Monday, May 26, 2014

Hymns & Fuguing Tunes

I haven't made much choral music, although I'm quite attached to a lot of historical choral repertoire and music for multiple voices without instrumental accompaniment is both so basic and still rich in possibilities. One of the reasons for me not to make much choral music is that finding texts suitable to doing the things I'd imagine doing with words to words has been hard.  Another reason is that many vocal ensembles are attached to sacred music making and the whole institutional and ideological world that supports that: not my particular balliwick, indeed I'd feel disrespectful and even fraudulent entering into that territory.

Joel Sach's biography of Henry Cowell (Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music) has had me thinking about the early American sacred hymnody tradition's most distinctive form, the "Hymn and Fuguing Tune". Cowell adapted the form to a large number of instrumental works (thereby bypassing any immediate textual problems) as a two unit form, a melody with homorhythmic accompaniment hymn followed by an imitative contrapuntal fuguing tune.  Cowell usefully found in the mixed modal/tonal tunes, distinctive (and by European common practice terms, heterodox (meaning, often enough, "wrong")) harmonization styles and its highly informal counterpoint, points of connection and departure to and from his own idiom.  (Neely Bruce has a fine article on the Sacred Harp as Experimental Music, focusing on these tonal features, but with useful information about performance practice as well.)  I've responded to the Cowell initiative myself with a couple of occasional instrumental pieces, especially welcoming the opportunity to connect between consonant and highly dissonant tonal environments which the form seems to welcome in a unique way.

However, I think there is something more basic, specifically a pair of formal primitives, that is at the root of Cowell's attraction to the Hymn & Fuguing Tune and that it that it contrasts, in a straightforward way, two fundamentally different ways of elaborating or thickening a tune, that is to thicken it vertically | | | | | | | | in the hymn and diagonally / / / / / / / /  in the fuguing tune.  Indeed, if we look to actual performance practice of shape note singing, we find a third way as well, in the "lining out" the in-filled ornamentation and melissmisation often heard in the introductory solo that can preceed the choral singing, thus a horizontal elaboration — — — —.

Cowell abstracted an instrumental genre from a vocal one, and expanded upon its tonal (and not-so-tonal) properties and implications.  It strikes me that these formal impulses are every bit as useful for new music and I could imagine new instrumental or vocal works (using any text or none) that reconsider the form in which horizontal (melodically elaborated), vertical (harmonized) and diagonal (imitative) textures each receive their due but at some distance from their traditional tonal contexts.   Indeed the material for elaboration need not be a tune at all, but maybe just "plain" speech or whatever other noises one happens to have available.

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