Music

Canons #76 and #77

I’ve finished two new canons, #76 “Crocoite” and #77 “Aventurine.” Listen to them here:

I had two technical goals in mind as I worked on these pieces: first, experiment with voice crossings; second, use an odd meter (both of the pieces are in 5/4).

Though I wrote a whole piece to explore voice crossings – Canon #70 “Lava” – I’ve avoided crossings in most of my previous canons because they complicate the listener’s task of following the parts and I’ve always put a high priority on what one might call “legibility.” But recently I’ve become intrigued by the ambiguity that crossings create, and I’ve noticed that it can be an interesting thing when you first hear a melodic theme stated while the parts are very close together and constantly crossing, and you can’t quite parse the theme as such because it’s tangled up with something else, but the theme returns later in the canonic imitation, and on this second go-around, if the parts are better separated in register now, you can finally make sense of what you had been exposed to earlier, as if something obscure had now become intelligible.

As for odd meter, why have I taken so long to begin using it in my canons? I think it’s because I favor sort of rhythmic push-and-pull between the lines, a sense that they are playfully tugging against each other. This kind of destabilizing rhythmic play can be executed in a sturdy and familiar meter like 4/4 without risking that the overall metrical structure will be lost. When had tried to do the same thing in an odd meter I always felt I was ending up with music that had been notated in the odd meter but that didn’t sound like it was in that meter or any meter at all. Perhaps paradoxically, in order to create a sense that the music really inhabited the more exotic meter, I felt I had to make it more rhythmically tame. So I kept falling back on 4/4 as a stable rink in which to conduct the wild game, so to speak.

Working on these two pieces was a tour through the creative process. In trying to get started on the first one, I spent seven full days trying things that didn’t work out, abandoning drafts, starting new ones, getting stuck, beginning again, and getting stuck again, all the while deferring other non-musical obligations in life that I probably should have been attending to. At this point I’ve written enough canons that I know how it goes. I know that the time I spend floundering and struggling will prove worthwhile in the end, and that eventually something’s going to work out and I’m going to get a new piece going. But even knowing this from experience, I can still get pretty down when day after day goes by and it seems I have nothing to show for myself. I’m of two minds about the best attitude to take regarding creative projects. On one side, patience and calm are virtues. Some things can’t be rushed. Art is not a competition. Things will come in time. On the other side, finishing is important. Sometimes you won’t get results unless you demand results. Sometimes the best way to overcome a creative hurdle is not to be endlessly patient and keep allowing for more time spent in exploration or contemplation, but rather to force yourself to finish something, anything, under a deadline.

The draft that became Canon 76 had been destined for the scrap heap. I had poured time into developing it with meager results, and finally I reached the conclusion that I should just let it go and try something different. And sometimes dropping a project that’s not working is the right thing to do. But in this particular case, the friction of starting another piece from scratch was so great that I kept returning to my ugly old draft to see if I could salvage it somehow. I wound up pouring more, more, and more time into the faulty thing and somehow I willed it to become a little better, but still not viable, a little better, but still not viable, until finally the moment came. Having tripled my investment in this piece that I had deemed worthless, I realized that it was starting to be something I wanted to hear. The funny thing is, I had been reminiscing about such turning points, where a draft goes from being nonviable to promising. I had been reflecting on how this magic had transpired in the past, and I had resigned myself to the fact that this time, the same magic hadn’t happened and would not happen. But irrationally, I kept fiddling with my dud of a draft and then, the magic happened.

Canon 77 had a different trajectory. Having struggled with the earlier piece for more than a week, I had come across a specific concept for the next one and spent a day making some exploratory sketches. Given such groundwork, I was able to write #77 in under a day, following my ideal process where I start with an outline and develop it progressively, making it better and better until it’s done. During that day, there was still a point when I thought the material was just too boring to take flight. But then I made some tweaks here and there and it came alive for me. And that’s something that always amazes me about music. You can go from having a dud, a piece that sounds repetitive and annoying, to one that sounds vibrant and fascinating, just by changing a few notes in a few places.

Incidentally, I gained some insight into my naming process as I selected titles for these two pieces. People have asked me how I choose which gem or mineral to assign to each piece. First of all, I look for names that are reasonably short and easy to pronounce and that ideally don’t include a place name (no “Felsőbányaite”) or a person’s name (no “Abswurmbachite”). Then what do I look for? Sometimes I’m sure I want a name that begins with a certain letter or sound. And sometimes I’m sure I want a stone with a particular color. In the case of Canon #76 I wanted an orange stone whose name began with a C or K. Orange because I associate that color, and the piece, with “messy vibrance,” and K because I associate that sound, and the piece, with being somewhat harsh, not soft or smooth. Crocoite fit the bill (pronounced “cro-co-wite”).

Technical details:

Crocoite is a canon at the octave above, with a lag of three bars. It’s not invertible, so it’s shorter than many of my recent canons, at roughly 45 seconds. The imitation is strict. The sonority is dissonant: the interval palette emphasizes major seconds, minor sevenths, and perfect fourths. The tonality could best be described as a hybrid between A major and B Dorian. At the beginning of the piece, the parts sit close together and repeatedly cross, making them difficult to distinguish, but later they move to distinct registers and become easier to hear as separate. The piece is in 5/4. (As it was my first canon in that time signature, I did question whether the piece inhabits that time signature in sound or only in notation. Looking at the score and listening along, I saw that the phrasing is structured so that the fifth beat of each measure is melodic pickup to the strong first beat of the next measure. Try to notate the piece in any other time signature and the pickups land in the wrong places.)

Aventurine is a canon at the second. The piece is in D major and the imitation is diatonic. The piece is invertible. It opens with the leader in the bass; at the midpoint, the material is repeated with the leader in the soprano. In the second half, the parts are situated closer together and there’s lots of voice crossing. The piece was developed from a rhythmic outline where 5/4 bars are alternately divided as 2+2+1 and 1+2+2. Because the lag in this canon is one bar long, we repeatedly hear 2+2+1 against 1+2+2. Although the harmony of the piece is on the conventional side, this is a special piece for me, with lots of elements working out better than I might have imagined. It’s one of those pieces that came together quickly (though after a long period of preliminary work), surprising me with its air of ease and abundance.

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