Canon #22, Abalone — Revised

Here is a new version of Canon #22, Abalone, a piece I first wrote in February 2015.

This piece has always had a calming effect on me — it puts me in a contemplative mood — but over the years I came to wonder if I had left the texture too bare. The bareness of the original version came, I think, from its non-overlapping phrase structure. To keep the motion going in a canon, I often try to have one voice begin something while the other voice is ending something. That’s to say, the leader should often start a new phrase before the follower concludes the previous phrase. But in the original version of Canon 22, each new phrase started squarely on the last note of the previous phrase. So there were many spots in the piece where the two-voice texture was reduced to a single voice, with the follower reiterating the last two bars of the current phrase before the leader announced the next one. In a fast-paced canon and/or one with a short lag, this might not have been a problem — in fact, these reprieves from polyphony can be quite welcome in some situations — but with Canon #22 I came to feel there were too many breaks and that they lasted too long.

My expectations of the complexity and richness that can be achieved in a canon have risen over the years, but I don’t think my ear in 2015 was fundamentally different from today in 2021, so I wonder why the bareness of the original Canon #22 didn’t bother at the time I first released it. I think what happened is that I loved the material but couldn’t see a way to do anything more with it, so I stopped work and chose to release the piece in an elemental and unadorned state. This was a good choice: had I kept Canon #22 in my sketchbook in 2015 and not released it, there’s a strong chance I would have forgotten it by now; and had I insisted on doing more with it at the time, the piece might have become cluttered and thus harder to eventually revise. It turned out that Canon #22 was a pleasure to revise because there was nothing that needed to be removed, all I had to do was add.

The piece aims for a Renaissance contrapuntal style, with careful preparation and resolution of dissonance, and lots of smooth, stepwise melodic motion. The soprano imitates the bass at the third, with a lag of two bars. The imitation is modal and no accidentals are used. In the opening section, the bass plays a sequence of four phrases, beginning and ending on the third scale degree of a major key — C major in the original, G-flat major in the revised version — while the soprano starts and ends on the fifth scale degree. (I wouldn’t say, however, that the bass is in the Phyrgian mode and the soprano is in Mixolydian, because the modal center shifts around throughout the phrase sequence.) The four phrases are then repeated with the bass starting on the first scale degree and the soprano on the third. In the new version of the piece, these two sections are then reprised with the voices doubled.

What did I actually do in the revision process? I found that each of the soprano’s phrases could be extended very naturally to form a cadence over the bass notes that announce the next phrase, if I was willing to break the strictness of the canon and not require that the new material participate in the imitative process. To prevent these new cadences from suggesting that the motion would stop, I had to increase the rhythmic energy directly following them. Extending the soprano phrases is most of what I did in my initial revisions. Next, I introduced a repeat of the entire canon with a richer texture: now the voices are doubled in octaves, and in some cases doubled in thirds or sixths. Other notes are added sparingly to flesh out the implied harmonies, creating triads in root position or first inversion. We go back and forth between hearing full chords and two simple voices. The added notes are meant to sound like an extension or “fleshing out” of the two primary voices, and not like a third independent voice.

This is the first time I’ve attempted this particular thing — taking clean two-voice counterpoint and adding notes that are meant to be heard harmonically and only harmonically — without forming a third independent voice. It’s a tricky thing to do this in a way that enhances, and doesn’t muddy up, the counterpoint. One thing that helped was to frequently drop back to a pure two-voice texture. Other than that, I did it by adding chord tones, listening, and then removing anything that sounded jarring. Indeed, there were chord tones that sounded jarring even though I couldn’t find the reason on the page, for the life of me. Since the two-voice counterpoint here is in a style that avoids parallel perfect consonances, I questioned how to treat parallels that were created by my added harmony notes. At one point I tried removing all of these parallels, but then found myself putting some of them back. I decided that I didn’t hear them as parallels; rather, I heard them as additional doublings of a voice that was already doubled. I kept them where they gave the fullness of texture I was looking for.

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