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:

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


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.)

©2017 Joshua Harris