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Three Pieces for Two Pianos

Composed: Cambridge, March-November 1992

Performed: Royal Academy of Music, London, 1995; Philip Mead and Steve Guttman, pianos

9.1 Introduction

This was the first large-scale piece completed since I began full-time employment, and the influence of this change in circumstances had, I think, a considerable influence on the musical style from the earlier Concertino and Shilbottle Cobbles. It exhibits, in various ways, a number of compositional developments which have occurred since I had begun teaching composition two years before. This only emphasised my own awareness of the need for simplicity of gesture and the careful balancing of overall form. In addition, my teaching in electro-acoustics and my own interests in computers had promised for some time to at the very least influence the processes of composition I had been using in instrumental music. Quite often my ideas have arisen from improvisation and I have felt that these ideas have been thwarted in the transfer onto paper, usually resulting in the need to construct abstract methods of composition in order to fill larger textural blocks or gestures. Using 'methods' to do this has the disadvantage that they can tend to produce similar overall results, in spite of great efforts to avoid this. Using basic equipment such as a computer-based sequencer, a music notation program, and a midi keyboard, it has been possible to incorporate a number of elements of improvisation to the process of composition. These can be in the form of a basic 'balance' of areas of material, or the distribution of pitches and/or rhythms within larger or smaller gestures. It is also possible, of course, to check more accurately than I am able to with my limited keyboard ability, those abstract methods of composition that are necessary.

It should be emphasised that the benefits of using technology to 'help' with composition do not extend to saving time. Indeed, my own experience suggests that using technology slows the process considerably, but these problems are balanced by the expansion of material it allows, the input of wilder and less organized elements and the ability to audition the material reasonably effectively.

9.2 Chorales, Arias and Fugues

The titles used are the first time I used these 'generic' names. As was pointed out in the Introduction (see above), this was a chance to make explicit what I had implicitly felt about different 'types' of music for some time: indeed, since the piece Dirges and Dances, written for the MA examinations at Durham. In each case, therefore, the titles do not refer to specific events or gestures, but to general musical ideas. The details of these are discussed in greater detail in the appropriate sections below.

The Three Pieces are highly inter-connected. The first piece, Chorales, is essentially an introduction to the second piece, Arias and the third is a finale. The titles represent moods and textures rather than anything more specific: the first piece has no 'chorale' as such in it, but rather at its musical, rather than physical centre, are a number of versions of the chorale-like version of the main theme of all three pieces (ex 9:1)

As can be seen, this is a combination of a melody and a twelve-tone row. Like the Sextet's 'chorale' contours (ex 2:15), it is a combination of contours, in this case, divided into five 'phrases' with 3, 4, 2, 5, and 1 notes in each respectively. It also resembles the 'interlude' melody from Through the Sharp Hawthorn (ex 9:2a & b).

It is fairly typical of my material that it is possible to use it as either. There are three other significant 'global' ideas in the piece, (i.e. ideas that occur in all three pieces). These occur within the first pages of the Chorales. The first is, at heart, an elaborated upwards 'glissando'. The second is a chord that first appeared in In Principio (ex 9:3 & In Principio bar 143).

A third figure, primarily rhythmic, also plays an important part, (ex 9:4)

This has occurred in many of my pieces. In Through the Sharp Hawthorn, (ex 9:5 & 9:6)

, it is an 'undulating', non-metric figure. The very prominent recurrence of this in the first piano part of the Arias' 'apotheosis' (ex 9:7).

, which also recurs as the basis for the end of Fugues, was originally written in a piece for 52 strings, two pianos and tubular bells, (originally called O Those Lofty and Noble Sentiments), submitted for my first degree at Bristol University in 1985. This piece also utilizes the undulating A-B figure, and more especially the 'tied' version of the figure, creating off-beat repetition on one note, (ex 9:8).

9.4 Compositional Methods

9.4.1 Methodical Systems

The above ideas are the basis for all the music in the piece. As in previous compositions, transformations and developments of the material are made either by intuitive means or, in the case of texturally more complex areas, more esoteric methods.

An example of the latter is the meccanico section of Chorales. Although I wanted a 'random'-like texture, this proved more easily said than done; most methods of note production were too uncontrollable and gave rise to quite easily discernible patterns when none were intended. It soon became obvious that not only would the twelve-tones need controlling, but also the manner in which the notes in individual octaves occurred. Eventually a complex 'matrix' of notes was prepared which can be heard either horizontally or vertically; ideally both. In other words, the texture is both a series of notes throughout the texture, and a combination of series' in each octave.

To achieve this, about five or six octaves of notes were required. Taking the original 'chorale' melody, I constructed a matrix, (taking every second, third, fourth note, etc.), and chose and transposed those which seemed most successful. This provided a large series of usable notes, each of which was then taken in turn and used in one of the five or six octaves of the texture. In order to avoid returns of the notes within an octave too soon, I kept a record of each note's participation in each octave. Finally, the whole section was sequenced and edited, adding phrasing to particular phrases as seemed appropriate, changing the order of, adding, or subtracting notes in the need arose. In this passage, then, the use of a system is tempered by intuitive feel.

A similar approach was taken with the section starting at figure 20 of the same piece, where a frantic yet rhythmically exact series of chords was required. As above, it was a section that caused some problems, and many attempts were made before coming across the final 'solution', including, as above, 'improvisation' and more or less strict twelve-tone technique both horizontally and vertically, (i.e. by 'line' and chord). In the end, the same matrix as was used above was taken and chords extracted in a linear fashion, (every four or so notes, unless obviously incompatible). The final result was, again, sequenced and edited in a similar manner. Ironically, when the second piano joins in at figure 21, its material is based on improvised material, as are the chords from figure 22 onwards.

One more example shows the length to which one can go to exploit material, and yet end up with something that is far from methodically or exactly related. The first 'theme' of the Fugues (ex 9:9a & b), was originally intended to be based on the main 'chorale' theme, (ex 9:1). Here, a combination of two lines would give the final result, but these were consistently unsatisfactory. As can be seen by a cursory glance at ex 9:9a & b, remnants of the two lines are still visible, although the addition of chords clouds the issue in the final result. I am still not sure whether it is the presence, if modified, of these lines that makes the theme satisfactory to me, or if, had I simply ignored these factors and composed something entirely 'new' I would have ended up with a similar or entirely different idea. The same process, incidentally, was used with the other entries of the 'theme', although in these cases, the results created by the processes proved more acceptable. Of course, this may be because the themes within the fugue have a slightly different role from the opening one.

The above is fairly typical of the 'methodical' approach used: that is, it is only methodical to an extent, and there is no dogma about changing any or all of the material derived by methodical means.

9.4.2 Improvisation

As has been mentioned above, one of the most important 'innovations' as far as I am concerned about this piece is the use of improvisation as a 'direct' source not just of ideas but actual material. I have often used improvisation as a means of either creating new ideas, transforming old ones or attempting to define ones that already exist but not on paper, but this required the 'transcription' of those ideas onto paper and the latter process itself often seemed to have a great deal of often unwelcome influence on the overall sound. (That is, to notate a particular textural idea would often require a system and these systems, rather than working as a servant to the idea, often seemed to 'take over' and start defining the idea itself).

A sequencer and a computer music notation programme seemed an ideal way to expurgate this 'middle-man' and to enable me to use material 'uncorrupted' by these methods. It did not prove to be as simple as this. For instance, I presumed that when I started writing the meccanico section of Chorales mentioned above that if I wanted a 'random' effect, I could simply improvise series of notes into the machine, quantize them, (i.e. bring them into time), and that would be that. After trying this several times I realised that it was not going to work. The improvisatory passages were certainly quite random, but were random in the wrong way: they sounded unplanned in a way that what was eventually used does not. As was described above, the meccanico section in fact involved the creation of a texture with quite careful distribution of notes across the whole range. Improvising did not do this, it created patches of certain figures, patches of certain tonalities, all sorts of effects that were unplanned and unwanted. There is a considerable lesson here for those who are happy to use words like 'random' without realizing the true meaning. Usually what we mean when we say something is random is that something has one or more elements that sound as if they might conform to what we think randomness might sound like. In fact, of course, there are elements of randomness in every human action, as it is impossible to control every aspect of every act.

9.4.3 Sequencing

Having input the data into the sequencer, it was then possible to use the editing facilities available with that sequencer. Most of these editing features are fairly uniform across applications: the basic operations of copying, cutting, pasting, quantizing, transposing, etc., plus additional, more exciting ones. Unfortunately, as most sequencers are specifically designed for the commercial market, they are usual quite primitive in those operations that are comparatively normal in twentieth-century 'art-music', although this is often because those operations can be vague in concept and yet complex in implementation and include many aspects that composers take for granted but that are in fact very complex in terms of computing. However, using the Cubase sequencer, one is able to expand, contract, and with a bit of effort, reverse and even invert music. The important element here is the ability to experiment quite quickly with quite large chunks of music. For instance, if I wanted to hear (just for the sake of it), a particular passage backwards, then after a few minutes work I could. (Of course, it's not actually backwards, the order of the notes is merely reversed). A similar, though more complex set of operations can invert the whole texture, (in reality it's a matter of finding the central point and transposing all notes around it). Again more intriguing is the possibility of expanding and contracting lines mathematically; one can actually 'multiply' the position values of each note by, for instance 0.8 to achieve a line a fifth shorter, (or faster) than the original. I used most of these methods and more in the composition of the fugue 2 section of Fugues, (figure 21-32). Having decide that I would use as a 'subject' a composite of a number of ex 1 rows, (see ex 8), I used this 'strip' (see ex 9:10 & 9:11)

as the basis for the fugue. I then created all the 'standard' transformations: reverse, inverse and reverse inverse. As can be seen especially at the opening of fugue 2 these were then manipulated in terms of transposition, expansion and contraction, cutting and pasting. As the fugue progresses and the transformations make the material more and more remote from the originals, one lost sight of the 'fugue' as such, and began composing purely with these blocks. In the same way, the second part of the fugue, (from figure 28), is based on a retrograde version of fugue 1. Once again, the remnants of this process can be seen, but there have been too many modifications for this to be particularly perceptible. Ex 9:10 shows the 'page' of the Cubase programme relating to fugue 2. I include this because in this section alone was the composition created almost entirely with the sequencer.

All these processes were only the main part of the composition. The sequencer has little respect for human frailties such as not being able to read music consistently off the beat for slightly differing amounts (making quantize useless), not being able to read eight or nine ledger lines above the bass clef; nor it is regard to human accomplishments such as enjoying the vagaries of acciacaturas, or the subtlety of quintuplets, or the usefulness of certain enharmonic changes. The resulting file in ex 9:10 had to be 'translated' into music capable of being read. This is a more complex and creative task than it might first appear.


9.5 Local and Global

One of the most difficult parts of composition was balancing the form of all three pieces, so that they formed a unified whole, as well as forming independent individual movements. As it is, the overall structure could appear as follows:


1st Episode

Codetta (Transition)

Global Codetta

Aria reprise

2nd Episode

'Apotheosis' Apotheosis - first run of final coda




Fugue 1

Fugue 2

Fugue 2 Codetta (Global Transition)

Fugue 1 reprise Recapitulation (see 'tempo giusto' from Chorales)

Coda Coda

Bar/NumberLocal FunctionGlobal Function
120-fig 20'Breakdown'
fig 20-fig 26Coda
fig 26-endCodettaGlobal Codetta

9.6 Commentary

9.6.1 Chorales

As mentioned above, this is primarily an introduction. The chorales of the title are not explicit, and nor are they intended to be. It is a gradual build up of rhythmic tension until it reaches a climax at figure 13, where the central chorale is heard in full and fully harmonised for the first time. This material is continuously contrasted with extremely fast and precise semi-quaver figuration, where pitch begins to verge on the random. Indeed, the texture at figure 12 was 'inspired' by the fast, precise rhythms and yet quasi-random pitches obtainable by tuning to certain (short wave) radio frequencies or by using some types of FM synthesis.

The majority of the Chorales deal with momentum. From the Tempo Giusto at figure 4 to figure 16, there is a very gradual, but virtually continuous build up in semiquaver movement. At the same time, fairly melodically based ideas are gradually taken over by the more textural one, typified by the section above.

By figure 16 this precision has reached breaking-point, and the semi-quaver movement does break down into a dramatic version of the very opening of the piece. Here, the rising arpeggio figure is followed by the 'chord' of ex 9:3 (figure 3), only now a stream of trills representing an extreme 'arhythmic' momentum (ex 9:12).

Once again, the momentum builds until the explosion of movement at figure 20, which finally gives way to much more vague and improvisatory material which leads to a more relaxed coda. The latter contains material that is more global in nature, i.e. it refers to the global structure of all three pieces. The movement ends half-way through ex 9:1 after which there is an unbroken link with...

9.6.2 Arias

...and a re-working of the second half of ex 9:1, (ex 9:13)

. The primary 'image' of this movement was the passage from the Canticum Canticorum, (used in Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum):

Surge aquilo, et veni auster;

perfla hortum meum,

et fluant aromata illius.

Veniat dilectus meus in hortum suum,

et comedat fructum pomorum suorum.

The image of the garden is very important here, contrasting as it does with the lyricism of the melodies and the sometimes harp, or even lyre-like arpeggiated chords. The section from figure 3 was called the 'garden' during composition; its imagery consisting of periods of diverse material and intense movement within a fairly slow-moving overall harmonic framework. I wanted to create textures evoking warm weather, fragrance and exoticism. This is also contrasted with sections from 'outside' the garden: remote, hesitant, extreme in texture and 'cold'. There are a number of ideas and textures here taken from the similar passages in the String Sextet, (see above, Sextet, figure V-HH).

The passage from figure 21 is a personal tribute to an episode from Stockhausen's Kontakte, and from figure 23 there emerges from the top of the texture the big alternating chords mentioned above. This is, in the global scheme of things, the dramatic end of the piece. This makes the Fugues a genuine finale, (on the global level the 'recapitulation'), especially as at the very end of the latter the same harmonies form the basis of the musical end of the piece.

A 'global' codetta, (from figure 26) leads to a reprise of the opening aria.

9.6.3 Fugues

The basic fugue 'theme' was originally intended to be directly based on the Chorale Theme (ex 9:1). As has been mentioned above this was to be the intertwining of two versions of the theme in rather classic twelve-tone technique, although it became immediately apparent that this would not produce a satisfactory result, and in the end, a great deal of intuitive modification occurred.

Like Chorales, Fugues is an exercise in momentum, with a respite during fugue 2. This resemblance to Chorales is not an accident, and from figure 39 of the former, the resemblance is deliberately emphasised. from this point, there is essentially a recapitulation in brief of giusto passage of the latter, (i.e. from figure 4), only here the conclusion is not a breakdown in rhythm, but a continuous build up in tension until the last bar. On seeing these passages a colleague made a rather appropriate comment, pointing out they were like some sort of wild, out of control two-part inventions.


9.7 Meta-Global

A number of meta-global aspects have already been pointed out above, but it may be worth summarizing these again, as in this piece, perhaps because of the gap between the composition of this piece and the previous one, seems to represent a culmination of a great many elements common to my compositions.

i) The opening arpeggio lines can be related to the arpeggio figures in Concertino, (Concertino: figure 1, 2, 3, 6, etc.).

ii) The chord at figure 3 and in modified form at figure 17 is derived from In Principio bar 143.

iii) The chromatic lines used at the giusto section of Chorales, (figure4), and at their reprise at figure 39 of Fugues, can be seen quite clearly at the openings of Concertino, (ex 6:1), and In Principio, (ex 7:1 - 7:4).

iv) The 'chorale melody' of Three Pieces, (ex 9:1), is of the same order as the central interlude melody from Through the Sharp Hawthorn (ex 9:2a & b) and has similar characteristics to the Sextet's 'chorale' contours, (ex 2:15).

v) The 'outside' elements of Three Pieces, (figures 7-10) are clearly related to the similar elements in String Sextet, (figure V-HH).

vi) The undulating triple time theme, (Chorales, figure 3, Arias, figure 24, Fugues, figure 55, etc), has a long history both within and before this portfolio, most notably at figure 2 in Through the Sharp Hawthorn.


9.8 Influences

There is at least one overt influence already mentioned: the use of a 're-interpretation' for two pianos of a passage from Stockhausen's Kontakte. Even now it is not clear whether aurally this is evident, but certainly it was paramount in my mind at the time, even to the extent of labelling sketches 'Kontakte'. The passage (figure 21 in Arias), does not include the piano, but several electro-acoustic sounds. Implicitly or explicitly, the piece has often influenced me, especially particular electronic sounds, rather than the instrumental music.

During a tutorial on the piece, it was pointed out that the passage from figure 20 of Chorales bore a striking resemblance to the opening of Birtwistle's Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum. Although I was aware of the piece, (although I had never studied it), the passage is 'archetypal' Birtwistle, similar passages of which are to be found elsewhere in his work. Also, there is no doubt that Birtwistle has been a strong influence on many aspects of my music. Bearing all this in mind, there is certainly a strong argument that this was imitation to the point of plagiarism. The passage has been modified to avoid this.

In the same area there are a couple of other moments highly influenced by other composers. At figure 23 there is a moment from Bartok's String Quartet No 4, last movement. At figure 25 there is a moment that brings to mind Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, although it has no direct correlation in than piece.

These 'influences', verging in some cases on quotation, were done, usually, quite consciously, because the ideas seemed to fit naturally in the flow of the music. The Birtwistle was neither deliberate nor, at the time, conscious. I have to confess to feeling quite happy with most of these moments, as, in most cases, the 'quotations' are either short or far removed in sound and/or function from the 'originals'. I am personally more concerned with the Messiaen-like use of the organ in a piece like In Principio, where similarities occur in both sound and function. This would seem to be a more problematic case of influence than any of the moments in Three Pieces.


9.9 Judgement

I have little doubt that the first of these pieces contains some of the best music I have written. The first half is very strong and the process of momentum build-up works better than in any other composition of mine. Arias is a less satisfactory: I became too relaxed about this, and allowed too much self-indulgence. The piece becomes weak and lax in the centre. The Fugues are a little crude, but the piece works and has an extremely powerful conclusion. In my opinion some of the music of Fugue 2 contains the best and most original material I have written.