Music

Canon #18, Petrified Wood — Revised

Here is an updated version of Canon #18, Petrified Wood, a piece I first wrote in January 2015. I’ve added a repeat and a new ending.

If I do a good job writing canons, then when I go back and listen to them six years later, should it hold true that there isn’t much I’d want to futz with? As it turns out, when I revisit my first canons from 2014 and 2015 – I’m usually satisfied, still, with the core material, but there are two wishes that sometimes arise.

First, I might wish I had made the piece longer. Fixing that with a repeat is easy enough to implement, as I’ve just done with Canon 18. Second, I might wish I had found a way to make the ending less abrupt.

In the early days, I used to look for “efficient” endings that didn’t require an extended departure from the canonic process. The aim was to stay in the strict canon format for as long as possible and deviate as little as possible, so you’d hear something like 95% strict canon and 5% free ending. But I’ve come to understand that some canons – in general, some pieces of music – cannot be concluded efficiently. They just can’t. Some pieces need extended, winding conclusions, where a cadence pretends to be final, but the music continues to another cadence, which pretends to be final, but the music continues to another cadence, which pretends… until the listener is ready for the cadence to finally be final. You can try to end the piece in a few preparatory measures that lead to one ultimate cadence, but it’s always going to feel disappointing, or seem to be too “on the nose” if that cadence comes without the requisite teasing and foreplay. It’s hard to say why some pieces require so much “roundaboutness” at the end, while other pieces – equally engrossing at their peaks – can gracefully relinquish their hold on your attention with one direct cadential gesture. But that’s the way it is. There are situations where it works to have 100% canon with no coordinated ending but rather with each voice simply stopping on its own time, and there are situations where true satisfaction demands a balance of, say, 60% canon and 40% non-canonic ending material including buildup, teasing, and final cadence.

Back in 2015, I felt that Canon 18 needed something more than a matter-of-fact conclusion, so I wrote a longer one than I was typically writing at the time. But over the years, the ending still seemed to come too soon. In the recent revision process, I found a way to reuse the canon’s opening material to create surprise and variety at the end. Right when you think the piece is going to stop, it suddenly launches into a presto (1’ 53’’ in the audio). This presto might sound like new material, unlike anything we’ve heard before, but in fact it’s a reiteration of the first 9 measures of the canon, sped up by a factor of four (what were quarter notes at the opening become sixteenth notes now, so four bars of opening material now fit into one bar). Ornaments are omitted, so what you hear is in fact a simplified, accelerated version of the opening. This material is repeated three times with some transpositions, leading into some further ending material, which teases at finality, but continues on to another cadential passage, this time quiet and definitive. My hope is that Canon 18 finally got the conclusion it needed.

What is the piece about? If we look at the opening section, we see that one voice is always playing the role of anchor or ballast, while the other one is dancing against it, doing something ornamental or flowery. The two voices repeatedly swap roles, with the “anchor” becoming the “dancer” and vice versa. The “anchor” voice always plays a steady stream of quarter notes, in patterns that are simple and sturdy. The central figure in the piece – the figure we hear right at the opening – is one where a note proceeds down to its lower neighbor and returns, and then dips down a bit lower. In C major, an example of this figure would would be C B C A. As the anchor plays these solid figures, the “dancer” moves less evenly, with triplets, ties, and ornaments. Imitation is at the octave, with the bass always in the lead, and the soprano two 4/4 bars behind.

Perhaps one thing that made the conclusion challenging to write is that the piece seems to “want” to cadence on the fourth degree of the key that it uses most of the time. The piece is written mostly in Bb major but it doesn’t want to end on Bb; instead it starts and wants to end on Eb. There’s an interplay here between Bb major and Eb Lydian, with the Eb Lydian character coming to prominence at each of the “teasing” cadences until the final cadence suggests Eb major.

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