Manfred Von Snitzelgruber

One of the first problems I ran into when I first began to self-publish music was with regard to my own personalization. I began to realize that, if I wrote a lot of easy listening music, because it sells more copies, people would judge me accordingly. They will think ‘He only writes simple, tuneful stuff’. Top level bands like to show their prowess and, however much we dislike the use of technique for its own sake, it’s often this factor which makes them stand out from the crowd. Obviously, if you’re writing for a top band there’s very little they can’t play and some dissonant effects have to be played perfectly to work at all.

Some writers use a pen name for the more profitable aspects of their work and use another, even their real name, to build their reputation. So why do I stick to ‘John Morton’, a name that conjures up images of a Presbyterian minister? I don’t know. You’ve got me there.

(You might try Googling your own name. My name brought up over 52,000,000 web pages. The search even found me, which boosted my self-esteem a lot. It turns out that, whenever there was trouble throughout history, John Morton was never far away.)

Another idea is to use a different publishing brand name for the commercial work or to divide the catalogue into separate headings such as Easy Pieces, Light Entertainment, Concert Items, Serious Works etc. Publishers also use different pricing levels and people still expect something really good to cost more, even in these tough times. This tends to offset the low volume sales of specialized works.

And then there’s jazz…

It’s worth considering that a big proportion of the commercially available arrangements finding favour with jazz orchestras are stylistically confined to a narrow band of happy go lucky, bitter sweet, cool, funky, groovy, doowapdewapwap….(you know), swinging type stuff that sounds as if it was all written by the same computer.

I’m opposed to any directives which imply that if we don’t do this or that then the music we produce won’t be ‘jazz’. The extraordinary contribution that jazz has made to the world of music is due to various characteristics that are different by degree not essence. All of these characteristics are also found in straight music to some degree, even block scoring and improvisation. Without cultural isolation (which is disappearing fast in the modern world) there would be far fewer pigeonholes available to us for filing away our music nice ‘n’ tidy.

More on notation…

I skimmed the surface of this subject in a previous Blog but I thought I’d add some more comments on and around the subject.

Having set the scene, my next point refers to the difficulty of being truly objective about music notation. This is where it goes off on a tangent for a while, but please stay with me.

In my early teens I used to watch the fingers of the clock, my face about a couple of inches away. I used to hear worried voices in the background. I noticed that the minute hand would be approaching the hour and then, immediately, be receding from the hour. ‘Is it ever actually AT the hour?’ I wondered.

There’s always something ready to spoil the fun in life and I later discovered that quantum physics had been into this in a big way in the 20’s. I was pleased to find that they, too, were puzzled by the same problems that worried me in the 50’s: Is time (and matter) ultimately divisible into discrete portions that can no longer be subdivided? Does time consist of individual phases, each of which is stationery?

I know about Planck time etc. but this Blog is primarily about music.

To the musician, all this is crucial. Without the waveform (field) view of the universe, our ideas about the spiritual plane in general and our cherished notions about creativity and intuition will be put to the test. It’s very worrying that, as knowledge increases, those aspects of our experience attributed to the supernatural recede. How can a guy believe in his own genius with all this going on? Added to this, as musicians, we’re joined at the hip with subjective time since music is a temporal medium. Time within human experience represents our attempts to organize cause and effect in ways that can be measured and specified when we communicate with one another.

The problem of systemizing music notation lies in the difficulty of identifying the units with which to construct rhythmic patterns. For everyday practical purposes, we agree on the lowest common denominator used to construct rhythms and make various monomial and polynomial subgroups out of this raw material. Theoretically, these building blocks will be equal subdivisions of the total duration of the piece, discounting rallentandos, accellerandos, fermata (pauses) and tenares (where we dwell on a note momentarily). Time is conceived in terms of a continuum, or ‘pulse’, based on temporal units which are in turn subjective subdivisions of Earth years, days, hours and minutes (so-called ‘clock time’).

As stated in an earlier Blog, most music requires the notation groups to add up to the total duration group of each bar as specified by the time signature, with the exception of ‘alien’ tuplets (triplets, duplets etc).  We can also have five, seven… note tuplets in 3/4 time, etc. The problem is that a quaver (eighth note), for example, may be half of something or a third of something…. it has no precise duration value and any value ascribed to it will be lengthened or shortened by the tempo used during an actual performance.

Modern composers have used pure notation independently of a regular metre, using bar lines to subdivide the piece as and when they see fit.

Superficially, popular music has evolved from a two beat feel, to a smooth four, to eight in a bar rock and roll, to sixteen in a bar (and more) funk rhythms. These funk rhythms need to be produced with almost mathematical precision. There’s simply too much going on for there to be very much room for interpretational debate, and they’re a bitch to sight read until you get into them. Miles Davis was deeply involved in all this later in his musical career.

If anyone does have trouble with certain 16/16 rhythms, conceive the music at double tempo and double the note durations, i.e. evolve back a generation, and then translate the feel of the thing into 16/16 (or even 32/32).

Interestingly, asymmetric time signatures such as 11/8 etc. demand so much conscious effort amongst musicians in western cultures that interpretational disagreements occur less often in my experience. Guys are just glad to end the piece together. There has been a reasonable amount of jazz and popular music written in duple, triple and quadruple compound forms (6/8, 9/8 and 12/8) and the so called ‘jazz waltz’, typically felt at one in a bar. There is also less risk of disagreement when playing in these compound signatures but expect to be pulled over by the MD if you’re playing the quarter note/eighth note triplet group and you make the eighth too short. It sounds like a dotted group if you do that. This triplet form ratio is 2/3 : 1/3 and the dotted group is 3/4 : 1/4.

In jazz music notation, we may wish to exploit the subtle differences between, for example, dotted eighth groups and triplet and quasi-triplet forms. Both of these duration issues are affected by other non time-related factors such as stresses, accents and articulation forms.

All this may appear to be a lot of fuss about nothing. The problem is that, in a large ensemble, players can’t play with perfect precision which has the effect of lengthening all notes (further compounded by echo and other acoustic peculiarities). The remedy is to exaggerate all differences. This is especially true of staccato articulations at volume, which have to be played ridiculously short in the player’s perception, and yet sound correct to the audience. At the opposite end of the scale, where smooth playing is required, the more instruments papering over the cracks, the better the result. The string section is a good example, especially where bowing reverses direction during sustained notes that are too long for a single stroke.   

Even if we eventually fall in line with the ‘wave form’ view of physics we can still digitally synthesize music to the point that you can’t ‘see the join’. Yamaha produced a digital piano has that’s so authentic even concert pianists failed a blindfold test. And if experts can’t tell then, effectively, there IS no difference. If it can be analyzed, it can also be synthesized, available technology permitting. Similarly, digital music programs are offering ‘humanization’ of various kinds, including rubato, with growing authenticity. We’re some way from perfection yet, though. Mathematicians use a unit of deviation and a formula exists for this purpose.

One way or another, it’s all done by quantifying rhythms, tone qualities, volume scales, tempo, velocity etc. into determinable (quantum) packets which, if carried through with sufficient subtlety, give the illusion of continuity and of belonging to a realm that’s beyond our understanding.

Life’s always a matter of looking at the balance sheet of trade-offs. To a young composer, the ability to offer an authentic orchestral demo from the computer without the trauma and expense of assembling a full orchestra is very attractive. Conventional instruments evolved in the first place because they were the only means of producing musical sounds at the time they were built. Having said that, they still build houses with thatched roofs and Aston Martin in Britain still make cars with stitched leather dashboards. I can’t understand it, personally.

More on scale inversions…

The subject of changing the physical orientation of music so that it’s seen from a different viewpoint is covered in some detail in the book. These changes allow the derivation of fresh material which truly ‘belongs’ and which serves to stimulate fresh avenues to explore. The methods involve inverted, retrograde and inverted retrograde variations. The inverted forms can be tonal or real.

I had an email from a reader asking about inversions of the Dorian mode, a jazz favourite. It might have been a trick question. To simplify scale comparisons we always write down the intervallic structure (semitone = 1). The Dorian mode appears as follows when expressed in this way: 2122212. If we turn this upside down (or write it backwards) we get the same pattern 2122212. Theorists have long found it useful to classify seven note scales plus the octave in terms of two tetrachords. The Dorian mode has two identical tetrachords, 212 and 212, joined by a whole tone 2. To state the obvious, four notes in sequence (hence the word ‘tetra’) will have three intervals between them. This symmetry of construction may account for the free-wheeling, horizontal style of modal improvisers when playing in the Dorian tonality (it’s a key just like any other scale).

Contrast this situation with the major scale which has the structure 2212221. Turned upside down it becomes 1222122, something totally different. Inverting a major scale produces the Phrygian mode. C major, for example, will acquire a four flats signature. The problem with this mode, at least as far as conventional wisdom goes, is that the dominant triad is a diminished chord and the dominant seventh is a leading tone seventh, (m7b5).

I wrote a piece predominantly in the Phrygian mode and avoided the problem (intuitively at first) by changing to its relative major at each cadence (Eb > Ab in the above case). This is roughly analogous to using the so-called Tierce de Picardie, or Picardy Third in ecclesiastical music, where the tonic major triad was used at the cadence in a minor key. It was considered just a little too daring to end on a sustained minor chord. You could be thrown in the slammer, or worse, for using the flattened 5th (tritone) in those days.

You can decide to use an unorthodox scale and its family of harmonies in its pure form, and to hell with the consequences, but remember not to leave the listener too far behind where situations such as those existing in the Phrygian mode (above) occur. If you’re asked to write the background music for a documentary about creatures existing miles down on the ocean floor then that’s a different matter.

Referring back to the major scale, it’s significant that the more successful a form (any form) is, the more plasticity it is found to possess. A greater capacity for metamorphosis produces an increased chance of survival*. Some artists believe that form and function can’t be separated from aesthetics. I’ll think about that some more, if I get the chance.

*Obviously, we’re discussing the fitness for purpose of formalized, ‘European’ (for lack of a better word) music. There are parts of the world that, to this day, have never developed their music formally.


2 thoughts on “Manfred Von Snitzelgruber

  1. I found this article to be confusing only because you dance about from topic to topic. It would have been more comfortably read as three or four separate articles. I particularly liked two different aspects as I could most relate to and understand them: firstly, about reputation and difficulty of composition where I would think keeping one name and simply labeling the difficulty level would be enough, “Intermediate recital pieces” as an example; secondly, the inversion of scales, or retrograde, was rather eye opening as I had never considered this notion — it challenges me to attempt creating my own scales.

    Too many notes? Too many themes. Have mercy on your poor humble readers who can only change focus from one topic to another with difficulty.

    • Thanks for that. Re: the composer’s name thing, there was a case where a composer changed to a pen name and his sales shot through the roof. I can’t remember who he was now.

      The geometric alterations (inversions etc.) are a must for you to consider. The first time I inverted parts of a composition, both chords and melodies, the effect was startling. It was as if I was going between the cracks on the keyboard with all kinds of things happening that would not have occurred intuitively. Suspensions resolving upwards more often, etc. etc…. Remember that there are 36 seven note scales including the two or three in regular use plus hundreds of other scales with fewer than 7 notes. It can be interesting to reverse rhythms, too, since most rhythms are conjunctive, rather than disjunctive. Keep in touch, JM.

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