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?

10 Albums that Changed my Life

Here's my bloated version of the ubiquitous Facebook note. I wanted this list to reflect albums that actually had a major impact on my relationship with music, not just a list of my favorite albums.  These don't seem nearly as cool as some of the lists I've read.. oh well.

Nirvana - Nevermindnirvana_nevermind_cover

I was at a middle school dance when someone gave the DJ/PE teacher a new tape.  The DJ announced that this was a new song, and he'd never heard it before.  It's hard to describe my emotional reaction to the first four chords of distorted guitar and the nasally gravelly, indistinct voice that matched the guitar and created a sound we would call grunge or, ironically, alternative.  I guess it wasn't as new as I thought at the time, but most of the pre-Nirvana music was alternative, underground, and punk, none of which I was familiar with.  I've often bristled at the notion that Kurt Cobain was the poet of a generation and that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was that generation's anthem, but when you heard it, you felt the ground of pop music shift under your feet.

John Cage - Sonatas and Interludescage

This was my first exposure to prepared piano.  To prepare a piano, one places screws, paperclips, erasers, chains, paper and anything else between, around, and on top of the piano's strings.  The material used as well as the placement on the length of the string offers an infinite number of possible timbres.  Many have compared the overall effect to a percussion ensemble being played by one player on one instrument, and the first time I heard Sonatas and Interludes I did not suspect a piano.

The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tourthe_beatles-magical_mystery_tour-frontal

This is the first of many on this list that may not be the most representative of a particular band, but happened to represent my first exposure to that band.  I was introduced to Magical Mystery Tour when I was in high school and it seemed refreshingly unpretentious compared to rock acts who tried too hard to be authentic.  The tunes were hummable, even kind of cheesy.  But, that seemed more authentic to me.  I liked "Fool on the Hill" and "I Am the Walrus."  But, I especially liked "Blue Jay Way"... maybe because my mom hated it.

The Beatles - The Beatlesbeatleswhite

"The White Album" blew me away when I finally heard it.  The Beatles I had grown up on had been grossly misrepresented I decided.  The Beatles I had known were the favorites of old people who listened to golden oldies on the radio.  I despised "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Love Me Do."  I wondered why no one had ever played "Helter Skelter" or "Happiness Is a Warm Gun."  I even loved "Rocky Raccoon."

Doc Watson - Ballads from Deep Gapdoc

Deep Gap is a small Blue Ridge Mountain community on US 421 just east of Boone, North Carolina.  It's where Doc Watson has lived all his life, and it's about 20 minutes from where I live now.  Here again, there are better, even Grammy-winning, examples of the genius of Doc Watson, but I bought this one because I liked the title.

Pearl Jam - Tenpearl-jam

This is probably my favorite album ever.  I learned to think about timbre by trying to figure out how they could make their guitars sound so many different ways.  They combined wah-wah with distortion and chorus to effectively hide the Who's strong influence.  They used flanger to sound like steel drums.  And Eddie Vedder's voice didn't sound like anything I was used to.

Michael Jackson - Thrillermichael_jackson_thriller-front

I cried when I was 6 or 7 and my parents wouldn't buy it for me. Whenever it was my turn to rent a video, I picked the making of "Thriller" even though it scared me to death.  I loved all of it, but especially "Human Nature" and "Billie Jean."  And "The Girl Is Mine" was my first positive encounter with Paul McCartney.  My favorite arrangement I've done is a marching band version of "Billie Jean."

George Crumb - Black Angels / Makrokosmos IIIcrumb

Black Angels taught me that contemporary music could be beautiful even if it wasn't always "pretty."  Before that I thought that composers were just trying to out-weird each other.



Radiohead - In Rainbowsin-rainbows

This is the most recent release on the list.  Fantastic, well-crafted songwriting.  Made me stop trying to pretend that rock wasn't sophisticated.. or maybe it made me realize that rock was a sophisticated artistic outlet.


Public Enemy - Apocalypse '91apocalypse-91-cover

You could say I was just another white kid listening to gangster rap in the early 90's.  I'm not arguing--but it did get me thinking about people in other situations.  The anger was intoxicating, and all the "Yeah, boyeeee"s were simply thrilling.


Bach - Mass in B minorbach

My first choral album.  It set far too high a standard for choral music in my opinion.



Led Zeppelin - "Four"ledzeppelin4

I think I used to listen to this on LP before we got the CD.  I'd play "Stairway" on the piano with the stereo turned up all the way.  Made me realize that even a pianist could play rock.  Plus I loved all the literary allusions to Tolkien.


Morton Feldman - Why Patterns? / Crippled Symmetryfeldman

Schoenberg talked about emancipating the dissonance, but Feldman, at least for me, emancipated the rhythm.  No discernible meter or patterns makes this music float with nowhere to go.  That's freedom.


Guns 'N Roses - Use Your Illusiongnr

Much more polished than Appetite for Destruction, this represented the last big push for the ill-fated band.  The perfect mix of Axl's industrial rock and Slash's sense for lush melodies, songs like "You Could Be Mine" and "November Rain" balance this double album. I know Appetite might seem more authentic without its orchestral arrangement, but Illusion had a bigger impact on me for that very reason.  At that time I thought the bigger the production the better.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones - Live Artbela

Electric banjo, drumitar, two saxes in one mouth, and bass.  What else do I need to say?



Bill Evans and Tony Bennett - The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Albumbennett-tony-bill-evans-86-l

Maybe not the most cleverly named album, but it says all it needs to.  Here is a singer singing like a instrumentalist and a pianist playing like a singer.  "Some Other Time," "When in Rome," "Young and Foolish" and of course "Waltz for Debbie" are the best examples.  I used to listen to this every night on my way to piano gigs in the hopes that it would rub off on me.

©2017 Joshua Harris