Sunday, September 26, 2010

Surveying Tonality and Atonality - In Their Thinking

  • For Bartók tonality was sociological - he concluded that the peasantry (as the agent of nature) would never develop atonalism in their folk music.  Through folk music, many composers discovered new modalities and possibilities.  Bartók integrated these modalities (raw materials) into his personal style.
  • For Schoenberg tonality was an artistic dead end (for him personally)–and an area he felt he perhaps could no longer compose in and distinguish himself–his psychology is very curious.  The twelve-tone method is tied to his personal Expressionist artistic aesthetic.
  • For Stravinsky tonality was historical.  Some have reasonably argued that atonal serialism was also historical for him when he took it up later.  Personally though he had reached his own creative crises and needed to explore new procedures when he turned to serialism.  He expanded the procedural vocabulary of serial music in the same way that he had for tonality. 
  • For Hindemith tonality was an natural acoustic phenomenon.  The "system" of composition he developed expanded tonality greatly and generated his very personal style.
  • For Ives tonality and atonality (or music as a whole) was his means of artistic experimentation.  The experimentation that he learned from his father was what drove his compositional creativity.  The world (or at least the "new world") wasn't ready for his experiments.
  • For Shostakovich and Prokofiev tonality was the dictate and constriction of the state.  Both men were able to write wonderful music despite their lack of freedom to experiment.  "Formalism," as defined by the state, did not serve the society and it was demanded by the state that it be avoided.  I feel that both composers (and their Soviet colleagues) expanded tonality and gained distinctive and recognizable style traits because of it.
  • For Milhaud tonality [or tonalities] was/were musical object(s) to be combined and tried in combinations.  He experimented extensively on bitonality to discover sounds and methods he wanted to use.
  • For Rochberg tonality was an expressive necessity and a natural biological/neurological phenomenon–an efficient way for the human mind to communicate and comprehend.  Having composed serial music for a long time, he turned to a Neo-Romantic tonal style.  Rochberg wrote a great book which elucidates his theories and knowledge of these issues;  The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer's View of Twentieth-Century Music.
  • For Carter [currently aged 102 and still composing!] atonality seems to be about social commentary and an anti-societal / anti-social stance.  I also think that atonality is an elitist guise for him.  This elitist stance regarding atonality is being replaced, according to theories of postmodernism.
  • For Bernstein tonality was societal / communicative.  He did however use atonality to express chaos and strife when it suited his artistic goals.
  • For Copland (when he took up serialism late in life) dodecaphony was a chance to invent and expand his harmonic palette.  He had such an expansive tonal harmonic palette already, one wonders why he felt he needed to venture into twelve-tone procedures.
  • For the Minimalists tonality just isn't done with, and it is still an ongoing process.  It just needs re-proceduralizing.
  • For me tonality is referential, and I don't practice atonality.  I see atonality as being arbitrarily synthetic.  Having spent most of my life as a pragmatic performing musician, tonality is what I feel promotes my expressive feelings best.  I desire to make beautiful harmonies!  Maybe this reflects on the pragmatic culture that I'm a part of.

© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

"Aqua Abstract" photo by Steve Matchett

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Duke Ellington / Donald Fagen

"Duke Ellington"
sculpture by Robert Graham
Frawley Circle, Manhattan, NYC, USA
I've only been to three rock concerts in my life, one of which I hated and walked out of, one of which I could take or leave, and one that I was glad I went to.  Hearing Steely Dan in Houston a couple years ago, thanks to my sister's invitation, was a lot of fun, nostalgic, etc., but it was also enlightening.  At the front of the stage the back of Donald Fagen's keyboard featured a large photo image of Duke Ellington leading his own orchestra from the piano. Ellington led his own orchestra, just as Fagen leads one of his own, making for a sort of vies parallèles.  Mr. Fagen picked his hero well.  The realization I had though was that these two musicians added so much to the sound of music in America with their compositions.  I was glad the meaning of the photo image wasn't lost on me.  Both were/are amazing innovators of harmony, great songwriters, skilled instrumental arrangers, etc..  Both ran/run incredibly professional outfits, and bring a dignity to performance that is rare in the popular music field.  Today it's all about mindless dance numbers, gimmicks, and slick packaging!  All encompassing talent and true professionalism (with all it's implications) seems so extremely scarce now.  Ellington and Fagen both carved out a unique place that intersected both jazz and popular music circles, but maintained an uncompromising dedication to their own unique musical language.  The Steely Dan show that I saw was nice for one thing - it was all about the music!  Donald Fagen's and Walter Becker's band had stage presence galore, but the music itself reigned.  Of course it did!

Donald Fagan in concert 9/20/2011 in NYC
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Composer and Arranger

Whether arranging a popular song for an instrumental group or making a transcription of one's own original works, there's always a lot to learn through the process of working with pre-existing music.  The skills learned can and should be applied to the process of composing original works.  In fact, most original compositions have a phase in their creation that is very much akin to arranging anyway.  The stage when the generated materials have to be "put in their places" so to speak.  Many of the greatest composers have reworked their music for other formats. 
Alfred Blatter, in his book Instrumentation / Orchestration, describes the difference between transcribing and arranging that I fully agree with.  Transcribing involves moving notes from one medium to another and doing one's best not to change the music's actual content.  Arranging implies the addition of newly composed materials to pre-existing materials and enhancing what was already there.  Below I've tried to define the different ways that composers and writers deal with pre-existing musical materials.  I believe strongly that it's important to use the correct terminology.  "Arranging" should not be used as a misnomer for some of the terms below.

Arrange / Arranging / ArrangementAdding newly composed material to an already existing work–i.e. original introductions, transitions and modulations, re-harmonizations, secondary lines, endings, etc..
Transcribe / Transcribing / Transcription - Expanding, reducing or otherwise changing instrumentation without changing the overall content of a work.  Transposing might also fall under this term.
Orchestrate / Orchestrating / Orchestration - Expanding a work, usually from a piano score, to be for orchestra or another large ensemble (band, dance band)–can be synonymous to transcribing.
Adapt / Adapting / Adaptation - [This one's tricky, I had to look it up.]  This is similar to re-orchestrating or de-orchestrating a work, especially if the composer himself has done it.  For example, reducing an orchestral score for piano so that it can be used in rehearsal, like with ballet or opera.  Concertos are made into piano reductions, so they can receive recital performances.  There is usually some very practical reason for "adapting" the work to a different format.  Other examples: the need to use the instruments that are available at hand; or a reduction done in order to hire less musicians.  [Here's an ugly truth about the bottom line!  Richard Rodger's music is always best with the full orchestrations!!]
Set / Setting (noun and verb) - This usually involves a pre-existing text which is "set" for one or more singers, chorus alone, or chorus and instruments.
Edit / Editing / Edition - Providing new interpretive markings to an existing piece.  This is not arranging, I don't care how many instrumentalists out there claim it is!! [The number of editions (and transcriptions) of the Bach solo cello suites is dizzying!] 
Compile / Compiling / Compilation - The gathering together of music from disparate sources, usually for publication.  This may involve some editing as well.
Here are three other types of procedures:
Extraction / Abbreviation / Medley - [I feel these are related so I grouped them together.]  Examples would be suites derived and abbreviated from larger works, i.e.  Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 & 2 by Prokofiev.  Instrumental movements are extracted, and sometimes altered, from theatrical works for concert performance–opera overtures for example. Medley's are usually significantly arranged and orchestrated as well as extracted.  Examples might be Highlights from "Showboat" or An Irving Berlin Tribute.

Integration / Quotation / Collage - Inserting,  juxtaposing, or overlaying pre-existing materials into a piece–usually the works of others.  So many pieces of Charles Ives fit this category.  Richard Strauss quotes his own music in Ein Heldenleben.
Re-create / Re-creating / Re-creation - Great examples are Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella (which he also transcribed for cello and piano), and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Here the composer makes the pre-existing materials completely his own through invention and transformation.  The pre-existing music is used as a basis to form something completely original.  These type of works are usually considered original works because of their uniqueness.
In 2005 I wrote a piece for six cellos called Fantasy Variations on "Scarborough Fair."  I created so much material around this medieval tune that I consider the piece to be an original work in the re-creation category.  I started out to write a straightforward arrangement but things got out of hand.
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Monday, September 6, 2010

Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and Cubism in Music

In recent years I have really come to understand Igor Stravinsky's aesthetic as emphasizing construction.  This sounds simplistic because all composers "construct" their music.  What I mean is, in terms of an artistic stance particularly related to both Russian Cubo-Futurism and to Cubism.  His art does not follow the Russian Constructivist idea of art serving the state - Stravinsky was very much about art for art's sake - but his music is very constructivist.

I've been listening a lot to Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938) for chamber orchestra.  To me it's very easy to correlate the fractured lines that occur as being related to a "cubist" structural approach.  The harmonic rhythm happens as passing conglomerates of episodic tonal vocabularies, juxtaposed and blended for the narrative flow.  Stravinsky's harmonic conglomerates are well beyond the framework of traditional functional harmony, and are not just expansions of traditional harmony, but complete reinventions.  Within these conglomerates his melodic content is fragmented and layered in highly controlled confluences.  In music, collage effect sounds random if blending is neglected.  Ives' stark collages and quotations would be a far too crude procedure for Stravinsky.  Stravinsky was a master composer who controlled all elements of the compositional process at once, and always maintained a certain elegance of expression.

The Schoenbergians missed the point of Stravinsky's art of this period by sardonically saying he was trying to take on the guise of "Papa Bach."  Stravinsky wasn't doing Bach, he was reinventing the very nature of counterpoint, in the same way that he reinvented so many aspects of the musical art.  A genius can do this with a major scale just as easily as with a tone row.  The influence of the Cubists on Stravinsky, via Picasso, is mutated to become his reinvention of musical structure.  He fragmented and restructured the sounds, just like the Cubists did with images.  He did this using diatonic tonal frameworks which play against the traditional diatonic hierarchy of tones.  (See Pandiatonic)

In the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto a Bachian orchestra is used, but an aesthetic of cubist-like construction is masterfully given to the orchestra to be puzzled out and balanced.  The fragmentation of melody and instrumental usage can give this music a jagged and slightly frenetic quality.  Since Stravinsky's aesthetic is far removed from Romanticism, those who want soaring destination melodies will always have a hard time with Stravinsky.  His approach towards melody always sounds "modern" since it contrasts itself so much with "melody" as traditional song-like flow.  We get a very instrumental (non-singable) approach towards melody, but one in which the surfaces are still memorable and strangely tuneful, although quite fractured at times.  His writing for winds in this piece is as it always is, composed with such an intimate knowledge of the instrumental capabilities - far beyond the knowledge of most composers.  The concept of instrumentalism is strong with Stravinsky, where the capabilities of the instruments themselves drive the compositional process.  I have always been struck by his use of the bass instruments as punctuators rather than as sustainers of tones.  This is another feature of his music that is anti-Romantic, in that lush thick sounds tend to be avoided.  As in several of his neoclassical period works, we have moments of Rossini-esque bits inserted in collage-like fashion.  This music is delightful, modern, abstract, and joyous all at once.  His music is endlessly fascinating, always pristine, and forever masterful.

I love the quote by Nadia Boulanger about Stravinsky - "He sees what we do not see.  He knows what we do not know."

© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

Robert Craft's recording of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto with the Orchestra of St. Lukes

Woman Playing a Mandolin
by Pablo Picasso (1909)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Composing for Wind Quintet

I composed my Wind Quintet No. 1 in 2007-08 and learned so much in the process.  The versatility of this ensemble is amazing and there is so much to like about the way the instrumental voices can be used.  I was really motivated after listening to some of the great modern works for this medium.  I had always found the classical era wind quintet pieces too dainty for my taste.  The pieces of Reiche and others however laid a solid foundation on which the repertoire could develop.  I was really excited by Carl Nielsen's famous Wind Quintet, and also works by Hindemith and Irving Fine.  I could hear in these pieces a very powerful and driving use of the instruments, and a great potential for color - both harmonic and instrumental.  After writing my own piece, I discovered works by Muczynski and Maslanka on recordings which went a long way to enhance my appreciation.  I was introduced to other works by the Scirocco Winds through their live performances.  Works by Ewazen and others.  I happened to be in the process of composing my piece when I learned of the Scirocco Winds inaugural concert, and through a very happy turn of events we were able to set up the premiere of my piece on another concert later in the year (Feb. 2009).
My thoughts here are about how the different voicings of the wind quintet that can be used.  The voicing options have more variety than any chamber ensemble that I know of.
The standard voicing structure of the wind quintet looks like this:
Flute - soprano 1
Oboe - soprano 2
Clarinet - soprano 3
Horn - alto
Bassoon - tenor/bass
At first I worried about writing for 3 soprano instruments in a group, but I quickly understood the variety that could be achieved.
The group should really be viewed this way in its variety:
Flute - sop. 1 & 2 / alto 1
Oboe - sop. 2 & 1 / alto 1 & 2
Clarinet - sop. 3 & 2 & 1/ alto 1 & 2 / tenor 1
Horn - alto 1 & 2/ sop. 2 & 3 / tenor 1 & 2 / bass 1 & 2
Bassoon - bass 1 & 2 / ten. 1 & 2 / alto 1 & 2 / sop. 3
One doesn't have to use the extreme registers of the instruments to achieve this much variety in the voicing stack.  When smaller combinations are extracted - trios, duos, quartet - the variety of usage is amazing.  The clarinet is the most chameleon-like in the group in that it tends to blend in the easiest in almost any circumstance.
If one wants to use the extreme registers of the instruments the variety can be even greater.  Horn as soprano 1,  bassoon as soprano, clarinet as bass (chalumeau register, not bass clarinet) for example.
I did not have the musicians double, but options are piccolo, alto flute, English Horn, Bass Clarinet, etc..  Some composers go for the doubling, but I didn't feel it was necessary.  In fact I think the doublings would hamper the group to some degree and I preferred to maximize the usage of the standard instrumentation.
The Scirocco Winds warming up before their recital
February 2, 2009 - Houston, TX
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett


Maturing stages of the musical mind.
1) hear - to perceive or sense sounds
2) listen - to make a conscious effort to hear; attend closely, so as to hear
3) hearken - to give careful attention; listen carefully
I love the word "hearken" because it means that a person is engaged with what they are hearing or listening to, and seek to find meaning in it.  If a person is hearkening to the messages of music, not only are they opening themselves up to the sonic landscape of a piece, but they are understanding the narrative that is being conveyed.  The narrative can be a virtual flow of emotions, a narrative of sonic action.  Hearkening means taking something away with you after the piece is over, and growing in the ability to relate musical works, by both comparisons and contrasts.  A person who hearkens to great music will learn to love and be absorbed by the imaginary soundscape that the composer and performers have created.