were invited to dwell on intentions, today there is less of the invitation and more direct challenge.

Returning to the dynamic of the E natural at the start of the blog a case can be made for questioning how loud a particularly important event in a work should be played, a controlled dim. from fff to mp over 4 demisemiquavers within a complex passage with multiple events raises different issues.

Most teachers of composition know the trick of presenting their pupils with the question “Why did you use that chord at that point? Now they can be even more irritating and question its density in relation to the others, the play of dynamics, its place in the time scheme and so on, all of this is fascinating to those with time and purpose to enquire but perhaps the essential question is does it satisfy the demands of the listener?