Friday, November 13, 2015

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

... or at least, not any time soon.

This semester, my globetrotting friend and colleague Tony De Ritis engaged me to sub for his freshman Honors seminar in Comparative Arts on his days out of town. He therefore invited me to attend the first class meeting to meet his students, and the rest, as they say, is a Facebook status update:

(Yes, the same student thought of "working-class" and "yuppiedom" as synonyms. He'll learn otherwise today.)

My post prompted Michael Monroe (read his blog here, and/or follow him on Twitter) to mordantly witty action:

Formulating clues to Michael's grid would've represented the path of less resistance ... but no, I had to follow through on my original impulse, which was to craft a cryptic crossword based on the principal works from the course syllabus.

If you're new to cryptic crosswords, here are solving guidelines posted by Henri Picciotto and Joshua Kosman, who construct the weekly puzzle for The Nation. (Confessions of a Bad Liberal: I subscribe to The Nation principally for the puzzle.)

Without any further ado, here's the puzzle, my very first effort as a constructor. The grid won't win any awards, but it does follow the customary symmetry. Bon appetit!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ways to ape an ape, drumming

(Oh, right. Blog. Where was I?)

At long last, this summer I finished the first fantasy-transition (Whew!). On to the next section ...

... which (as ever) seems as though it ought to write itself, as the master plan calls for a fairly simple, one-minute duet of the theremin imitating the sounds of a chimpanzee pant-hooting, and the piano imitating the sounds of same chimp drumming on a tree bole with his feet.

A less scrupulous (or simply less obsessive) composer might efficiently transcribe a previous instance of same from an earlier work (because, really, what composer hasn’t already written numerous such passages?). But, no ... I had to come up with something new.

The pant-hooting is easy enough, and offers a new twist in not sticking to octatonic collections (as I’ve usually done before); instead, the zigzag melodies derive directly from the harmonies dictated by the five-voice Ursatz.

The new sticking-point (over the past month or so) has been composing the piano’s “drumming.” The texture has been more or less a given: in the bass register, intermittent staccato dyads (mimicking < left foot, right foot > ). The difficult part (more precisely, the part I made difficult for myself) was finding the right harmonies, to supply enough intervallic variety to maintain interest, but so much as to push the sound across the boundary between “drumming” and “chordal harmony.”

Initially, I tried to map the opening four-note motto {Eb, F, E, F#} onto the five-note chord(s). But transposing the various dyads and triads in each hand led either to monotony (if both hands move in the same direction, by the same intervals) or jarring pitch duplications (if the hands mirrored each other) ... and avoiding pitch duplications led to a tightly limited set of harmonies (so, again, monotony).

The breakthrough (embarrassing, as it seems obvious in hindsight) is that the right kind of monotony can be achieved with surprisingly little effort by

1) committing to a single pitch-class pentad, with various voicings (as in the piano’s accompaniment of the motto at the piece’s start),

2) mapping a five-note extension of the motto onto the Ursatz pentad of the moment ... so, < Eb, F, E, B, Bb > as the soprano

3) partitioning the pentad into the triad < Eb, F, E > and the dyad < Bb, B >,

4) manipulating all of the above isorhythmically, to generate a series of 2 x 3 x 5 = 30 drumming dyads ...

... and given that each talea will comprise four dyads, the series will occur twice (probably spilling into the second, later section of simian mayhem, in which the theremin will also drum, and the piano will also pant-hoot).

Now, it’s just (!) a matter of placing these dyads with unpredictable rests between them, and selecting the appropriate pant-hooting and shrieking gestures from the theremin’s pitch tableaux. Onward ...

Errata (18 Oct 2015): Duh ... forgot to include the 8va indication under the bass clefs on the l.h. staff.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Grumble, grumble, grumble

For the past six weeks, my aspiration to blog more frequently has collided smack-dab with my disinclination to report failure ... or rather, flailing away at things without making clear forward progress. ("Flailure"?)

On the physical-assembly front, I've discovered to my chagrin that I simply don't have the means (and/or skills) to saw fret slots sufficiently precise to mount new frets by the traditional hammering technique. So, today I removed the botched frets; in the next week, I'll fill those slots, sand the neck to a smooth surface, and procure half-round wire (without tang) to glue into place. On the bright side, the loss of some sound conduction should be more than made up by greater precision of positioning.

On the abstract-assembly front, I've been wrestling with various arpeggiation patterns for the first "fantasy-transition" of Tapestry and Otter. It's a weird balancing act, trying to find a happy medium between What I Could Conceivably Play Myself, Molto Adagio (i.e., something too simple) and What Would Sound Utterly Awesome If Human Beings Could Learn to Execute (i.e., something too complex). And in characteristically amnesiac fashion, I've found myself circling back to rediscover patterns that I tried a week (or two, or five) ago, though now enriched by a bit of quasi-Schenkerian composing-out.

I've probably made things needlessly difficult by not paying enough attention to the transitional aspect ... i.e., the first section of the piece is firmly in place, and I have a very clear sense of how the third section will proceed ... so perhaps all I'm missing in the current sketches for the second section are more details from the first and third, suitably transformed (and/or transforming).

Friday, April 11, 2014

Stretching the canvas

Activities of the past fortnight have included:

1. Plotting (in Excel) the timings of five chromatic sinusoids, each sweeping from the midrange down to the low bass, then back up through the midrange to the high treble, and then back down to the midrange. But as in prior works, each traverses a different total span, and these different cardinalities cause the voices to change pitch at different times, generating a smorgasbord of suspensions.

2. Transcribing that numeric data onto musical staves. Given the close registral quarters, colored inks are essential for keeping track of which voice is on which pitch:

3. More or less concurrently with steps 1 and 2 above, deciding on an overall form of nine sections, in an approximate arch. The original extremes-of-the-piano-keyboard "frame" still opens and closes the piece, and will still push its way to the fore from time to time in between. From that, and from the tremolando chords that I doodled after Victoria's dry run for her performance at the Bulgarian consulate last month, I settled on an alternation between sections of irregular rhythm and those with a more regular pulse.

3. Changing my mind about the total duration of the piece; in hindsight, I ought to have delayed steps 1 (and especially 2) until I'd settled on the proportions of the various sections. Shameless Fibonacci fetishism leads to a total duration of 18:17, vs. my initial guesstimate of 17:30. Replacing the appropriate values in the Urlinien spreadsheet took 10 minutes or less, but then ...

4. Recalibrating the Ursatz. Rather than re-create the entire page, recopying hundreds of noteheads, it's a lot less work simply to relabel the x-axis:

And that brings us to today. This morning, I rewrote the Prelude (per my previous post, replacing the foreshadowings of a texture that is now destined for a different piece). Because I'm happy with the frame as is, the path of least resistance was simply to sketch directly onto the first page of the theremin part. First step was to add time indices (in orange ink) ... then to remember (duhhh) that I had previously disregarded the duration of the frame gestures ... hence the second layer of time indices (in red ink). Soon enough, I wound up ignoring the Ursatz for the Prelude, instead respecting the integrity of its pitches and composing a simple countermelody for the piano to interject during the theremin's sustained tones:

In compensation, the start of the first fantasy-transition includes quite a few embedded augmented triads, which simply aren't my cup of chai. I had originally imagined that I would need to add a sixth and seventh voice, hovering above and below ... but while playing with different arpeggiation textures, I hit upon one that doesn't resort to additional voices, other than a couple of octave duplications. The latter simplify the rhythm (vs. quintuplets or septuplets or what-have-you) and the harmony (ranging from four to five pitch classes, rather than five to seven), and (surprise, the surprise) contribute to a richer timbre.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Approaching monthly content

(sort of)

Hokay, it's done: Score and parts for the new, improved version of A field guide to North American car alarms are in the hands of Boston Musica Viva for their May 10 concert in Pickman Hall (see details here), following the usual spiral into madness brought on by parts editing (in which preparing the parts reveals errata in the score, which then bring on additional changes in the parts, rinse, repeat). Also, the opening fanfare, which I had intended to leave unchanged, on closer inspection called out for some teensy changes to reinforce the sense of parallelism among the various instruments swooping, honking, and chirping gestures.

Moving right along = returning to composing my theremin-and-piano extravaganza Tapestry and otter, for the pianist Victoria TzotzkovaThe title derives from Jon Carroll's brilliant and/or wacky description of precision theremin technique, from his review of a concert by Dalit Warshaw: "Her right hand looked as though it were picking lint off a tapestry; her left hand looked as though she were petting an otter.").

I originally imagined the piece as only 10 minutes long, and sketched an arresting introduction (about one minute long), followed by ... um ... an okay sequel (another minute or so), which I now realize belongs in another piece. Specifically, it's not pianistic enough; it's more of a texture for string quartet, or perhaps winds. And as I've played a bit more with improvising theremin melodies over tremolando piano harmonies, I've decided to open up the piece: the target duration is now around 17 minutes or so, with nine sections, ranging from one minute to three minutes in length, alternating free (or seemingly free) rhythm with more regular pulsation. And yes, there will be chimpanzee vocalizations.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ogblay? Atwhay ogblay?

Yet another stab at reinstating the habit to ... scribble? ... in public (and why, in this day and age, do we still lack of typographic/keyboard equivalent of the word "scribble"?).

Plugging away at the long-deferred tempo fugue that was at least half the raison d'etre for A field guide to North American car alarms. Taking shape, it is, in despite of (or precisely because of?) the decision to rewrite all the pitches ... partly a matter of thinking more carefully about gestures that can be passed around the sextet (and thus, thinking more carefully about how to translate among percussive, woodwind, and bowed-string media), and partly a matter of being more deliberate about setting certain pillars (following some very strict transpositional plans) and then embracing the sheer ad hoc opportunistic possibilities for pitch levels of the countersubject(s).

Okay, that covers the past few weeks. Today's specific mundane epiphanies are:

1) Dagnabbit, notational clarity can be a pain in the @#$. It finally dawned on me that a gesture in which a grace note is sustained (forming a held dyad) requires notation as two voices. It seems pretentious for such a simple gesture, but goshdarnitmakesadifference.

2) On the other hand, I realized I've been creating extra work for myself, overmarking the dynamics of the countersubject. Eliminating the redundancy provides cleaner copy for the players, and (special bonus) Sibelius was overplaying the overmarked dynamics, effectively dropping notes at the end of diminuendos, so now the piece sounds better in crude MIDI playback (longer gestures / better phrasing ... well, duhhh).

3) Not beating myself up about the above, as so much of this seemed okay with only a few phrases occurring simultaneously ... but as the chaos, er, I mean, counterpoint really gets going, it matters more and more. As the whole Gestalt develops, the forest more clearly dictates the requirements of each tree (duhhh redux).

That's enough for one morning; time to break for lunch. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, mark your calendar for Saturday, 10 May.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A moment of clarity

Where to begin ...

The short version is that I seem to be losing interest in the variation-set-tossed-in-a-blender paradigm, and shifting to a desire to develop material more organically and extensively, even to err on the monolithic side of the unity-and-variety balancing act.

The long version is that this past Sunday offered a pause from the frantic rush to meet a deadline (which—full disclosure—I missed), enough for me to realize that certain inchoate misgivings tugging at the back of my brain are spot-on, viz., that I’ve been developing materials for two (or perhaps three) different pieces (each surely shorter than the one I thought I was writing). And that’s not counting the material I initially toyed with and then shelved because of voice-leading problems.

So, on the one hand, I have a lot of work to do (because I'm writing more music than I thought), but on the other, it's a relief to see a simple solution of divide and conquer. The bottom line is that I now seem to be working with four (or five) different short pieces for theremin and two slide guitars:

1. A staccato, micro-chromatically ascending theme, which seems to represent a hybrid of the main riff from King Crimson's “Larks' tongues in aspic” (1973) and the staccato theme from Ennio Morricone‘s soundtrack for The Untouchables (1987). This is the item with which I painted myself into a voice-leading corner, thanks to the nature of the sonorities (a 4/3 perfect fourth plus a series of tritones ... e.g., 11/8, 7/5, 10/7, 16/11).
The way out: I recently bought myself a proper deck (as opposed to a desktop widget) of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies cards, and one consultation turned up the suggestion “Discard an axiom.” In this case, I think I need to discard the pitch a fourth below (or above) the tritones, and replace it with another that offers more attractive options for voice-leading (maybe a harmonic seventh).

2. A series of canons deriving from Blind Willie Johnston’s “Dark was the night, cold was the ground” (1927). I previously thought that the imitative canonic treatments of the “long-tempo” melody needed faster, motoric sections for contrast ... but now those contrasts seem too arbitrary.
The way out: The piece will be shorter than I thought (something like seven minutes’ duration, not thirteen), and it needs to develop more organically, sprouting increasingly ornate variants. The central portion of the piece won’t be literally slower in tempo, but rather, will seem that way when the dendritic tangle of melodies achieves harmonic saturation. Perhaps the slide guitars use e-bows throughout.

3. A glissandissimo exploration of portamento: starting with short durations and narrow intervals, and gradually expanding to create something along the lines of Percy Grainger's free music, or some of Jean-Claude Risset’s classic electroacoustic compositions.
The way out: This is the idea I’ve worked with the least (and by “least,” I mean “not at all, not yet”). Hardest part will be figuring out how to stay oriented as the thereminist, needing to find my pitches amid the continuously shifting slide guitar lines.

4. (& 5.?) Rhythmic passages in which one guitar arpeggiates “power chords” of a perfect fourth (or fifth) plus an octave, while one (or both) of the other instruments play a sustained melody (perhaps while the other oscillates between two other pitches). I like what I've written so far; I just don't believe that it belongs with the “Dark was the night” material.
The way out: Here there are also some problems with voice-leading, but they result from trying to fit an arbitrary set of chromatic Urlinien. So I need to step back and find some harmonic successions that I like, and then generate a new set of Urlinien that supply appropriate contexts.

So, instead of a single patchwork that lasts 13 minutes, the above outlines a set of short pieces with a total duration between 20 and 30 minutes, and after writing those I can start climbing out of my (self-imposed) pit of nested interruptions:
1. Return to the theremin-and-wind-ensemble extravaganza described in the previous posts.
2. Complete my solo piece for unspecified percussion. There was nothing wrong with it when I put it aside; it was just driving me crazy that I couldn’t hear the piece outside my imagination.
3. Return to revising my apes-and-monkeys string quartet, Simiaminimae.
4. Complete my long-deferred bleeding-trunk, A field guide to North American car alarms.

[Pardon: it's been so long, I can't recall how to create links that will jump directly to those entries in my online works list.]

Oh, yes: Somewhere in there, I need to revise the solo part to Hundenschnarchenwiegenlied (2010) so that I can play it without having a heart attack. In line with the sentiments expressed above, the solution probably lies in jettisoning the Brahms lullaby ... or at least, in letting go of specific pitches, and letting the player simply articulate contours, with much more, much slower portamento, quasi russare (an instruction that appeared in the original score, but which probably needs to be written-out in the notation ... and so, the next version might abandon traditional staves in favor of a simple pitch/time grid).
(The problem is that projecting any sense of the melodic integrity of each layer requires separating them by register ... but in 12-ET, this means the composite spans three full octaves, which makes for treacherous melodic leaps ... and right now, I’d rather not contemplate the solution of, say, mapping them onto 31-ET so that they span only two octaves, or narrower.)

P.S. Colored text above is meant to compensate for lack of indenting (does Blogger really not allow the latter without jumping through HTML hoops?)

P.S.S. Can you believe that Blogger's editing window flags Simiaminimae and Hundenschnarchenwiegenlied as possible misspellings?!?