Saturday, October 22, 2005

Compositional Choices and Cans of Worms

Choices determine style, and to me, style is everything. I chose to follow the examples that God has given me in the reflections of His character that I percieve in nature. The nature of sound - the overtone series - defines modality as the normative state of music, and the cumulative dominant seventh chord that the series makes defines the falling fifth/rising fourth as the normative harmonic progression. For me, the overtone series defines what music is and is not as well as what can and cannot be considered to be music. So, the pan-modal conception that I bring to music - which is the cumulative result of my thirty years of performing, writing, and studies in the rock, blues, pop, jazz, and traditional generas - is a choice that I made based on my rational analysis of the nature of the musical world around me.

To put a finer point on it, God at work in nature is the master pattern-maker: Everything in nature is a pattern. Every living thing is simply a variation on the thematic material of DNA, and the entire cosmos is made up of planetary, stellar, galactic and even inter-galactic patterns that are the result of gravitational interactions (On a mind-bogglingly vast scale!). So, as a man's expression of intuited and/or rationalized reflections of nature, art is also pattern-making. Therefore, random constructions do not constitute art by what I believe to be the only logical definition that it is possible to ascribe to. Others may disagree: I would only say that they have every right to be wrong.

What brought this to mind today was not some discussion or other, but some choices I was faced with in the guitar fugue I'm writing. This may seem like an awkward segue, but it's not.

While the decision to write in an idiomatically modal way (or not) constitutes the most fundamental of stylistic meta-choices, there are an infinite host of smaller decisions one has to make in the development of both an overall individual style, and the style within any given piece. One of those lesser choices that I made - albeit a profound one nonetheless - is that very small pieces of music can express beauty, perfection, and mastery. They don't even have to modulate (I tend to tire of Baroque miniatures because of the predictability of them: "Oh, we're in a major mode, so this phrase is going to end on the dominant.", or "OK, we're in a minor mode, so this phrase is going to end in the relative." Zzzzzz... Years of writing pop songs taught me short pieces don't have to modulate at all, and I write a lot of pieces like that). As a result, concision is an overriding goal of mine. If you look at the very late or final styles of most composers who are considered great, the music is taught, precice, and concise. Mozart died tragically young, but the finale of the Jupiter Symphony - with it's five-voice invertible counterpoint fireworks - times out at about six minutes. Beethoven's late string quartets have some monumental pieces in them, but also a bunch of tiny little pieces, many of which are around three minutes in duration. Most of the fugues in Bach's Art of Fugue are three to four minutes in duration, and even Moroney's completion of the final fugue - which has four subjects - is "only" 10:45. I'm trying to think of a string quartet movement by Haydn that is even close to ten minutes long, but the closest I can get is the cantabile of Op. 76 no. 3 in C (Emperor), which is about eight and a half minutes (And is quite exceptionally long for a Haydn movement). You get the point. I looked at all of this evidence and decided prolixity was for the most part abandoned by the overwhelming majority of great composers after their years of experience, so who am I to disagree?

When I recorded a CD to archive twenty-seven of my solo guitar pieces a few years ago, the longest piece came out to 4:57, and that was a Prelude that I played too slowly (I think it comes in at just over four minutes the way I play it now), and the shortest piece was 1:49. Out of those 27 pieces, 19 of them are less than three minutes long! The way I play them today - with five years to work out the interpretations - I'm thinking twenty-two of them are now under three minutes, and five or six are under two. So...

I have a collection of fugue themes that I've written over the years, and I was thinking about appropriating one of them that had a little bit of the character of the first one I'm using here. It was actually really cool because it's a slow, majestic subject that has some highly dissonant and expressive counterpoint written to it, and it has the feel of a lamentation. Since the sonata doesn't have a slow movement, I was thinking about writing a double fugue (and I still may), but I'm tending against at the moment.

Problem is, doing that will open up a whole new can of worms: The fugue is at 1/4=72 BPM, and the first subject is 3.5 measures long (If it can't be an odd number of measures in length, a fractional number is the next best thing). The other subject I'm thinking about is 7.5 measures long in 2/4, and would add a good three minutes to the piece in and of itself, as it goes naturally from tonic minor, to relative major and then to dominant minor before all of it's combinations are revealed. It is actually from an organ piece that I wrote years ago, but I was amazed to find that I could adjust the key and the ranges of the countersubjects and it fit great on the guitar in A minor, C major, and E minor (Both my compositional and playing techniques have improved markedly since those days).

If I decide I can live with the Scherzo's pitch climax being at around the 50% point of the overall sonata, I may do it, but the resulting fugue will be a monster by my standards if I make that choice. Just not sure if the stylistic integrity of the piece will be enhanced by that or not yet. Anyway...

Made a few enhancements.

As you can see, I added a point of resistance to the subject and answer in the final measure of each with the dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythmic figure. Besides adding that moment of tension, the figure also yeilds four rhythmic values in ten attacks through seven pitches across the range of a minor sixth, which is quite an improvement. The rest of the exposition is unchanged, but I also applied the new rhythmic figure to the first episode.

The first middle entries are now much improved. On of the things I wanted to do was to take my time building up to a constant surface rhythm of eighth notes, but I was taking too much time with it, so things were dragging. By introducing a 4-3 suspension/resolution chain in the countersubject/counter-answer here (Which are both essentially the same now, as subject and answer are), I got the ball rolling far more effectively. The result is far superior to the original version: The new tonic E minor chord at the beginning of measure sixteen is now the last naked quarter note, which is perfect. Speaking of opening cans of worms...

Where I was thinking of putting an extreme episode previously, I decided that the bass voice needed a thematic statement instead. Playing the rectus of the subject starting on the current dominant level at the note B would run me off the fretboard, as it would require a D-sharp below the open E string. So, I used the inversus of the answer starting on the lowest E. This is frickin' amazing. I had to dispense with introducing it over (under) a perfect fourth, because the subject is actually "expected" here, and not the answer, but the resulting changes to the inverted counteranswers just add a sudden surge to the energy level.

And, while this post is about stylistic choices, I should mention that I flushed the idea of extreme episodes entirely: This is to be a strict fugue, versus a showy quasi-fugue.

At this point I have the second episode as just a variation of the forst episode, and it ends on the V/V region. This is further afield than most Baroque fugues go, but it is B minor, which is the key of the Scherzo, and I want to delay the appearance of the relative major until just before the end. One reason is that the minor inversus forms offer a lot of possibilities: They can start on the tonic, dominant, or subdominant levels, and with the raised ascending tones many cool dissonant sonorities are available. The major mode should come after all that jazz.

The little stretto/recap also now benefits from the new tail figure rhythm for the subject, as well as the suspension chain at what is currently measure 39 in this sketch. Combined with a deceleration, this phrase now closes out convincingly.


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