Music

Canon #94, Cinnabar

I’m pleased to announce Canon #94, Cinnabar, written this past December and completed on Jan 1, 2022.

When I started working on Cinnabar, my aim was to explore the idea of a reordering canon. I wrote an outline and spent many days developing it, only to find that I had arrived at a dead end. My efforts at development — so diligent, so persistent — had only made the outline worse! This creative disappointment transpired in a span of several days when I was already in low spirits, for no particular reason, just generally feeling crumby. In an effort to lift my own mood, I went back to an earlier version of my outline and thought “Let me try doing something silly with this.” The idea was to decorate my carefully-planned outline in a totally preposterous way, entirely for my own amusement, writing nonsensical themes and absurdly discordant counterpoint with no plan anymore to turn it into a finished piece. But once I got going, the “silliness” began to acquire its own internal grammar, and the composition process turned quite serious again, but now it was unstuck.

I chose the name Cinnabar for two reasons. First of all, the interval palette and melodic style of the piece reminds me somewhat of my Canon 74, Ruby, and both substances are bright red. Second, I wanted a name that contained some element of humor. The names of gems and minerals aren’t all that funny in general, but cinnabar stood out to me because when I say cinnabar I think of “cinnamon bar” or “cinnamon bun” or “Cinnabon,” and this thought leaves me mildly amused, what can I say?

Let’s talk about the structure of the piece. The soprano plays a series of six-measure phrases, with some space left at the end of each phrase. We can label those phrases as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, up to 14. The bass plays the same phrases as the soprano, but in a different order. That’s what I mean when I call Cinnabar a “reordering canon.” In this piece, the bass order happens to be 3, 1, 5, 2, 7, 4, 9, 6, 11, 8, 13, 10, X, 12. (“X” represents a bass-only phrase that’s not stated by the soprano). When the two parts are executed simultaneously, we hear a series of phrasal pairings or contrapuntal episodes separated by brief pauses. At the beginning, we hear phrase 1 over phrase 3; next, we hear phrase 2 over phrase 1; then phrase 3 over phrase 5, and so on. For the most part, each phrase is restated two episodes after we first hear it, which is to say the restatements are close together but usually not consecutive. Some phrases are heard for the first time in the soprano, while others are heard for the first time in the bass (i.e. if we think of the bass as reordering the soprano’s phrases, it might place some phrases in an earlier position). The piece ends with a mirror inversion of the opening episode, where we hear phrase 3’s inversion over phrase 1’s inversion.

Most phrases undergo a chromatic transposition when they are restated; so phrase 1 begins on a C# when we first hear it in the soprano, but it gains a pickup gesture leading to an F# when we hear it in the bass. One of the challenges of writing the piece was finding the right transpositions for each episode (I say episode here because each phrase has a planned intervalic relationship with its companion phrase, so the two must be transposed together). The goal is to maintain a sense of variety throughout. Since the episodes are tonally ambiguous and the piece has no specific key, it is possible to transpose the episodes arbitrarily, but experimentation reveals that the options are not equivalent. Care is taken to avoid starting too often on the same note or in the same range, and also to avoid having the phrases start or end too squarely on the beat, and also to avoid reusing the same pickup and ending gestures, so that each episode begins and ends in its own distinctive way.

The relationship between the two voices in this piece is what I might describe as “choreographed chaos.” The voices may sound at times like they are contradicting each other, or tripping over each other, or going off in their own directions obliviously, but they still give each other enough space that their own individual features can shine through the discord. Whatever “destructive interference” occurs between the parts is meant to be occasional and not constant — that’s to say, the clamor is full of deliberately positioned gaps that allow us to peek inside and see each protagonist clearly. As we hear the parts interact, we might think “This can’t go on much longer — it’s unsustainable!” But they always reach a discernible cadence or stopping point after each six-measure span, as if they had been rescued just in time — saved by the bell. These evenly timed cadences are one giveaway that the seemingly chaotic relationship between the parts has been carefully planned.

A dissonant interval palette is used throughout, and great attention is paid to maintaining this palette, so that if a prominent consonance were to occur, it might sound “wrong” in contrast to all of the staged clashes and pratfalls that come to sound “right.” Tonal centers are never maintained for long, but they are allowed to develop just long enough that we can feel pulled towards certain notes and can experience others as unexpected or out of place.

The penultimate passage is marked lacrimoso and may be the closest I’ve come in any of my canons to writing a passage that sounds vaguely Chopinesque. The sorrowful ethos of this one passage is an unanticipated break from the scherzando quality of the piece, and an intensifier of the return to scherzando in the final passage.

I mentioned that Cinnabar reminds me of Canon 74, Ruby, but Ruby has a severe demeanor, not a comical one; the resemblance is in the musical materials used, not the overall tone. If I try to think of another canon that has a comical element, #49, Gallium comes to mind. In that piece, the two voices start out with a harmonious, tonal relationship, then progress towards increasing discord and tonal ambiguity, and then suddenly spring back to clarity and alignment. I think that many of my other canons have bits of humor here and there, if you know where to look — but the current #94 and the earlier #49 are two I’ve written so far that actually strive to maintain it across the span of the piece.

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