Music

Canon #93, Meteorite

I’m pleased to share Canon 93, “Meteorite.”

When I listen to this piece I can imagine a collage of scenes where we see, in one moment, a meteor traveling rapidly through space against a backdrop of stars and planets, and in another moment, the meteor ensconced on Earth, where it’s been sitting for hundreds or thousands years, with vegetation growing around it, as a group of humans discovers it and tries in vain to dislodge it and see what’s underneath. This imagery came to me after I had finished composing the piece, while I was trying to choose a name for it. The piece itself is not intentionally programmatic – each passage was not designed to represent a specific moment in a meteor’s journey – but the more I experiment with this imagery after the fact, the more it seems to click.

My canons are named after gems and minerals – is “meteorite” one of those things? Well, people do make cool jewelry from meteorites, and one can find “meteorite” listed in gemstone glossaries, even though the term does not refer to one specific substance. One of my earlier canons – so far my only one to explore an alternate tuning system – is called Chondrite and that’s a specific category of meteorite. One of the little things I go through in naming my pieces is to question whether a new name should be off limits because I’ve already used a related name. But I have a piece named Quartz and a piece named Amethyst and I consider that situation to be fine even though amethyst is a kind of quartz (yet the pieces themselves aren’t closely related). So I decided it’s also fine to name the current piece Meteorite – I really like this name – even though I’ve already used Chondrite and the two pieces aren’t closely related except for the fact that I consider them both to have elements of “weirdness,” the quality of being “far-out,” irregular, or unconventional in relation to my other pieces.

The seeds of this piece were created back at the beginning of May, when I started a long series of experiments with retrograde imitation. I would write a theme, then reverse it and superimpose it upon itself, trying different vertical and horizontal skews until something provocative emerged. In my early experiments, I worked with themes that had some element of disorder: that’s to say, they avoided a clear tonal center and a recognizable pulse. In some cases the melodic contour was jagged, eschewing a sense of line. I became fascinated by the way I could take these short, irregular themes and turn them into canons in a way that either magnified or reduced the sense of disorder. On the one hand, I could make an irregular theme sound even more chaotic and unpredictable by placing it into a canon, and then I could repeat the canon again and again with various adjustments to the vertical and horizontal skews between the parts. I could do this in a way that created sustained mayhem. You could listen to the result and never guess that it had been constructed systematically through the repetition of short unit. You might assume something new was happening at each moment. On the other hand, I could take an irregular theme and turn it into a canon that sounded clearer, more cohesive, more goal-directed than either part by itself. Assuming it was possible to displace the parts rhythmically in a way that avoided shared hits, the result might sound like a single, through-composed line, not like a canon at all. And then by varying the vertical skew between the parts, I could create many different versions of that same line, each with a distinct character, and yet each fundamentally linked to the others.

So, starting this past Spring, I began amassing dozens of retrograde canons that explored these two different extremes, using the canon process to increase the order or magnify the disorder inherent in a theme. At some point in my experiments, I changed course. I moved away from tonally ambiguous themes with unstable rhythms and started to focus on simple ideas using pentatonic scales and regular rhythms. From this later, more tuneful material, I created Canon 92, “Ammolite.” After finishing work on Canon 92 in early August I went back to my earlier non-tonal material and forged it into Canon 93. The two pieces are connected in that they emerged from the same series of experiments, and they’re both large-scale works made of many short retrograde canons woven together. They’re different in the tonal and rhythmic material they use and the aesthetic goals they pursue.

My canons always benefit from interpretation by a skilled performer — the same is true of any music — but I think many of my canons can still be understood – if not fully enjoyed – by listening to how a computer “plays” them. But Canon 93 is one piece where the computer-generated preview leaves much to be desired. That’s because the more chaotic sections in the piece are actually full of short gestures that can be heard as distinct phrases, but the phrase boundaries can be easy to miss if the performance doesn’t emphasize them. In working with this material over several months, I’ve learned to hear these phrases (i.e. my ear has learned to parse them), and so even when I listen to the more wild or disorderly parts of the piece, everything makes “sense” to me, so much so that I’m not sure I’d even call these sections wild or disorderly anymore. Without a performer to elucidate the phrases (or without a lot of MIDI editing on my part) some sections of the computer-generated preview might sound much more chaotic or confusing than I actually intend them to be.

I’ve used the word “chaos” a lot so I should say something about chaos as an aesthetic goal. There is art out there that seeks to challenge the listener by making him or her feel disoriented, overwhelmed, or confused. This has never been my goal for an entire piece though I’m becoming increasingly interested in how this goal can be pursued at the scale of an individual passage, as a way of creating contrast within a piece. In Meteorite, I often use a more chaotic passage as a kind of preparation, a way of leading into a more cohesive or tightly organized passage, so that when the cohesion arrives it can be perceived as such. I’m also interested in the idea of presenting material that sounds chaotic and then repeating the material enough that the listener can become familiar with it and begin to perceive an organizing principle within it. For me, the goal of a “difficult” passage is not to prevent the listener from perceiving a pattern or organizing principle, but simply to delay this perception so that when it arrives it can be experienced as a kind of revelation.

Some miscellaneous notes about the piece:

The ethos is similar to my earlier pieces Thulite and Thorite but those pieces don’t use retrograde imitation. And where Thorite and Thulite used the octatonic scale as a tonal framework, Meteorite makes full use of the chromatic scale without any specific framework in mind. One technical similarity between Meteorite and the earlier pieces is that they all avoid shared hits – the voices are staggered in a such a way that they never play together on the same beat, except for in certain special passages. I find that the consistent avoidance of shared hits is a feature that can add a kind of suspense (as in a tightrope walk), and a sense of order or intentional design to a piece, particularly a piece that doesn’t employ tonal hierarchies to gain these same qualities.

A few of the passages in this piece combine mirror inversion along with retrograde (e.g. the opening and closing passages), but the majority use retrograde only. As with Ammolite, the parts are often placed close together vertically in such a way that they cross, creating emergent themes and/or fusing into a unified line.

Some of the themes in this piece function almost like lego pieces: they may be presented first as discrete units, and later placed side by side in such a way that one flows directly into another, so they “snap together” into a new, longer phrase that is heard as a single unit.

One can view the piece as consisting of three sections with no pauses between them. The first section introduces lots of ideas and sets up contrasts between them. The statements in the first section tend to be shorter and more discrete and they are often arranged in a question-and-answer fashion. Midway through the piece, we enter the second section. This is where lines start to flow in a smother and more extended way. Some of the material here brings to my mind a jazz saxophonist playing long bebop lines, or a Baroque performer riffing on the organ, though of course the musical language of the piece is different from either of those styles. This second section is where we experience the greatest sense of cohesion, fluidity, and rhythmic energy in the piece. Finally the second section gives way to a third section that mostly reprises material from the first. Some of the more chaotic content from the first section is restated with some variations, representing a dissolution or breakdown of the coherence that had come to being in the second section. Only one new theme is introduced here, a plaintive tune that occupies only a few bars in between restatements of earlier material. The piece ends with the same rushing lines that opened the first section (I think of these lines as representing the meteor in flight) but the vertical displacements between the parts are changed and now the lines begin with a prefix — an extra bar of jagged material — that lets us perceive the line as a progression from jagged to smooth, finally ending on a single target note. Although the piece does not aim to establish a tonal center — in fact, it aims to prevent any candidate tonal center from lasting too long — it is hoped that the last note in the piece sounds “right” in a way that any other of the twelve pitches would not, there must be implicit tonal hierarchies at play.

At roughly eleven minutes, Meteorite happens to be my longest piece so far. It forms a trio with its predecessors Birdsong and Ammolite, which are also extended works made from many short canonic passages. Those two pieces are long too, in comparison to my other canons, but for me they move forward in a way that seems almost expeditious, whereas Meteorite demands my attention in a way that makes me feel I’ve spent quite some time in a labyrinth before I find my way or am delivered out. It’s a piece that I’m still learning to hear, and as I come to know it better and better, it doesn’t seem quite as long as it once did; I wouldn’t want it to be shorter.

Music

Canon #92, Ammolite

Canon 92 is a major effort of mine that’s been in the works for three months — my summer of 2021. I named it “Ammolite” which is an iridescent rainbow-colored gemstone made from fossils of the extinct ammonite mollusk. For me, Canon 92 is indeed a rainbow of moods and feelings, arranged in a kind of kaleidoscopic pattern such as we might see in an ammolite gem itself:

There are three important technical elements at play in this piece. First, retrograde imitation is used exclusively. This means that the follower always plays a backwards or reversed version of the leader’s material (with a rhythmic skew and vertical displacement that changes from passage to passage). Second, all the themes are made from scales with five or fewer notes. Most of the themes are in the familiar major and minor pentatonic scales, but some themes use scales with as few as three notes. (I should mention that even in these three-note passages, the listener might hear four or more distinct pitches because the two voices may be playing in a different transposition of the three-note scale.) Third, the voices overlap extensively, to the point that they sometimes lose their individual identities and fuse into an emergent or compound melody. This fusion is an intentional aspect of the piece’s design, beginning with the opening passage which sounds like a single voice even though it’s formed from two.

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Food

Falatfel

All right, here’s my second ultra-simple recipe of the pandemic, following Heavenly Toast. It can be dinner, or a satisfying snack, in 10 minutes. My partner and I call it “Falatfel” because it’s sort of like a “flat falafel” except it really isn’t, but the name stuck for us. This similarity between this recipe and actual falafel is that they’re both made from fried chickpea batter, though here we’re making the batter from chickpea flour only (not whole chickpeas) and we’re lightly frying the batter in a skillet like a pancake instead of deep frying it. This recipe is actually closer to the chickpea pancake that is known as socca in France or farinata in Italy, where it is particularly popular in towns along the Ligurian sea.

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Music

Canon #91, Birdsong

My latest canon takes inspiration from birdsong. It’s my first canon that refers to a sound-world outside itself, and at over six minutes, it’s also my longest canon so far. It’s able to be long because it’s not a single continuous canon but rather a montage of over twenty-five canonic episodes, each one attempting to capture something that I’ve heard in the universe of bird vocalizations. Each episode is a strict inversion canon, where the follower moves in the opposite direction from leader, and most episodes are what I might call “rapid-fire” canons where the follower enters very quickly after the leader. The piece doesn’t have an plot per se, but among the canons I’ve written, it’s the one that might be the most suggestive or accommodating of a plot. It was particularly fun to write, and I’m particularly excited to share it:

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Life

Thank You, 2020!

There is no question that 2020 was a wretched year for so many people who fell ill with COVID, or lost a loved one to the disease, or lost their livelihood because of it, or suffered from the isolation and loneliness brought on by physical distancing. It was a plague year, and there are many reasons to wish it good riddance. In solidarity with all those who suffered so greatly in 2020, I feel reluctant to say anything good about the year. But when I reflect on all the fears that overtook me in March, I see that none of them came to pass, so I’ve come to think of 2020 as a merciful year.

Back in March I expected that I’d get COVID sooner or later, and so would many of my friends and family members, and in the coming months I’d witness some of them die. I know that these fears of illness and death came true for many people in 2020, but for me they didn’t. As I listened to the news each morning with continuing alarm, hearing that cases were rising, rising, rising everywhere, such an explosion was not mirrored in my own social circle: I know one person who caught the disease and recovered; everyone else in my network stayed healthy in 2020. It’s not fair that some people have the resources to protect themselves from this disease while others do not. But while we should be upset at the social inequities that lead to disparate health outcomes, we can also feel a bit of gratitude that COVID turned out to be more preventable than we initially feared. Back in March it seemed that COVID was an inscrutable and invincible monster. Of course, there are people who took all possible precautions in 2020 and still caught COVID – and there are many whose living situation or occupation or economic circumstances made those precautions impossible. But on the whole, COVID turned out to be a disease that we can avoid by wearing masks and staying apart. That’s better than it seemed in the early days, when we were told that masks couldn’t protect us, and when there were fears that COVID could come in the mail, that we had to disinfect every item that came into our house, that we should shower after going outside, that maybe a neighbor could pass the disease to us through a crack in a shared wall, and so on.

Back in March it wasn’t clear that a vaccine for COVID could ever be developed, and if it could, the experts told us, we might have years to wait. But by the end of the year, several vaccine candidates had been proven effective. Remarkable!

Back in March there was talk of the medical system collapsing, and how care might need to be rationed. If you got sick, they said on the news, there might be no bed for you in the hospital, or no ventilator, or no expert to operate it. Though I didn’t need to see a doctor in those early months, I worried about what might happen if I lost a dental filling that had given me trouble before. Would the dentist see me? And if so, would I be risking my life by going to the office? A few months later, the situation looked very different: with the proper precautions in place, it seemed that routine medical and dental care could be practiced safely. In September, I went in for a regular cleaning without incident, awestruck by normality having my teeth cleaned just like in pre-COVID times. There’s no doubt that healthcare workers were stressed to the breaking point in 2020 and the system struggled with unprecedented challenges — it almost fell down — but the sort of catastrophic collapse that some predicted back in March did not come to pass.

Back in March, it was hard to find toilet paper anywhere in physical stores or online. I tried to order rice and it was sold out everywhere. Rice! I feared that this was just the beginning of what would be a widespread breakdown of global supply chains. In the coming months, I expected I’d have to adapt to a totally different life, one without all of the products and services I had come to take for granted. I’d get a taste of the scarcity that is the norm for so many around the globe. And I’m sure there were many “preppers” who thought their time in the sun had finally come. But while shortages of toilet paper and rice were reminders of our dependency on intricate, precarious, and arguably destructive economic systems, these shortages did not persist or expand in 2020. Toilet paper returned to the shelves in due time. Supermarkets remained open throughout. The status quo resumed.

Back in March, the stock market crashed. There were days when trading was halted on the New York Stock Exchange because prices were dropping too fast. Some of us who fear that the global economy is a house of cards jumped to the conclusion that perhaps it was finally crumbling down. Despite said fear, I had invested my life savings in the market and now I thought I’d see those savings evaporate. But several months later, the market came roaring back, proving either that it is totally disconnected from reality, or that in reality, people were still buying and selling things just as they always had.

Back in March, I feared that the 2020 presidential election in the US would solidify the country’s descent into kleptocracy, autocracy, science-rejection, climate-change-denial, nepotism, insanity, or however you want characterize it, but what happened instead is that we got a bit of a reprieve from that descent.

So when I think of it this way: COVID turned out to be more preventable than we thought, a vaccine came much more quickly than we thought, the medical system and economy turned out to be more resilient than we thought, and the US political system didn’t veer into outright autocracy, I have to conclude that most everything about 2020 came out much better than I expected it to.

So, thank you, 2020! While you were a challenging year for all, and a miserable year for many, you were also a merciful year, considering how much worse you might have been. You made us fear the worst on all fronts but you left us with hope.

Music

Canon #90, Thorite

Announcing Canon #90, “Thorite.”

This piece is a sequel to Canon #89, “Thulite” — I chose the name “Thorite” simply because it’s another mineral beginning with “th.”

Like its predecessor, this piece uses the octatonic or diminished scale. The articulation is staccato, and the voices almost never coincide. Each voice speaks in the pauses and gaps left by the other voice. Sometimes these gaps are between phrases (creating a sense that the voices are “taking turns”) and other times they’re within a phrase (creating a sense that the voices are speaking over one another).

This framework (octatonic scale, staccato articulation, no shared hits) allows for a good amount of freedom in composition. I found that I didn’t need to micromanage the intervallic relationships between voices in the same way that’s necessary with other canons. There’s one exception. I tried to keep the voices from playing the same pitch in direct succession, because the sound of an octave (even if staggered) is distinct enough that the listener might expect it to have some special meaning; if no special meaning is found, the experience is slightly disappointing. Other than avoiding octaves, I could pretty much let the voices flow according to their own whims without having to plan their vertical relationship on a note-by-note basis. This meant that I felt comfortable writing the piece from beginning to end without going through my typical iterative outlining process.

One thing I loved about writing this piece is the way it all grew from the material in the first twelve bars. In writing those first twelve bars, I kept facing the challenge of inventing new material — pulling something out of thin air, so to speak — but once those few bars had been written, the rest of the work was about restating and recombining the opening material — finding new meaning in it — all the way to the end.

On a technical front, the leader is in the bass most (but not all) of the time, and there’s a one-bar lag between leader and follower. The piece is notated in 4/4. It stays mostly in the octatonic scale containing C#-D but occasionally visits the other two octatonic scales (the one containing B-C and the one containing C-C#). It starts with imitation at the major sixth above, but the interval of imitation shifts around throughout the piece.

A rough outline of the piece might go like this. First there’s about ten bars of “conversation” where various key phrases are introduced. The conversation gives way to a passage that I call the “drunken zigzag.” Here, the voices ascend in an up-down-up-down fashion that is highly patterned, but is made to sound chaotic through a jagged, unpredictable rhythm. After the drunken zigzag, there’s a bit more conversation that then leads into the first “stretto,” a passage where the same theme is layered on top of itself multiple times. It’s not exactly akin to a fugal stretto and one could argue that stretto isn’t the right word to use here, but it’s the best one I’ve got at the moment so I’m using it. Next we have a bit more conversation with echoes of themes from earlier conversations, and then we have a restatement of the drunken zigzag, this time with some doubling and a different interval of imitation between the voices. This second drunken zigzag then leads into a new stretto that’s based on the themes from the first two bars of the piece, rearranged so a phrase of the form AB now becomes BA. After this middle stretto we hear more conversation (again, with echoes of the previous ones) and this leads into another drunken zigzag that’s special because it’s at half the speed (e.g. the rhythmic values are doubled). Next there’s some connective material that has the purpose of launching us into the third and final stretto, which uses the same rhythmic structure as the first stretto, but now the theme is descending instead of ascending. This third stretto visits all three transpositions of the octatonic scale, and leads us back to the C#-D scale where the piece began. The piece concludes with a repeated statement of a now-familiar phrase, first introduced in the second bar of the piece, with the voices finally, conspicuously imitating each other at the octave.

I’ve tried to blog about each canon I write, but there’s always much more to say about the piece than I can hope to write down. Reaching my ninetieth canon feels like something of a milestone so I’m planning to try something new. I’ll make a video where I walk through the piece and try to share how it works. Stay tuned for that.