I’d like to present my Canon #75, “Larimar.”
It’s been a year and a half since I’ve written a canon. (My previous piece, Canon #74, “Ruby,” was finished in August 2017.) I used to announce each new canon with a long Facebook post. Now that I’m leaving Facebook, I’ll be posting announcements here on my blog.
As for its technical features, Larimar is an invertible canon with thirds and sixths emphasized on strong beats. The bass line is the leader in the first half, and the roles are reversed in the second half. Throughout the piece there are places where the parts reach close enough together that they collapse into a unison. The piece is in 4/4 with a lag of four bars. The imitation is mostly strict. The tonality is focused on B and I chose to notate the piece in B minor although the melody makes free use of the major third and major sixth above B, giving a sense of a constant shifting between major and minor. The flat second is also used.
As my 75th canon, Larimar doesn’t really break new ground in terms of structure or technique, but it is a first for me in several ways:
Larimar is the first canon that I wrote in a MIDI piano roll editor instead of a standard Western notation editor. This means that instead of placing noteheads on a musical staff, I positioned various horizontal bars on piece of virtual graph paper, where the length of the bar represents the note duration and the vertical position on the page represents its pitch. I wondered if using a different approach to notation would fundamentally change my process of canon writing. I think a new notation format does have the potential to shake things up for me, but for this piece it didn’t: my process was basically the same as it has been before, with the only difference being how I recorded my choices.
Larimar is also the first canon that I wrote without consuming coffee in the mornings and beer in the evenings that I worked on it. The feelings of caffeination, and separately, of mild drunkenness have seemed essential to my creative process, but apparently they aren’t.
In most of my previous canons, I have prioritized the independence and “separateness” of the parts over the tangled and slightly chaotic feeling that can arise when the parts fall close together and begin to overlap. With Larimar I sensed that my attitude is changing and I’m becoming more interested in the tangled and chaotic ethos. Although Larimar doesn’t really manifest that ethos in a significant degree, it does include a choice I might not have made earlier. In structuring the second half of the canon, I could have positioned the parts an octave further apart, which would have made them easier to distinguish and follow, but I chose to keep them close together.
I’ve written a bit about my approach to ornamentation before, but working on Larimar gave me new insight into how I’m using ornaments. In listening to the piece, you might notice that it’s heavily ornamented and perhaps somewhat “flowery,” and it would be natural to conclude that the composer of the piece employed ornaments to achieve an ornate and luxuriant aesthetic. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. I never seek ornateness. As I work on a canon, developing it from a skeletal outline, I add detail and ornament in search of clarity and definition. I use ornaments as a way of enlivening the part and separating it from its companion. I add fine details as a way of making the parts easier for the listener to distinguish. But, once an ornament is applied in one location, it can create a kind of imbalance of intensity, which requires that an ornament or fine detail is added somewhere else to restore the balance. Elaborateness is never my aim; rather its a result of seeking to give the parts their own independent lives. It’s a result of seeking — over many iterations — increased clarity and separability.
Being the first canon I’ve written in so long, Larimar also reminded me why I write canons. The first few days were a slog where it seemed I was making no progress, had no clear aim in mind, and wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to write a canon again. Finally an elemental outline came together, an undifferentiated line in whole notes. I listened to it dozens of times. I tried adding a detail here and there. Nothing worked. Finally one of my efforts seemed to work a little bit. I managed the “crack” the outline, to find a place where it could accommodate a little bit of development. I became curious. I tried dozens of possibilities. I had the feeling of climbing up a cliff. Nothing was likely to work, but just maybe… just maybe this one option might work. No it didn’t work, but now I’ve thought of another, let me try that. Gradually I become obsessed. I don’t care if the piece is going to work out anymore. I don’t care if I’m ever going to finish it. I just want to try this one more thing and see if it works. Most things don’t work, but every once in a while, a little detail, a little experiment sounds fantastic! I need to know what could happen. I need to know what’s possible. I keep listening to what I’ve got, over and over. Sometimes I hear a possibility in a particular place, then I try to write it down. Sometimes I notice that I’m bored or disappointed in a particular place, and I look for ways to add energy there. Sometimes I notice I’m confused by a particular passage, and I look for ways to clarify it. Sometimes I subtract, delete, simplify. Often there’s a threshold that I cross, where the canon goes from state where it might need weeks of further work, where it might never yield to completion, to all of a sudden seeming like it’s taken flight, like I could finish it in a day or two. I keep editing, listening, editing, listening, editing, listening, trying to make the piece do what my ear yearns for, trying to remove from it all those details that my ear perceives as excess, adding, subtracting, adding, subtracting, until remarkably, miraculously, unbelievably, the piece is born.
So why do I do this, why do I write canons? Basically, I’m in it for the listening. The process of writing a canon is a process of listening. Listening to hundreds of drafts of the piece. Listening to dozens of versions of a particular passage. Listening to music is probably my favorite thing in the world. Writing canons, I realize, is a way of listening.