Album Release: Canons on Clavichord

I’m pleased to release a new album containing nine of my canons performed by Matthew McConnell on an instrument that is dear to me, the clavichord.

This album is called, simply, Canons on Clavichord, and it’s a sequel to Canons, which was released in May 2017. The earlier album features forty-five selections performed on the harpsichord. Both albums are part of my long-term quest to explore some tiny portion of the boundless possibilities of the canon form.

The clavichord and harpsichord are very different instruments, so this new album is naturally different from its predecessor. Where the harpsichord has a brilliant, shimmering sound that fills a room, the clavichord communicates in a whisper and is best heard up close so that this whisper may reveal the full range of expressive nuance contained within. Where the harpsichord sounds at a uniform dynamic level, given that the pressure with which a key is struck does not significantly alter the loudness of the ensuing note, the clavichord allows for a contrast between louder and softer utterances within its understated voice. Beyond that, the clavichord is special in that after-touch pressure – pressure applied to a key after it is struck – can actually change the note’s intonation, even allowing for a faint vibrato or bebung. To my ears the clavichord marries the mechanical precision of a keyboard instrument like the harpsichord with the expressiveness and subtlety of a more intimate string instrument like the classical guitar.

I myself am a guitarist and not so much a keyboardist. The clavichord has always stood out to me as the keyboard instrument I would most like to take up if I were granted a second lifetime. Barring that, I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be able to hear some of my music interpreted on the clavichord in Matt McConnell’s skillful hands. The sound of the clavichord has captivated me since I first heard it on record in the early 1990’s. At that time I was a young listener searching for new sonic experiences. With its quiet, beguiling voice, the clavichord was unlike anything I had heard before. My introduction to the clavichord came through a recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by keyboardist Colin Tilney that I encountered at the Tower Records Annex on 4th Street and Lafayette in New York City back at a time when there were still record stores and when record stores were, in my teenage estimation, the most exciting places in the universe.

To hear the clavichord today reminds me of the excitement of that earlier time when, after unwrapping a jewel box and inserting a piece of plastic into my CD player, I heard Bach’s music – the preludes and fugues I had listened to so many times before – spring into new life, seeming to contain voices and gestures I had not been able to perceive before, as if a translucent curtain had been pulled away and the clavichord – this crazy instrument I had never crossed paths with until now – was finally connecting me with the soul of Bach’s creation. This was also a time when I dreamed about becoming a composer myself, but given that I was filled with doubt and uncertainty about my path forward, I expected that the prospect of someday hearing my own music played on this marvelous instrument would remain forever a fantasy.

Fast forward a quarter century. After Matt and I released our harpsichord album in 2017 we felt so energized that we decided to begin work on the clavichord sequel immediately. We expected it to be a process of discovery. For Matt, an experienced harpsichordist and organist, this album would be a chance to expand his connection to the clavichord since while he already owned and played one, he felt he had only begun to plumb its depths. For me, it would be a chance to learn how my music came across in the clavichord’s voice and then to write some new pieces with that voice in mind. When Matt completed a first sample recording of the canon Celestine, we were both delighted by the results. In contrast to the earlier harpsichord recordings which had been made in a church, Matt recorded his clavichord up close in a small room; the instrument’s shorter sustain and less acoustically “busy” sound led to a very clean recording. Meanwhile we felt that its dynamic subtleties and variety of articulation allowed for an even better separation of the contrapuntal parts than had been possible in the harpsichord work. My reaction was similar to the way I had felt upon first hearing that Tilney recording in the 90’s where the two books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier were divided between clavichord and harpsichord. I loved the brilliance and crispness of the harpsichord, and felt fully satisfied by it, and yet in comparing the two instruments, my heart was drawn even more strongly to the clavichord.

Matt and I initially planned a full sequel to the first Canons album with another forty-five recordings, but because of some difficult circumstances unrelated to music, Matt had to take a break from the project after nine recordings were complete. Given a choice of waiting to release these nine recordings until the project could be completed someday, or releasing them early, we decided to release them early. My hope is that in the coming years, we will be able to offer the remaining thirty-six canons that were to have gone in this album, and perhaps more. Even with only nine selections, this album is a dream come true for me.

A case could be made that a clavichord recording should try to replicate the experience of hearing the instrument in person, at a live event. And the liner notes to clavichord albums sometimes admonish the listener to set a low playback volume since the clavichord itself is remarkably quiet. I will not be making the same request here. I would suggest that those listeners who have never heard a clavichord played live should seek out an opportunity to do so, understanding that listening to a recording can never be quite the same. A recording is necessarily artificial in that it presents a live occurrence through the perspective of a particular microphone choice and placement, a particular set of audio mastering decisions, and a particular playback environment. In listening to this album, you will not know how Matt’s instrument actually sounded in the room where he played it. And unlike the first Canons album which was mastered by the expert engineer Jeff Lipton, I took on the project of “mastering” these nine recordings myself, aiming to be as judicious as possible while bringing what I feel are the recordings’ strengths to the fore. The downside of having me as the mastering engineer is that, of course, that I’m not a pro in this domain and I might well have done something a pro would never do, but the upside is that you, the listener, get to hear the recordings in a form that the composer likes and believes to be near ideal. As far as playback level, I’d say you should feel free to the enjoy the music at whatever level pleases you, even if that level exceeds what the clavichord is physically capable of. Feel free to try blasting the music for a moment if you want – I’ve done that myself!

As for the musical content of the album, there are canons here from several different of my composing periods. Amber, Carnelian, and Coral are some of the first canons I wrote and they represent my understanding of Renaissance contrapuntal style. Amber and Carnelian feature imitation in contrary motion. Garnet and Tungsten explore rhythmic displacement where the voices sound on alternate sixteenth beats, never coinciding. Celestine and Spinel are products of my exploration of creative ways to break a primary rule of traditional counterpoint: they explore how parallel octaves might be employed as an artistic device without sacrificing the impression of contrapuntal independence. Ruby and Sphene have a tonal ambiguity and prevalence of dissonance that may make them sound more “modern” than the others. Sphene features imitation at the tritone, while Ruby – perhaps my favorite recording of the group – is what I call a “recurring interval” canon where a specific interval or choice of intervals (in this case, major sevenths and minor seconds) is placed at each measure onset. Detailed notes are below.

The album cover was designed by me, building upon a photograph by Jorge Ryan.

Thank you for listening, and should you find that this music provides any pleasure or interest, please do me the favor of letting someone else know about it who might enjoy it too.

Track Notes:


[Imitation at the fourth below.]

Celestine is an exploration of parallel octaves used deliberately in counterpoint that is otherwise traditional. This piece has a one-bar run of parallel octaves occurring every six bars. If you listen in a certain way, it sounds like certain entrances of the theme in once voice spring out of the other voice; when one voice enters, it often starts off “fused” with the other voice (i.e. moving in parallel octaves with it) and then breaks apart and does its own thing. The piece is built of a repeating motive that is never varied, though it is restated at descending scale positions, causing a gentle progression downward through the modes of C major. Unusual for my canons, it stays entirely within the notes of C major with almost no chromatic alterations, yet even with so many restatements of the same motive it stays fresh to my ear. Variety is pursued through registration: fragments are transposed up and down so we hear entrances happening in all places. Technically the top voice is the leader in this piece, with the lower voice following a fourth down, but the leader/follower relationship quickly becomes ambiguous because of the transpositions (including voice crossings), and because there are no melodic or rhythmic variations that would allow the listener to identify which line is the source of new material.


[Imitation at the tritone above; at the octave below.]

Sphene is built from a line with deliberately ambiguous tonality. I’ve approached non-tonality in many earlier canons but I’ve usually done it within some kind of framework, like the whole tone scale of Moonstone, or the pseudo tone-row of Titanium, or the bitonal juxtaposition of Platinum and its companions, but here the line is written quite freely, with no constraints other than that the tonal center should be fluid, with no one pitch remaining in focus for too long. The handling of intervals is also less strict than many of my other canons, the main criteria being that the sound should remain somewhat “open” and not too “cluttered” by the sharpest dissonances like minor seconds and major sevenths, which are usually confined here to a passing function, but the sound should still be “dark” enough to maintain its ambiguity and it should not have the brightness of any prominent perfect fifths. Octaves are avoided in the first section, where there is strict imitation at the tritone above. Somewhat unusually, when the canon is inverted in the second section, the interval of imitation is widened to an octave. In this case I didn’t consciously design the piece to work at two different intervals, as I had done with great labor in the Taneyev-inspired canons like Mercury and Palladium, but I was surprised to find that whatever inner logic I had achieved with tritonal imitation here still made sense at the octave. The second half has a more open sound, and there are several prominent sustained tritones from the first half that now sound as octaves, creating what might in a conventional style be considered as undesirable parallelism. Here there is enough tonal slithering in the lines that even with a few octaves that could be heard as parallel, I feel the lines never create the impression of having fused – in fact, the sound of the octave strikes me as refreshing, bringing a bit of limpidity to the texture after the dark, tritone-saturated first half. (It was this observation that inspired me to explore the deliberate use of parallel octaves in later canons like Celestine and Spinel.) When I work in a non-tonal or atonal idiom my aim is not to jar the ear, but to explore how melodic continuity can be preserved even in the absence of tonal guideposts, how “singable” or at least how “followable” the atonal tune can be, and so while there is lots of rhythmic play in the piece, the phrase structure is deliberately regular, with each phrase lasting four bars and with a “breath” placed in between.


[Imitation at the octave above; at the octave below.]

Most often when I write a canon, I try to make the two voices to blend together in some “harmonious” way. But what if the two voices never actually “blended” but rather co-existed in two separate, parallel universes? What would that actually mean? In Tungsten, this separation is achieved by having the voices occupy complementary and disjunct rhythmic spaces. That’s a fancy way of saying that the voices never sound at the same time; rather, they are continuously staggered – they interlock without ever “touching.” Of my canons so far, this one comes the closest to sounding like “minimalist” music or “phase” music (and it might fit even better into those descriptions if the repeats were extended) but I wasn’t aiming to conform to any particular style, rather just to see what was possible. I took some inspiration from the area known as “rhythmic tiling canons” as I explored in my earlier piece “Escher’s Drum” (released elsewhere in a performance by percussionist Gavin Ryan).

Gory technical details: each note is played staccato. Imitation is at the octave with the bottom voice leading in the first section, and the top voice leading in the second. Every 16th note in each 4/4 measure is hit by one and only one of the voices – that’s to say the voices “interlock” without every coinciding. The piece goes through a kind of rhythmic evolution. For the most part, each line consists of a 16th note, followed by a 16th rest, followed by a 16th note, followed by a 16th rest, and so on, and yet each measure also contains one anomaly. The bottom voice enters with the anomaly – two 16ths in a row, followed by two 16th rests in a row – then giving way to the note/rest/note/rest alternation as described. When the top voice enters two bars later, it is delayed by an additional 16th note (so it doesn’t enter right on the downbeat but just a little bit behind). The bottom voice then plays a complementary rhythmic pattern to the top voice’s, hitting each note where the top voice has a rest. In this complementary rhythmic pattern, the anomaly shifts right a bit, so the bottom voice now has a hit, followed by two rests, followed by two hits, then giving way to the standard alternating pattern. As this process continues, the rhythmic anomaly keeps shifting right. Towards the end of the first section, the bottom voice begins a measure with the note/rest/note/rest pattern and ends with two notes, then two rests. As the top voice unwinds, the bottom voice continue repeating its final motif, so that for the first time, both voices are playing the same motif with a 16th note skew, finally (and quickly) ending together. The second section is much the same, but with the top voice now leading, and some changes in accidentals that give a brighter sound at the beginning.

A fun fact about this piece: it has been used as the theme music for the radio show “What’s up, Eastie?” a program covering neighborhood issues in East Boston, MA, broadcasting on ZUMIX Radio, 94.9 FM. Yes, it was composed in Eastie.


[Imitation in contrary motion at the second above; at the seventh below.]

This piece is a canon in contrary motion, which is to say that one line is more-or-less an upside-down version of the other. The opening material is followed by its inversion where the lower line is transposed to the top position.

The challenge of working in contrary motion is that many melodic gestures are orientation-specific: they make sense when played in their upright form but sound confusing or unconvincing when played in their mirrored form, so the composer must search for those gestures that are musically persuasive in both orientations. The mood of Amber is peaceful and contemplative and the contrapuntal style is inspired by Renaissance vocal polyphony.


[Imitation at the third below.]

Spinel is notable for its focus on parallel octaves. Parallel octaves are forbidden in traditional counterpoint because – so the explanation goes – they destroy the independence of voices, creating the impression that two melodic lines – entities which should be perceived as separate at all times – have become indistinguishable, temporarily fusing into one. My idea in Spinel was to use this fusion (and eventual separation) for dramatic effect. I’ve employed parallel octaves deliberately in several earlier pieces (like Malachite) but only in brief instances where they are somewhat concealed by intervening ornamentation. Here in Spinel, you will actually hear full, overt runs of parallel octaves lasting four beats, constantly alternating with four-beat sections where independence is regained. When the parallel octaves occur, you might think the canonic imitation has stopped and the voices have suddenly come together without a lag, but that’s not what’s happening. In fact, this is a true canon, where one voice is always imitating the other with a four-beat lag forever maintained; the parallel octaves arise because the line has a self-similarity which allows it to perfectly coincide with its delayed version in certain places. The top voice is the leader, with the bass imitating it a (compound) third below. There are three sections: the outer two are essentially the same, with the bass in the closing section transposed an octave lower. The middle section is interesting because the bass there is transposed an octave higher, causing what were parallel octaves to become unisons, creating an even stronger sense of fusion. In each section, the music gets higher and higher, passing through many different modal centers, and through a series of rhythmic and melodic variations, as the same basic pattern is energetically and ceaselessly repeated.


[Imitation in contrary motion at the octave above; at the octave below.]

Carnelian is a companion piece to Amber, with a similar mood and style, but a different interval of imitation.


[Imitation at the octave above.]

A companion to Tungsten, Garnet is an energetic piece where the two rapid-moving staccato voices interlock like gears, never coinciding on the same beat, but together covering every available beat. Each measure-long phrase is repeated before leading into the next phrase: this means that the end of each phrase had to be crafted with not one but two smooth transitions in mind – the transition back to the beginning of the phrase, and the transition into the next one. The two parts are rhythmically skewed by one measure plus one sixteenth-note. A few things happen here that didn’t happen in Tungsten. First, there are some places where the voices become entangled and impossible to separate in one’s ear. While I usually aim for complete independence and separability of the voices, the entanglements that happened here struck me as so intriguing that I decided to keep them as deliberate features of the piece. Second the ending uses a different concept. At the end of Tungsten the two voices adopt the same tune, moving in parallel, but still with a sixteenth-note skew. But in Garnet, the two voices approach the end playing different tunes; gradually these two tunes are fused together into a single tune. The sixteenth-note gaps in one voice are filled in with the pitches from the other voice, until the two voices are playing one compound tune together in parallel octaves with no skew. Third, a highly technical point: the “shifting” of the leader by a sixteenth-note to create the follower became more complicated here than it was in Tungsten, where there was always a sixteenth-rest at the end of each measure that could be deleted to make room for a new rest at the beginning of the measure. In Garnet, where the last sixteenth beat of a measure had a note, this note was cycled around to the beginning of the measure. In Tungsten, the phrases generally followed an alternating pattern of hit-rest-hit-rest-hit-rest etc. with one anomaly of hit-hit-rest-rest. Here in Garnet the anomaly is longer – hit-hit-hit-rest-rest-hit-hit-rest-rest – and generates a complementary rhythm that’s quite distinct from the original. So, overall there’s more rhythmic variety and complexity than in the earlier piece. The performance here shows off Garnet at a brilliant tempo, perhaps the fastest the piece could accommodate while remaining musical.


[Imitation at the major seventh above; then at the minor second below]

This piece is the seventy-fourth canon I have composed. I had been saving “Ruby” as a possible title for some time, and finally it seemed to fit. That’s because this piece emphasizes the most biting dissonances, minor seconds and major sevenths, and in my mind, there’s a very loose association between their sound and the color red. This is certainly not to say I experience interval-color associations in any deterministic way, but if I take the time to explicitly visualize what a “biting dissonance” might look like, if it looked like anything, I might think of a smoldering ember. Even this connection is shaky, because the affect of an interval is so context-dependent, and a major seventh might seem “biting” in one place but “sweet” in another, and might then conjure a different visual association. Still, in listening to this piece which has a compound major seventh or minor second at each measure onset, I get more “red” in my visual imagination than usual, so “Ruby” seemed appropriate.

Ruby continues a set of “recurring interval” canons I’ve been working on. Available in the earlier album, “Pyrite” emphasized fourths at each measure onset, “Tektite” emphasized major seconds, “Magnetite” emphasized minor sevenths, and “Sugilite” emphasized major thirds. I had been reluctant to continue this series with minor seconds and major sevenths, because even in highly dissonant counterpoint, I’m always trying to achieve a sense of linear continuity or flow. Although I managed to achieve the flow I was seeking in Tektite, with its recurring unresolved major seconds, doing this had been a struggle. I thought that having so many harsher and more “disruptive” minor seconds occurring everywhere would create something like a race track filled with speed bumps, where forward motion is constantly obstructed. But in working on this latest piece, I found that if my ear is guided in and out of these clashing dissonances with the right cues (even if those cues are nothing like conventional preparation and resolution), the dissonances stop seeming so abrupt and jarring, and that feeling of connected, forward motion that I’m seeking can still be had. By the end of each section of the piece, the dissonances may perceptually “flip” and gain a familiarity and stability of their own, so I thought it appropriate to “cadence” on a dissonance. Bringing the voices together on an octave or some other consonance would have been too different from the preceding sound-world, too startling to be final.

The piece begins with strict imitation at the (compound) major seventh above. Midway through the piece, the parts are inverted and from then on there’s strict imitation at the minor second below. This was one of those cases where the inverted form of the canon just worked, delighting me with its slightly accentuated raucousness, and requiring no special tweaking or revision.


[Imitation at the twelfth above.]

Coral aims for simplicity and grace; it has a steady ternary rhythm and a contrapuntal style inspired by Renaissance polyphony. The material is repeated three times in increasingly higher ranges.

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