Dramatic Counterpoint, Part 1

"Dramatic Counterpoint" is a term used by Paul Lawley in discussing the texture of Beckett's Play.

Play is a play with three characters delivering overlapping monologues on the same story. Not really overlapping--maybe interwoven monologues. Anyway, they don't converse with one another, they just take turns telling bits of their individual perspectives. If one were to parse out the three monologues, three cohesive narratives would emerge, but it's this counterpoint between the three that make it interesting. You can't look at three sides of a statue at the same time, but with Play you get close to simultaneous differing viewpoints--a kind of theatrical cubism. (Another time I might be inclined to think more about the difference in simultaneity versus juxtaposed--maybe they're analogs with harmony and melody. Counterpoint being the space between, of course.)

Anyway, here's an excerpt from a film version of Play from YouTube:

Introductions, part 2: Other Fibonacci applications and accent canons

In the previous post I mentioned that the form of the introduction was based on two Fibonacci series: one a series of thirteen gestures with durations of (in terms of sixteenth notes) 377, 233, 144, 89, ... 2, 1, and the other a series of twelve gestures with durations of 1, 1, 2, 3, ... 144. The first series ends with only one one-sixteenth-note gesture, and what would be the thirteenth gesture of the second series (233) gradually morphs into a new formal section.

I used the Fibonacci series in a few other ways in the piano/percussion/electric guitar texture. As I've described in the previous post, each of the thirteen gestures in this passage is a descent to the bottom of the keyboard. As the gestures get shorter it seemed unreasonable to cover the same interval of 21 semitones from C3 to E-flat1 in each gesture, so I decided to begin gradually lower each time. Here's a table that shows the initial central pitch of each of the thirteen gestures.

Except for the first and last gestures, there is a change in transposition level every two gestures. These changes follow the Fibonacci series (technically, the negafibonacci series). I chose to use the Fibonacci series here because it gives a nice curve to the entire section that mirrors somewhat the descending curve found in each gesture. I did compose the piano's final A0 of this passage outside of the system detailed in the previous post in order to make sure the goal of the lowest possible note was achieved.

I honestly can't remember if this was intentional (it has been a few days), but I find it interesting that the total number of gestures in this passage, 13, is a Fibonacci number, as is the number of semitones between C3 and E-flat1, 21. Not sure if it means anything...

Finally, I used Fibonacci numbers in a way that undermines the recursive nature of the series. I created a row of 81 (unless I miscounted..) Fibonacci numbers based on various simple additive patterns. I used this row to determine where to place accents in the piano, percussion, and electric guitar parts. I broke up the series using additive patterns in order to ensure asymmetry.

The row:

13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, 5, 3, 2, 1, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 2, 5, 3, 2, 8, 5, 3, 2, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 3, 5, 3, 8, 5, 3, 13, 8, 5, 3, 5, 8, 5, 13, 8, 5, 8, 13, 8, 13

Here is the row broken up in sections to show the various patterns.

Each part follows this row, either forward or backward depending on the part, and when it gets to the end it changes direction and traverses it again in the opposite direction. The piano begins at the beginning, the marimba at the end (retrograde), the xylophone begins on the "2" (12th line, lone 2) and moves forward, and the guitar begins on the "1" just before (end of the 11th line) and moves in retrograde. These numbers are time points on a grid of sixteenth notes. Accents fall on the first note, then again after sixteenth notes according to the row. In the end this is just a quick and effective way to ensure some variety and generate patterns in the monotonous sixteenth-note grid. I realize there is some goal-oriented motion embedded here, but this is a canon, of sorts, played by four different instruments (playing in unison or octaves, remember). The interplay among the accents on these instruments will create brief, passing motives, not the sense of direction toward a goal.

Introductions, part 1

Well, there's just one introduction. It's the most unified section of the piece. It will actually have a standard score with a time signature, bar lines, and synchronized parts. I knew the kind of texture I wanted; it came out of an improvisation with Impulse back before the holidays. The primary gesture is based on the physicality of playing the piano in the low register, thumbs together, alternating hands playing "random" notes within a generally fixed range in a fast, regular pattern. The pitches aren't important except in that they should not overly emphasize any particular pitch. Of course, as we know from the history of serial music, it requires some kind of non-intuitive system to make an even distribution of pitches sound just right. In my improvisation a couple months ago I felt like I was getting the right texture intuitively, but when it comes to making decisions about pitches to go down on paper I felt I needed to go to the computer to generate a texture closer to my improvisation. Besides, while my improvisation


 right, without a recording I can't be objective enough about it (not to mention I can't transcribe what I played). Intuition is a dangerous place to spend too much time :)

I went to Max because it's very flexible. I built a very rudimentary patch that outputs MIDI information directly to Sibelius. Here's a picture:

The toggle in the upper left turns on the patch. The metro object bangs the toggle below resulting in alternating 0s and 1s. The 0s go to the "left hand" side of the patch, which generates the left hand notes, and the 1s go to the "right hand" side. Both sides are essentially parallel, generating numbers between 48 (the MIDI number for C3) and 48+6 (or 54, F-sharp3). The left hand side is then lowered 7 semitones, producing the range of F2 to B2. The result is alternating left hand and right hand notes, each hand covering the range of a tritone, which fits very comfortably under the hand.

Once I decided the length of the gestures, I added the objects on the right side of the patch to add a curve to the gesture (more on the length of the gestures below). The center pitch above is MIDI note 48 (C3), or 21 semitones above E-flat1, a tritone above the lowest note on the keyboard (i.e. as low as possible without the left hand running off the keyboard). During my original improvisation I moved gradually to the bottom of the keyboard, and I wanted to recreate that gesture here. I tried to descend by semitone every measure for 21 measures, but found the descent was too regular for my liking. By connecting the


object to the transposition factor (see figure above), I could control the rate of descent. I simply drew the curve that I wanted with my mouse (of course, I had to set the parameter of the


first--in the example above I knew I needed 377 notes, so the x-axis was set to 377). The transposition factor adjusts the center pitch, which is 48 by default, thereby lowering all the pitches proportionally. When the curve reaches the bottom of the


, the transposition is 21 semitones down, for the bottom of the keyboard.

The form of the introduction

The introduction is around 2:20 in length, but it gradually dissipates into the main body of the piece making the ending of this section ambiguous. It represents no more than 10% of the entire work, and probably a little less. I first thought of it as a stand-alone, unrelated section, but now I think of it as crucial to the development of the three component pieces: In the beginning the three are integrated into one gesture, but during the course of this introduction, they begin to foreshadow their distinctive behaviors and come apart from one another. If the idea for the entire work is three separate pieces, the introduction tells the story of how they became separate.

The first 30 seconds or so is an extended reproduction of the improvisatory piano gesture I described above. Percussion and the electric guitar join in unison or octaves, dynamically coloring the piano's timbre. This is notated by 377 sixteenth notes. After one sixteenth rest, the same gesture is played again, but shorter this time--233 sixteenth notes. Then another sixteenth rest precedes a third gesture taking 144 sixteenth notes. There are twelve gestures like this, each getting shorter according to the Fibonacci series down to a one-sixteenth-note gesture. The rests between each gesture (#thevoid) get progressive longer according to the same series.

These rests between each piano/percussion/guitar gesture are filled in by harmonic series chords in the winds, strings, and sopranos. Conceptually, I just wanted static surface texture to contrast with the active sixteenth-note surface. However, as the piano's active texture is colored by the percussion and electric guitar, the static-texture interruption is also elaborated somewhat. The primary static material is found initially in the bassoon and clarinet (though these may change later in the introduction--it's not finished yet). The first static gesture is only one sixteenth note, so in order to avoid it blending too much into the piano/percussion/guitar texture, I orchestrated the event with some higher-frequency resonance. This resonance is found in the flute and string harmonics, and it is sustained somewhat longer than the single sixteenth note played by the bassoon and clarinet. The singers, too, project this idea of resonance with even longer (approximately two measures) passages of unisons and close-voiced harmonies that slowly change.

As the static gestures get longer they come to dominate the surface of the music. From a position of practicality the resonances must either get shorter (because the time between gestures is getting shorter) or begin to wash over the beginning of the next gesture. I will play with this, probably alternating between abrupt changes with no resonance and resonances that become asynchronous with the static event rhythm (think of waves crashing irregularly on a beach). The nature of the soprano parts as harmonically dynamic resonances will begin to change to more static material that will eventually lose prominence to the strings and winds, which will gradually become more active. The sopranos' movement toward stasis will foreshadow the beginning of sopranos' large-scale gesture, which begins quite statically. The winds/strings' growing prominence will signal, by the end of the introduction, the beginning of isorhythmic texture that will dominate those instruments' large-scale gesture. The piano/percussion/guitar part, with its curves in pitch space, foreshadows the tempo curves that will dominate the behavior of those instruments later.

Dissertation Proposal


The original composition will be a single-movement work for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, electric guitar, piano, two percussionists, and three sopranos. Though it will be a single movement, I think of it conceptually as three overlapping movements, each being independent and distinct. In other words, I will be thinking carefully about experimental approaches to and interpretations of form, not as a simple delineation of linear time, but as counterpoint between contrasting musics.

The impetus for this approach will be discussed in detail in the critical essay. I think of this project as another step in a rich tradition of music, visual art, and prose that explores such concepts as circularity, deferred resolution, stasis, and the void as metaphorical constructs. The critical essay will elaborate on this tradition and make connections between various composers, artists, and writers with my own work.

Overview of the original composition

The original composition for mixed chamber ensemble will focus on formal counterpoint. By formal counterpoint I mean relationships and interactions between temporally discrete sections of music that will be cut, superimposed, merged, and permuted in a variety of ways. Each of three formal sections ("sections" is used loosely since they will overlap with each other temporally) will focus on a single, distinct systematic approach to composition and, to various degrees, on groupings of instruments. The first section will be primarily played by the flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, and electric guitar. The second section will be primarily played by the piano and two percussionists. The third section will be primarily performed by three sopranos. I have chosen these grouping to achieve a relatively homogenous tone color in each section (although there is obviously variety in the degrees of homogeneity in tone color—the singers being more so, for example, than the winds and strings). Sometimes various instruments may leave their group to join another group or to perform in a secondary section.

Section I (flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, electric guitar) will focus on isorhythm. I will base all of the parts in this group on four taleae and four colores. There will also likely be taleae based on patterns of accents and dynamics. The taleae will also be permuted by various processes and may migrate among the five instruments.

Section II (piano, percussion) will focus on tempo curves. These tempo curves will be transcribed from click-tracks generated by a computer. The content of these instruments' parts will be single notes or short non-pitched gestures that accelerate or decelerate according to the tempo curves. Not all of the curves will be heard all the time, but they will fade in and out. Other instruments outside this group will be included as the gestures become more pitched. A single audio file will be created to be played along with this group to bolster the texture and to ensure precision with very small tempo variations.

Section III (singers) will be more focused on teleological motion from speech phonemes devoid of linguistic meaning toward clearly discernable, meaningful language. This motion will be imperceptibly slow and follow a complex system with multiple layers of change happening constantly. The text will finally be heard at the end of the composition as the song sung by Vladimir at the beginning of Act 2 of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. This song summarizes the themes of circularity, stasis, and deferred hope that pervade the play—a verbal analogy for the kind of music explored in this dissertation:

A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a crust of bread.
Then cook up with a ladle
And beat him till he was dead.

Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb
And wrote upon the tombstone
For the eyes of dogs to come:

(repeat) A dog came in the kitchen, etc.

The overarching compositional idea governing all these sections is the notion that counterpoint happens on larger levels than traditionally understood by composers. This is merely an extension of the conceptual evolution of counterpoint during the past 100 years. Each of the sections described above will have an independent form that could serve a stand-alone piece of music. The setting of these multiple pieces against one another in counterpoint, however, conveys a different level of meaning to each section.

Overview of the critical essay

I have always thought of composition as being, at its heart, a balancing act between various simultaneously occurring materials. This original composition will be an exaggerated expression of that idea. The critical essay will trace the process of composing this work and analyze the final product, but will also examine the musical and extra-musical influences and precedents for the work. Among the formal and compositional themes influencing the original composition are notions of the Void, stasis, patterns, and non-linearity. Among the many influences for this piece I will focus on a few especially relevant ones: isorhythms and serial procedures in Morton Feldman's Why Patterns?; patterns in Jasper Johns's crosshatch works like Usuyuki; formal counterpoint in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot; and The Void as perceived through a Sufist reading of the late works of Shakir Hassan Al Said.

Below is a proposed outline for the critical essay as well as a list of proposed resources.

Outline of the critical essay

Chapter I. Introduction

Chapter II. Patterns and Systems
    A. Historical precedents
        a. Serialism
        b. Minimalism
        c. Process music
    B. Patterns
        a. Analysis of Why Patterns and Usuyuki
        b. Analysis of the original composition, Section I (isorhythm)
    C. Algorithmic composition
        a. Analysis of the original composition, Section II (tempo curves)

Chapter III. The Void
    A. Notions of the Void
    B. Musical applications of the Void
        a. Negative space (Beethoven)
        b. Evocations of memory (Schubert)
        c. Inversion and other permutations (Webern)
        d. Defamiliarization and recontextualization (Wagner and Lachenmann)
    C. Semiotic networks
        a. How a thing might be emphasized or pointed to by its absence
        b. Sufist reading of Shakir Hassan Al Said's work
        c. Analysis of the original composition, Section III as a process that illuminates emerging signification

Chapter IV. Formal counterpoint
    A. Brief tracing of thought about conterpoint from Bach to Penderecki
    B. Juxtaposition and simultaneity
        a. The problem of non-linearity with respect to music as a temporal art
        b. Formal counterpoint in Beckett
    C. Counterpoint and memory
    D. Analysis of form in the original composition

Chapter V. Conclusion

On counterpoint

I'm almost finished with my dissertation proposal, and it seems fitting that certain themes are rising to the surface without any digging around for them. The concept that pervades the whole concept of this piece is counterpoint, specifically, what I am calling formal counterpoint. I'll post my proposal in a day or two, but this morning as I was working I suddenly had some clarity regarding counterpoint that I thought I should jot down.

Counterpoint is simply a re-contextualizing of material. It's not the same as permutation of material--although that is often crucial to counterpoint--it's taking the material from one situation and putting it into another. Bach placed fugue themes in different voices and different keys and even on different scale degrees within keys so that they would have different tonal functions.

Throughout my musical life I've been fascinated by counterpoint. I took lessons in 16th century and 18th century counterpoint from a mentor as an undergrad. I never felt like I really got it, but it is a pretty dated set of rules (I mean I don't feel like I've internalized the way contemporary composers would have). Since then I've come to realize that it's not the rules of any specific model of counterpoint, but it's the abstract notion of music set against music in some kind of conceptual space. I figured that out in David Sargent's seminar on 20th century counterpoint where we studied, among others, dynamics counterpoint in Ruth Crawford Seeger's string quartet and textural counterpoint in Penderecki's Threnody.

I recently heard a lecture by the composer William Kleinsasser who took the abstraction a bit farther. He talked about pieces being in counterpoint with the memory of other pieces. For him it was kind of a mode of influence. In other words, when he composes he sees the current project as having a contrapuntal relationship with earlier pieces that he has written.

When I heard Kleinsasser's lecture I felt like he hit on something I had been thinking alot about lately--counterpoint between pieces (or between formal sections--formal counterpoint). Except in my concept, the pieces are literally existing and being heard simultaneously. In a sense it's like hearing a fugue answer and countersubject played simultaneously. Both are fully formed, legitimate melodies, but it's in the counterpoint between them that the real musical interest lies. If the melodies move to other places (keys, registers, tonal function, etc.), that is if the composer re-contextualizes the melodies, then the space between also changes. In other words counterpoint focuses on the space between and through various contrapuntal techniques, the composer can manipulate that space.

A couple of tangential ideas:

By placing the "real musical interest" in the space between the two melodies, it also point to a breakdown in the subject-object binary, something I'm also very interested in.

I will need to look at Lachenmann again now. He has been my primary example of re-contextualizing, though I haven't considered his music in terms of counterpoint. If counterpoint is simply a re-contextualizing of music, then his music is likely in counterpoint with something, albeit possibly an unheard something--memory? tradition?

Improvisation and beginnings

I've been playing with the free improvisation group Impulse on Saturdays for the past few months. I'd seen them play many times over the past few years, and I even created a computer program to improvise along with them in 2010, but playing piano with the group has been challenging and rewarding. They haven't had a piano in the past, so it's been interesting figuring out how that instrument fits in with their aesthetic (it's more percussive, less sustaining, and has a much greater range on the low end than the other instruments in the group). The reward for me personally is learning to trust my ear and also to listen to what's happening without trying too hard to force something. I'm hearing incredible sounds and textures that I wouldn't have discovered through my typical compositional processes. I keep catching myself being distracted from the moment, thinking how I can use this sound or that sound in my next piece.

The week before Thanksgiving we had a particularly interesting jam. At one point I was playing fast, steady, chromatic pitches within a one-octave span in the lower third of the keyboard. It was like a broken cluster, but only two notes at a time (one with hand), no patterns, and very rhythmic (regular durations but irregular accents). That evening I decided that's how to begin this dissertation piece.

The idea was hanging suspended in the middle-back of my mind, a bit uneasily because I was thinking of it as a kind of unrelated introduction that would give way to the actual piece. Tonight I finally realized how to make it part of the concept of the piece. The largest of the three sections will be the strings/winds section (joined from time to time by the percussion/piano/guitar group) which, later in the piece, will become engulfed in various circular isorhythms operating independently from one another. But I've always envisioned a very rhythmic and energetic opening that slowly gives way to a more Feldman-like texture. The energy of the "broken cluster" figure will drive the opening section. Occasionally the piano (which will be joined by the electric guitar and percussion here) will suddenly stop, and in the silence, the strings and winds will sustain the cluster's resonance, albeit with different colors. These sustained resonances will have jagged endings, followed by a return of the broken cluster. The rhythmic sections will gradually, and generally, get shorter while the resonances will get longer (although this will likely happen, as always, via a curve that will allow for regression from time to time). As they get longer, they will also begin to accentuate subset harmonies of the cluster resonance (like the held keys in "Filter-Schaukel" from Lachenmann's Ein Kinderspiel). Eventually (after four or five minutes), the rhythmic material will go away and isorhythms will begin to replace the cluster resonances. The textures and harmonies of the interactions of these isorhythmic parts will generate the form of the rest of this (the largest) section of the piece.

The first of the forms

I've been continuing with the vocal parts that enter around 6:00. The previous post explains the order of syllables in each soprano part. I began by writing out the first iteration of the text (i.e. the first column on each spreadsheet above).

First iteration of text in three soprano parts. NB: the notes are

placeholders, not actual pitches yet. Rhythms are precise, however.

I clocked it at about one minute, and then realized that it could take up to 18 minutes to get through each iteration of text if I maintained that pace. That's longer than I had planned, so I began to look more closely at pacing. Eighteen minutes of a linearly progressing pattern is not what I had in mind for this piece (I want to avoid the perception of process music--that's too big an issue to discuss here, though).

The image below shows my notes scribbled along the top of the 1st and 2nd soprano spreadsheets. First, I broke up the part: there's a break between iterations 7 and 8 (big check), and another between 14 and 15 ("railroad tracks"). Iterations 13 and 14 have the letters O and K, which indicate only vowels (O, open) or only consonants (K). I mean "only consonants" literally--just aspirated consonant sounds. The final four iterations contains the culmination of the process that reveals the text as having linguistic meaning.

I feel like this gives the process some shape. It is still goal oriented, but the movement toward the goal is nuanced--sometimes moving linearly, sometimes faster or slower, sometimes hesitating, etc. This is what form does--it gets you from the beginning to the end. Now the vocal parts have an independent, fully operating form, even though in the finished piece these parts will constitute only a portion of the form.

More on the composing out of the vocal parts

Below are the next iterations of the soprano 1 and 2 parts, the text simply written, not notated. Now consonants are coming into the mix. Soprano 1 begins to add consonants to the beginnings of certain syllables while soprano 2 begins to add consonants to the end of certain syllables. The intended effect is that of composite syllables becoming intelligible to the listener. The soprano 3 part will join the other two parts in a similar way--French nonsense and English nonsense being equal after all.

More on the text later...


I've noticed that in the past few years I've come to rely more and more on generative systems or algorithms--various devices that output specific pitches and rhythms. It's not that I don't have musical ideas spontaneously arising in my mind, it's that those ideas are usually textural, not thematic. In other words I hears sounds and shapes more often than specific melodies. Dictating a texture directly from the brain has proven a complicated challenge for me, so I've developed intermediary techniques. This is the story of the system I composed on Friday to get the right texture from the vocalists in my dissertation.

I chose the text from Samuel Beckett's

Waiting for Godot

. At the beginning of the second act Vladimir sings a short recursive song that could loop indefinitely. I see this song as a microcosm for the entire play, and think it represents the aesthetic of my dissertation piece quite nicely. Here is the text in French (the original language of the play) and in English (the playwright's native language) from Beckett's translation.

Un chien vint dans l'office
Et prit une andouillette.
Alors à coups de louche
Le chef le mit en miettes.
Les autres chiens ce voyant
Vite vite l'ensevelirent
Au pied d'une croix en bois blanc
Où le passant pouvait lire:
Un chien vint dans l'office
Et prit une andouillette...etc.
A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a piece of bread
And cook up with a ladle
And beat him until he was dead.
Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb
And wrote upon the tombstone
For the ages of dogs to come:
A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a piece of bread...etc.

I knew I wanted this text to evolve in a specific way: beginning as vowels, gradually changing to non-sense phonemes, and finally becoming clearly understood as language at the very end of the piece. This process will probably begin around five minutes into the piece and take around 10 minutes or so to work itself out. The trick was to find a logical process by which the text could gradually evolve over that period of time.

I started with the text, then broke it down into syllables. Here's the 56 syllables in the English version:

ə dɒg kem ɪn ðə kɪt tʃən

ænd stol ə pis əv brɛd

ðɛn kʊk əp wɪθ ə le dəl

ænd bit hɪm ən tɪl hi wəz dɛd

ðɛn ɒl ðə dɑgz kem rən nɪŋ

ænd dəg ðə dɒg ə tum

ænd rot ə pɑn ðə tum ston

fɔr ðə edʒ əz əv dɒgz tu kəm

I had to manipulate the French text a little bit to get 56 syllables:

œ᷉ ʃjɛ᷉ vɛ᷉ dɑ᷉ lɔ fis

e pʁi yn ɑ᷉ du ɪ jɛt

a lɔʀ a ku də luʃ

lə ʃɛf lə mi ɑ᷉ mjɛt

le zo tʀ ʃjɛ᷉ sə vwa jɑ᷉

vi tə lɑ᷉ sɛ vɛ li ʀɑ᷉

o pi je dyn kʀwa zɑ᷉ bwa blɑ᷉

u lə pa sɑ᷉ pu vɛ li ʀ

So with each text now divided into 56 syllables and each one labelled 1-56, I could use numbers to effect an even distribution of changes over several iterations of text. I used a random sequence generator to create a the order of syllable for the first iteration of text. I created a different initial sequence for each of three soprano parts. The first two sopranos will sing "toward" the English text and the third sopranos will sing "toward" the French text. Here are the basic distributions for the first two sopranos:

Soprano 1
Soprano 1

Soprano 1

Soprano 2

In the charts above each column represents one sequence of syllables. The first column on the left contains the first


 sequence and the last column on the right contains the syllables in original,


, sequence. The changes found in each iteration of the text (i.e. each column, top to bottom) are shown, otherwise, the empty squares mean nothing has changed at that position in that sequence. I left most squares empty so that the changes will stand out.

The pattern of changes is mirrored between the two English parts above. In the first, two "correct" syllables enter the sequence on each iteration, beginning at the middle first, then expanding outward. In the second, "correct" syllables enter the sequence at the beginning and ending first, continuing toward the middle. I opted not to move directly from center to ends and

vice versa

 because I felt that with 26 sequences intelligible text patterns would become apparent too early. In other words, if the soprano 1 began to make sense with a string of intelligible words by the third or fourth iteration, that string would simply get longer each time via a simple additive process that would get extremely boring. By reiterating the pattern four times nothing becomes intelligible as language until the final few iterations. There are persistent gaps in the middle.

Soprano 3

For the French text in the third soprano part I doubled up on changes and combined both patterns shown above.

I liked the pacing of this part and began to wonder how to deal with the difference with the pacing in the other two parts. They take 26 iterations to arrive at the original text, while this one only takes 16 (there are some minor errors in the Soprano 3 chart). Since these parts will probably be proportionally notated I didn't need to figure out how to fit 16 into 26--I could just pace it more intuitively.

But then I started wondering if there was a way to speed up the pacing of the other two parts. I have used this method of reiteration with small changes in the past. The third movement of


 for string quartet is basically one 10-bar melody that takes 17 iterations to moves from 10 bars of one single pitch to the "original" 10-bar melody at the very end. I like this idea of revealing the original idea at the end. There are pitfalls, the biggest of which is pacing--it can be boring without tweaking along the way. The other major pitfall is creating a sense of linearity. In other words, the sense that the music is progressing directly along a straight path. Without getting into more detail, it's the difference between a straight line and a curve. The music should move along a curve, not a straight line. Straight lines arise from one-to-one relationships. I try to build more complexity into my systems so the outcome doesn't feel too predictable.

So, here are the revisions I made to the first two soprano parts. I've overlapped the iterations of the patterns. I think this will improving on the steady (plodding) pacing and shortening the process and also by increasing the number of changes in each iteration.

Soprano 1, revised

Soprano 2, revised

The process at this point is simply filling in the empty squares with whatever is left of the empty square:

Soprano 1, mid-process

Soprano 1, complete

Soprano 2, mid-process

Soprano 2, complete

Soprano 3, mid- process

Soprano 3, complete

Finally, I used find and replace in Excel to fill in all the syllables in International Phonetic Alphabet symbols.

Footnote--I will begin with vowels alone and gradually add consonants in the piece.

Getting the question right

A few years ago I took a graduate seminar on aesthetics taught by Michael Hicks. We asked many questions like what is art? and what is music? Must it be man-made? Can an object's display in a museum alone make it art? Is the score the musical work? Must a musical work be performed? Can it exist in the mind? Can it be a recording? etc., etc. As it turns out, there were no good answers.

And that makes me wonder if we were asking the right questions. I could go on with some philosophical implications for various answers to the questions above, but to paraphrase composer Mark Applebaum, it bores me (at least right now it bores me). In fact, I should share a video of Applebaum's TED talk.

To sum it up, Applebaum says questioning whether something is music is to ask the wrong question. The right question he says, and I agree, is "Is it interesting?" So much ink has been wasted on criticism of classification.

Pixels, too. I just read the following comment on a YouTube video of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot:

"Is this the purpose of theater? I must explain myself, I really like the play, and in general Becket (sic), nevertheless is a masochistic pleasure. Every time it gets me, however, after that I feel terribly empty. Even banality can inspire art, but haven't we created art as an escape from banality? Is this the purpose of theater?"

The commenter really likes it! But still, he can't swallow it's classification as theater. Or rather, its fulfillment of the purpose of theater. When can we get past this modernist obsession with classification and uniformity? For one thing, it's arrogant. As though we are armchair experts on music or theater, knowing surprisingly little about being human ("haven't we created art as an escape from banality?"--who is this person and how does he know so much about art?). But the larger problem for me as a "composer" is that narrow definitions are restrictive. Of course I think that what I do is music. But I also see music in almost everything. In fact, I would say that I think of any dynamic relationship between moving parts as intrinsically "musical". But, what difference does it make in the grand scheme of things?

I appreciate Applebaum saying he doesn't write music like Beethoven. Bravo. I'm not bored with some pieces by Beethoven, I am bored with others. But boredom with old music (whatever that means!) is a trend I've noticed in my own listening.

(I having a feeling that's why orchestras are going broke--there must be a lot of people out there who find Beethoven boring. Orchestras are asking themselves "why don't people get this 200 year old music with its arcane rules on clapping?" and "how can we make young people interested in classical music?" Something tells me those are the wrong questions, too.)

Tempo maps

This is going to get kind of technical, so feel free to skip. I just need to keep track of what I was thinking.

I've decided to begin in the middle. The big wave in the background is a conceptual design for the piece--no specifics right now except that it's related to yin and yang--two opposed but complementary forces/sections of the piece. The rectangle in the middle is the beginning of the second force/section. It will rise gradually out of the first.

Inside the rectangle are six tempo maps that cover about five minutes of the transition. Each map represents a pulse that changes gradually over time according to various curve functions. They progress from fast to slow (bottom to top). The possible ratios are listed in the upper right corner. 3:2 is the base, they progress through a wave in ~75 and ~50 seconds, respectively.

The various kinds of curves are represented in the upper center portion. Only


 curves are shown, but


 curves would be the same shape but inverted.

The lower left corner contains partial contents of Max messages for the six tempo maps (more on that below).

This is the basic Max patch I'm using to output clicks of each tempo map. My current plan is to output around five minutes of (metronome) clicks for each of six maps, then layer them in Logic. This is mostly to give me a visual sense of the ebb and flow of the various tempo streams. I'm considering the possibility of using Logic to output these streams to headphones worn by six performers in the performance. I'm generally opposed to headphones with click tracks, and if I can simulate the various interactions between tempo streams through another means, I won't, but for now it's an option.

This patch receives a list of three floats: the target tempo, how long (in milliseconds) it will take to get there, and the shape of the curve (i.e. the shape of change in tempo).

This patch is a test environment for sending messages to the patch above. Each stream has a patch "actualcurve" and a level slider. (The patcher impulse_design is where the user can draw the timbre for the click on each stream.) In the lower left corner there is a bit of coding that stores a list of all the targets, times, and curves in a coll object, and outputs the next in line after each target tempo is reached. 

More to flesh out. Again, this is primarily to help me remember what I was thinking next spring when I have to write a paper.

Wabi Sabi

I've been playing piano with the free improvisation group Impulse the past couple of Saturdays. I really love how it makes me listen and, as they put it, compose in real time with a group. We composers often get into composition because of the solitude, but it's been surprisingly refreshing to collaborate with other composers.

One of the pieces we played yesterday was called Wabi Sabi. It's based on the Japanese aesthetic, which according to Wikipedia,  is "centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection." This forms a large part of my own aesthetic though I had not thought of it in Buddhist terms (i.e. impermanence, suffering, and emptiness). Rather, I've thought of it in terms of the absence of symmetry in nature, Roland Barthes's idea of the "grain of the voice", and the Mormon view that all human beings are inherently imperfect though embedded with perfect destinies. In other words, we seem to be able to comprehend perfection, but it never manifests itself in nature (depends, of course, on one's definition of perfection, etc.).

Lately I've been summarizing my personal view on these imperfections as the variables in a piece of music. It's the differences among twenty violinists playing the same piece. Those little bits that make each player distinctive are the most interesting parts to me. I've really started appreciating cover versions of rock songs just because of the differences. It's not that I want to hear mistakes, but I want to work in a moderate level of flexibility into my scores so that each performance will have differences. It's limited indeterminacy, perhaps á la Lutosławski.

Looking forward to reading more about wabi sabi and seeing where it leads me.

Composing in the void

I vaguely remember Steven Johnson talking about the patterns in Feldman's Why Patterns when I was in his 20th century history class back in 2007. Yesterday I came across the collection of essays he edited,The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts, and was happily surprised to see that the volume ends with his essay "Jasper Johns and Morton Feldman: What Patterns?" I haven't finished it yet, but the description of patterns in Johns's cross-hatch painting Usuyuki stopped me in my tracks. I'll paraphrase Johnson's description (using a different painting from the same series) and show a variation on an example in his book.

Johns,  Usuyuki  (1979)

Johns, Usuyuki (1979)

Usuyuki is good example of stasis through motion. It appears kind of all-over, random, on the surface, but on a larger level it moves downward as it moves left to right (I assume you can see the division of the work into 3 panels, and each panel into 9 self-contained blocks). What I find especially interesting is that the system (it's not at all random) is not restricted to the visible portion of the work. Or a better way of putting it is the system includes content that will never be seen by the viewer. Of course blocks A-F will eventually show up in the second and third panels, but they actually exist as part of the concept in the first panel where they are not seen.

Last spring I wrote a piece called Don't cross the streams for solo horn and computer music that is based on the idea of multiple "streams" happening simultaneously despite the fact that the horn meanders among these, and only one "stream" is heard at any point in time.

I'm reminded of a criticism of Ligeti's music along the lines of Why write such intricate and systematic canons when they will never be audible in the texture. So why create something that will never be seen or heard? This gets me to the Void, an idea that deeply informs my aesthetic.

The void as I understand it comes primarily from Seyyed Hossein Nasr's writings on Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. He summarized it this way: "…[T]he void, or that which is empty of things becomes a trace and an echo of God in the created order, for through its very negation of ‘things’ it points to that which is above and beyond all things. The void, therefore, is the symbol of both the transcendence of God and His presence in all things" (Islamic Art and Spirituality, 186). This is one explanation of aniconism in Islamic art, which moved Islamic art toward abstractions centuries before Western modernism. But, the concept of the trace and echo resonate with me. Negation, inversion, etc. are profound ways of pointing directly at something. Those inaudible or invisible parts of a system (the "created order") are echoed by the audible and visible parts. They are often crucial to a complete understanding of a work of music or art.

The sunken monadnock

Two weeks ago I didn't know what a monadnock was and now I'm thinking of using it as a guiding principle, if not the title, of my dissertation. In an epic coincidence of web browsing I happened upon something that could generate the music I'm going to compose. It all started when a high school friend posted an article from ESPN on Facebook, which links to City Prints Map Art, a company that makes monochromatic prints of maps with streets like look like veins. Here's a map of Appalachian State University (my undergrad alma mater):

I love minimalist monolithic art (is that a thing?) and I love maps. Add school colors and I would gladly drop $180 to buy this (my wife said no). When I shared this company's website on FB, I got a comment from a Texas friend who shared the online map archive at UT-Austin. After a few hours I got around to looking at the archive and realized they had historical maps from every state, so I clicked on North Carolina, and then found a more complete NC historical map archive and started looking at places I've lived and visited.

It was surreal to see what was missing one hundred years ago. Some towns weren't there. Many roads were dirt. I spent awhile looking at Watuaga County, where I've spent a lot of time over the past 16 years. I was fascinated that highway 194 was the main road from Boone to Avery County, not 105 as it today. Accordingly, the towns along 194 seemed more important on that map. 105 wasn't there, but a dirt road went as far as Shull's Mill. Shull's Mill is no more than a crossroads today, but on that map from the early twentieth century it was so important that, along with Boone, it was featured with an inset street map. One map of Charlotte pointed the way to Blowing Rock, though a dozen larger towns dot the highway to Blowing Rock today.

I spent several hours looking at these maps, becoming engrossed in how much I could tell about what life might have been like from them. At some point I was looking at western Watauga County, noticing that the road today still follows the same path out toward Watauga Lake. Except Watauga Lake wasn't there. I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that when the TVA dammed the Watauga River, they flooded the town of Butler, Tennessee. Suddenly images of a sunken town flooded my mind, as did memories of O, Brother Where Art Thouand my wife's phobia of dead bodies in large bodies of water (they got there, she claims, because old graveyards lie at the bottom of lakes). I ordered a book on the history of Butler because it was so intriguing.

That reminded me of some online browsing I had done recently on the geology of Pilot Mountain, a peculiar monadnock I saw every day as a child in my hometown of Pilot Mountain, NC. A monadnock, I learned, is a mountain that rises suddenly and in isolation on a relatively flat plain. Here is the picture (of Pilot Mountain, coincidentally) on the Wikipedia entry:

After several days these two ideas, the sunken town and the monadnock, started to interact with each other in my mind. I began to see a relationship: Both were connected by the flatness of their environments--the surface of the lake and the plain surrounding the mountain. Both deviated from their surroundings in some way--one rising above and one sinking below. The one jutting up, in view for miles and miles, the other completely hidden from view despite the people driving boats and skiing directly above it.

I really liked the inversional, yin-and-yang relationship between these two things and began to think of how this relationship might be abstracted musically. The more I thought about the sunken town, the monadnock, and music the more I started see this in my mind:

Which is an abstraction of this:

Which is a sound wave.

See. Everything has a musical application.

So the title of this blog is a conflation of the two in a way that makes syntactical sense, though semantically it's paradoxical. More on the musical development of this concept next time.

The phenomenology of provocation

Recently I read the following on Shepard Fairey's website:

The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.
The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

The first thing that struck me was the Heidegger reference. Because Heidegger said a lot about phenomenology (you can read a tiny bit about it here), and to reduce it down to "the process of letting things manifest themselves" seems incomplete at best and maybe downright misleading. So, I initially let my elitism get the better of me (I just took a graduate seminar in phenomenology after all), but then I remembered that I kind of like Fairey's work. So what if Fairey appropriated Heidegger for his own purposes? That's  what he does after all.

It just so happened that I read and thought all this on September 5th, which happens to be John Cage's birthday. And though Cage wasn't known for appropriating other artists, he was quite the provocateur, "reawaken[ing] a sense of wonder about one’s [sonic] environment" through works like 4'33". So I started thinking about phenomenology as a basis for provocation in art.

Personally, I've always considered phenomenology as something like the philosophy of perception, not concerned with anything specific like reawakening of a sense of wonder. It is something that seeks to explain how we perceive time and space, and by extension music and art. Frankly, I've often considered how I might wield my understanding of phenomenology to manage the listener's experience with my music, but Fairey seems to be using it to confuse the viewer (if he is actually engaging with phenomenology as he claims. How about we just bracket that question...), seeking to establish an unfamiliar situation that forces the viewer to confront Fairey's art and deal with it, not having the option of ignoring it.

It's all fine and good for an artist to provoke, but Fairey's manifesto and its invocation of phenomenology still didn't sit well with me, and I wasn't sure why until I decided to "let things manifest themselves." Let's say we're looking at a house with its visible front and hidden back, etc. (a common example in phenomenology). We can move around it in space, but we can never see more than one or two sides at a time. As we move around it we compile these isolated, moment by moment, perspective-based experiences into an idea of what the entire house is. We're letting the house manifest itself. I think that when Fairey puts a sticker somewhere on the house he is inserting himself into that manifestation. (Kind of like inception?) Sure, if we see an OBEY sticker on a sign we pass by every morning we might consider (or direct our intentionality at) the sign in a new way, but it's because there's a sticker there this morning. We see the sticker, and by extension, we see Fairey.

The main thrust to Cage's aesthetic, on the other hand, was to get himself out of the listener's experience with sound. Of course he composed 4'33", he put it on a concert, he had it performed, and so it will always be associated with him, but it is possible to hear 4'33" without thinking of Cage directly. It's hard to see an OBEY sticker without thinking of Fairey (even if the viewer doesn't know his name).

So maybe there are different kinds of artistic provocation--sometimes it's direct: the artist inserts himself, like Fairey, and sometimes it's indirect: the artist tries to get out of the way, like Cage. I think the phenomenological response of the viewer or listener, however, is ultimately always outside the control of the creative artist. It's kind of like the observer effect seen in quantum mechanics where the very act of observation will change the phenomenon being observed. In looking too directly at phenomenology, Fairey seems to alter the phenomenological process by which things manifest themselves.


Got down to making some firm decisions on a new work I'm composing for wind ensemble.  To avoid rewriting a summary, here's an email I just sent the conductor of the ensemble planning to premiere it next spring.

The form and generative/governing concepts are fairly clear to me now.  It is all inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the folk music traditions of the southern Appalachians. . . .  I have transcribed a recording of "Wayfaring Stranger" made in Beech Mountain by Horton Barker, as exactly as possible.  The oddities of that recording (asymmetrical meters, accidental/incidental microtonality) will generate some of the music.  I also plan on using that transcription later in the piece.

I also want to incorporate some abstractions on Appalachian instrumental music, especially variations on traditional banjo and fiddle conventions.  I want to emphasize, however, that I do not want to compose a "bluegrass" piece for band, just abstracting and reworking some hallmarks of that music--like fiddle portamentos and clawhammer banjo rhythmic gestures.

These ideas are perhaps tangential, however, to the main thrust of the piece.  I am fascinated with the timbral possibilities of the wind ensemble and plan to exploit timbre and texture, sometimes to the obscuring of melody and rhythm.  I am planning to include a fair amount of improvisation in order to achieve the kind of intricate textures and independent playing that I want (3 to 5 notes in a box, or melodic fragments played independently of the tempo, etc.).  The harmonic interest will come from a conflict between E min. pentatonic and the octatonic scale C, Db, Eb, etc.  At the end, I plan on using timbre and wide separation in pitch space to help these two harmonic worlds merge naturally.

To help bring together all these inspirations floating around in my head, I got a sketch pad and went to work.  I sketched a few shapes intuitively, with no thought of any concrete ideas.  The top portion of the sketch, which I decided to make my guide for percussion timbres, textural density and volume, is clearly mountainous.  The right side, especially, reminds me of the Blue Ridge Mountains with ribbons of fog below and stars above.

I've sketched out pieces before, but this is more graphic than I usually do.  There are, of course, some words and, on the left, some notes on staves, but it's mostly visual.  There is also a lot of empty space.  I kind of know what's going to come there, and didn't feel the need to fill up all the available space.  I found this very useful to me (I'm a visual person) to organize my ideas.  It makes perfect sense to me--the visual representing the aural.  I realize it doesn't for many people, but I've always found it very easy to compose a sculpture or a painting...  makes me wonder why I don't do it more often.

Of course, the visual doesn't mean the same aural for everyone (and vice versa).  I've often thought it would be a good exercise to give several composers the same sketch and have them write a piece from it.. just to see all the different outcomes.


After sketching, I notated a more detailed version of the first minute.  It's convenient that the first minute is so sparse.  Of course there will be a lot of details to work out for the final version, but it will come faster than the more dense textures that come later--and fast is good right now (I want to do a string quartet as soon as this piece is finished).  As the initial sparse clusters/tectonically-slow melody give way to a churning rhythmic section that begins the buildup to the climax, there needs to be a bridge or a transitional section.  For now, I have several 3-5 note motives that can be rhythmicized in many different ways.  These will be building blocks that I could use as improvisatory cells or work out and notate exactly.  They will begin in isolation, then combined into duets and trios, etc.  Either way, it's too much for today.  I thought about going on to the rhythmic section that will come next, but I want it to evolve organically from the transition, so I need to do that first.  I might start working on the chorale, though, later this evening.

Music of the Spheres

From Gioseffo Zarlino, Istitutioni harmoniche (1558)

...The Pythagoreans in particular believed that the world was composed musically, and that the heavens caused harmony in their revolutions, and that our soul is formed according to the same laws, and that it is awakened and its powers vivified by songs and instrumental music.

The ancient Greeks (and the Renaissance writers like Zarlino who brought the ancients to the... early modernists) believed that the movement of heavenly bodies was just like the movement of musical tones and harmonies.  This was called musica universalis or music of the universe (as opposed to music of the body--singing--and instrumental music).  I've always been moved by this idea and wondered what these sounds would be--not just harmonically, but timbally as well (Just to clarify, you can't really HEAR musica universalis.  In addition to it having always been more metaphorical, sound doesn't exist in the vacuum of space.  Don't tell George Lucas.).  I don't know if I've been unduly influenced by Star Trek IV, but when I close my eyes and see Jupiter whoosh past Saturn, I hear whale song.

Many cultures and religions place special meaning on certain numbers, but I don't know of any that do the same with ratios.  I think if we're talking about harmony of the spheres, then we need to get to the ratios of the movements of the planets.  I can't really get into it here, but I would really like to explore these harmonies sometime.

Over the past week I've enjoyed reading about the mythical beginnings of music.  The Greeks said Pythagoras first heard music in hammers striking anvils.  The Jews and Christians said it was Jubal in a similar story.  I prefer J.R.R. Tolkien's version from The Silmarillion, and I'll leave it in parting since it reminds me of the Pythagoreans.

In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun; for Ilúvatar made visible the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness. And many among them became enamoured of its beauty, and of its history which they saw beginning and unfolding as in a vision. Therefore Ilúvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Eä.

How about another good, old-fashioned debate on church music?

Here is Niceta of Remesiana (On the Benefit of Psalmody, 4th century C.E.) after discussing church music at length (joyful noise, yada yada yada).  He ends this way:

Those, however, who are not able to blend and adapt themselves to the others, ought better to sing in a subdued voice than to create a great clamor; and thus they fulfill their liturgical obligation and avoid disrupting the singing community.  For it is not given to all to possess a supple and pleasant voice.

So, who should and should not sing (or perform musically) in church?  What about congregational singing?  And remember, in your comments please try not to offend the singing community.

©2017 Joshua Harris