Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sonata One in E Minor III: Scherzo in G Major

The first two posts in this series are here and here respectively.

This is the third of four movements, which are Toccata, Sonata, Scherzo, and Fugue. The order of composition for these pieces, as far as completing them is concerned, was however, the Sonata first, the Fugue second, then the Scherzo, and finally the Toccata.

As for the beginnings of the pieces though, this Scherzo has by far the earliest point of origin. I actually wrote the melody of this tune back when I was twenty-one years old, which would have been sometime in 1979 (!). It was an assignment given to me by Jackie King when I was studying with him at The Guitar Institute of the Southwest - later the Southwest Guitar Conservatory - in San Antonio. This was the year before I started at Berklee in the fall of 1980. The assignment was to write a swing tune to a pre-existing chord progression from a jazz standard, and what I came up with totally knocked Jackie and my classmates out, so I kept it around. BTW, I cannot for the life of me remember what the standard was, but it was something out of the old, and illegal, Real Book.

Fast forward twenty-six years (!) to 2005, and I dragged the piece out of my archives to make an arrangement of it for two of my students, who had a jazz guitar duo. While working on that project, I noticed that the compass of the melody would allow for a single guitar to play the melody along with a contrapuntal bass line. I had the idea to write counterpoint in a legit, straight ahead jazz swing style for many years, but I was thinking about using a Charlie Parker tune like Donna Lee for the project. Needless to say, this was an exciting discovery for me, and a very fortuitous event, so I first wrote a contrapuntal bass line to the melody in late 2005, and then the "trio" section, which is like a jazz soloist improvising for a chorus, sometime in 2006. I didn't even have to change the original key, and it fit into the key plan for the sonata perfectly!

So, this piece only took me 27 years to compose. LOL!

Here is the MIDI to MP3 conversion of the piece I made in iTunes: Scherzo in G Major.

As usual, clicking on the blue playTagger icon will allow you to listen to the MP3 in this window, while clicking on the link will play the MP3 in a new window or tab, depending on your prefs.

The word scherzo translates into English as jest or joke, so a scherzo is supposed to be a humorous piece: What could possibly be a better or cooler joke for a multi-movement sonata than to have the scherzo be a swing tune written in two-part counterpoint?! Yes, I love this little piece, and it's all the way up to #3 on my to-do list now, so I ought to be performing it by next year at this time. Technically, it's really not that virtuosic. Not any more than one of the more challenging Bach Lute Suite pieces, anyway, and Bach was actually the inspiration for this piece: I just asked myself, "What would Bach be writing if he were alive today." A highly speculative question, to be sure, but I reckon he'd be doing exactly the same thing today as he did then: Writing highly sophisticated pieces in popular styles - Bourrees and Sarabandes were the pop tunes of his day, just like swing tunes are in the jazz world.

I actually did a technical analysis of this piece for a much earlier post on this blog, so I won't have to offer a blow-by-blow description today. Here is just the original tune and counterpoint, with the chord progression I wrote it to above the staves, and the resulting progressions that the contrapuntal bass line created below:

The chords indicated above the staves are exactly what I had on the ancient manuscript I pulled out of my archives, as is the melody, so it was originally just a jazz lead sheet. I did change the time signature from 4/4 to 12/8, however, so that the swing would be correctly written out and properly played back via MIDI.

Since the melody is in a legit straight ahead jazz swing style, I wanted the bass line to be as well. I've heard some other composers attempt things they call jazz counterpoint, but none of them sounded legit to me: This does, since the bass line is exactly like something Ray Brown might come up with. As you can see from the analysis, that bass line implies much more interesting harmonies than the original lead sheet had.

This has lead to a much more high tech method of writing for me: I can compose a pure harmonic continuity now with well ordered root progressions that has all of the structural modulations worked out within, then I can write a very colorful melody over that chord progression, and finally, I can compose a contrapuntal bass line that raises the musical interest level even more.

As I've written about before, the traditional way of teaching counterpoint is quite tiresome and inefficient. Basically, the rule sets that are taught as seventeenth and eighteenth century counterpoint are burdened with rules that basically describe the styles of Palestrina and Bach respectively, but the underlying fundamental laws are never given.

There is only one prescriptive law of pure counterpoint:

1) Only imperfect consonances may move together in parallel stepwise motion.

From this, we can deduce the two proscriptive laws of counterpoint:

2) Perfect consonances may not move together in parallel stepwise motion.

3) Dissonances may not move together in parallel stepwise motion.

Then, from these three fundamental laws of contrapuntal motion, we can deduce the three exceptive laws:

4) Imperfect consonances may move in parallel stepwise motion into perfect consonances or dissonances.

5) Perfect consonances may move in parallel stepwise motion into imperfect consonances or dissonances.

6) Dissonances may move in parallel stepwise motion into perfect or imperfect consonances.

Finally, the true law concerning the "emancipation of the dissonance":

7) Dissonances require no preparation or resolution.

So far as the issue of parallel perfect fourths being allowed in so-called "simple counterpoint" is concerned, simple counterpoint is not pure counterpoint: All pure counterpoint is invertible at the octave, so parallel perfect fourths - since they invert to perfect fifths - are not allowed.

When you purge the teaching of counterpoint of all of the niggling rules which just describe stylistic aspects of Palestrina's and Bach's compositional practices, this is what you get. Counterpoint is much simpler than harmony - which is why it appeared first in western musical evolution - it's just that it is not taught properly because the simple underlying laws were not distilled out until, well, I did it.

So, though I treat dissonance quite freely in this piece - dissonances require no preparation or resolution (!) - there is only one parallel stepwise dissonance here - into the second beat of measure six, which I corrected in the final version - or perfect consonances (in the final version), so this is perfectly pure counterpoint, it's just in the jazz style of swing.

Here's the final version of the "menuetto" with that single correction:

As you can see, by simply changing the B-flat to D-flat in measure six, I got rid of the illegal parallel dissonance. This is one of only two changes I made to the melody that I wrote back when I was twenty-one; the other is the note G on the third eighth of measure nineteen, which was an E-flat previously. I made that change simply so that the figure wouldn't be an exact repeat of the previous one just heard.

For the "trio" section, I wanted to have an analog to the jazz practice of having a soloist improvise for a chorus. It took me a while to come up with the approach for this, but I finally decided to keep the original bass line as a cantus firmus, and just progressively elaborate on the original melody until I worked up to constant eighth notes for the internal repeat - which is here written out, of course. Since jazz improvisation actually began with soloists ornamenting the original melody, this is actually seriously old school. LOL!

For the return of the "menuetto" section, I just used the repeat, which gives the whole piece a nice proportionality to it.

I end the piece with a stylistically apropos 6/9 chord, which is a nice parting shot for this particular musical joke.

So, as you can see, counterpoint can be written perfectly well and legitimately in styles quite distantly departed from anything resembling Baroque or classical music... if you understand what the fundamental laws actually are, and are not hung up on a bunch of arbitrary rules that just pertain to to the expressive stylizations of Palestrina or Bach.

Beautiful face, natural blond, no makeup: A perfect ten (She'd "go up to eleven" if her hair was naturally red. LOL!).


Blogger Unknown said...

I honestly think this is one of your best pieces, of the ones I've heard so far. The walking bass counterpoint with the improvisatory melody just works so well together. It sounds very natural and flowing, not academic and stiff. Keep it up.

12:46 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Thanks! This is one of my favorites too, and as I said, it's coming up pretty soon on my to-do list.

I actually have another one of these swing tunes that has a much more virtuosic melody - if you are familiar with the guitarist Larry Carlton's tunes "Room 335" and "Mulberry Street" it has a similar feel to those - and I'm planning to use that one as the scherzo in a guitar concerto I'm working on.

I love jazz swing tunes, and I'm happy to be at the point where I can take a more classical approach to writing in that style.



4:36 AM  

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