Saturday, September 12, 2009

Piano Music: Sketches

In the mid 1980s I developed a style of notating for piano score using three staves, rather than the usual two staves. This allows me to use the extended range of the piano without having to use lots of ledger-lines, which can become hard to read after awhile, or extensive use of the 8va or octavo marking with brackets.

I find the extreme ranges of the piano to be fascinating, especially in more abstract styles of music. There is a great deal of contemporary music that never gets out of the middle range, or much beyond the human vocal range. But music is about sounds, all kinds of sounds. It's also about gestures, and shapes. Musical score is performance notation, which is a visual representation of the sounds to be made, the notes to be played. There are many kinds of score notation now, especially since the innovations and explorations of the past century. My own three-stave piano score is nothing particularly radical, but I do find it convenient. I have worked with this style of extended-range piano extensively, in both finished and unfinished scores. I have a five-movement suite for high voice, either tenor or soprano, and extended piano titled Five Winter Dream Haiku. The texts are indeed five haiku on that theme. In a reversal of the usual art-song format, the voice is more like an obbligato part, while the piano writing dominates, setting the mood before and after the voice performs its poems.

Here is a cleaned-up page from one of my notebooks from that period. It's page one of a sketch for a longer solo piano piece; the title is inspired by Alan Watts' book Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown. Each of those three words were to become a movement of a meditative, abstract piano piece, parts of a three-movement suite.

(Click on image for larger version.)

This is a piece that I plan to finish, now that it's sat idle for a long time, and now that I'm back in the mood to notate this kind of music. I have a couple of pianist performer friends again, now that I'm back in the Madison area, and involved with the music scene there again.

The philosophical note that I wrote to myself on the bottom of this score page is something I still believe, an idea that I believe remains largely unexplored. My note reads as follows:

The extreme ranges of the piano have their own voices, their own unique tone qualities. These have hardly been exploited to the fullest degree of their evocation of mood. Melodies take on different characters in these registers. [Dane] Rudhyar's "music of tones, of the rhythm of speech." No theme and developments here. Nothing classical. Only a voice singing in the wilderness.

Non-composers often make the mistake of thinking that music must sound like what we know from popular music genres. In fact, there are no rules. That familiar sound is a time-bound and culturally-bound consensus set of habitual performance practice that defines the familiar and known recursively. In fact, the most open-ended definition I've ever encountered is: Music is organized sounds in time. That's very broad definition that emerged from the experimental music of the 1950s through the 1970s. It leaves a lot of doors open. It doesn't talk about harmony, counterpoint, melody, rhythm, or anything else we take for granted as an essential element of music. Music is intentional sound: the composer's (or performer's) intention is what organizes the sounds that are made. Even in aleatoric music, the performer makes choices of what to play, given the composer's directions or guidance. The time element of musical performance is the one thing that separates music from visual art, which, except for video art and cinema, tends to time-static and unmoving. Some kinetic sculptures do move, it's true; but they are still constrained by their mechanical limits.

So I want to point out that the piano piece above is gestural music. The notes, even though they are chosen by me, as the composer, are not as important as the gestures the music makes: the shapes in time, the flow of the notes up and down, the rising and falling of volume, pitch, and contrasting notes. Different notes from roughly the same region of the keyboard would evoke the same kind of music, as long as the overall shape of the musical gesture was retained.

Are notes in gestural music therefore arbitrary? Well, yes and no. The exact notes played might not matter as much as the overall gesture, but they do matter in terms of their relationships to each other. If you look at the piece above, you'll note that the musical shapes use notes that are not in any kind of tonal or modal relationship to each other: they are designed to be "dissonant" (in terms of the stereotypical classical rules of music in Western culture) rather than "consonant." So I picked very specific notes here, but my criterion was to be aharmonic, not atonal but non-tonal, evocative of mode to the ear but not so familiar as to be comfortable. If I had picked notes all from within one scale, the listener would develop expectations of tension and release that are stereotypical of popular and classical music alike. By avoiding that comfortable terrain, I hope to bring out the gesture of the musical line more clearly, rather than less: precisely because the ear doesn't know where it's going, so it actually listens rather than filters what it's hearing into a familiar category. I don't want the ear to collapse into familiar habits that look for a key center, tonal relationships, or counterpoint. I want to open the ear, not close the mind.

Some of the piano music that interests me the most is structured as gestures in time with no meters. I frequently, therefore, use barlines not to indicate meter, but to mark phrases, to indicate sections. You'll see this in many of my scores. I rarely write in time signatures, because what matters in this style of music is the pulse, not the meter. In this piece, there are long and short phrases, marked by barlines, which are in fact the gestures that make up the structure of the music.

At the same time that I like to work with the extended range of the piano, I also like to confine myself to its central register. Sometimes one can create the most powerful music within the simplest means, and also within the framework of an arbitrary restriction. William Albright, my composition mentor in music school, once said to me, "Sometimes working within an arbitrary set of rules can open up more doors to inspiration." He was right. As every painter knows, sometimes the most daunting thing to look at is a blank canvas: there are too many options, too many ways to start. After laying down the first brush stroke, you've already broken the Empty Field, and now are free to work within the rules you just set up, with that first stroke.

So it is sometimes useful to set strong constraints on a piece, and work strictly within them, as a set of rules, as a way of evading stereotypes of listening and playing. One can do this by breaking out of traditional rhythmic meters; almost all Western music is written in duple (units of 2 and 4) or triple (units of 3 or 6) time, so it can be liberating to operate in odd meters such as 5 or 7, other prime numbers. Meters in prime numbers are very interesting, actually.

Returning to the idea of non-metric pulse and gesture, last year I composed a solo piano piece using several constraints that served, for me, to heighten the emotion of the piece. Here are those constraints, as I formulate them to myself, now, some time after the writing: Both hands play the same thing, homophonically, an octave apart; the left hand plays a bass chord pattern that occasionally counterpoints the main thread of music; the music is gestural, rising and falling; it occurs in minor mode, but in fact it's an equivocal minor mode because the 6th note of the minor scale is never sounded, therefore we never feel exactly what minor mode we're working in. Actually, I do that a lot lately, I've noticed: avoiding the 6th note of the minor scale, leaving it equivocal, and therefore more modal than tonal in character.

Here's the piece I composed. It is a memorial piece for my late parents.

the essential has remained. it remains

This is a piece I intend to notate from this performance soon. It's not really an improvisation, it really is a composed piece I worked out before recording it, but hadn't yet bothered to notate.

Here's an entry from my journal that talks about the piece, and its inception:

4 May 2008. It’s late at night. I just finished recording on piano the piece that I had begun to compose and record a few nights ago, that was tentative then, but is done now. Tonight I played it the best I am able. I am tempted to call it Requiem, but what I did instead was look for a line from one of my favorite poets, one who has given me many lines as titles for music: Odysseas Elytis. There is a line in his 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech: . . . the essential has remained. It remains. That is the title. It is a piece that is in memoriam for my parents. I just finished rendering it, and am posting it to the podcast. This is the first, best music I can make, for now, for the memory of my parents. It is as close as I can come to those unnamable feelings that have been lurking around the edges. It is the best I can do, for now. I may re-record it at another time.

The piece will be notated probably with no barlines, except to indicate sections; or as pauses for breath, if you will, between segments. I have also been hearing, in my inner ear, this piece as the piano part for an eventual elegy or threnody to be composed for male chorus and piano.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I'm afraid although I listen to a broad range of music I've never been able to write anything that didn't rigorously adhere to a strict tonal and rhythmic structure with one exception, a piece for solo recorder which I wrote for a friend who was a gifted amateur. I discovered something called the Gypsy Scale and it was a challenge to work within it. In the end it proved too hard for him but he appreciated the effort and gifted me a sopranino recorder which I enjoyed for many years even though I could never get the fingering right (I fingered it as if it was a descant).

After one of our previous exchanges I got a copy of Rothko Chapel by the way which has been growing on me the more I listen to it.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Glad you liked "Rothko Chapel." It's a good entry into the rest of Morton Feldman's other work, which can be increasingly abstract. The thing is, though, even though Feldman wrote a lot of more abstract music, with indeterminate pitches used, it's all evocative of a range of moods. The paradox is that his music isn't cerebral, it's emotional, in the end.

The so-called Gypsy Scale is a harmonic scale with a raised fourth degree. (There are modal definitions, of course.) It's a lovely scale, but you're right, it's still within the bounds of tonal music, and the expectations that go with it.

I wrote a suite for recorder consort, which got performed a couple times, and recorded. Two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass recorder. One movement is very "inside" tonal, or modal, music. The other two are more abstract. The final movement used the sum-and-difference sub-tones acoustically created by playing half-note clusters at high volume in the upper register. Quite ear-bleeding, according to some, but fun to do. It's a great set of instruments.

9:23 AM  

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