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.

©2017 Joshua Harris