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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Said it before, will say it again

One of the reasons, really very basic reasons, that music works, when it works, is that we have a weak notion of same and different in music.   Music is coherent due to forms of repetition, but compelling due to variety, and that play between repetition and variety is not only the very center of a composer's — and a performer's — work, but also the most important cognitive dynamic in listening to music. But no repetition in music can ever be exact, all "sames" in music being different — the very shift of some bit or stretch of music (our "material")  in time changes everything: memory is loaded, phases are shifted and locked, context is everything BUT THEN all differences are measured by grasping for similitudes even though memory is fragile and uncertain, we experience time both smoothly and in chunks, and often enough, context is not enough, if not nothing at all.  But out of this uncertainty, there are only opportunities for making more music!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Every Room in the House on the Seventh of May

For portable instruments or voices playing or singing in houses or apartments with more than one room. Chose a reference tone in a comfortable register that can be sustained for the length of a long breath. Moving leisurely, play or sing that tone in each room of your house, attacking the tone firmly, sustaining it, trying to avoid variations in pitch, amplitude or timbre and then releasing it with a gentle diminuendo, perhaps with a slight fall in pitch as well, with pauses between tones as you move from room to room.  If you must cross through a room more than once in order to enter rooms not yet played in, then the reference tone should be repeated, but with at least one significant variation in either pitch, amplitude or timbre.  Each new room visited is then accompanied by a return to the reference tone. If more than one player or singer perform in the same house or apartment, then the tones chose should be chosen independently and their paths through the apartment should not be coordinated with one another. A complete performance of this work is the sum of all the individual performances occurring within the 47 hour global span of the the Seventh of May.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Questioning the Goodness of Fitting the Page

Composerly self-criticism, Nr. 353b:  I've noticed that I've been falling into the habit of making scores which fit on whole pages, and within pages filling up — neither exceeding nor coming up short of — whole lines. This has been happening in both (more-or-less) conventionally notated scores and in prose score.  (I suppose that the single page as a unit of compositional attention first really came into consciousness with Earle Brown's early graphic scores, but continued to charge many other composers, from Feldman's pre-ruled staves to Crumb's iconic pages to some of the complexists, working line-by-line.) It does look good to see music laid-out well, and some music might just happen to come to a happy coincidence in which musical density and duration and the consumption notated page-space correspond so neatly (a recently piece I made for a friend's 80th birthday fit 80 measures over 8 rows of 10 single-staved measures on a large (A3, landscape) page), but matters like visible phrases and convenient places for breathing and page turns are more important in practical terms and it's probably a bad sign when this is consistently the case.  This critique does not exclude the use of the physical dimensions of a piece of paper as an arbitrary constraint through which invention is forced into action, nor does it exclude the secondary aesthetic pleasure of a well-laid-out score, it's just an observation that if things are consistently one way, then there are probably opportunities lost in doing things differently.