In searching for every musical canon I could find, I came across a fascinating series titled Thirteen Canons at Each Interval by Richard Atkinson. I was interested to know more about a composer who had undertaken such a thorough exploration of the canon form, so I asked Richard if he’d be amenable to an interview. Richard lives in Boston, and when he’s not composing, works as a forensic pathologist. What follows is the text of our conversation, which we conducted over email. Start by sampling Richard’s work itself, which deserves close, repeated listening!
Question (Rudi Seitz): It’s rare these days to encounter a thorough exploration of the canon form in a new musical voice, like your Thirteen Canons at Each Interval. What inspired you to focus on the canon form and what were your goals in writing the series?
Answer (Richard Atkinson): I composed Thirteen Canons at Each Interval in 2002, when many contemporary composers were more frequently returning to traditional ideas about form, harmony, and counterpoint. It was somewhat of a reaction against the amorphous, rhythm-less collections of notes, or the silly concept pieces that had been popular among academic composers of the late 20th century. The most direct inspiration for the piece was Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which also contain a set of canons at each major or perfect interval (my set expands the number to include all chromatic intervals). Another inspiration was Bach’s The Musical Offering, which explores various canonic techniques (similarly, my set has a modulating canon, a crab or retrograde canon, an inversion canon, and an augmentation canon). I was also inspired by Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, an obvious homage to Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier. In the same way, my set is an homage to the master of counterpoint.
Q: You mentioned looking back to traditional ideas about form, harmony, and counterpoint. Your pieces sound contemporary and seem to step outside the “rules” one would find in a traditional counterpoint text and yet they have a strong sense of order and seem to handle interval relationships in a deliberate, systematic way. What principles from traditional counterpoint did you preserve and which did you abandon? How did you think about consonance and dissonance, if those terms apply?
A: When I think of very dissonant music, I think of Bartok quartets, Shostakovich quartets, The Rite of Spring – all of these examples are dissonant because there is either some sort of tonal center, an expectation of resolution (even if never met), or contrasting consonant moments. I do not consider most twelve-tone music to be dissonant in the same sense (the dissonance loses its power), which is why for the most part, it doesn’t interest me. This contrast between dissonance and consonance is certainly an important element in all of my compositions. In my set of canons at each chromatic interval, the answering voices are literal transpositions of the first voice. In the traditional counterpoint of the Goldberg Variations, Bach’s answering voices are inflected to conform to the tonality of the original voice (they are not exact chromatic transpositions of each other). This allows them to remain in the same key (with the same key signature), rather than creating a bitonal composition. Some of my canons start and finish in the same key (numbers 1, 5, 6, 10), a difficult feat when each voice (except in numbers 1 and 13) effectively has a different key signature. Some of them sound distinctively bitonal (2, 7, 9). Most exhibit “progressive tonality,” beginning and ending with different tonal centers (and usually implying many other tonal centers throughout the canon). The Goldberg canons also usually break the strict canon to produce an effective ending or cadence. In my set, I imposed upon myself the extra difficulty of trying to create effective endings that don’t break the canon (this usually means the last voice to enter is also the only voice left at the end). As far as “making the counterpoint work,” I think studying actual examples of counterpoint and developing a natural sense for how different voices can be successfully combined is far more important than studying a counterpoint textbook. In my canons, the overarching idea of composing a set of canons at increasing intervals, with special canonic manipulations (inversion, modulating, retrograde, augmentation) was certainly inspired by Bach, but the harmony is much closer to that of Mahler or Shostakovich.
Q: In your published videos you’ve given very sensitive and nuanced piano interpretations of your works. Would you describe the role the piano has in your composing process? Do you write at the keyboard, or more abstractly? How do you get started on a piece? By the time you’ve finished writing a piece, can you already play it well, or do you learn it afterward?
A: I like to work out ideas at the keyboard, but my own limited piano technique often gets in the way. Sometimes spontaneous ideas occur accidentally while I’m at the keyboard, but most of my best ideas have come to me while walking outdoors. I’m always coming up with ideas for new pieces, but the challenge is finding the time to work on them (for the past few years, I haven’t had much). Many of the canons were too technically difficult for me to play in 2002, but in the intervening years I have practiced them enough to be able to record them.
Q: You mentioned that your Thirteen Canons were written in 2002. Have you revised them over the years, and if so, how?
A: The final 13th canon (at the octave) originally began without the slow introduction, and was much shorter. The 7th canon (at the tritone) was originally in ABA form, but I removed the repeat of the A section. Other than this, I have not changed them.
Q: In listening to various canons by different composers without seeing a score, I find the structure of a canon is sometimes very apparent to the ear while at other times it is hidden. That’s to say, some pieces are obviously canonic while others could be mistaken for free counterpoint until you look at what’s written. Do you hear your pieces in one way or another? As a composer do you aim to make structure more explicit or to keep it hidden?
A: In most of my thirteen canons the counterpoint is audibly explicit. Two of them (#4 and #8) have three voices, which complicates things for the listener. In the 9th canon (at the minor sixth) the second voice enters one sixteenth-note after the first, which renders the counterpoint difficult to discern because of the extreme closeness of the voices. The crab canon (#11) is of course the hardest to comprehend by listening alone, while the augmentation canon (#12) is probably the second most difficult.
Q: Would you tell me how you got started in composing and how you’ve developed your craft over the years?
A: My older brother introduced me to Mahler’s 1st Symphony when I was 7 years old, and I have been captivated ever since. I started composing in my teens, but I rarely wrote any of it down. If I had thought any of it was worthwhile, I likely would have recorded it for posterity. I still remember some of the pieces, even though they only exist in my head.
Q: Do you have any tips on balancing a life of composing with career outside music?
A: I haven’t done the best job of this over the years, but I do know that during the long stretches when I don’t compose, I feel emptiness, and when I compose, I feel fulfilled.
Q: What musical projects are you working on now?
A: I have a few unfinished projects, including a violin sonata, and a string quartet. Other than composing, I’ve been continuing my series of youtube commentary videos that try to demystify some of the great masterpieces that have inspired me over the years.