Woodshedding II

The previous blog dealt with using number 24 in the list of thirty-six 7 unit scales, presented on page 122 of the book, as the basis of a composition. Once more, an attempt has been made to turn a technical exercise into a reasonably performable piece.

We wrote out the chords of the ‘key’, made our selective choice, wrote a progression with melodic figuration of chordal notes and composed a melody.

Because of the intonational range and dexterity of the piece and the lack of rests, I’m more and more inclined to write for the relatively tireless string quartet, something I definitely had not planned for.

Playing around with figures, instrumental forms etc., has provided the material for what has turned out to be a lengthy introduction. That wasn’t originally planned for either. When the melody proper enters, it’s all the more effective. This is a good example of advice given in the book being put to practical use. We learn to stand back, only committing ourselves at the correct moment. With experience, you’ll know.

The continuity (last blog) featuring melodic figuration of harmony is the first exposition, followed by a solo cello with accompanying violins playing undulating arpeggiated patterns in thirds. The unusual tonality gives the thirds an intriguing quality. They are in 16th notes to avoid unfortunate parallels and other correlation problems with the cello melody. With sufficient difference in rhythmic activity, anything will go with anything. This comment is not made to suggest the use of cheap tricks, but to establish a principle. Realizing this will help to overcome what I call two dimensional thinking and the disjointed, gappy orchestration that results. You can’t duplicate some orchestral techniques at the keyboard (overlapping instrumental sections etc.).

It would be possible to ‘engineer’ the violin figures to work using 8th notes, or some other rhythm, without conflicting with the cello melody but this would cause the backing to begin to acquire the attributes of a featured element. The regular anonymity of the chosen method is better, especially this early in the composition.

The link between the two expositions of the melody is interesting. The three lower voices drop down to the dominant chord (which is not a ‘dominant 7th’, remember, in our chosen scale). Simply taking all voices down in parallel turned out to be crude and obvious, with ugly parallels, so the bass drops down scalewise and the other two notes of the triads reciprocate: 3rds connect with 5ths and vice versa, the bass being allocated root = constant to arrive stepwise on a sustained chord in root position. This creates a different sequential pattern in each of the upper two voices that I like, one of which has already cropped up again in my later sketches. The ‘device’ ends on a low minor triad in open harmony (I had to choose the correct starting point to end up where I wanted to be) and the top voice enters using the upper chordal functions of the 13th master structure as a descending arpeggio. The two strata produce a Gb minor natural 7th with an F minor 7th on top (if both chords share the ‘f’ in the middle). These two chords are next played sequentially in the middle register using a triplet form. The sense of musical ‘belonging’ this creates surprised even me, and I wrote it. The bass then drops again, echoing the ‘Fm7’ arpeggio form above, to lead into the second exposition from the solo cello.

I’ve also noticed something else rather cute. Every chord contains either Ab or Bbb (=A) so I wrote a repetitive, worrysome device using only these two notes that carries on relentlessly through the harmonies, each note becoming chordal or non-chordal in the appropriate place. This is done by ensuring that the rhythm gives a greater (total horizontal) duration value and emphasis to the chordal note than to the non-chordal one. There aren’t enough instruments in a quartet to use both this device and the melody against the 3 part harmonies but it can be used with the instrumental forms derived from the harmonies (the thirds mentioned above, arpeggiated bass line etc. etc.). 

I couldn’t resist trying out a retrograde version of the melody, but in the tonality of the inverted form of the scale, which features a key signature of D sharp and F sharp, starting on a C root. This will give the computer another headache. Is life never simple? The contrast in tonality (modulation) is very satisfying and a 3 voice fugue is taking shape as a second movement. I say ‘movement’ for lack of a better term because the music will probably move seamlessly from one place to another. There are variations, of a simple nature, and imitations are also creeping in, but not of the prolonged, cerebral kind.

The retrograde melody works very well, which isn’t always the case, without fine tuning of the rhythms. Conventional thinking uses a predominance of conjunct patterns where the longer note values come first (dotted groups etc.). The converse involves a predominance of disjunct rhythms. Nothing wrong with that, really. It seems strange for the same reason that a colour negative seems strange after prolonged exposure to positive images throughout our lives.

I’m also happy with some simple variations and patterns in the new ‘key’ that sound freshly different and will be used as link material. (Although I’ve placed the word ‘key’ in inverted commas, my scale has just as much right to be called a key as any other.)

A reminder here that to find the inverted form of a scale we write out its ascending form numerically with regard to its intervallic structure, 1=semitone 2=tone etc. Our chosen scale has the following structure: 1221213. We then write the series backwards and use it in ascending order. Strictly speaking, we should start at the top and work down from left to right since upside down music is, well, upside down. The roots are at the top! My advice is not to think anymore along those lines because of our up-down/north-south orientation and the overwhelming influence of gravity (something else we haven’t a clue about yet). The harmonic series, which has its fundamental tone at the bottom, also affects the acceptability, or otherwise, of the position of the various chordal functions in orchestration.

I made an exact (‘real’) inversion direct from the original progression. A rhythmically compressed (very short note values) version of the resulting three part harmonies produces three horizontal motifs (each of the voice lines) that I’ve played around with using ‘rotation’ forms. This involves repeating the motif, beginning on each successive note in the series until you exhaust the process. The motifs are eventually combined vertically in an acceptable distribution, quite different to the original harmonies (I won’t enlarge on this since every case will be unique – learn by doing) and come to rest on what we would call a diminished chord, which happens to be common to both the keys we’re using. Now that will be useful.

Often, an inverted chord progression will require us to rearrange the voices to achieve an acoustically satisfactory solution. It’s still the same progression, essentially.

While we’re on the subject, does anyone know of a music notation program that allows customised key signatures? I only have hands-on experience of two programs. It does everything else I need and I’ve never been inclined to switch tools because of my own shortcomings.

The signature can be inserted as a text object or graphic but I always have to paste this onto the master copy. The accidentals then all have to be inserted or cancelled out manually, a method which takes time and is prone to errors. The first part of the current composition can be written in 5b’s and the Bbb’s put in manually (on a C root). But what about this new key, with D sharp and F sharp? I’m not trying to turn base metal into gold, I’m just writing music.

Having said all this, on second thoughts, since we’re all conditioned to reading orthodox signatures, perhaps it’s simpler for all concerned to stick with them and write in the accidentals.

Once more, questions will be asked about the topics under discussion. Should we approach music in this way? What about ‘creativity’? Are these methods too cold-blooded and mechanical (especially for jazz)? Etc. etc.

I have definitely (that means absolutely definitely) found that the techniques we have been discussing always (=always) lead, directly or indirectly, to results that are freshly different and represent an excellent method of jetting yourself out of the tyranny of well-worn clichés. It really is like going on vacation. You don’t have to accept any result as inevitable although you may have to avoid the temptation to reject music just because it sounds a little eccentric. There will always be a reluctance to accept the ‘new’ because it threatens familiar habits and anything that does that disturbs our sense of security. On the other hand, if you look at the guys who are doing OK (nowadays that primarily means making money) you will find that they understand the need to write in a style that is easily assimilated and trendy. They understand the consequences of leaving the public behind.

The choice is yours.





2 thoughts on “Woodshedding II

  1. Pingback: Technique and language | Nicholas O'Neill

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