Wednesday, February 24, 2010

another duo sonata under way

I have not composed a lot because job hunting is a frequently depressing enterprise. However it has been my observation that the more depressed I get the more I need to work on something to keep my mind occupied. Theological reading doesn't help, though, because it frankly isn't the right kind of work for me. Sure, I've got books by Bauckham, Thielicke, Bonhoeffer, Augustine, F. F. Bruce, and others to read ... but it's not the same as the voice of that kid at the end of the Ten Thirteen Productions where he says "I made this!" Yes ... X-Files up through season 5 was a magnificant show.

Appropos of all that I have started composing a sonata for violin and guitar. While it can often be said that the comments of composers about their work can frequently not be helpful or can even obfuscate what would be clearer from a close study of the scores I like to think that when I bother to write about music I'm fairly straightforward and ... maybe not clear but at least clear to musicians. If you aren't interested in either music or biblical literature or cartoons I guess there'd be no reason to read this blog. :)

So, as I compose this sonata for violin and guitar I have two tasks before me. You can think of them as the task itself and the meta-task. The task itself is writing a satisfactory sonata for violin and guitar. I have Atanas Ourkouzounov's wonderful Sonatina Bulgarica as a score for reference (his recording on the KLE label is, alas, out of print but you can download mp3s of the work performed by Duo Cordes et Ames over at the Big River company as Delcampers for some reason insist on calling

You can go here if you want to learn more about this duo, whose promotional photos are so twee and cute as to be almost absurd. No, really, there's something weirdly cute about these two. If I can't plug for Atanas' now out-of-print CD Contes des Balkans I must by all means plug for a duo that is willing to record the work.

In addition I have been listening to all the music for violin and guitar Paginini wrote that I was, er, able to get my hands on before I got laid off. Fortunately that managed to be at least four discs so I have an immense amount of lively violin and guitar repertoire to listen to and examine before finishing my own sonata.

Oh, and since I'm a fan of J. S. Bach I of course have the complete works for solo violin. I was lucky enough, several years ago, to stumble upon a reissued recording of Zoltan Szekely playing the sonatas and partitas (you Bartok fans will know why this name is important and I'm going to pointlessly brag that I managed to procure a CD reissue of Szekely's live performance of the 2nd violin concerto recorded long ago).

Well, I could try to write about what I'm working on but if you can't hear music it's hard to write about it. I'm experimenting with using several melodies that are traditional tunes and finding ways to integate them based on shared gestures. The gestures may be intervallic or rhythmic and a linked set of gestures allow for two or three traditional melodies to be blended together in a new harmonic context. Medley, in other words, is what I'm aiming at.

But not medley in the usual pop song sense of that phrase. Charles Ives used parody but he distorted the melodies he quotes beyond recognition before actually quoting them. Medley in this case of the sonata I'm composing means more that I incorporate a variety of immediately recognizable tunes into the musical fabric of the work. It doesn't mean that I quote them all in an entirely instantly recognizable way. You can take a traditional melody in a major key and transpose the intervals so that what is the third of a major chord is the fifth of a minor chord or the seventh of either sort of chord.

Another fun compositional devise is to take a melodic line and play it backwards, perhaps making tonal adjustments so that what would be in dorian might become mixolydian or lydian. Retrograde is one of the most difficult compositional devices to employ because it is rare that a melody will sound as effective played backwards as it sounded being played forward. You may find that a melody that lends itself very well to retrograde presentation is not very satisfying in its inverted form. Or you may discover any number of thematic fragments are great using any of the above devices or techniques but that the melody as a whole doesn't "want" to be subjected to any of those devices. It's hard to explain what I mean in a blog entry without referring to an actual piece of music and I don't feel like using a lot of musical samples in this blog. Too much of a hassle to prepare examples. I'll merely refer you to Art of Fugue and Ludus Tonalis by Bach and Hindemith respectively. The prelude and postlude of the latter is a fine example of a prelude being in prime and the postlude being in retrograde inversion.

Now all of this sounds ineffably nerdy, doesn't it? Well, Baroque and Renaissance composers loved this sort of thing because for them it was often a kind of musical symbolism. We live in an era in which music is no longer seen as part of the quadrivium--no one sees music as a branch of the applied sciences anymore, least of all by most scientists! We know too much about the dubious nature of the "science" used to defend particular forms of pitch organization that are really regional. Reformed theo-bloggers like Douglas Wilson can pretend to themselves that major and minor key music is "robustly Trinitarian" even though Ambrosian and Greek chant predate "robustly Trinitarian" in the manner of Schutz by centuries. Nor would those sorts of Reformed bloggers and thinkers see Messiaen or Penderecki as "robustly Trinitarian" because, well, they're Catholics, for one, and because they employed every avant garde trick in the book to explore theological meditations. I love the Matthew Passion as much as the next person who loves it but that doesn't stop me from loving Pendereckis Luke passion just as much, or Arvo Part's John passion ... but I am digressing in a major way.

But this gets me, paradoxically, back to the meta-task. My chamber sonatas I have been working on over the last ten years are not just sonatas as individual works but as part of a larger cyclical project. I don't want to give away everything yet because I'm not done with the project and because there's no certainty that my sonatas are actually good enough to get premiered and keep anyone's attention. I can hope but it is best not to merely presume. Confidence is not the same as unvarnished egotism. Egotism that says "I can do better than that" never proves itself much in the end. Confidence that "I could try that" that leads to actually doing something is preferable. So I'm trying to stick with the premise that there are things I can try and I hope people try them out.

But what I can explain, however abstract it may be, is that each of the sonatas has continuity within itself yet also with the companion pieces, the other sonatas. I wrote a sonata for flute and guitar for some friends of mine to play--a husband played oboe and guitar, and his wife played flute and piano. I thought a flute/guitar sonata would give them something fun to play together. Turns out he doesn't play CLASSICAL guitar. Oops. So the flutist and I performed the sonata together and I almost immediately set to composing a sonata for oboe and guitar to make sure the husband wasn't left out. Why compose one for the one and not compose something for the other? It turned out pretty decently and by then I had two sonatas that were literally companion pieces at every level. By then I realized that I might as well write something for the younger brother of the husband and that got me eventually composing something for cello and guitar.

So at a semi-conscious level I wanted to compose a set of duo sonatas for guitar and various instruments in which there was a conceptual and even a literal family relationship network binding the sonatas together. I have the family to thank simply for being and being solid musicians and by virtue of that inspiring me to start the cycle, such as it is.

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