It's been over a month since I last made a Shell Script post; I moved to a new apartment last month, and that took up much of my energy from late May through much of June. Hopefully, I'll be able to stay more current now that things have settled down.
At the end of June, I spent the weekend at a large geek gathering in the middle of nowhere. We camped on the top of a mountain, and indulged in all sorts of geeky off-line entertainments, from liquid nitrogen ice cream to aerial silks to contra dancing. The contra dancing intrigued me somewhat: I didn't dance, but I was curious about the music. I was sufficiently interested that I asked the caller what the parameters of contra dance music were, and offered to write a contra tune. I was initially hoping that I might be able to write a tune quickly enough that the small band -- two violins, bass clarinet, and mandolin -- could play it later that night, but I decided to actively watch the dancers and listen to the band, rather than tuning them out to write my own music. Nevertheless, I'm still interested in writing a contra tune or two.
One of the things that I find most appealing about writing a tune for contra dancing is that it would take me out of some of my comfort zones. Most significantly, I would be writing music with a specific social function. For most geeks, music performance is almost always imbued with some sort of social function. In addition to the contra dancing, there were planned and unplanned singalongs at the weekend gathering, and elsewhere, concerts by geek-oriented musicians such as Paul and Storm and Jonathan Coulton are typically communal, audience-inclusive events. In contrast, classical music concerts, especially in the academic branch of contemporary music that I have been accustomed to, tend to be divorced from any social function whatsoever. All the music that I have written to this point was meant to be experienced on a personal basis, independent of other listeners. Since I do fancy myself a geek, and feel more at home in the geek community than the contemporary classical music community, I have been concerned with this discrepancy. If I wish to present my music to a primarily geeky audience, I think it will be helpful for me to try working in some of the modes of presentation normally associated with my audience.
The second challenge that contra music presents to me is more technical, though it certainly pertains to the function of the music. Contra tunes, like most music for social dancing, are very circumscribed in rhythm and structure. In this case, the tune must be in duple meter (i.e., two beats per bar) at around 120 beats per minute, and take up exactly 32 bars. Usually the tune will break down further into 8-bar phrases in something like an AABB structure. This is a far cry from most of the music that I have written. Of all the pieces I've written, I can think of only three or four that stay in one time signature throughout; in fact, I've written more pieces that have sections with no time signature at all. And of those three or four songs that have a steady time signature, only one of them breaks down into any sort of consistent phrase structure. Even the pieces that I call "dances" (Trinkle Dance, "Repose" from Song and Dance: Panic and Repose) have irregular rhythms and phrase lengths. Also, the perpetuum mobile style of most contra melodies is something that I find difficult to work with. I like my music to breathe, and favor the push and pull that comes from rhythmic variety in both the melody and the underlying time signatures. Also, I'm a trombonist at heart, and the nonstop eighth-note melodies which suit fiddlers just fine are simply not in my idiom. But I certainly relish the challenge.
In the spirit of contra dancing, I leave you with one of my favorite reels, Percy Grainger's arrangement of Molly on the Shore.