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?!?