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introduction through the sharp hawthorn in principio four archetypes sextet only connect shilbottle cobbles miscellaneous pieces scena concertino three pieces for two pianos conclusions bibliography
This introduction contains brief notes on those compositional elements which relate to all pieces in the portfolio. Also included is a graphic chronology of my work towards the PhD, a brief description of some specific structural, melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas which occur in some or all of the pieces, and a basic analysis of elements of my musical style.
The pieces included in this portfolio represent the best part of six years' work. I spent two years in Durham, and of these, only one was spent working on this material. I left Durham to spend two years as Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse School, Surrey. The post was scholarship-based and sponsored jointly by the School and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, and allowed a period free of all other responsibilities for composition. Following this I have spent three years teaching Composition at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge. For more details of this period please refer to the graphic chronology above.
My initial ideas come about very quickly, or indeed, have already been formulated from interesting but undeveloped ideas of previous pieces. These ideas will also quite quickly spawn an image of the shape of the whole piece, though in very little detail, and I will usually sketch this out a number of times, using shapes, contours and types of harmony rather than any specific melodies, chords or rhythms.
The next stage takes the majority of the time: this is the gradual 'filling in' of detail. The whole process can be compared with the discovery and mapping of a new land mass by air. Initially, one sees large blocks: an overall (and perhaps misleading) shape, with perhaps one or two details that catch the eye and provide an incentive to continue. Gradually, one 'focuses in' on different areas: a woodland here, a mountain there, a peninsula; sketching in further detail: length, prominent features, textures, again with little detail. Each time, one 'flies' over a section lower and more slowly, until one is walking along the ground, completing in the final detail. This final stage of 'ground work' need not be a through-composed process. Usually, I follow my intuition, completing different sections of the piece at different times, and allowing each to 'pollinate' the other with ideas, references, harmonies, etc.
I find the process of creating the final score a very important part of the process. As it takes such a long time, I generally start as soon as I am confident of a particular passage wherever it occurs in the piece, and the process of final completion becomes another stage of refinement. This is, to complete the above metaphor, the creation of the completed 'map'.
Inevitably, this process means that there are a number of stylistic links between the pieces. I have gradually become more aware that some of these links are caused by the methods of composition I use; the process described above has a tendency to produce uniform textures, harmonies and melodic types, and I have struggled, (and continue to struggle) to gain control over this tendency. In the following text I refer to some of these elements as Meta-Global. If a particular melody, harmony or rhythm has a particular role within a section of a piece, it can be described as local; if the same idea plays a part throughout the piece, it can be described as global. In the same way, a musical element that plays a part in more than one composition I describe as meta-global, in other words, an element's role is three-fold.
In my case, a large part of the process of composition is a balancing of ideas that are strictly controlled with those that are more 'free', perhaps even improvised. Of course, there is no clear boundary between these extremes, but I am constantly trying to make the material of a composition move between them in imaginative, interesting and dramatic ways.
One particular idea, related to this basic axis, has been very influential in my approach to composition. This is ritual. Ritual can be seen as a way of expressing the unknown in a manageable, human way. Rather than emphasising the unknown and its mystery, ritual 'transposes' these concepts and gives them meaning through repetition, and tradition. Potent examples of ritual are, for instance, religious and political traditions. Dramatically, there is something very powerful about 'extreme' rituals, processes that appear inevitable and unstoppable, perhaps involving unpredictable or violent outcomes. So, dramas involving the court-room, wars, illness, religious conflict, etc., are fascinating, and musically, works such as Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring are exceptional in the fine balance used between the precision of the writing and the violence and unpredictability of the humanity involved in the rite itself. Works such as the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No 5, opus 67, or perhaps more dramatically, his late String Quartet in B flat, op 130, with the Great Fugue, op 133, as finale are examples of compositions where the force of imagination and musical logic pushes to extremes the boundaries of traditional musical forms (another ritual) to create something new.
This idea of ritual is a primary part of my composition, not necessarily only in the closed sense of a particular rite, whether religious, political or social, but as the basis to virtually all music. That is why so often in the following pages, as well as in the pages of the scores themselves, terms of reference or titles such as Dirges, Dances, Fanfares and Chorales are to be found. Each of these terms represents a fundamental human ritual where music is considered especially appropriate. One of the most common questions I have been asked, especially about contemporary music is, "what is it for?", and one of the simplest and most effective answers seems to me to be that it fulfils one of the functions to which the above and other similar titles relate, even if only on an abstract level.
One of the primary features of tonal harmonies is their lack of symmetry; tonal chords are comprised of asymmetrical patterns of notes - usually major or minor thirds. This feature becomes clearer when these tonal harmonies are compared to the non-tonality of symmetrical harmonies, especially the more obvious examples such as chords based on the chromatic scale, the whole-tone scale, the minor third, etc.: in other words any chord formed by simply replicating a single interval. Some of these chords are used in traditionally tonal music, (known as the diminished seventh, the augmented triad, etc,), but if used in isolated environments, their lack of specific tonality is obvious. Extending this principal, one can create chords which have more or less of either of these tendencies, or indeed a combination of both. So, the chord that opens both Shilbottle Cobbles and Four Archetypes is a symmetrical chord, based around augmented chords (ex 1:34a) . Due to its construction, it is neither tonal nor atonal, but non-tonal, but with tonal aspects. It can be seen as a series of recurring intervals or chords, any of which are tonal, but the combined effect of which is, tonally speaking, equivalent to one of the symmetrical chords mentioned above. There are many instances of these throughout the portfolio: some typical examples are used in Arias of Three Pieces for Two Pianos, (ex 1.36).
An essential aspect of the correct use of harmony is voice-leading. A common method I have used to create harmonic tension is to begin with a 'composed' chord and extend it by grouping the chord into two or more 'parts' and moving then in contrary motion. If the initial chord is well composed, each of the following chords will have a certain logic, and if one of these new harmonies is strong enough, it too may be used as a new basis for a secondary process. Examples of these are from Concertino, (ex 1:37) ; Four Archetypes, (ex 1:38) ; and In Principio, (ex 1:39) .
Stravinsky has always had a great influence on me: the way his music can be both 'spiritual' in intent and yet stylized in language. Harmonically speaking, most of his music, even if serial, is based on a complex set of tonal relationships. Some of the music in Agon is such a careful balance between tonality and atonality (i.e. foreign and ambiguous tones), that it is often hard to tell where these relationships exist and how they work. Evidence of any apparent relationships in some passages has a tendency to fall apart on close inspection: the value of any particular note may vary considerably, in complete contrast to the twelve-tone theories of the Second Viennese School. One particularly influential example of this occurs throughout Stravinsky's output, from figure 121 of The Rite of Spring, to Baba's Entrance from The Rakes Progress, to Agon (the Prelude and Interludes), Canticum Sacrum (Euntes in mundum, bar 10-11) and beyond. This is when a major triad is set against a flattened third in the bass. This conflict forms several ambiguities in the harmony, an ambiguity that can be exploited in different ways. Examples of this are from Concertino, (figure 20, ex 1:37) and Scena, (figure MM). These were not totally conscious influences, although in retrospect they seem quite clear.
Rhythm is of crucial importance in my music. As has been mentioned above, I often use the contrast between less highly structured, quasi-improvised material and highly defined, rhythmic textures that are, in the classical sense, highly 'artificial'. Because of this, rhythm is a crucial element in my compositions. Of course, rhythm may be used to help create both fluid, gentle textures, (for instance, some Ligeti textures), or it may contribute to a ritualistic, highly organized texture, (Messiaen's Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum), or it can be used to create wild, violent climaxes as in The Rite of Spring, or Birtwistle's Triumph of Time or Earth Dances, (or, for that matter, Beethoven's Great Fugue). In each case, rhythm is used in very different ways to produce very different effects, but the basic difference is between metric and non-metric rhythms, and on- or off-beat music. So, one has to make a decision about whether one wants a rhythmic effect caused by an uneven rhythm divided into uneven bars, or the same rhythm syncopated across equal metrical bars. Of course, the final decision is usually more complex than this and depends on the requirements of the moment. Usually, the solution is a combination of the two, as in Concertino, figure 4, although following figure 13 there is a good example of a passage with a regular, metrical signature being used to promote a highly syncopated effect.
Similar examples of the latter are used in most of the pieces: Through the Sharp Hawthorn (figure 5+), Only Connect(figure 16+), Three Pieces for Two Pianos (figure 11+), are typical. These represent a feature mentioned above that has been very important in my music, a feature directly reliant on this kind of rhythm: momentum. Momentum is a feature of music that has always excited me, from the moment I heard the coda to the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No 5, the end of the first part of The Rite of Spring, the conclusion of Ravel's La Valse, the infamous third movement of Berio's Sinfonia, the finale of Bartok's String Quartet No 4, (the list goes on and on...), I have been profoundly excited by this type of music, which pushes on and on, leading apparently inexorably towards catharsis. As has been mentioned, this is itself linked to ritual, either explicitly, (The Rite, La Valse, etc.), or implicitly, (the pushing of conventional formats to the limit), but specifically, it is to do with the gradual build up of musical momentum. Ultimately, this is achieved through a careful balance of all musical elements over a large scale, but one of the major elements is the use of rhythm to define the structure and density of sound. One of the interesting aspects of the Graphic Analyses produced from the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequence files, where each note-on MIDI event is displayed as a point or a line, is the visual display of this global build-up, (see below). A glance at the analysis of Chorales from Three Pieces for Two Pianos, demonatrates this (quite literally), graphically. Here, between figures 4 and 13, the gradual increase in the density of the notes, as well as the increase in the 'width' of the pitch range, is displayed. This is a good example as the whole of Chorales is an exercise in momentum - the move from the slow, quasi-improvisatory arpeggios at the opening, to the fast, almost random, but intensely precise meccanico section, (and beyond). More locally, this has been achieved by the use of fairly slow, but precisely rhythmic material at figure 4, which, alternating with more free, flowing interruptions, (the Chorale), gradually increases in density. Syncopation is also a crucial part of the build-up of tension, including as it does a sort of built-in tension waiting to be exploited. Similar passages include In Principio, (figure A-H), and Through the Sharp Hawthorn, (figure 4-9).
This method, which works very well as far as fulfilling its intention is concerned, also, unfortunately, creates music that, rhythmically speaking, can be very difficult to play, due to the emphasis on the precise articulation of all rhythms. See Conclusions: Why is My Music So Difficult to Play?
Melody has never played an all-important, justifying part in my compositions: a feature that is in common with much twentieth century music. This is true at least in the nineteenth century sense of melody as a specific line of pitches which are essentially similar at each recurrence. However, the idea of melody - the use of melody as a particular textural device - is important. This use of melody (or for that matter 'rhythm' or 'harmony') in a functional sense is related to the idea of ritual outlined above. In this context, each musical function is used not for itself but as an archetype. So, melody might be contrasted with harmony or rhythm, and in this role, the 'melody' would be presented in this highlighted way. So, for instance, in the Sextet, a primarily harmonic texture at the opening is gradually 'infected' with melodic elements, but these are diffuse and vague. At figure J, however, the 'melody' is emphasised on a solo instrument. At the same time, the 'indefinability' of melody is implied in the use of routes and multiple possibilities. There is no single melody, merely the idea of it. In the slightly different way, in Concertino, the 'cello passage from figure 9 is a combination of various types of melody, including elements of the lyrical, the whimsical and the stylized, (the latter especially in the interaction of the 'cello with the piano). In Scena and Only Connect (figures A (or JJ) & 5 respectively), many 'melodies', each using the same contour, are used together, forming a type of 'composite' melody that is not any one line, but a combination of many lines. This is similar to the way that harmonies and rhythms may be grouped and contrasted - especially symmetrical/asymmetrical, tonal/quasi-tonal, on-beat/syncopated, etc. In this way, the music takes its starting point from the play of these archetypal musical features. Of course, on a local level the composition of detail becomes more important and more traditional musical methods take over.
Many of the pieces in the portfolio are in one movement (String Sextet, Through the Sharp Hawthorn, Only Connect, Concertino, In Principio, Shilbottle Cobbles). It has gradually become apparent that most of these were following similar formal procedures: procedures that I eventually struggled quite hard, and only partially successfully, to avoid. This form can be generalised in the formula: A-B-A'-coda<.
A represents a combination of exposition with an organic rhapsody, sometimes containing its own miniature A-B-A' form itself. These 'forms within forms' reflect a general interest in recursive forms in nature and mathematics. Material is usually revealed gradually, often using three similar, expanding gestures together, as during the opening pages of String Sextet, Only Connect, Concertino, In Principio and Shilbottle Cobbles, and often alternating with a second, more stable passage. Another totally contrasting idea often then intrudes and is elaborated on before a varied return of the initial idea. This latter format occurs, in varied guises, in String Sextet, Only Connect and Shilbottle Cobbles. There is a constant tendency to use these sort of 'spiralling' forms, either explicitly as in Through the Sharp Hawthorn, where the whole piece is based around expanding and contracting phrases, or more implicitly as in Only Connect, where these spirals have become interweaved with other more global forms.
The B section can be seen globally as a type of development, initially based on exposition material, which is gradually transformed through the section into something entirely new: a texture, a counterpoint, a rhythm, or whatever. This transformation is most commonly achieved through the build up of momentum. This occurs quite obviously in Only Connect, Shilbottle Cobbles, the first movement of Three Pieces for Two Pianos, and the third of the Four Archetypes.
A' is as its name implies, primarily, a recapitulation of the initial section. These are by no means necessarily direct repeats of material; in many cases, the music is very different. However, there will be some factor which makes the passage aurally perceptible as a recapitulation. Usually, the passage 'crystallizes' the most important features of the 'exposition', so for instance, in the case of Only Connect, the recapitulation (figure 33 +2), includes one of the exposition melodies, enlarged and expanded, followed by a re-working of the very initial idea, (in the exposition three ideas for solo strings and woodwind - in the recapitulation for trombones and low strings in reverse order).
Invariably, following this section, there is a quite substantial coda during which fragments of earlier material are collated and the whole piece is rounded off.
There are a number of other examples of repetition as a structural device throughout the compositions in the portfolio. Indeed, it is littered with such examples, and there is clearly something important in this pattern of repetition, and the creation of new material through varied repetition.
At least a part of this can be traced to the influence of pieces such as Satie's revolutionary and yet unassuming Gymnopedies. There is something intensely attractive, and peculiarly twentieth-century about the method of 'viewing' a single object from a number of perspectives, and there is no doubt that this idea has had a great influence on me. However, it does not necessarily manifest itself in the same static mood, or with the same idea of a 'classical', 'pure' aesthetic, (i.e. the "Grecian Vase"). Instead, the influence relates more to a 'mathematical' approach: the 'literal' "viewing" of objects from different perspectives in 'space', and exploiting the resulting contrasts. So, in the Sextet, where this idea has most concrete form, I literally 'rotated' geometrically the melodic phrases for use as alternatives (see ex 2:16). (This has more profound repercussions in its impact on my view of the whole nature of the musical idea, and what it is, and will be dealt with in more depth below.)
Location has been a crucial influence on composition. This is partially because I have always tried to use 'local' resources - Through the Sharp Hawthorn, Only Connect, Shilbottle Cobbles, In Principio, Three Pieces for Two Pianos and Four Archetypes were originally written with specific local performers or groups in mind, although a number of them have had to wait for professional or semi-professional performances. This has lead to influences on the material and styles used, especially in cases such as In Principio and Shilbottle Cobbles, the two pieces written for pupils at Charterhouse. These influences are primarily on the rhythms and have resulted in the cutting of numbers of irrational rhythms and complex syncopations.
Equally importantly, location provides the society within which one has to work, including the atmosphere in which music of differing styles exists. For instance, Charterhouse was an isolated society. Because the majority of the staff and students lived, worked, ate and drank on the grounds it was designed to be an independent unit, and for a large number of the inhabitants it was. Musically, it was also isolated: the whole weight of the English Church tradition lay behind the majority of the musical activity, although due respect was shown to the eighteenth and nineteenth century masters. Contemporary music was clearly irrelevant at best; this is perhaps summed up by a master who once explained to me that he didn't 'need' any music 'after Chopin' and so did not understand the need for 'contemporary' composition. Of course, other members of the music staff had an influence in this and the position had apparently been a little different during a previous Head of Music's tenure, but in general, music was considered an activity with which the School could impress the outside world, rather than as an activity in its own right. This situation had a considerable impact, not only on how the Composer-in-Residence was seen in the School, but in my case, on the type of music composed. Especially in In Principio, I tried to use more conservative language and techniques, even if I was not able to do this correctly. Shilbottle Cobbles, too, was influenced in the way the music was written: there are fewer time signature changes than in previous pieces, few 'extreme' textures; in general, the whole piece is more conservative.
At APU, the situation is a combination of the two: although I continue to write for primarily local groups, the atmosphere is far more open to experiment, although my teaching of composition, and the experience of running Composition Workshops and other performances has led me to appreciate far more the need for clarity and simplicity in music. How far this can be seen in the two pieces completed since being there - Three Pieces for Two Pianos and Four Archetypes - is a different matter. The material used is simple, but the implementation in each piece is still complex, as is the musical language.
A further influence is the access to equipment that is available at any particular location. A primary point has been the ability, during the last few years, to make use of studio equipment, even if only in the composition of acoustic music. The fact I teach in the College's studios also means that one is participating in and encouraging an electro-acoustic environment. This was one of the main areas missing from Charterhouse. Some of the main influences on my acoustic pieces have been aspects of electro-acoustic music: the gestural freedom, the use of textures, the transformation of sounds or material. Whether particularly audible or not, these sounds were quite an important influence on Three Pieces.
Technology has been a constant, if not overt influence on my music, and similarly, although there are, regrettably, no electro-acoustic submissions included here, elements of technology have been used in the construction of a number of pieces.
The following pages contain commentaries on each piece in the portfolio. As pieces have different functions, different methods of composition, and indeed, different levels of interest, the format of each commentary is not necessarily similar, although they each contain a similar set of arguments. Attention is brought to elements if they are considered particularly important or relevant. Full accounts of the compositional process have not been given unless they seem to be relevant. In some cases there seems to be very little that is necessary to comment on, the pieces being so transparent or compositionally uninteresting. In such cases this point has been made.
Included with the commentaries of Sextet, Through the Sharp hawthorn, Concertino, In Principio, Three Pieces for Two Pianos and Four Archetypes is a graphic analysis or summary of the composition. They provide a useful and quick, though not very detailed overview of the whole composition. In a number of cases these are actually print-outs of MIDI sequence files (see below). Importantly, they are based on bar numbers but do not include representations of absolute time, so they are not truly proportional. Where further details are felt to be required, a table is included which may be read along with the graphic analysis.
Following the commentaries is a Conclusion, summarizing the global, (or in this case Meta-Global) implications of the portfolio in terms of progress, direction and possible future directions. Also included in each chapter are paragraphs on the following subjects:
This is a short paragraph considering implicit and explicit influences on the relevant composition, so no particular details will be given here. Also refer to the conclusions at the end of this volume which contain more general conclusions regarding my own perceptions of influences on my own compositions.
This is a brief paragraph noting my own opinion of the faults and qualities of each piece. Because of the nature of the examination, it is inevitable that some pieces, especially the earlier ones, show, in my opinion, a less high standard of composition. In many cases, these faults are 'structural', they relate to the way a piece's infra-structure works, and the faults cannot be rectified with the material involved, although usually some revisions have been made. This is an inevitable part of the development of compositional skills. The pieces do however provide, amongst their remaining qualities, a guide to the succeeding pieces.
The Sextet, Concertino and Three Pieces for Two Pianos are presented on tape as performances for MIDI sequencer and synthesizer. These are not intended to be performances, but they do give a good idea of the pieces where no 'live' recording is available. As can be heard they are varying in their degrees of success. The tapes were produced using Opcode Vision and Steinberg Cubase sequencers, running on an Apple Macintosh IIvx computer, driving a Yamaha SY99 synthesizer.
Whether the tapes are more or less successful depends to a great extent on which instruments are involved. The piano, being a percussion instrument, is very suitable for both electronic simulation (primarily sampled with frequency modulation support at certain harmonics), and MIDI manipulation. This is because the piano has a very simple and regular sound envelope - differences in tone are created purely by the velocity with which the key is hit, and velocity is a standard MIDI format. At the other end of the scale, string instruments are extremely difficult and unsatisfactory both to simulate and control through MIDI. The player of a stringed instrument can create a huge variety of envelopes and effects, each of which would need to be programmed separately to achieve true simulation. Without enormous effort, this is not practically feasible. Moreover, the use of volume control through MIDI within a note is, while available, extremely difficult to control as in stringed instruments, a change in volume is accompanied by a variety of changes in tone. In effect, a loud note is very different in tone from a quiet one. Finally, the quantity and relative instability of information involving MIDI volume is so great that coordinating this over long periods of string music involving many dynamic changes on single sustained tones is extremely difficult and time-consuming, whereas music which is for piano, percussion, or which is in general percussive in effect is well suited to MIDI controlled emulation. Consequently, the tape of Three Pieces for Two Pianos is quite effective in these terms, whereas the Sextet is considerably less so, and yet needed far more work to achieve even this less convincing result. The tape of Concertino falls between these two. As the majority of the music is percussive, fast and rhythmic, a lot of the 'performance' works very well. However, the more sustained passages are less convincing.
The Three Pieces sequence was constructed during the process of composition itself. Because of this, two separate methods of 'construction' were used reflecting the composition of the piece itself. Most of the music was written on paper and then 'tested' on the keyboard via MIDI, and so was input directly. However, some passages were 'improvised' into the keyboard and the final 'paper' version was taken from the information obtained. The passages using the latter method sound distinctly more dubious on the tape: I am not a proficient keyboard player. In a few passages, music was manipulated using the sequencer itself. These passages are discussed in greater detail in the relevant chapter below.
Both Concertino and Sextet 'performances' were constructed for this portfolio 'from score'. As has been mentioned, string music is not very successful in terms of emulation, which means the Sextet version is only really useful as a 'guide'. The latter's highly complex rhythmic language, plus the use of a number of 'performance dependent' factors made this an exceptionally difficult piece to recreate. There are also, in any case, a number of compositional problems with the piece. Concertino, in contrast, being a highly rhythmic and percussive piece, survives a lot better.
Also included is a MIDI sequence print-out of Four Archetypes. Although the piece was composed with the help of a sequencer, and so the sequencer files exist, the practical problems of producing an adequate full orchestral tape are too great, and the present results are inadequate for submission.
In spite of all the problems, these are useful guides to the general sound and structure of the pieces. In some ways they give a more precise idea of how the pieces were intended to sound than live performances produced quickly and without much rehearsal. All three of the pieces presented in this way are very difficult to play; all are very rhythmic, all parts interweave and rely on others to maintain the rhythmic momentum. While it takes some time, these sequences provide an ideal way of hearing the effects of complex rhythmic events and interactions. Ultimately, of course, they lack the tonal and expressive complexity of the live performance, the danger of the music is missing, the acoustics are imprecise, and there is no proper interaction of harmonics between the instruments. However, the very process of constructing the sequences has been a useful and informative experience, making clear both faults and qualities in the music itself.
There is a further advantage in these sequences: the ability to produce true graphic print-outs of the music. These were produced using Opcode's Vision sequencer. Although the sequences were originally written using Cubase, the graphic editor of the latter is less clear visually, so I exported the MIDI file to Vision and printed it from there. It is important to note that the only information contained in these printouts is note-on and note-off. The 'scores' do not represent tempi, so they are not proportional. They are useful for gathering a quick overview of whole passages of music and are included for this purpose.