Friday, January 17, 2014

Taking Inventory

Here's a page of a piece — or maybe not yet a piece — I made last year:

(Click the image to enlarge.)  This is the first of a series of similar pieces. It's nothing more than a list of the pitches, measure-by-measure, in ascending order, found in a famous piece of "learned" music.  I did it first as an analysis, but found that that I liked playing it as well (not a particularly innovative idea: The Scratch Orchestra's Draft Constitution suggested playing from Schenker graphic analyses, after all!)  It works well on a keyboard, but is perhaps more engaging as a solo cello piece, either way with the something of the character of an unmeasured prelude.  As a piece of music, it erases the rhythmic and polyphonic aspects of the source composition, but something of the harmonic flavor remains and the ametrical but steady rhythm has  a character of its own, somewhere between cogitating and meditative.  It is not as "interesting" as the source, and certainly not as efficient, but it tells something about the source material that may have been otherwise overlooked (overheard?)

But I'm not altogether sure that it's a finished piece.  Things like this need time to determine whether more or less composing — here, manipulation, in the form of addition or subtractions of elements or instructions — is in order.  (Thinking here, as usual, of Jasper Johns's recipe:  Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.)

The idea of taking inventory of one or more classes of objects or features in a work is a standard analytical exercise and here provides some fuel for the fire of how much quantitative elements contribute to the qualitative experience of a musical work.  There is a body of contemporary poetry which plunders the inventories of existing works.  The composer and poet (and all-round free radical thinker) Samuel Vriezen pointed me in the direction of the astonishingly virtuosic anagrammatical Sonnets, or "Sonnagrams", of K. Silem Mohammad, formally strict English Sonnets, each of which is based on a Shakespeare Sonnet, each with 14 end-rhymed iambic pentameter lines using only the letters found in the corresponding Shakespeare poem, with any leftover letters used in the title of each Sonnet.  As I understand it, this is an ongoing project, with the ambition to compose a full set.  What I have read impressed me no end; they are at turns deeply moving, funny, troubling, daring.  How can you not love a poem that begins:

Go softly to the Disneyland Hotel,
Its simulacral threshold grown sublime:
The bedrooms all emit that new car smell,
Like nothing else in bourgie Anaheim.

? With Muhammed's examples of an old familiar sonnet scrambled into a new and much stranger, if contemporary, sonnet, it is awfully tempting to scramble my prelude and turn it back into a fugue of some sort.

1 comment:

dfan said...

This sort of thing always charms me: performing a rather opaque transformation on an existing piece, such that the resulting piece is abstract but is still clearly informed by some underlying structure. A long time ago I took Bach's C Major Prelude and randomly permuted the pitches (e.g., all middle Cs were replaced by an Eb a minor tenth above), with very pleasing results.

I was going to point you at Alphabetized Winterreise but then realized that I got the link from you in the first place.