For the second time, I have had to change the name of my irregular blog posts featuring other people's music. I gave up on "Tuesday Feature" when it became clear that I wasn't able to stick to a Tuesday schedule, and adopted "Listen to This" in its place. Now Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest is Noise, who I wrote about in my post about the MacArthur Fellowships, has released a second book, based on his writings for the New Yorker. The title of the book? Listen to This, of course. I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in music in general, but I am shocked that Ross had the temerity to steal my title1. Nevertheless, I defer to his authority, and my features will hereupon be known as "Now Hear This" -- at least, until I change my mind.
Today's issue of "Now Hear This" is in fact inspired by Listen to This, specifically the second chapter, "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues." In that chapter, Ross traces the lineage of a couple of musical patterns throughout history, drawing connections between Baroque madrigals, Bob Dylan, and many things in between. I frankly expected the chapter to be somewhat dry, but as usual, Ross finds ways to bring the material to life. I especially enjoyed his account of the chacona, so today you will get to hear two chaconas, each with a decidedly different character.
The chacona is a dance of Hispanic American origin, which enjoyed great popularity in Spain around 1600. It is in triple time, and has an emphasis on beat 2. It was said to be so catchy that the laws should ignore whatever mischief was caused by people dancing the chacona, for they surely could not help themselves. Juan Arañés (d. 1649) captured the spirit of the early chacona in "Un Sarao de la Chacona," and here Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI do a brilliant job of recapturing that spirit:
If the guitar introduction2 doesn't have you tapping your toes, well, there's not much I can do to help you. The infectious rhythms are taken up by the band and singers in turn, and the lyrics tell of an extravagant party, at which a vast and varied assortment of guests all show up to enjoy "la vida bona" and dance the chacona.
Then we jump ahead nearly 400 years, from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the 20th. For a long time, composers have taken the repeated bass line of the chacona and turned it into a vehicle for melodic variation, abstracting the form from its terpsichorean origins. The most famous example of this practice is almost certainly the chaconne from J.S. Bach's second partita for solo violin, which is about as far removed from "la vida bona" as can be imagined, but that's not what I want to share with you today. Rather, our second chacona of the day is the second movement of John Adams' Violin Concerto, "Chaconne: Body Through Which the Dream Flows." Here, Gidon Kremer is the soloist, and Kent Nagano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. The movement is over 11 minutes long, so it has been broken up into two videos:
The subtitle for this chaconne (the French spelling) is apt, as the effect is somewhat dreamlike, with amorphous rhythmic figures and searching melodies. And although it may bear no superficial resemblance to Arañés' chacona, the two pieces do share a bit of musical DNA. If we put the bass lines of "Un Sarao de la Chacona" and "Body Through Which the Dream Flows" side-by-side, we see that the latter bass line is in effect a simplification of the former:
Here, certain notes in "Un Sarao de la Chacona" (the top line) have been highlighted to show how they relate to "Body Through Which the Dream Flows" on the bottom. "Un Sarao de la Chacona" is a lot more elaborate and rhythmically active, but they both stress a lot of the same pitches. This is no accident; Adams said that he examined a number of chaconne bass lines, and selected one that he felt was a sort of ur-chaconne, from which the others could be derived. Adams also said that at the time he was working on the concerto, he remained unaware of the connection of his ur-chaconne to a more famous bass line, that of Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D:
Even if he had been aware of this connection, Adams' chaconne would hardly be a Pachelbel rip-off. The melodies and harmonies are far too abstracted, and even the bass line itself undergoes transformations which change the individual notes, but leave the overall shape intact. You may not be able to dance the chacona to "Body Through Which the Dream Flows," but it is a beautiful reinterpretation of a classic form.
1 Actually, I probably stole the title from Ross, even though my blog entries predate his book. The first essay from Listen to This, which is the source of the book's title, has been online for years, and it made a big impression on me when I first encountered it.
I've been writing a fair bit of music for concert band/wind ensemble lately, so I thought I'd delve into some more wind ensemble classics, the previous one being Karel Husa's Music for Prague 1968. Today I want to introduce you to Winds of Nagual, by Michael Colgrass.
Michael Colgrass composed Winds of Nagual in 1985 for the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble. The work is based on the writings of anthropologist cum shaman Carlos Castaneda, and has seven programmatic movements:
The improbable mysticism of its inspiration notwithstanding, Winds of Nagual is a fine work in its own right, and can easily enjoy it (as I do) without being familiar with Castaneda's writings (as I am not). The style of the music ranges from visceral primitivism, à la Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, to lush diatonicism. Here, the introduction, with its high Eb clarinet solo, is paired with the comparably stratospheric (for their respective registers) bassoon solo from the introduction to The Rite of Spring:
Winds of Nagual: Introduction
Rite of Spring: Introduction
Winds of Nagual, being largely programmatic, features a number of recurring motives to designate characters or settings. Further on in the opening movement, we are introduced to Carlos. The hesitant clarinet solo indicates his trepidation at meeting the sorcerer Don Juan, while the misterioso passage for alto flute which follows is labelled in the score as "Don Juan shows Carlos a new side of himself."
Winds of Nagual also contains two of the most sensuous movements in the band literature, the twin meditations of "Carlos Stares at the River and Becomes a Bubble" and "Asking Twilight for Calmness and Power." Here I have included "Asking Twilight" in its entirety, along with the end of "Gait of Power," to give some context to "Asking Twilight" and further illustrate Stravinsky's influence. Also note the further transformations of Carlos's theme: the forceful brass chorale in "Gait of Power" (marked "Carlos exerts his will" in the score) and the saxophone and flugelhorn solos in "Asking Twilight."
Gait of Power/Asking Twilight for Calmness and Power
With "Don Juan Clowns for Carlos," Colgrass injects a bit of levity into this otherwise quite weighty work. Here, a folklike dance is turned on its ear:
Don Juan Clowns for Carlos
In "Last Conversation and Farewell," Colgrass nearly overstays his welcome. The diatonic harmonies cross the line from straightforwardly affective to overtly sentimental, and the music is rescued from schmaltz only by pushing past the breaking point:
Last Conversation and Farewell
While an excellent piece of music, Winds of Nagual is not without its flaws. In some ways, the strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin: Colgrass occasionally goes too far with his diatonic harmonies, passing from lush to cloying. Similarly, I wish that the Stravinskian moments of the piece were less blatant, but I can't deny their effect. As a result, I don't think these issues would greatly affect the general audience reception. Nevertheless, Winds of Nagual, while fairly well established by reputation in the wind ensemble literature, is not that widely performed. One reason is its technical difficulty, which in my partly informed opinion (I have listened to Winds of Nagual with score in hand, but have never performed it) exceeds that of Music for Prague 1968. The other primary reason is its idiosyncratic instrumentation:
Compared to standard concert band instrumentation, we have no oboes, no standard bassoons, no low saxophones, more clarinet and brass parts than usual, and the presence of several unusual instruments (alto flute, contra-alto and contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, flugelhorn, celeste). A wind ensemble must therefore have significant instrumental resources to attempt this piece. Despite these challenges, at least four wind ensembles at the university and conservatory level have recorded Winds of Nagual, so it should not be too difficult to find.
Live from Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, Frank Battisti conducting. Albany Records. (Winds of Nagual)
Favorite Stravinsky Ballets, Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz conducting. Delos. (Rite of Spring)
Listen to This: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
Today, I wish to draw your attention to composer, bandleader, and extraordinary gentleman Darcy James Argue. Argue and his 18-piece big band, dubbed the "Secret Society," received a lot of attention from the jazz press last year, centered on the release of their debut album, Infernal Machines. Infernal Machines has a lot to recommend itself to listeners: a tight ensemble, some great solos, and Argue's deft compositional pen. Argue has also been held up as a poster child for establishing a fan base through the internet; long before Infernal Machines came out, Argue was putting up live recordings of his gigs and posting insightful commentary about the New York jazz scene at his site. Throw in a positively ecumenical mix of musical influences ranging from contemporary big bands to indie rock groups to post-minimalist composers, and it's easy to see why so many media outlets are eager to brand Argue's Secret Society as the fresh new face of jazz.
This is all very well and good, but doesn't fully explain why I hold Argue in such high regard. No, I've been harboring a composer-crush on Argue because he's a great composer, great bandleader, savvy internet marketer, and a big ol' geek. He's an avid comic-book reader, taking inspiration for his ensemble from Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He is unashamed about his enthusiasm for a marginalized and practically obsolete performance medium. And most notably, he turns these potentially stigmatizing attributes into virtues, calling his style "steampunk big band." And he really means it.
By "steampunk big band," I don't mean a big band that performs in Victorian attire with brass accessories, though Argue himself has been known to cut a dapper figure elsewhere. I mean that he has taken the steampunk conceit of using obsolete technology to achieve modernistic ends and applied it to the medium of the big band. In his music for Secret Society, Argue "evokes an alternate musical history in which the dance orchestras that ruled the Swing Era never went extinct, but remained a popular and vital part of the evolving musical landscape." To that end, he draws heavily on indie rock style and compositional practice. He cites as inspirations such bands as Animal Collective and Tortoise, and for the latter inclusion I should take notice simply as a matter of principle. (I should also listen to more Tortoise, as a matter of principle. I haven't heard much, but I like what I've heard.) Which is not to say that Secret Society is a glorified rock band; swinging hard and rocking out both come easily to the group. And if that's not enough, Argue also likes to build compositions around polyrhythmic and metametric techniques inspired by the likes of Steve Reich and the Bang on a Can composers. There's an awful lot going on in a steampunk big band, apparently.
But what does a steampunk big band sound like, you ask? Well, I don't have to try to explain, because Argue has been so generous with his recordings. As I said before, just about all of Secret Society's live performances have been archived online, and Argue's label, New Amsterdam Records, has been equally generous with Infernal Machines, allowing you to preview the entire album. I could easily get lost in the live performance archives, so let me walk you through the tracks on Infernal Machines:
Apologies once again for the long silence. Fortunately, I'm doing much better than I was when I wrote my last post, both emotionally and musically. In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on a 15-minute work for concert band, tentatively titled Siren Fantasy. I started right around Thanksgiving, arrived at a double bar a few days ago, and will be editing like mad shortly. I hope to get it wrapped up by the end of the month, and if I'm lucky, get a performance by the end of the semester. After having made many abortive attempts at writing for band, I'm very excited to have this one under my belt.
But for now, I am too busy to savor that feeling. I have been gearing up for the MIT Mystery Hunt, which starts tomorrow, and today I have a lot of packing to do. Puzzles are perhaps my greatest vice, and the Mystery Hunt is a weekend-long all-you-can-solve buffet of 100 or more delightfully difficult puzzles, perfect for a junkie like me. My team, Just for the Halibut, is in no danger of winning -- rather fortunately, as the winning team must then write the next year's Hunt -- but we have a lot of fun nonetheless.
The puzzles at the Mystery Hunt run the gamut from crosswords to logic puzzles to trivia to everything in between, including a fair number of music-related puzzles. Most music puzzles are centered around pop song identification, which I leave to my teammates, but there have been a few puzzles that skewed more towards my areas of expertise:
If I ever get to help write the Mystery Hunt, I have some ideas for music-related puzzles I'd like to try, but I have to show some restraint. While I could easily write a 12-tone composition which encodes the letters of the answer in the different row operations, I can't imagine that being fun to solve for most teams. But I have other tricks up my sleeve...
In any event, I should go finish packing. And don't be surprised if I wind up gushing about the Mystery Hunt sometime next week. And yes, I will try to write about music, too.
Today's feature is The Same Sky, by Carolyn Yarnell. I learned of this piece some 5 years ago via Kyle Gann's PostClassic blog, and heard it shortly thereafter on his sadly defunct PostClassic Radio stream. While The Same Sky gripped me when I heard it, it lamentably fell off my radar for some time. Recently I was reminded of the piece, and was thrilled to find a video of pianist Kathleen Supové performing it. It would be terribly selfish of me not to share my find with you, so here it is:
While The Same Sky largely speaks for itself, I want to provide a bit of explanation. What you are hearing is not entirely Ms. Supové's piano playing. The piece is for piano and electronics -- some of the electronics consist of delays and other manipulations of the piano, while others are independent lines which are triggered by Supové's playing. The visual portion of the performance is being projected onto the open piano lid. It's a nice combination of elements, and I imagine that a live performance would be quite an immersive experience.
If this piece strikes your fancy, a recording can be found on Supové's CD Infusion, along with works by Marti Epstein, Elaine Kaplinsky, and Randall Woolf. An all-electronic version of The Same Sky also exists on Yarnell's own CD Sonic Vision, though Gann says that this alternate version lacks the punch of the piano+electronics.
Lately, I've gotten a little dissatisfied with my flute playing -- I have never intended for the flute to be my primary instrument, but I do perform several of my own compositions on flute, and occasionally other people's compositions as well. But recently, when hearing a much better flutist play a piece I didn't much care for, I realized that their tone quality was significantly better than mine. Their sound was clearer and more penetrating, and they had a much greater range of dynamics in all registers. It was like comparing a powerful laser to a cheap flashlight with dying batteries. I didn't care if my fingers couldn't keep up with theirs, but I sure wouldn't mind improving my sound.
After consulting with one of my flautist friends -- who now specializes in the baroque flute but still knows a thing or two about these newfangled metal monstrosities -- I acquired Trevor Wye's practice books for flute (I'm not linking to Wye's own site because he renders most of his text as images. So inaccessible it hurts!) and have started working my way through Book 1(Tone). This is actually the first time I've received any significant instruction -- written or oral -- on playing the flute. When I first decided to try my hand at my dad's old flute, he showed me where to put my fingers, but didn't remember much about the fingerings. I worked out fingerings (not always the ideal ones, it turns out) for the first couple octaves on my own, and just started playing around. A couple of times I have asked other flutists for help fingering a particular note, but aside from that I am completely self-taught on the flute. I am still going through Wye's exercises on my own, but just having those exercises in front of me is more guidance than I've ever had in the past.
So far, I think those exercises have been a great boon. I haven't been practicing a whole heck of a lot -- maybe an hour and a half per session, two or three times per week for the last couple weeks -- but already I'm hearing an improvement. My sound has a lot more presence in the lower and middle register, though the very bottom of my register is lagging. I also think I'm getting more of a consistent sound between different parts of my range. I haven't worked on the upper register just yet, and once my tone in the lower register is solid throughout I'd also like to start working on technique. Keeping my own music in mind, I have a few particular goals:
So I've got a lot of practice sessions on the flute ahead of me. And I need to keep practicing the bass trombone as well. I think two instruments concurrently is about my limit for serious practice, but I long ago accepted that the clarinet would take a back seat to the flute, which in turn would take a back seat to the trombone. But I'm making progress. So far, it's been due to actually doing long-tone exercises. I never really had the patience to practice long tones on the flute, and I probably wouldn't have gone about it in an intelligent manner without having some written exercises in front of me. It's probably obvious to anyone who has seriously practiced a wind instrument that long tones would help improve my tone quality, but I was always more interesting in noodling and composing on the flute than playing boring exercises. Now that I'm sufficiently motivated to play the boring stuff before I have fun, I'm seeing some improvement.
Additionally, these long-tone exercises are having an unexpected side effect. Playing long tones seems to make me hungry. Really hungry. I'll practice for 45 minutes or so and my stomach will increasingly voice its dissatisfaction while my blood sugar starts to drop. Then I say to myself, "Oh, it's the middle of the day; I should go have lunch." (Apparently I am fond of semicolons even when talking to myself; this is not too terribly surprising.) So I'll go and have lunch. And because I'm feeling so hungry, I'll usually have a pretty substantial lunch, like I did today: a thick slice of lasagna, a glass of milk, yogurt, and some trail mix. Then I'll go back to practicing. In another 45 minutes, I'll be hungry again. I'm not sure what's going on here. Sure, practicing takes physical effort, but I've never gotten this consistently hungry practicing the bass trombone, working on long tones or anything else. My best guess is that my body is upping its metabolic rate in response to the increased intake of oxygen, but this still doesn't explain why it doesn't happen when I practice the bass trombone, as the two instruments actually make quite similar demands on one's lungs. But if I keep practicing like this, I may wind up eating myself out of house and home. Let's hope I can make it through the winter.
Since I had trouble keeping a schedule of updating every Tuesday, I have decided to be less rigorous about when I post my feature articles. Of course, I can't call them "Tuesday features" anymore, at leat not without a certain amount of irony. Since I'd rather save that irony for something that really deserves it -- I have no idea what, so maybe it's more of a strategic irony reserve -- the (hopefully recurring) feature articles will now be called "Listen to This." So, listen to this:
That's "Leeds United," from Who Killed Amanda Palmer, the solo debut of Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer. Everything I've heard from the album so far has been great, but "Leeds United" is what first got my attention. And actually, I nearly passed it over. The first time I saw someone post this video, I watched about 30 seconds, and thought "Meh, another stalker song." Besides which, the video was slow to load further, so I gave up on it. Maybe a week or so later, I heard about the flak Palmer had gotten from her record label about supposedly unflattering shots in the video. Sometimes I resist the urge to pay attention to something just because it's controversial, but reading others' reactions I got the impression that Roadrunner Records was trying to step on something good.
And it was good. Quite good. For starters, it's not just "another stalker song." Yeah, there's a stalker narrative, but it's more about the stalker's bitterness than the stalking itself. At least, I think so; I have trouble piecing together the lyrical throughline, particularly in the bridge. As an aside, I have generally been bad at parsing song lyrics, both in putting together the syllables to make words and in putting the words together to make ideas. So I generally don't dwell on the lyrics so much as the music. Thus, let me dwell on the music.
There's a lot for me to like about this music. One of the most obvious for me was the backing horn section, (first entering around 1:50) which may be my favorite since They Might Be Giants' "Museum of Idiots." I love the sound of the horns on this track, from their very first entrance. The horn parts are very much in line with the cabaret style of the song, but the sound itself is more like a college pep band, which adds to the raucous tone in the latter half. That may be a product of engineering and mixing, but the horn tracks were apparently recorded just as a demo that happened to make the final cut, so I don't know how much engineering was feasible in that situation.
The horn section is admittedly a quite conspicuous element on this tune, but there are a lot of tasty tidbits hiding in other places. Two things caught my ear almost at the same time in the refrain during the second verse ("Who needs love..." starting around 1:30). One is the voicing of the bass part. The chord changes in the refrain are pretty simple: Bb/Bb/F/Gmin, repeated. And the bass part conforms to this exactly, hitting the root of each chord on each downbeat with a pickup leading into it. But instead of just parking on Bb and then going up a step from F to G, the bass jumps all over the place:
I especially like the third and fourth bars, as the bass jumps down nearly an octave rather than proceeding stepwise from F to G. This downward leap in place of an upward step in the bass is not a new invention; bass players have been using that gesture almost since they were let into the band, and it's not unusual to find whole pieces built around that motive. Nonetheless, it's an effective gesture here, one that gives this section a relaxed feel, setting it apart from the previous eight bars (which used the same chord changes but featured a stepwise ascent at the same point in the bass line) and making the entrance of the horns twelve bars later that much brasher.
The other thing that struck me during this refrain was part of Palmer's delivery. Not the notes she's singing, but rather the opposite: the breaths you can hear between notes (You can hear her breathing in several places throughout the song, but this is where I first noticed it). A classical singer would take great pains to hide her breathing, but Palmer's gasps are front and center. If she didn't want those breaths to be audible, they certainly could have gotten edited out, but they stayed in, and I think that was an excellent decision. Here, her frequent gasps -- every three or four notes, and it's not like they're particularly long notes -- highlight the desperation behind the speaker's denial. And, I have to admit, Palmer delivers the notes she sings quite splendidly as well. She claims to have been in "NO SHAPE to sing," (emphasis hers; scroll down past the first big group of pictures) and I can believe it, but I wouldn't want it any other way. She starts out as a smoky cabaret chanteuse and is practically screaming by the end, but it's so much more effective than a "properly" polished performance would have been. One of the many advantages singers in almost any pop genre have over classical is the infinitely wider range of "acceptable" vocal qualities. I don't mean that in the sense of "Bob Dylan can get away with sounding like Bob Dylan," but rather that it's perfectly normal -- and often desirable -- to sing roughly, to have more than one sound. Palmer gets a lot of different vocal colors on the other songs from her album, bringing more personality to those songs than any but the greatest opera singers can muster. Again, this is not unusual for singers of her ilk, but I am particularly fond of the colors she chose, even if she couldn't help it in this case. And I can't think of any other song that uses the singer's breathing to such effective ends off the top of my head (but "Runs in the Family" offers an interesting comparison; I think it's closer to indicating emotion rather than embodying it, but I do like it when Palmer's two parallel vocal tracks have breaths in different spots.
If I wanted to, I'm sure I could come up with an awful lot of things I think Palmer nails in "Leeds United," but I'm trying to cut down on the length of these posts. So let me just say that "Leeds United" has been running through my head an awful lot this week, and it rarely fails to bring a smile to my face. The fact that the video is a madcap rumpus doesn't hurt, either. And there's plenty to like in her other songs. "Astronaut" has a wonderfully varied accompaniment, ranging from ambient to driving to pointillistic. "Runs in the Family" scores major points with me for its Glassian touches, especially the ending. Presumably, some props go to producer Ben Folds on those tracks. "Guitar Hero" manages to seriously rock and haunt at the same time, and I'm quite taken with the melodic phrasing in "The Point of it All." A great album, and from a Boston artist to boot.
P.S.: Do you suppose "Guitar Hero" will make it into Rock Band? That'd be a good use of the irony I saved up at the beginning of this post. Given developer Harmonix's interest in local bands, I'd guess that the main thing keeping the Dresden Dolls out of their games has been the dearth of guitar-friendly songs. "Guitar Hero" is actually primarily synth-driven, with some guitar licks from East Bay Ray on top, but that's not such an obstacle for Harmonix, who have included songs by synthpop band Freezepop in all their games.
P.P.S.: There's one thing I forgot to mention in my previous post. Don't listen to Nancarrow while trying to solve crossword puzzles, sudoku, and the like. Sometimes I simply could not think straight enough to fill in the little boxes. Just so you know.
P.P.P.S.: I would also like to point out that the trombonists on the "Leeds United" video are rather brave for marching their horns through the midst of a food fight (3:50 to 4:00 -- it's a planned and presumably somewhat controlled food fight, but there are plenty of projectiles nonetheless) -- particularly the bass trombonist, (freeze it at 3:58) who has quite a nice instrument. I hope no trombones were harmed in the making of that video.
It has been far too long since I last posted. Basically, I was working on another Tuesday feature that was slated to appear back on November 4, but got caught up following the election returns. I do not deal with missed deadlines in a healthy manner, so it's taken me quite a while to suck it up and post. I do want to keep doing something like the Tuesday feature, but with a more flexible schedule. We'll see how that goes.
Posting here is not the only long overdue thing I've done recently. In the past week or so, I've also been patching up a couple of glaring gaps in my musical knowledge. For too long, the player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow and George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization have been on my radar, and I'm finally getting myself acquainted with them. How are those projects going? Well, I'm glad you asked.
Nancarrow's studies for player piano are one of the monolithic bodies of work in 20th-century music. Frustrated with the limitations of human performers and following a suggestion from Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources, Nancarrow purchased two player pianos and a machine for punching piano rolls and moved to Mexico City. There, he composed largely in isolation, and drew on the technical capabilities of the player piano to produce music of nearly unheard-of rhythmic and polyphonic complexity. Though Nancarrow received little recognition for his work through most of his lifetime, recordings in the 1970s brought his music to a wider audience, and other musicians realized the importance of his contributions. He was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1982, which enabled him to write new works for ensemble performance, but the player piano studies remain his most significant output.
I had known about Nancarrow's accomplishments for quite a while, and first encountered his music in 2001. I heard one of his early boogie-woogie-inspired works -- probably one of the movements of Study No. 3, but I don't remember precisely -- and I was astonished and overwhelmed by the sheer level of activity. It hit me pretty hard, but inexplicably I did not delve deeper into the studies. As my own compositional development progressed, I became more and more interested in exploring new rhythmic ideas. One of the most important ideas to come out of American classical music has been the use of rhythm, rather than harmony, as a primary organizational factor. I have gotten to be quite familiar with some of the most prominent sources of rhythmic innovation in American music -- jazz and rock and roll, minimalism, post-minimalism, and totalism -- but Nancarrow remained a glaring blind spot. So a few weeks ago, I finally acquired a recording of his music -- Other Minds' 4-CD rerelease of the 1750 Arch LP recordings from 1977.
Best Amazon gift card I ever spent. This music is nothing short of amazing. It's taken me over a week to get through all four CDs, as there's a limit to how much Nancarrow I can take in in one sitting, but that has been time well spent. His music has great appeal both viscerally and intellectually: it grabs you by the throat with torrents of scales and riffs, but while so held, you become aware of the many interrelationships between parts. At the same time, I find his music very personable: often, it sounds like something that I might pound out while noodling at the piano, if I had four extra hands and a commensurate increase in processor speed. I have to believe that Nancarrow was sometimes having a laugh as he wrote these studies; I can imagine him saying, "You think that was fast? Well, how about this!" The cartoonish absurdity of yet another tempo layer piled on top of an already turbulent maelstrom cannot have been lost on him, and he seems to have reveled in it. Just try listening to Study No. 29 without cracking a grin (or being driven crazy, I suppose):
Between the twittering sound effects and the precipitous acceleration in the last 30 seconds, it feels like the soundtrack to some bizarro Super Mario game. To me, anyway. I don't know if any of Nancarrow's ideas will insinuate themselves into my own music, but I'm grateful for his music all the same.
George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept is, for me, an exploration of a different sort. For all my years of training, my knowledge of contemporary music theory is not so great. I've never formally studied Schenker, Riemann, or Forte; I'm familiar with the basic ideas of each, but I don't think I could undertake an analysis of a composition through any of their means. Also, I don't need to know any of this theory to compose my music. Perhaps I will try to learn more about these subjects someday, but I don't feel any pressing need.
I do, however, feel a need to learn about the Lydian Chromatic Concept. While Schenker, Riemann, Forte, and others have certainly made important contributions to music theory, Russell's work has especial signifance, being perhaps the first codified theoretical framework to arise from the study of jazz, rather than predominantly European classical music. For that alone, the Lydian Chromatic Concept is vitally important if only for historical reasons. But it also seems to be vital for musical reasons; in a recent interview, composer and saxophonist Fred Ho called Russell the most innovative music theorist of the 20th century. With jazz being such a big influence on my own music, a theory of jazz, from jazz, and for jazz should practically be required reading. But somehow, the Lydian Chromatic Concept flew under my radar all through college and grad school; I'm pretty sure I had heard the name somewhere, but it didn't really stick. In fact, Russell's theory first really came to my attention when I was researching the musical history of the MacArthur fellowships -- I guess writing that article provided the spark for me to finally delve into both of the subjects of this current post. I had a friend check the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization out from Harvard's music library for me, and have been dipping my toe in.
I haven't gotten very far in yet. I'm sure Russell has a lot of valuable insights, but the first couple of chapters are giving me pause. Specifically, he offers a number of specious arguments in support of the idea that the Lydian mode, rather than the major scale, should be the basic mode of tonal organization. To wit:
But Russell's central argument for the primacy of the Lydian mode -- that the tonic of the Lydian mode lies at the bottom of the chain of fifths between its notes, while the tonic of the major scale is only the second-lowest note in the chain of fifths -- is sound, and would on its own provide sufficient justification for at least giving the theory firther consideration. More crucially, the central idea of the Lydian Chromatic Concept as a whole is not so much that the Lydian mode is the most important mode, but that jazz and other music may be analyzed as a progression of modes, rather than of chords, and that's an idea which I think is worth hearing out. I suspect it would do me some good to shake off my misgvings and read further; I have peeked at several pages later on in the book and it looks quite interesting. As with my plan to update this blog more frequently, we'll see how that goes.
This week, I continue my Tuesday feature series with a longtime favorite piece of mine, Music for Prague 1968 by Karel Husa. First, the basics: Music for Prague 1968, for symphonic band, was composed in the fall of 1968 by Karel Husa, a Czech composer living in America. The work is in four movements -- Introduction and Fanfare, Aria, Interlude, and Toccata and Chorale -- and a complete performance lasts 20 to 25 minutes. Movement 3, the Interlude, is scored for percussion only; the other movements all utilize the full band.
I have a strong personal connection to this piece, going back to my early musical development. My high school wind ensemble played Music for Prague during my junior year, and I rate our performance of the last two movements at our pre-festival concert as one of the most profound musical experiences I have had the fortune to participate in. Our full performance of Prague at our end-of-year concert was not as stirring; we did not have enough time to adequately work up the first two movements, and we got out of practice with the last two movements. Nevertheless, Music for Prague was among the pieces that inspired me to more seriously pursue music in general, and composition in particular, when I went off to college.
Not everybody in the wind ensemble shared my enthusiasm. Music for Prague is by no means an easy piece: it is one of the most technically difficult works in the band repertoire, and it is hardly ingratiating to the ears. Some of us reveled in the ear-splitting dissonances of the piece; our motto was "Prague is Power!" But an equally vocal contingent complained that this wasn't what music was supposed to be like. Music for Prague was so divisive that the yearbook article on the wind ensemble was entirely about the band's mixed opinions of the piece. But the starkest illustration of the difficulty of appreciating Music for Prague was the pre-festival concert I mentioned previously. We put together an amazing performance of the last two movements. Many of us held nothing back, and even those students who were less enthusiastic about Prague put in a great deal of effort. After the last notes of the closing chorale died away, the parents and family members in the audience responded with polite but clearly half-hearted applause. We followed that up with Who's Who in Navy Blue, a harmless little Sousa march notable only for the fact that we had the brass section sing the melody during the trio. And that brought the house down. I felt that Prague was by far the worthier performance of the two, but what do I know? Probably too much.
So Music for Prague was controversial, at least during my formative years. But that doesn't make it great. What makes it great for me? Well, aside from my personal history with the piece, there are several things:
Music for Prague is timely. It was written in response to the Soviet invasion of Prague following the Prague Spring, and the spectre of oppression which hangs over it has sadly remained all too relevant. If Music for Prague is dissonant, anguished, even violent, there is good reason for it. Music for Prague is a piece which decidedly exists in our world, rather than some fantasy world of motives and pitch relationships and rhythms which remains untroubled by reality. Of course, some people don't want that. I welcome it. Here, dense brass clusters herald the oppressive Soviet presence in the Fanfare section of the first movement.
Music for Prague uses its materials well. Most of the piece is atonal, deriving from twelve-tone rows and pitch-sets which are often cause for the audience to walk out before they hear anything. But it's not merely a theoretical exercise that requires a PhD to understand; while the harmonies and melodies may be completely foreign to most listeners, they are not the only expressive elements in the piece. The is a lot of content in the rhythms, melodic contours, registers, and timbres as well, and you don't need perfect pitch or a theory class to feel the impact of those elements. And Husa is adept at balancing simplicity and complexity. The opening piccolo solo of the first movement is markedly atonal, but also clearly evocative of birdsong, which Husa uses to represent the freedom which Prague has seldom enjoyed in its thousand-year existence:
And while the disjointed melodies, implacable dissonances, and obsessive rhythmic tattoos of the Toccata in the fourth movement create an unmistakable air of terror and confusion, the chorale that follows is even more gripping for its primal nature, featuring the 15th century Hussite anthem "Ye Warriors of God and His Law"1 symbolically rising over the tumult:
Music for Prague is an uncompromising piece for band. Concert bands gets a lot of flak from "serious" musicians, especially composers, for playing a lot of lightweight pieces. Bands definitely have one thing going for them: they play a lot of contemporary music, simply because there wasn't a lot of band music written before the 20th century.2 But many of the pieces that get a lot of play on the bandstand are certainly more conservative than their orchestral counterpoints (and far more conservative than contemporary chamber music, which is where the action's really at). But harmonically conservative -- that is to say, tonal and mostly consonant -- does not mean musically inferior. My favorite band pieces tend to be those that do not compromise artistic expression for accessibility, regardless of their harmonic language: Holst's Hammersmith, Hindemith's Konzertmusik, Joseph Schwantner's ...and the mountains rising nowhere, Ron Nelson's Passacaglia, and large portions of Grainger's and Persichetti's outputs number among them, as well as Music for Prague.
Concomitant with the uncompromising nature of Music for Prague is the fact that Husa treated the concert band as a fully independent and versatile ensemble, rather than a poor substitute for orchestra, or a halftime marching band that happens to be sitting down. Music for Prague was Husa's first composition for band, although you wouldn't know it from listening. He gets a lot of great sounds out of the ensemble, and makes good use of the band's unique assets, especially the low woodwinds. Husa subsequently made an orchestral arrangement of Music for Prague, because, in his words, "in Europe this piece wouldn't have been performed with band". Frank Oteri, who is famous for being one of the most open-minded listeners in all of music, thinks that "it is through the forces of a complete symphony orchestra that [this work attains its] fullest majesty, mystery, and universality,"3 but I have to disagree. In the opening of the second movement, the low woodwinds give a doom-laden sound to the wandering melody in the original version, while the cellos in the orchestral version sound petulant:
In the closing chorale of the final movement, it may be easier on the performers to transfer the trumpets' sustained high A to the violins, but it loses a lot of its immediacy:
There are many other moments where I strongly prefer the Eastman Wind Ensemble's recording to the Louisville Orchestra's, but these may be due to performance choices rather than the transcription itself: in the Louisville recording, I think the metallic percussion instruments are played too harshly, individual lines are singled out for undue prominence in some of the deliberately cacophonous sections, and when the full ensemble suddenly cuts out except for the ringing of the vibraphone, the effect is ruined by an excessive use of the vibraphone motor.
I in fact own four recordings of Music for Prague 1968, perhaps more versions than any other piece in my collection. In addition to the Eastman Wind Ensemble and the Louisville Orchestra, I also have recordings of my high school wind ensemble (with yours truly on the bass trombone, naturally) and the Duke Wind Symphony (before I joined, but in a performance conducted by Karel Husa himself). The Eastman Wind Ensemble gives a superior performance overall, and I fine the orchestral version superfluous on general principle, but the other two band recordings have their merits as well. The tympani are very prominent in Music for Prague, and I think my high school band offers the best rendition of the part -- we had an incredible tympanist, who was something of a cult figure in the band. And getting to hear Husa's own interpretation of Prague is quite a treat, though he makes some very interesting decisions -- he asks for the bass notes in the background of the opening of the second movement, which I believe are marked mezzo-piano (medium-soft) in the score, to be LOUD. Maybe he wanted the mood of the opening to be apocalyptic, rather than merely foreshadowing. Sadly, both of these recordings are on cassette, so I cannot share them with you. But I can share some more of the Eastman recording. I haven't yet featured any excerpts from the third movement, so here is the beginning of that Interlude:
In some ways, this may be the best place to approach Music for Prague if all the dissonance scares you. There is very little pitched material here, so one would be inclined to pay attention to those other musical elements I talked about: rhythm, contour, timbre, and density. And these are the sort of things that you should listen for in the other movements as well, even if you cannot make sense of the pitch content.
So I think there are several reasons why Music for Prague 1968 is a great piece. But there's an even simpler explanation for why I love it: I'm a bass trombonist, and I love getting to play something loud and raw. Some people like heavy metal, I like thorny classical music. As they say, "Prague is Power!"
And, for the curious, here's more information about the recordings I've cited.
Eastman Wind Ensemble Plays Husa, Copland, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, Eastman Wind Ensemble, Donald Hunsberger conducting. Recorded in 1989. CBS (now Sony), MK 44916.
Karel Husa: Music for Prague 1968, Apotheosis of this Earth, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester conducting. First Edition Music, FECD-0009. The CD appears to be unavailable, though mp3s can be purchased online.
The recordings by the Duke University Wind Symphony and the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Symphonic Wind Ensemble and not commercially available.
Well, I failed to get this posted on Tuesday by almost an hour, but at least it's a good bit shorter than last week's edition. See you next Tuesday!
1This song is widely recognized by Czechs, and is prominently featured in at least two other Czech nationalist works: Smetana's Ma Vlast and Dvořák's Hussite Overture.
2Although many band directors make up for this deficiency by programming a fair number of transcriptions of orchestral classics. I think that a reliance on orchestral transcriptions delegitimizes the existing band repertoire, sending the message that all the good music was written for orchestra. Of course, I don't really see the dearth of the three B's in the band world as a problem, so my opinion on this matter, as with Music for Prague 1968, may be an outlier.
3Quoted from the liner notes to the album Karel Husa: Music for Prague 1968 and Apotheosis of this Earth.
For a while, I've been meaning to have a semi-regular feature on this blog, where I take a look at a particular piece of music and try to tell you what makes it important to me. I'll be tackling a wide range of music: my own compositions and works by other artists; pieces you might not have heard before and pieces that are probably familiar to you. I'll also try to keep up a schedule of at least one featured piece per week, ideally on Tuesdays.
Why Tuesday? Well, partly because of the piece I'm featuring to kick off this series: my composition Fanfare for Tuesday, for solo trombone. And why is it called Fanfare for Tuesday? Well, I started writing the piece on Tuesday, April 8th of this year, and finished it the next day. And I think Fanfare for Wednesday would be an inferior title; don't you agree? By now you're probably wondering what this fanfare sounds like. Well, look no further:
So what's special about this little fanfare? Well, for me, it represents an important step in exploring a more plastic conception of rhythm. To further explain what I mean, I want to first look at the way musicians learn about rhythm in the Western notated music tradition. Note the use of the word "notated" in the previous sentence: not only do I wish to differentiate notated musical traditions (a.k.a. "classical music") from primarily oral/aural musical traditions ("folk music"), but I specifically wish to draw attention to the way that the notation itself has come to shape our conception of rhythm.
At the lowest level of rhythmic organization1, we have conceptual units which are typically called "beats" and "pulses" (for now, I am ignoring higher-level conceptual units like measures and phrases). Now, what do I mean by beats and pulses? Well, it's hard to explain a priori without falling into some sort of circular definition. Peter Westergaard gives an excellent explanation of rhythmic organization at all conceptual levels in chapters 7 and 8 of An Introduction to Tonal Theory, but I don't have the time or space to do him justice here. However, I can give some illustrative examples. In general, beats are what conductors are ostensibly2 demarcating when they are marking time; they are the units which a marching band will be in step with; they are the points in time that you would typically accentuate with your movements when dancing along to music. (One caveat: musicians use "beat" to denote three different things: a durational unit spanning two points in time, a single point of time which is the onset of that durational unit, or the grid of durational units or points in time generated by the individual beats. I will not attempt to explicitly indicate which sense of "beat" I am using at any given time. You have been warned.) Pulses, in turn, are a more-or-less even subdivision of the beat; the pulse typically corresponds to the shortest note-values used in a given piece, and governs the length of most longer note-values as well. Confused? Well, it's time for our music lessons.
Of course, just as kindergarteners do not start learning math through axiomatic set theory, beginning music students do not start out with such a general concept of rhythm. What they first learn is that beats can be broken down into pulses through binary subdivisions. For example, a quarter-note beat can be divided in two, generating an underlying eighth-note pulse:
Those eighth notes could be further subdivided in two to create a sixteenth-note pulse, now with four pulses for every quarter-note beat:
Our notational system is designed around this idea of binary subdivision, so written note values and sounding beats and pulses seem to go hand in hand. But soon, we learn that beats and pulses do not have to be related strictly through binary subdivisions. Hearkening back to our first example, we could have that same quarter-note beat subdivided into three equal parts, which we notate as triplet eighth notes:
Conversely, we could instead maintain the eighth-note pulse of the first example, and group them in threes to create a beat of dotted quarter notes:
At this point, a sufficiently clever observer might ask, "What's the difference between these last two examples? Sure, the beats and pulses in the second mp3 are slower, but can't we control the tempo [i.e., the overall speed of the music, often measured in beats per minute] as well? If you increase the tempo of Example 4 by 50%, isn't the second half aurally indistinguishable from Example 3?" And, to a degree, they have a valid point: if you have a steady beat with a steady underlying ternary pulse, and can set the tempo as you desire, then the only difference the quarter-note/triplet-eighth-note notation and the dotted-quarter-note/eighth-note notation is a psychological effect on the performer, which may affect the performance but theoretically should not. However, this only applies when the beat and the subdivision of the beat are both steady, which brings us to our next level of rhythmic and notational complexity: the beat and/or pulse do not have to be steady. We can, for example, have a steady quarter-note beat which is alternately subdivided into two or three parts, for a pulse which shifts between eighth notes and triplet eighth notes:3
Or we can have a steady eighth-note pulse which is alternately grouped in twos and threes, for a beat alternating between quarter notes and dotted quarter notes:
These last two examples are in fact quite different; there is no way that we can uniformly speed up one of the examples to exactly match the other. And we've only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible when we allow the beat and/or pulse to change. For example, we could allow both the beat and the pulse to shift at different points in time:
Or they can both be shifting at the same time:
Or they can get even weirder:
And we've still only considered binary and ternary subdivisions of the beat. We can throw in higher subdivisions, like a quinternary subdivision of quarter notes into quintuplet sixteenth notes:
However, when we start with a constant pulse and create groupings of more than three pulses at once, we usually perceive the beat as some intermediate (and possibly irregular) grouping of 2s and 3s, so we haven't opened up many new possibilities in that direction.
Now, I have been talking about triplets and quintuplets, and showing examples of them in action, but what do we mean by "tuplets" in general? A tuplet is usually thought of as a (non-binary) grouping of notes which occupies the same amount of time as one of the basic note values. What's a triplet eighth note? Well, 3 of them together are exactly as long as a quarter note. And what's a septuplet thirty-second note? 7 of them together are as long as an eight note. For many musicians, even those who are familiar with a good bit of the contemporary repertoire, this is the full extent of their trained understanding of tuplets, and taken together with the ideas introduced in the preceeding paragraphs, may be a decent summary of their full conception of notated rhythm. But to get to Tuesday, we need to go a couple of steps further.
So far, we've been looking at tuplets as subdivisions of basic binary note values. But do we always have to start with basic binary note values? What if we want to have, say, five tuplet eighth notes which occupy the space of a dotted quarter note? (note: a single dot adds 50% to the length of a note) Well, there are at least two widely used ways of notating this. One way is to explicitly specify, as part of the tuplet marking, (which ordinarily consists of a number, indicating the number of durational units grouped together, and an optional bracket demarcating the particular notes which fall into that grouping) the note value which is equal to the length of the whole tuplet together. So, for five tuplet eighth notes in the space of a dotted quarter note:
The other option is to think about this tuplet in terms of its constituent units, which are notionally eighth notes. A dotted quarter note is equal to three eighth notes, so we have five tuplet eighth notes in the space of three eighth notes. Five in the space of three. We can express this as a ratio:
In either notational convention, we may choose to omit the extra details (the note value in the first convention, the denominator of the ratio in the second example) if the tuplet is a division of a basic note value like a quarter note or half note, but if the duration of your tuplet groupings is constantly changing, you're better off overnotating in this case. I personally prefer to use ratios when applicable, but that's mostly just an aesthetic preference. Either way, when you throw in the idea that tuplets don't have to add up to basic binary note values, you reach the limit of rhythmic understanding for many experienced performers of contemporary music, and also you have the tools for understanding nearly everything I have written prior to Fanfare for Tuesday.4 But we're not done yet.
All this time, we've been treating tuplets as groupings of notes. Recall:
What's a triplet eighth note? Well, 3 of them together are exactly as long as a quarter note.
In my answer, I assiduously avoided talking about an individual triplet eighth note. Of course, from the definition I gave, it is immediately clear that a single triplet eighth note is one-third of the length of a quarter note. But the way we are trained to think about rhythm, that's not how we're supposed to think of it. A triplet eighth note is supposed to be part of, well, a triplet. They're like quarks; you don't encounter triplet eighth notes in isolation, only "bound" in a group of three triplet eighth notes.5 And there are reasonable justifications for thinking about tuplets as groupings: for example, the way most people perceive time, the easiest way to conceive of a timespan which is one-third as long as a given time-span is to divide that longer time-span into three equal pieces.
But why does it have to be that way? Once we get used to playing triplets and other tuplets, it becomes easier to conceptualize a single triplet eighth note in isolation. Why not just say that a triplet eighth note is one-third as long as a quarter note? Or, since a quarter note is twice as long as an eighth note, say that a triplet eight note is two-thirds as long as an eighth note? In fact, we can generalize: a single triplet of any note value is two-thirds as long as the original note value. For the more mathematically-inclined of you, we might even think of the "triplet" as an operator, which multiplies the length of a note by 2/3. And in general, the "tuplet" operator multiplies the length of a given note by some specific ratio. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to use ratios when writing complicated tuplets: in a "5:3" tuplet, each note is 3/5 as long as its normal value, and so on.
And now that we have a way to think about individual tuplets, why don't we treat them as individual notes? Why should triplet eighth notes always have to come in threes? What if I only want two triplet eighth notes, followed by some binary note values or even a different tuplet? Or, to borrow some terminology from computer programming, why can't we treat tuplets as first-class objects? Well, for the most part, it's just been a convention to treat tuplets as second-class objects, only found in groupings of a particular size. As I said, our system of notation is centered around binary subdivisions. And in tying music instruction so closely to notation, it usually gets taken for granted that your tuplets are going to fall into groupings which are temporally equal to an integer multiple of some binary subdivision of the basic note values. Sometimes, it is even perceived as a part of the musical syntax: a grouping of only two triplet eighth notes is considered an error, like a sentence fragment or an unclosed HTML tag.7
But in automatically labelling such notations as ill-formed, we are completely ignoring the concepts of beat and pulse which the notation is supposed to support. Let's think about what a grouping of two triplet eighth notes means, from the perspective of beats and pulses. We might start with a steady beat that is subdivided into two equal parts (quarter-note beat, eighth-note pulse). Then, while keeping the beat steady, we shift to a subdivision of three pulses per beat (quarter-note beat, triplet-eighth-note pulse). Then, while keeping this new pulse steady, we shift the beat to a grouping of two pulses (triplet-eighth-note pulse, triplet-quarter-note beat). If all of the previous examples of shifting the beat and the pulse around have been clear, then this should be pretty clear as well. And, if you're sufficiently comfortable switching between various note/beat groupings in your head, then going from quarter-note/eighth-note to triplet-quarter-note/triplet-eighth-note and back should be the most natural thing in the world. At least, it's natural to me, and I know I'm not the only one. Switching gears between different beat/pulse groupings in simple-but-not-necessarily-binary ratios is absolutely essential to performing a wide swath of music in the Minimalist family tree, for example, all the way from Philip Glass to Michael Gordon.
Now, we do have to take some care in our treatment of tuplets as first-class objects. Henry Cowell was among the first to explore this possibility, writing at length about the idea in New Musical Resources. He developed an alternate notation for individual tuplets which allowed them to be used with nearly complete freedom: a triplet eighth note might be followed by a quintuplet sixteenth note, and then two septuplet eighth notes. But few if any musicians could be expected to accurately perform such a passage without extensive study or mechanical assistance, and as a result, much of the music that further explores these rhythmic possibilities has been intended strictly for mechanized performance, like Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies and Kyle Gann’s Disklavier studies.
But I'm a human, and I tend to write music to be performed by humans like me, so I can't go to the outer limits of Cowell's insights. Instead, I need to keep the underlying beats and pulses in mind when I write. Isolated tuplets with constantly changing denominators are unfeasible for performance, but groupings of tuplets – complete or incomplete – with denominators that vary among only a handful of small numbers are much easier to handle. After all, they're just different groupings of pulses that we already recognize. And this is what goes on in Fanfare for Tuesday. At the beginning, I work with a steady quarter-note beat, which is variously subdivided into two, three, four, or five pulses. Once these subdivisions have had a chance to sink in, I start playing around with the groupings. At first I only play around with different groupings of the binary subdivisions -- the eighth notes and sixteenth notes. But then I introduce groupings of two or four triplet eighth notes. I don't go so far as to incorporate incomplete groupings of quintuplets as well, though I reserve the right to add a few of those in a later revision. Or to use them in a separate piece.
Put more simply, Fanfare for Tuesday explores some of the rhythmic possibilities that open up when you allow your beats and pulses to shift between multiple disparate yet logical and palpable groupings. While the listener may not be able to precisely identify the triplets and quintuplets when listening in the moment, I think the gist of these relationships is recognizable, and the details could be teased out through repeated close listenings: "Well, I can tell that there are “short” notes and “shorter” notes, and they seem to line up with the bigger notes somehow...oh, three of the “short” notes are as long as one of the “big” notes, which is also as long as five of the “shorter” notes. And over here there are more of the “short” notes, but they're not in a group of three...there are actually four notes there, and then we go back to the “shorter” notes..." Even without being aware of the precise numbers involved, I think the experience is like a sort of bizarre bicycle ride: you start off pedaling at a certain pace in a certain gear, and then you start changing gears and/or pace. Sometimes, when you change from a lower gear to a higher gear, you slow down your pace of pedaling by a similar factor so that the actual speed of the bike stays constant. Other times when you change gears, you keep pedaling at the same pace, so the speed of the bike suddenly increases by that same factor. And once you've gotten used to the different gears and paces and speed, you start mixing them up even more freely. Only you're not really in control of all these changes; I'm the one who's inflicting them on you.
Now, Fanfare for Tuesday is not the first time I've played around with shifting beats and pulses: in pieces like Trinkle Dance and Recombinant, I wind up shifting gears quite a bit. But whenever I shifted gears, I hewed to the binary-centric paradigm imposed by the notation. If I went from a quarter-note beat to a triplet-quarter-note-beat and back again, the number of triple-quarter-note beats would always be a multiple of three. But when I opened the door to allow incomplete tuplets in, I did more than elevate those tuplets to the status of first-class notational objects: I could now treat all imaginable beat/pulse groupings as first-class musical objects. In so doing I wound up transcending a barrier that I hadn't even been aware of in previous compositions, because I was letting the notation guide my ideas rather than the other way around.
Of course, this is all (comparatively) easy for me to say in retrospect. I did not specifically set out to subvert my dominant rhythmic paradigm when I started writing Fanfare for Tuesday, neither did I arrive at the idea of using incomplete tuplets sheerly through my own inspiration. I just started off writing an innocuous little fanfare, inspired by the penetrating sound of the muted trombone. And when I started out, everything fell neatly into a quarter-note grid. But at some point, I the music I imagined involved two triplet eighth notes followed by a larger note, and rather than simply completing the triplet with a third eighth note tied to the longer note, I decided to see leave the triplet incomplete. My decision to do so, furthermore, was informed by a couple of then-recent posts by Kyle Gann about incomplete tuplets and their implications, and enabled by Darcy James Argue's post explaining how to make the notation work in Finale.8
In many ways, Fanfare for Tuesday wound up being an ideal vehicle for trying out some of these new ideas about rhythm. With the sort of fanfare I was writing, I could stick to fairly simple melodic ideas – lots of repeated pitches, or alternation between two or three pitches – which made it easier to put my focus on rhythmic invention, much like the Michael Gordon excerpts that Kyle Gann cites. And writing for solo trombone freed me from worrying about the relationship of multiple parts, and also allowed me to write without regard for time signature. One of the corollaries of the assumption that tuplets must always occur in complete groups is that the time signature – which tells you how long each measure is, and the organization of the beats and pulses to some degree – should always have a denominator which is a power of 2: 4/4, 3/2, 6/8. Incomplete tuplets can break this rule: Kyle Gann's I'itoi Variations have time signatures like 2/3, 5/6, and 7/12. And many musicians will balk at that. Quite often, if you take a professional musician and put music written in 13/32 or 41/16 in front of them, they'll roll their eyes but figure out how to play it. But give them something with a few bars of 5/6 – a much simpler fraction – and they may flatly insist that it is impossible. Even when they are accepted, such time signatures are often called "irrational," which is horribly inaccurate. I call them "non-dyadic" time signatures, since fractions with a power of two in the denominator are referred to as dyadic rationals. But no time signature? No problem, as long as you don't have to sync up with anyone else.
You may have noticed that, ever since I started talking about incomplete tuplets, I have not included any score examples. That is because, as I alluded to above, incomplete tuplets are difficult (but not impossible) to notate in Finale. I'll gladly go through that kind of effort to get what I want in my compositions, but I didn't think it was worth it for the purposes of a few illustrative examples. But now I can show you some incomplete tuplets in action, by giving you the score to Fanfare for Tuesday:
I've held off so long on giving you the score because I wanted to explain the ideas behind this piece, in terms of both rhythmic conception and notation, before having you make sense of the notation. I suggest you try to follow along in the score while listening to the recording. I'll try to give you a few guideposts:
And that’s Fanfare for Tuesday. There are just a couple of more things I want to say before I let you go. First of all, I want to point out that all of the discussion of rhythm above, both in general and in Tuesday, have been solely concerned with horizontal relations – that is, relations between successive points in time – in a monorhythmic context. Not surprisingly, there are many more options for rhythmic complexity when you have more than one simultaneous rhythmic line. Earlier works like Trinkle Dance and Recombinant may sound more complex – and they probably are – because of these polyrhythmic relationships.
And lastly, I would like to apologize for going on so long. If you made it this far, you no doubt spent significantly more time reading this explanation than you did listening to Fanfare for Tuesday, and I probably spent more time writing this than I did composing Tuesday in the first place. But in trying to explain why this little piece was so significant to me, I had to summarize the past 20 years of my experience in learning a tradition of notated music spanning over 500 years, so I guess 5,000 words isn’t too bad in that context. In any event, I promise that next Tuesday’s feature will not be nearly so wordy.
1It may be argued that there is a lower conceptual level, consisting of the absolute and relative durations of individual sonic events, which our brains perceive to a certain degree of accuracy. However, I do not consider this an organizational level of rhythm, or more properly, I consider to be on the level of sound rather than music, at least for the purposes of this discussion.
2This is not meant to be a slur against conductors. In top-level orchestras, the primary function of the conductor is not to mark time but to indicate subtler details like shadings of volume, attack, and other elements which create the "character" of a musical passage, beyond what is strictly notated in the score. The musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra are quite capable of keeping time on their own, for the most part.
3Usually, this does not actually indicate a change in the pulse. In most cases, one of the two subdivisions would predominate and we would perceive a steady pulse which is temporarily displaced by the other subdivision, but if multiple subdivisions appear consistently and regularly throughout the work, (as they do in Fanfare for Tuesday, not coincidentally) then we might perceive a constantly shifting pulse.
3The other tool you need to understand a very small amount of my pre-Tuesday music is that tuplets can be nested: you might start with a group of triplet quarter notes -- three of them in the space of a half note -- and then replace one of those notional quarter notes with three triplet eighth notes. It looks something like this:
5Or in a grouping with other note values6 (quarters, sixteenths, etc.) which together add up to the same length as three notional eighth notes:
6Or rests with the same note values, for that matter.
7The sentence fragment is the better analogy of the two. After all, people utter sentence fragments all the time, and we have no trouble figuring out what they mean. And the concept that incomplete tuplets represent is, at least to me, as natural as a sentence fragment, as explained in the succeeding paragraph.
8Actually, my initial draft was in pencil, so getting the notation right was easy-peasy. But I then needed to get the score into Finale for editing and publishing.