Monday, June 29, 2009

pecking away

Well, I ihave mapped out the middle entries for the fugue for viola and guitar I have been working on for a few years. Thanks to some intensive study of a swath of scores and some reading I think I have a plan for the fugue that is to be the finale. Studying Bach and Beethoven and Hindemith has been a great reminder that when you proceed to work on a fugue having a plan for things is good. There's a lot that you can, I guess, leave to chance in the sense that once you settle on a subject it essentially dictates the nature of the material but there is something to be said, too, for knowing the implications of the material that you choose to use.

I have been learning this the long, hard way with the subject of my fugue in question. It begins in major but quickly turns to chromatic embellishment in the second measure and by the third and fourth measure has entirely mutated into parallel minor. Modal mutation in a fugue subject seems to be exceptionally rare. A modulating subject is common enough and a subject in one key (often minor) with a high dose of chromaticism is common enough as well. A subject that begins in major, adds chromaticism, and then abruptly shifts into parallel minor and just stays there for the duration of the subject without actually modulating ... that's rare.

When I came upw ith the idea I was excited, very excited, because it seemed like a modally mutating subject, beyond just sounding cool, would be fun to work with. No one expects a mutation mid-subject so it carries with it a great element of surprise. Starting off happily and abruptly taking a dark turn but keeping the upbeat rhythm has a mysterious element to it. The other thing that appeals to me about the subject is that it is essentially a working out of gestural ideas from the first movement, even the first six measures within the first movement, the core of the entire work--you could say that it is the theme from which a kind of Goldberg variations emerges only in my work the material isn't so great as what Bach used and the variations are not variations so much as a sonata, aria, and fugue that all emerge from the initial originating theme.

The first half of the subject invokes the linear element of the opening theme, while the second half of the subject invokes the rhythmic arc of the chorale element in which the guitar and viola play a chorale in pizzicato unison (four ntoe chord that expands out into a polychord that diffuses the stability of the tonality into a tonic/dominant juxtaposition that can imply a tonic with a major seventh and a ninth). All that makes it sound more complex than it really is, a soft, feintly jazzy chorale that is punctuated by a semi-bluesy pizzicato line started by the guitar in pizz but finished by the viola. All of that stuff reappears in a mutated form in the fugue subject, both looking forward to new developpmental possibilities while also looking back to the original idea. I

Years ago I wrote some little couplet about how within Eve was the entire race of Adam waiting to be born. The first couple bore within themselves the entirety of the race in its potential. Well, by analogy, the opening six bars of my sonata are like that, they reveal the potential of the entire sonata in the opening six measures. After the lengthy transformative joureny the theme is going to reappear in its original form at the end to demonstrate what it was and what it has, in a new context become. The theme becomes both the beginning and a kind of end. The coda of the first movement becomes a second ending, after the reprise of the originating theme, which itself comes after a transformed form of the subject. I could attempt to describe how this all works but that's not really the plan or the point. The point is really that I am excited to be making some progress on a very difficult sonata.

And there is a lot of personal symbolism attached to the sonata in terms of my method. Composing music in which the entire cycle of the work derives from a central thematic gesture is something I have been experimenting with for about a decade. In one sonata the central gesture may not appear into a middle movement, in other cases the central idea may be a cluster of gestures that appear immediately at the start of a work. In still other cases there may be a central idea in each movement that remains self-contained or the ideas in earlier movements become assimilated into a new arrangement later on. It's not as though there is anything new to using elements of fractals and the Fibonacci sequence in tonal music.

What makes these experiments interesting for me is employing them in an attempt to surmount the stylistic boundaries between "high" and "low" musical styles at a surface level and also to apply these concepts to the far more challenging task of structural aspects of music.

As Michael Tilson Thomas put it, a lot of Motown and pop songs have their own expressions of forms that exist in classical music. I could pick one of my favorite examples, Stevie Wonder's "Contusion" to explain how a rondo form can be employed in pop music. Most songs extend simple binary or strophic form in ways resembling what happens in classical music. Ternary or da capo aria form, however, is virtually unheard of in popular music. Most of us would not recognize the Tin Pan Alley format of verse chorus verse chorus bridge verse chorus as an extension of rounded binary form (aaba) or, depending on how you want to splice things, as an extension of ternary form.

All that is to say that if you immerse y ourself into classical music, jazz, rock, and blues you begin to discover that the way to assimilate all of these musical idioms into your language as a musician and a composer is to keep some connection to them all and assimilate them all, slowly working toward points of unity and cohesion on a piece by piece basis.

Leo Brouwer once said that fusion is probably the musical movement that has been most overlooked and underappreciated by the classical music establishment. I basically agree. Now for Brouwer, in Cuba, there may well be political implications to this. For me the impetus is fundamentally theological (no, there's no intended pun in there, sorry). If in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, then in essence there is no high or low, classical or pop, white or black, all of these musical lexicons can be integrated while respecting their individual identities yet also assimilated into a coherent vocabulary that develops as God gives each musician and composer an opportunity.

If this also seems hopelessly arcane and useless I grant all of that. For me composing is a way to explore in music how I may grasp something about the nature of the world Christ has created, what role we as people may have in it, and to explore how Christ reconciling all things to Himself can be explored and, if possible, demonstrated in music as it is written.

Having said all that what I am NOT interested in doing is writing music in such a way that a person is required to know all this theoretical, meditative stuff in order to have any appreciation of the music I write. A person MAY enjoy my music (if they enjoy it) a bit more or quite a bit more if they understand the centuries of music in different countries I am assimilating into the style I have but it should not, ideally, be necessary. I have even gone so far as to indicate sections in chamber works that can provide for improvisation while retaining strict control over the thematic and cyclical elements of the sonata. It should become simple to improvise within a sonata I have written if only because all the thematic relationships across the sonata are controlled in such a way that all the themes are branches growing out of the same seed, to stretch that metaphor. Any improvisation within this context will be okay because the macro and micro structural integrity of each theme and of the themes across each movement has been carefully controlled. I spend my time looking after the internal and cyclical development of each theme in connection to the seed or root so that the performers and listeners don't have to give it any thought, though they may if they wish to.

And beyond this I am developing things so that across each sonata in the series the different applications of these ideas, for me, have a personal symbolism of how God creates creatures who reproduce after their own kind. All the kitties may be one piece and all the doggies may be another piece while all the frogs might be still another. But here I realize this is all meaningless apart from actually hearing the music.

For songs this plays out at a more abstruse level. Text painting can be employed in choral music but I don't feel up to writing about that.

I am pecking away at a sonata, a sonata that I hope eventually gets played. It won't be necessary for anyone to know about all of this stuff I have blogged about should the piece get heard. History is full of composers who have complex inner symbolic lexicons for their music and ever since Wagner, at least, the leitmotif has been a big man on campus throwing his weight around. I am not looking at an explicit symoblism but am taking an approach ... dare I say more like Mahler, whose work I have to admit I don't particularly like?

Never mind all that, I have a plan, and this plan that I have planned should help me conquer the challenges of writing this last part of this latest sonata.