Harmonic Growth in Blocks

Before this next post, I should qualify a bit more why I'm doing this.

At the moment, and perhaps for the past many years, I have always had an intuitive approach to writing music. Ideas would 'appear' like musical ghosts, and the act of writing them down is merely capturing them and putting them on the page. This approach has grown tiresome for me, and I feel the process itself needed some examining. Through these posts, I am attempting to redefine what musical style means to me while searching for a new voice.
Last we left off in the process, I began to define the stable and unstable elements of the form. In terms of western music, this is often most linked to harmonic structure - and I too will use this as the basis of stability.

Until the 20th century or so, dissonance and cadence were the driving factors of structural harmony. In sonata form, the grand return to the tonic key after the development section was the big 'structural' V - I cadence which made the recapitulation special. In fugues (especially Bach), one can see modulation as an expressive device, where moving away from the tonic and then eventually heading toward a structural dominant will be the motion which drives the harmonic flow.

During the 20th century, however, composers like Boulez, Scriabin, and Glass (along with many many others) have developed their own systems of structuring harmony. Boulez, for example, in Memoriale has an entire cadential sub-section at the end of each major formal division. Alongside this, he has tonal 'centricities' where the music is not really in a 'key,' but the music is centered on a note (through drones, repeated notes, or returning to a note in the melody many more times than other notes). One can look at many other pieces throughout this time period and find similar examples of neo-harmonic structures.

When dealing with stability and instability, harmony is not the only factor - one must account for timbre/color as well. One might argue that harmony IS color, and I too agree, but it helps to break the harmony down into the individual parts of 'notes' and 'orchestration.' This aids the discussion of finding new ways to build these structures.

So let's take notes to start.

In keeping with the oriental idea, the work will start in the key of A, on a pentatonic scale. (As this is for flute and piano, the assumption is to keep it within the 12 note equal tempered scale).  To build to the first unstable moment, a variety of accidental and non-key notes will be introduced until the original music exists in a new emotional context. The 'new key' to which the music unfolds will have larger structural implications - for example, I have a feeling the shift will start to include elements of G minor, so for later sections, moving to an F# diminished harmony could signal a more major harmonic instability. For now, it will just be the key of A pentatonic moving away.. likely toward G minor.

But how does it get here?

One concept that has intrigued me was Stravinsky's use of block forms - treating each 'snipit' of melody like legos in a lattice of motifs. The idea is to build a series of small blocks, perhaps 2 or 3 to start, with the flute and piano each having their own separate material. Over the course of the first shift, the blocks will develop, adding more unstable elements. Perhaps the addition of accidentals and the addition of new blocks will have a correlation.

For the most part, every element has been covered, aside from rhythm. This has always been the hardest for me to put into words, as rhythm is a very natural and organic element of music. Instead of thinking of 'micro-rhythms' on a note-by-note basis, I will deal with more with marco-rhythm, or the rhythm of how blocks repeat.

Rhythmic cycles (5,7,9,11,9,7,5 for example) have taken over my recent musical output, and these concepts will continue to develop in the first section of this work.

The only thing left to do now is to sketch some music and start playing with the materials to develop a coherent form.

What makes for a good story? Style?

When thinking about story telling, these two quotes come to mind:
"When you read a story, it’s not the characters or the plot that really defines your enjoyment of the tale. No: the most important part of writing is the way in which you write – your style."
"This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important."

Musical composition is merely an abstract story with no words. As said in the quotes - to tell a story well, the defining characteristic is not the plot or characters, but the style. In an abstract sound-world, where there are no longer limits on what can be considered music, how does one define their own space? The first element is setting limits.

Musical expression is very closely linked with the elements of written language: sentence structure, use of colorful vocabulary, avoiding redundancies, pacing, etc. Also, while there is often a main plot, there can be many sub plots. Musical sub-plots can be introduced in a variety of ways, seemingly juggled throughout a work. The use of dominant prolongation and jump-cuts can be incredibly effective in achieving this -- all assuming these are part of the musical language.

OK - well, if working in an abstract realm, what are the elements?
Rhythms/Rhythmic organization

Realistically, that's it. Within those can be thematic development, counterpoint, orchestration, articulations, dynamics, flow/break, stability/instability, character, systems, etc -- but each of those can fall into one of the core categories.

Time for me to get a bit selfish... Starting with no assumptions, my hope from here to the end of this blog post is to have some semblance of what I will be doing for an upcoming work.

My newest commission is for flute and piano - two drastically different instruments. After a recent visit to Copenhagen, I was inspired by my time in Tivoli, where I saw the same Chinese style pagodas that Hans Christian Andersen invoked when he wrote The Nightingale. This inspired me as well, and will attempt to mold the work around themes from his story.

What is the basis of the internal structure? The relationship of stable and unstable elements of harmony - structural harmony.

Starting with emotional curves will not give an internal structure, merely a loosely correlated outer structure.


To follow the story (very briefly) - we start in a grand porcelain palace, content until the emperor realizes there is a bird of unimaginable beauty on his land.
Stable ---> Unstable, but a mild unstable.. not earth-shattering.

There sets out a party to search for the nightingale, and when they find it, the bird sings the most beautiful song in the forest.
Unstable ---> Very stable. The nightingale is most comfortable in the forest.

The nightingale comes back to the court to sing for the emperor. After some time, the emperor is given a mechanical nightingale, and the real and mechanical birds sing together.
Stable (grand!) ---> Unstable. The waltz of the mechanical bird clashes with the freedom of the real nightingale.

Time goes on and the mechanical nightingale begins to break. When the bird can no longer sing, the Emperor gets very ill.
Unstable ---> Most unstable

The nightingale comes back and sings for the Emperor, reviving him.
Most unstable ---> Stable.

To recap - the work will move:
Stable ---> Unstable
Unstable ---> Very stable
Stable (grand!) ---> Unstable
Unstable ---> Most unstable
Most unstable ---> Stable.

Ok - so what? What does it all mean?

The next few blog posts will be updates on this, perhaps with various examples of the music with a description of the compositional process.


OK - let's start this.
It might be a bit late in the game, but is it ever really? It's always better to start something than to never start at all.

In the beginning, I'm writing this for me. Over time, perhaps this can turn into a platform for a discourse on various musical themes.  For now, it will be an outlet in which various musical ideas will be planted and cultivated, new shows and works will be examined, music will be shared, and the musical landscape around me will be discussed.

Will anyone reading this care? Maybe not. But I care, and that's enough.

OK - let's get on with it.