Saturday, June 15, 2013

sonata form and guitar literature--what is the difference between average and good?

Having written about sonata form in guitar literature it will surprise no one I've got opinions about it.  I've written about sonata form as used by Sor, Giuliani and Diabelli and so you won't be shocked that I've paid attention to whether or not anyone's bothered to record Diabelli's sonatas.  Anthony Glise's recording is excellent and, sadly, out of print.  At the end of this month, however, there's a new recording that's going to be available.  Here is the disc that will be coming out from Brilliant Classics, in case you're interested.

As I've written before of the three Diabelli's sonatas, as explorations of sonata form, are the most compelling overall.  While Sor and Giuliani provide brilliant early explorations of the form their later works get bogged down in, literally, the grandness of the scope they were going for.  Not all guitarist composers who have attempted large-scale sonata form failed.  In fact Matiegka's two Grand Sonatas for solo guitar (the first of which is recorded by David Leisner) are compelling explorations of large form.  Arguably Matiegka's handling of sonata form is better than that of Sor, Giuliani or even Diabelli.

But that's a pretty bold assertion to make and it depends on being able to mount some definition and defense of what a good sonata form actually is.  Charles Rosen has amply established that sonata form itself is more slippery than imagined by scholastic musicologists.  Do you think a sonata has two groups?  It may have three.  Do you propose that the two groups must be of contrasting character? What about all those monothematic sonata forms Haydn wrote?  Wasn't Haydn considered the pioneer of what we now consider sonata form? 

If you were to ask the average classical guitarist what the best set of sonatas for solo guitar are the answer would probably not be Sor, Giuliani, Diabelli or (sadly) Matiegka (and in Matiegka's case we haven't had a chance to hear commercial recordings of his eleven sonatas yet).  While the jury may be out in the long-haul a lot of people like the guitar sonatas of Ponce.  I happen to like them, too, even though I actually can't stand the variations and fugue on La Folia and would even agree with Matanya Ophee that Ponce was ultimately a composer of second rank.  Second rank is still pretty impressive, though. 

Now "if" we grant that Ponce's guitar sonatas represent the great achievement in terms of their being played a whole lot we could ask what is characteristic of them.  I'm going to go out on a limb and propose that it's simple, Ponce's guitar sonatas work because they demonstrate a clear grasp of development as a principle in sonata form but, just as crucially, Ponce's sonatas for guitar show a clear grasp of structural differentiation within and across segments of the form.

When guitarist-composers tackle sonata form what can often happen is that, frankly, the themes in the exposition don't always seem different enough for their observable differences to matter.  Unless you're a scholar whose job it is to know where the modulations occur within the exposition and recapitulation what are the odds you could hum the tunes in the structural key-points of any given guitar sonata?  Can you do that for Giuliani's lovely Op. 15?  That's good because that's one of the ones where you can do that.  How about Sor's brilliant Op. 14?  Yep, there as well. 

Now what about those grand sonatas?  Not quite so much.

But with Ponce you can practically see how schematic everything is and in the best possible way.  Ponce could crank out some solid tunes with solid differences across the form.  Ponce's guitar sonatas are fine examples of sonata form for our instrument precisely because they're so conservative, even scholastic in bearing.   There's no mistaking where theme 1 and theme 2 are even when he builds from the same essential building blocks as he does in his "Romantic" sonata. How does that work?  Bear with me, I'm doing this all from memory.

To get at this let's diverge way back into Haydn.  Haydn wrote plenty of monothematic sonata forms and so we can't say that what differentiates a theme in one segment or another is some simple principle of contrast.  There are, however, ways of contrasting forms of a single theme.  If we look at the "fifths" string quartet (Op 76, 2) we'll see that having a theme in one mode and then another provides a contrast.  Contrasting textural accompaniment is also useful.  Haydn might have a homophonic realization of a theme in block chords in one section and subject the same thematic idea to a contrapuntal ornamentation in the second group as well as having the theme in major rather than minor.

In Haydn's C sharp minor piano sonata we can see that the opening gesture is presented in bold octaves and followed up with delicate figuration that is an augmentation of a fragment of the initial gesture.  This idea is later brought back in the second group of the exposition and embellished with sequence and altered harmonic rhythm.  But the most significant contrast between "theme 1" and "theme 2" is that an idea bluntly stated in C sharp minor is presented in sequence in E major and with a rapidly descending bass line before expanding on the sequential ideas that appeared in the first theme.  The C sharp minor piano sonata has an exposition that consists of a handful of gestures that are developed in contrasting ways without adding any completely new material.

What Charles Rosen observed about Haydn's innovations in sonata form was that Haydn was able to compose accompaniment figures in first themes that were able to be developed into ideas with thematic significance later within the same musical form.  An idea in violin 2 in the opening sonata form of a string quartet could become thematic material for violin 1 to play later within the same exposition.  If we were to be very sloppy and attempt to put this in contrapuntal terms, a countersubject to a subject might become its own subject replete with exposition later in a double fugue and so it was, arguably, with Haydn's approach to sonata form. 

If the fugue could be considered the form through which composers expressed profound thoughts and feelings in the Baroque period that form became sonata form in the Classic period.  That Beethoven flirted with fusions of the two forms in his late works would help encourage this impression even if one did not agree that the fugue and the sonata form are the forms in their respective epochs through which a set of complementary yet contrasted ideas could be explored and developed.  While perhaps a composer today would find both fugue and sonata form antiquated it is possible to compose a type of monothematic sonata form in which theme 1 is taken as a subject and a theme 2 is composed as its countersubject, yet the two themes are presented with independent harmonic realizations in a sonata exposition and are recapitulated simultaneously as subject with countersubject in the recapitulation of a sonata form.  That may sound scholastic and I suppose it is but it's also fun.  Wenatchee has done it.  The more thoroughly a musician studies sonata form and fugue the more readily the two forms can be seen as companions dedicated to the exploration of ideas at the most abstract level.

Now all this is rather general for the reason that Ponce's sonatas are under copyright and we've no wish to breach that.  But if you've heard all of Ponce's sonatas let alone those of the early masters of classical guitar, you may already hear in your mind what I'm getting at, that there is a clarity of form in the best guitar sonatas that amplifies their emotional appeal.  Sor and Giuliani in later works paint on a canvas that seems too large for the kind of paintings they make.  Their use of cadential formula for flourishing technical displays can devour any ability to easily remember what their thematic ideas actually were. 

What arguably doesn't happen in guitar sonatas is a whole lot of what Rosen observed in the sonatas of Haydn, transforming little gestures in themes into thematic ideas later on.  Anyone who can show how this happens in guitar sonatas is welcome to discuss it, because the aim of this piece is not strictly polemical but to encourage a discussion of sonata forms for solo guitar.  We guitarists simply don't have the same level of contrapuntal liberties pianists or string quartets have so, naturally, it'd be difficult to develop sonata form in quite the same way Haydn did. 

But as Ponce's sonatas show, it is possible to establish structural differentiation in expositions and recapitulations to the point where each tune gets its moment to shine.  So how does Ponce and other composers do that?

At the risk of still being vague we can discuss ways in which a "theme" is marked out.  There may be two to three essential gestures in a theme and they may have contrasting potential within themselves.  Or as with Haydn's C sharp minor piano sonata the apparently single idea may have within itself fragments that are amenable to development at levels the untrained won't perceive.  An idea that sounds fine going forward in theme 1 may become the basis for theme 2 by being fragmented, transposed and sequenced.  However many fragments make up the initial phrase the composer's imagination will be able to discern their boundaries of developmental travel.

If you wanted to compose a monothematic sonata form keep in mind there's no rule that says the thing ever has to be the same thing twice.  You could go from block chord accompaniment in "theme 1" to alberti bass in "theme 2" while retaining the essential shape of the melody.  Haydn does this in a couple of his piano sonatas.  There's the obvious move of choosing contrasting modes. 

Less obvious ideas are to alter the harmonic rhythm of the theme.  You may have an opening theme with a brisk harmonic rhythm where the chords change every two beats and as a way to contrast "theme 1" from "theme 2" (even in this monothematic sonata form we're hypothetically dealing with) the harmonic rhythm in "theme 2" may be significantly slower.  Of course the mode could be different and be parallel minor or major or you might have a theme "1" with a pure mode that in theme "2" is subject to rapid modal mutation. You might even have theme 2 have a certain set of modal mutations in the exposition that are inverted in the recapitulation but so long as the gestural integrity and syntax of your initial ideas is preserved a listener will still hear that it's the same set of ideas you had in your sonata earlier.

The number of phrases in a theme become important.  If in theme 1 you have a square theme with four phrases that are four measures each then in your theme 2, even if you're using the same set of ideas as before, you might want to use three phrases of three measures each, perhaps in triple meter or 5/4.  The idea would be that you have several realms of contrast despite sharing gestures in common.  You can employ the contrast in the number of phrases and the length of the phrases.  You can contrast mode, you can contrast a sequential development of a single idea with a call-and-response development of having your idea met with a new and complementary or subsidiary idea. 

To put this in somewhat trite terms if you have a theme you like it will consist of a variety of fragments and ideas that you can break down.  Break them out into all the fragments you can easily recognize and do this for any accompaniment patterns you enjoy.  Figure out everything you can do with all of them and then once you've done that then go tackle the form itself.  In forms as abstract and esoteric as sonata and fugue "inspiration" is a worth ethic and a methodology--you toil until you find the inspired and what is most inspired among the possibilities--rather than some emotionally driven and riven spur of the moment.  Great musicians are able to create and perform music in a way that conveys spontaneity even if every single note has been meticulously planned from start to finish.  There's no essential conflict between care for every single note at a formal level and musical expression.  It's never "just notes" if you're serious about it and if it is "just notes" then you may not be entirely serious about it regardless of musical style. 

While it's good to talk about the feeling inherent within music there's a risk to it.  There's no truly "inhuman" music but there are many types of music and musical works that fail to lodge in the heart.  This is, just to be argumentative about it, a problem of memory.  Musical form relies on the power of associative memory.  For our brains to grasp the emotional content of any given musical moment we have to have enough associative memory at hand to grasp the grammar and syntax and language we're being presented.  If Haydn gives us an exposition in the C sharp minor piano sonata where an idea is thoroughly developed then if he abandons developing the idea in his recapitulation this surprises us but does not shock us because Haydn adheres to a concept of balance within and across forms. 

The ideas that he develops in the C sharp minor piano sonata first movement in the recapitulation were ideas that did not get as much development in the exposition or even the development.  The principle of developmental extension within the form gave Haydn room to develop the previously undeveloped phrases to pleasing conclusions.  To someone bent on the idea that sonata forms have to have recapitulations without development, or committed to the idea that what happened in the exposition has to come back the same way Haydn reveals that it doesn't have to be that way.  As previously said, Haydn's commitment to development across the sonata form gives him freedom to both surprise us by not recapitulating in the scholastic way we would have been told to expect in a musicology class but to satisfy us by developing the phrases in the recapitulation in the structural order in which they appeared in the exposition.  The larger point of structural differentiation within and across the parts of the sonata form have still been preserved. 

As balancing the artistic imperative to both surprise and satisfy Haydn was obviously a master.  That no guitarist-composer has ever approached Haydn's level of mastery is not really a surprise given the significant limitations of our instrument and yet it's possible to say that just because we live in the 21st century does not mean there's nothing more to be done with fusty old sonata form or fugue, still less does it mean that a single guitar played by a guitarist somehow can't do much with these challenging forms just because the average guitarist isn't interested in the conceptual and physical demands sonata and fugue obviously make on the mind and body.  The violin literature is full of music that at some point or another was declared unplayable or unmusical.  The guitar is at a stage now where idiomatic possibility is almost moot given the feats virtuosi are capable of now.  Why not begin to explore the older forms like sonata and fugue for solo guitar precisely so that we can, as it were "catch up" to what has been available in keyboard literature for centuries?  And, while we're at it, there's obviously more old music that has sat in near oblivion for decades by composers like Rebay and Matiegka.  We don't have to only make new stuff and not appreciate the old.

For those guitarist composers who are interested in sonata form and what is possible for a person to do with a single guitar in that form, here's at least some ideas for consideration, such as they are. A great fugue and a great sonata have their own thematic and development economic efficiency, for want of a more "artistic" set of terms, and if that seems too mechanistic let's not forget that in earlier eras of music that preceded the Enlightenment medieval scholastics could still group music, for instance, with a set of applied sciences like astronomy and geometry.  Similar thought was found in the Greeks.  Music was seen as expressing kind of telos for the cosmosbut we should abandon any pretense that any one culture necessarily arrived at the same set of ideas.  But this blog post isn't about a defense or attack on tonal music in the West in common practice.  It's just a rambling rumination on a specific form in the common practice style and what we guitarists may be able to do with it given what we hear in sonatas of old. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

New series at Mockingbird on Justice League/Justice League Unlimited

There's been a big gap between the last series on the DCAU for Mockingbird and this one so it seemed like this post might be a way to get readers up to speed and get some sense of where the newly launched series comes from and what it builds on. 

Back in 2010 DZ at Mockingbird and I briefly discussed the possibility of Wenatchee The Hatchet writing an overview of the DC animated universe (aka Timm-verse).  The idea sounded fun and the prototype for what was in mind was something like the Onion AV club overview of the animated shows.

In early 2011 Wenatchee wrote a few thousand words about Superman: the animated series.  Then in the summer of 2011 with Michael Bay's third Transformers film released still more thousands of words were written explaining how and why the old Transformers cartoons were actually kinda lame as they were slaved to shilling toys.  Only in the fall of 2011 did essays about Batman: the animated series take shape and the series Batman: The Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire wrapped up roughly in time for the 20th anniversary of the classic cartoon.  In case you've never read any of that stuff here's a comprehensive table of contents.

In case you might be interested in reading what Wenatchee The Hatchet had to say about the Toy Story trilogy, here you go.
For a discussion of social identity in Ratatouille and Pixar films in general.

For a discussion of last year's Pixar film Brave.

For a discussion of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, there's "A Path Through Three Prisons"

Finally, because you probably knew this was likely, we're kicking off a new and probably more-intermittent-than-ideal series on Justice League/Justice League Unlimited.  Given the weird and annoying gaps and erratic scheduling the series had during it's run readers who enjoyed the show may simply sigh and note that there were intermittent annoying gaps in the air dates of episodes for the show itself.  We're only human here, after all.  But rest assured the first essay in Justice Has Its Price: The Orphans and Exiles of the Justice League has officially gone up today, just in time for the release of Man of Steel.  Yes, we did plan for that and at least pulled that off.  :)  No, there's no way we're waiting to publish the Green Lantern film in association with another Green Lantern movie. 

So, here you go..

Thursday, June 13, 2013

in the near future hope to get back to some musical stuff

But that will take some time and amidst writing there is such a thing as living, we trust.  Wenatchee The Hatchet plans to get to Matiegka and Carulli sonatas in comparison to works by Haydn but anyone who knows those works will get why it's taken time. 

And there are some writing and musical projects that have been pending for a while. 

another sorta linkathon

Two different ways of tackling what is called scientism in two unsurprisingly contrasting settings.  Slate and The Weekly Standard. Inevitable trolling comments about how people who think science can't every question should use things like leeches ensue at Slate because that's what the fray has become over the last decade. 

Also in The Weekly Standard, an interesting kernel of thought about Solomon and apostasy for those who may want to run with that idea further.

Weitzman explores why someone so wise could violate such an obvious prohibition: It is not in spite of his wisdom, but because of his wisdom, that Solomon is led astray, Weitzman suggests. Perhaps Solomon believed himself wise enough to accumulate a surfeit of wives while still avoiding temptation. “Whatever it is that Solomon understood about the world or God or the biblical text,” writes Weitzman, “might even be what got him into trouble by removing the limits that normally constrain where the mind can go.” 

This concept pervades Judaic thought. The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” Orthodox Jews do not carry money on the Sabbath, not because it is a grave sin against God but because it will prevent them from being in a position to buy something, an action associated with work, which is expressly forbidden. Solomon reasoned away the fence. Since Solomon knew the explanation for the prohibition against many wives—to avoid idolatry—he thought he could concentrate on this larger purpose rather than worry about avoiding lots of foreign women. In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. 

A lament that with the latest plot twist revelations Don Draper's story in Mad Men is like a bad comic book. The very form of television itself has always been the soap opera or a made-for-TV movie in essence.  We can discuss and debate how low, middle and high the knitted brow may be but ... .

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Mark Driscoll appeals to Mars Hill Church members to give more money as end of fiscal year approaches.

There are links buried all over this one but Wenatchee's not in the mood to go re-underline them.  Feel free to scroll-over as you read to spot the links to other content.  Otherwise, this post will largely explain itself.  And so ...

Well, it appears the good news, bad news cycle of growth keeps happening and nobody's giving enough has continued at Mars Hill despite the fact that they've switched to a weekly budgeting approach.  There's been some observations from Driscoll about Mars HIll having faced a fiscal cliff in the past (as in recent).  Last year there was a financial update in which Driscoll mentioned that all the Mars Hill campuses had been running systemic deficits. Switching from annual to weekly budgeting was introduced as a way to avert some problems. Somehow despite the admission of systemic deficits the year end report for FY2012 was another best-year-ever.  Sure, Driscoll could admit the economic model that had guided Mars Hill up until last year was not sustainable for the long-term future ... but nobody sinned in any way when mass layoffs happened.

The start of 2013 was quite a year.  Bill Clem left Mars Hill after years in ministry.  Alex Early replaced Clem.  Tim Gaydos left Mars Hill Downtown shortly after a grand opening at a new campus.  And this year Driscoll rallied members of Mars Hill with an observation of "we're not a wealthy church" even though the annual report of Mars Hill for FY2012 strongly indicates Mars Hill was doing better than, say, the Salvation Army or the Union Gospel Mission lately.  You can read about that here.

Well, how are things lately?  It would appear that Mark Driscoll has notified Mars Hill in the last week or so that, once again, giving isn't where it needs to be.  Driscoll explains the good news/bad situation, it seems, as follows:

From Pastor Mark Driscoll:
Mars Hill Family,
I love you and I praise God for you. I’ve got the best job on the world.
On a recent day out running errands I had dozens of people come up to say they became a Christian at Mars Hill, got their life turned around at Mars Hill, and/or met their spouse at Mars Hill. This happens all the time. I have an amazing seat to watch the Holy Spirit work in and through our church family. After 17 years on the job, I’m more thankful, hopeful, and grateful than ever for Jesus and our people.
With the summer coming, I wanted to catch you up to speed on a few things. We’ve got our big summer sermon series coming up after a few months in Acts, but before that we have our financial year end fast approaching at the end of June. Since the summer is usually a bit flat, as people are on vacation, it is very important for us to end our fiscal year strong.
Good news
For the third year in a row, over 1,000 people were baptized at Mars Hill Church during the past 12 months. Students ministry, women’s ministry, and Mars Hill Music all got off to very strong starts this year. Easter weekend was our biggest ever. We have multiple churches on the cusp of moving into long-term homes, Everett and Tacoma.
This big picture view is tremendously encouraging, and it gets even more beautiful when you consider the countless ways God is at work in the lives of our church.
Bad news
Giving at Mars Hill Church is behind where we had planned to be at this point in the year. We have some significant ground to make up between now and June 30 in order to achieve our expected income for the year.
The shortfall is concerning, but thankfully, we’ve kept expenses down and continue to live within our means. We are also members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, adhering to the highest standards of nonprofit stewardship. Yes, we are a church asking you to give, because we know that worshiping with your money is better than worshiping your money.
In our various churches, about a third of the people who attend give anything. Please give. And please pray. For those who do, thank you! Over the next few weeks, we’ll provide regular updates to keep the church up to speed on progress. 
Go to to give toward this year’s budget and set an annual pledge to help us plan for next year.
Love and fruit
This month we’ll also be talking a lot about vision. As we’ve learned in the Acts series so far, Jesus has already given us a mission: to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). As your pastor, part of my job is to prayerfully consider how this mission plays out through the life and work of Mars Hill Church. 
I love to dream big, and I’ve got no shortage of vision for Mars Hill. At full maturity, I am asking Jesus to allow us to be a church of 50,000 people. We want to plant more churches in urban locations—old urban, like Seattle and Portland, and new urban, like Bellevue and Orange County—and we want to develop these churches into regional hubs that can plant more churches in the surrounding areas.
But honestly, health matters to me more than growth. If we are healthy, God will grow us. We want to make it clear that Mars Hill Church cares about faces, not just numbers. A church can be large and healthy. But if we overemphasize the large, we risk the healthy. If we focus on healthy, large will take care of itself, according to God’s will. As Jesus said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit” (Matt. 7:17). 
Here’s what’s on my heart, in particular for the next year of Mars Hill Church: I want us to be a healthy tree. What does that look like? Love. I want us to love Jesus, love our family, love our church family, love our neighbor, love lost people, and love our enemies. Jesus has loved us well and invited us to be witnesses of his by loving with his love. In closing, I’m asking three things:
1.      Please pray for our church to always be growing in our love and unity.
2.      Please love your Community Group, and if you don’t have one, join one.
3.      Please give as an act of love. 
Whatever God has for us next, as long as we love one another we’ll be ready for it.

So ... once again Mars Hill is not quite at the giving goals desired.  Chris Rosebrough, if you happen to read this, there may be some more vision-casting coming up.