Music

Canon #4, Topaz – Revised

Here is a major revision of my Canon #4, Topaz, a piece I had initially finished on December 20, 2014:

What is the piece about?

On a technical front, the piece explores what you can do with a long descending chromatic line in the context of a canon. Ever since 2014, I’ve thought of Canon 4 as my “Descending Chromatic Line Piece” because it has continued to be my only canon that features such a line — a sequence of quarter notes descending in half steps — so prominently. On a stylistic front, the piece reminds me of a Bach canon more than many of my other efforts, though it makes no claim of being in the authentic style of Bach, and I’m sure it contains much that deviates from the master’s style. I don’t ever set out to “write like Bach.” I do set out to write music that gives me a hint of the same pleasure that I experience when I listen to Bach. This is one case where I felt I had been successful in creating for myself a pathway to experiencing that pleasure. On an emotive front, I’ve always liked the sense of forward drive in this piece, the propulsion.

What did I do to the piece and why?

I found myself wishing that the original piece from 2014 were a little longer and that the ending were less abrupt. My approach to writing canons has been that I only “say” what I’m ready to say at the time. I try to keep it short and sweet. But sometimes, in retrospect, what seemed appropriately short now seems too short.

Over the years, I had made a few attempts to add material and write a longer ending, but I couldn’t come up with anything that matched what was already there, so I left the piece alone. But recently it occurred to me that a natural way to extend a canon that features a descending chromatic line would be to introduce a new section that features an ascending one. So now the piece has an ABA structure, with the A section featuring a descending line and the B section featuring an ascending one. There’s also a new ending.

How did I do it?

To create the new B section of this piece, I wondered if I would have to write it completely from scratch. The answer was, mercifully, no! I decided to try an experiment which usually doesn’t work for a tonal piece — I made a chromatic mirror inversion of the whole A section. That basically means reflecting all the notes across a horizontal axis so the whole piece is turned upside down, with all of the note-to-note distances preserved exactly. (It’s a laborious process to do this by hand, but software helps out.) This often gives usable results for non-tonal music, especially music that uses symmetric scales like the whole-tone scale or the octatonic/diminished scale — see my piece Birdsong, which uses chromatic mirror inversion everywhere — but for tonal music employing standard major/minor scales it often produces something incoherent. In this particular case though, the result made sense. The long descending chromatic line turned into a long ascending chromatic line, as expected. What surprised me was that the rest of the material accompanying and surrounding the chromatic line also remained intelligible, though not fully “ready to go.” I spent some time revising it, allowing myself to deviate more extensively from strict imitation than I would have done back in 2014, when strictness was more of a priority for me.

As for the ending, the perennial challenge is how to bring the motion of the canon to a stop in a way that is in character with the rest of the piece, but different enough that it can be recognized as an ending, not a continuation; terse enough that it doesn’t sound like fluff in contrast to the tight counterpoint that preceded it, but long enough that it lets you down gently, with some preparation and grace. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of writing canons or any music that’s intricate and dense. To make it harder, I find that endings are an area where my opinions or reactions occasionally lack the stability that I can depend on elsewhere. Generally, what sounded like good counterpoint in 2014 still sounds like good counterpoint to me today in 2021, but what felt like a satisfying ending may not still feel that way; often it does, but sometimes I’m inspired to undertake a revision like the current one, looking for a new ending that hopefully combines logic with some pleasing whimsicality.

How can I hear the new and old versions side by side?

The new version of Canon 4 is here (or use the player at the top of this post); the old version is here. You can also read about my other recent adventures in revision, including my efforts on Canon 18 and Canon 22.

Music

Gospel Gifts

Want to hear some fantastic gospel singing? Here are four of my favorite selections that I’ve found in the Internet Archive’s vast catalogue of digitized 78rpm records. Scroll down to read the story of how I first came upon these gems.

Even though I don’t think there’s much point in trying to compare musical styles or in arguing whether one is better than another — they’re all unique and multifaceted and fundamentally incomparable, like people themselves — if you insisted that I name the one musical style that I find the most moving, I mean the most physically and spiritually rousing, I mean the style that most makes a person want to stand up and clap and sing, I mean the stye that most makes a person want to praise “the Lord” in the current moment of listening, no matter the prior depth of the listener’s belief — I would have to say it’s gospel music, especially the gospel music composed and performed by black artists. But even though I’ve held gospel music in high regard for as long as I can remember, it was a genre that I didn’t really collect, back in the CD era when I still collected music.

Fast forward to Sunday September 19, 2021. It’s the streaming era now, and the most common way I encounter new music is by clicking links that are shown to me on YouTube or Twitter, a process of mindless self-subjugation to the whims of an algorithm, a process that leaves me thoroughly uninvested in the music I find. But on this particular Sunday, my partner and I wanted to take a day trip… and because we decided to go ahead and rent a car even though we were getting a late start with noon coming and going and no destination chosen… and because we finally got in the car and turned on the radio and started flipping through FM stations… and because we whimsically kept flipping even after finding a few decent options… only because all those things happened the precise way they did, including the nice weather that prompted the idea of the day trip in the first place, we landed on WZBC 90.3 Newton, “Boston College’s premier student-run radio station!”, at exactly the right time, 12:25pm, when it was playing selections from a compilation titled A Capella Black Gospel on the NarroWay label, and I was rapt.

Later that day I did some sleuthing and found that my favorite selection from the radio broadcast — “In The Garden” by a group called The Masters of Harmony of Detroit — was available online at The Internet Archive. It turns out that archive.org has a treasure trove of digitized 78rpm records that are in the public domain, now freely available to play and download in beautifully scratchy audio. If you were a kid in the 1980s like I was, your parents probably had a collection of LPs and maybe a separate box of 45s stashed away somewhere, and maybe in that special box there were a few stray 78s. Even back in the 1980s, 78s seemed like relics to me. I certainly never imagined that years later, I’d be able to go somewhere called “online” and search for any of those 78s my parents owned, and any 78s my neighbors owned, and in fact any 78s anybody ever owned, and probably find them and be able to hear them without needing a record player.

It looks like “In the garden” is one of the few available recordings by The Masters of Harmony of Detroit even though the group’s remarkable leader, Thomas Kelly, who founded the group in 1953, kept performing with it through 2017 when he was 103 years old. I’m particularly taken by the entry of a strong, cutting bass voice halfway through that track, and it made me realize that strong bass entries — whether vocal or instrumental (e.g. a powerful emergence of the subject in a Bach organ fugue on the pedal) — are pretty much my favorite thing that can happen in music. Anyone else share this preference for those moments when the lowest voice takes the spotlight?

The other three selections are not ones I heard on the radio that fortunate Sunday the 19th, but ones that caught my ear in the subsequent week of digging around the collection of gospel 78s at the Internet Archive. “I’m Alright Now” stands out to me for the way it builds and builds till it reaches a point of near-ecstasy but stops in time to fit neatly on one side of a 78. Who is this amazing soloist? I’m not sure how to find out, but I did follow a link to a scanned issue of The Cash Box magazine from 1955 where the album is reviewed. The reviewer gave “I’m Alright Now” a C+ which meant “Good” according to the magazine’s uninflated grading scheme. Still, I’d say the grade should have been a couple of letters higher — what do you think?

The third selection, “Run on Home and Live with God,” starts with such passion that I imagine the ensemble and soloist had been singing their hearts out for hours, reaching a state of utter joy before the recording was made. For a producer or recordist, it must have been a challenge in those days to try to represent the best of what a group could do, given that you had only two short sides of a 78 to work with. Certainly this track has me hooked on the Soul Satisfiers of Philadelphia — but who were they and how can I hear more? It’s tantalizing that in our current age when so much media is instantly accessible, we can’t access anything by this group except for this one track and the flip side.

As for “Precious Lord” by the Kinds of Harmony of Alabama, well, I find it hypnotic, complex, and totally moving — maybe you do too?

Music

Canon #93, Meteorite

I’m pleased to share Canon 93, “Meteorite.”

When I listen to this piece I can imagine a collage of scenes where we see, in one moment, a meteor traveling rapidly through space against a backdrop of stars and planets, and in another moment, the meteor ensconced on Earth, where it’s been sitting for hundreds or thousands years, with vegetation growing around it, as a group of humans discovers it and tries in vain to dislodge it and see what’s underneath. This imagery came to me after I had finished composing the piece, while I was trying to choose a name for it. The piece itself is not intentionally programmatic – each passage was not designed to represent a specific moment in a meteor’s journey – but the more I experiment with this imagery after the fact, the more it seems to click.

My canons are named after gems and minerals – is “meteorite” one of those things? Well, people do make cool jewelry from meteorites, and one can find “meteorite” listed in gemstone glossaries, even though the term does not refer to one specific substance. One of my earlier canons – so far my only one to explore an alternate tuning system – is called Chondrite and that’s a specific category of meteorite. One of the little things I go through in naming my pieces is to question whether a new name should be off limits because I’ve already used a related name. But I have a piece named Quartz and a piece named Amethyst and I consider that situation to be fine even though amethyst is a kind of quartz (yet the pieces themselves aren’t closely related). So I decided it’s also fine to name the current piece Meteorite – I really like this name – even though I’ve already used Chondrite and the two pieces aren’t closely related except for the fact that I consider them both to have elements of “weirdness,” the quality of being “far-out,” irregular, or unconventional in relation to my other pieces.

The seeds of this piece were created back at the beginning of May, when I started a long series of experiments with retrograde imitation. I would write a theme, then reverse it and superimpose it upon itself, trying different vertical and horizontal skews until something provocative emerged. In my early experiments, I worked with themes that had some element of disorder: that’s to say, they avoided a clear tonal center and a recognizable pulse. In some cases the melodic contour was jagged, eschewing a sense of line. I became fascinated by the way I could take these short, irregular themes and turn them into canons in a way that either magnified or reduced the sense of disorder. On the one hand, I could make an irregular theme sound even more chaotic and unpredictable by placing it into a canon, and then I could repeat the canon again and again with various adjustments to the vertical and horizontal skews between the parts. I could do this in a way that created sustained mayhem. You could listen to the result and never guess that it had been constructed systematically through the repetition of short unit. You might assume something new was happening at each moment. On the other hand, I could take an irregular theme and turn it into a canon that sounded clearer, more cohesive, more goal-directed than either part by itself. Assuming it was possible to displace the parts rhythmically in a way that avoided shared hits, the result might sound like a single, through-composed line, not like a canon at all. And then by varying the vertical skew between the parts, I could create many different versions of that same line, each with a distinct character, and yet each fundamentally linked to the others.

So, starting this past Spring, I began amassing dozens of retrograde canons that explored these two different extremes, using the canon process to increase the order or magnify the disorder inherent in a theme. At some point in my experiments, I changed course. I moved away from tonally ambiguous themes with unstable rhythms and started to focus on simple ideas using pentatonic scales and regular rhythms. From this later, more tuneful material, I created Canon 92, “Ammolite.” After finishing work on Canon 92 in early August I went back to my earlier non-tonal material and forged it into Canon 93. The two pieces are connected in that they emerged from the same series of experiments, and they’re both large-scale works made of many short retrograde canons woven together. They’re different in the tonal and rhythmic material they use and the aesthetic goals they pursue.

My canons always benefit from interpretation by a skilled performer — the same is true of any music — but I think many of my canons can still be understood – if not fully enjoyed – by listening to how a computer “plays” them. But Canon 93 is one piece where the computer-generated preview leaves much to be desired. That’s because the more chaotic sections in the piece are actually full of short gestures that can be heard as distinct phrases, but the phrase boundaries can be easy to miss if the performance doesn’t emphasize them. In working with this material over several months, I’ve learned to hear these phrases (i.e. my ear has learned to parse them), and so even when I listen to the more wild or disorderly parts of the piece, everything makes “sense” to me, so much so that I’m not sure I’d even call these sections wild or disorderly anymore. Without a performer to elucidate the phrases (or without a lot of MIDI editing on my part) some sections of the computer-generated preview might sound much more chaotic or confusing than I actually intend them to be.

I’ve used the word “chaos” a lot so I should say something about chaos as an aesthetic goal. There is art out there that seeks to challenge the listener by making him or her feel disoriented, overwhelmed, or confused. This has never been my goal for an entire piece though I’m becoming increasingly interested in how this goal can be pursued at the scale of an individual passage, as a way of creating contrast within a piece. In Meteorite, I often use a more chaotic passage as a kind of preparation, a way of leading into a more cohesive or tightly organized passage, so that when the cohesion arrives it can be perceived as such. I’m also interested in the idea of presenting material that sounds chaotic and then repeating the material enough that the listener can become familiar with it and begin to perceive an organizing principle within it. For me, the goal of a “difficult” passage is not to prevent the listener from perceiving a pattern or organizing principle, but simply to delay this perception so that when it arrives it can be experienced as a kind of revelation.

Some miscellaneous notes about the piece:

The ethos is similar to my earlier pieces Thulite and Thorite but those pieces don’t use retrograde imitation. And where Thorite and Thulite used the octatonic scale as a tonal framework, Meteorite makes full use of the chromatic scale without any specific framework in mind. One technical similarity between Meteorite and the earlier pieces is that they all avoid shared hits – the voices are staggered in a such a way that they never play together on the same beat, except for in certain special passages. I find that the consistent avoidance of shared hits is a feature that can add a kind of suspense (as in a tightrope walk), and a sense of order or intentional design to a piece, particularly a piece that doesn’t employ tonal hierarchies to gain these same qualities.

A few of the passages in this piece combine mirror inversion along with retrograde (e.g. the opening and closing passages), but the majority use retrograde only. As with Ammolite, the parts are often placed close together vertically in such a way that they cross, creating emergent themes and/or fusing into a unified line.

Some of the themes in this piece function almost like lego pieces: they may be presented first as discrete units, and later placed side by side in such a way that one flows directly into another, so they “snap together” into a new, longer phrase that is heard as a single unit.

One can view the piece as consisting of three sections with no pauses between them. The first section introduces lots of ideas and sets up contrasts between them. The statements in the first section tend to be shorter and more discrete and they are often arranged in a question-and-answer fashion. Midway through the piece, we enter the second section. This is where lines start to flow in a smother and more extended way. Some of the material here brings to my mind a jazz saxophonist playing long bebop lines, or a Baroque performer riffing on the organ, though of course the musical language of the piece is different from either of those styles. This second section is where we experience the greatest sense of cohesion, fluidity, and rhythmic energy in the piece. Finally the second section gives way to a third section that mostly reprises material from the first. Some of the more chaotic content from the first section is restated with some variations, representing a dissolution or breakdown of the coherence that had come to being in the second section. Only one new theme is introduced here, a plaintive tune that occupies only a few bars in between restatements of earlier material. The piece ends with the same rushing lines that opened the first section (I think of these lines as representing the meteor in flight) but the vertical displacements between the parts are changed and now the lines begin with a prefix — an extra bar of jagged material — that lets us perceive the line as a progression from jagged to smooth, finally ending on a single target note. Although the piece does not aim to establish a tonal center — in fact, it aims to prevent any candidate tonal center from lasting too long — it is hoped that the last note in the piece sounds “right” in a way that any other of the twelve pitches would not, there must be implicit tonal hierarchies at play.

At roughly eleven minutes, Meteorite happens to be my longest piece so far. It forms a trilogy with its predecessors Birdsong and Ammolite, which are also extended works made from many short canonic passages. Those two pieces are long too, in comparison to my other canons, but for me they move forward in a way that seems almost expeditious, whereas Meteorite demands my attention in a way that makes me feel I’ve spent quite some time in a labyrinth before I find my way or am delivered out. It’s a piece that I’m still learning to hear, and as I come to know it better and better, it doesn’t seem quite as long as it once did; I wouldn’t want it to be shorter.

Music

Canon #92, Ammolite

Canon 92 is a major effort of mine that’s been in the works for three months — my summer of 2021. I named it “Ammolite” which is an iridescent rainbow-colored gemstone made from fossils of the extinct ammonite mollusk. For me, Canon 92 is indeed a rainbow of moods and feelings, arranged in a kind of kaleidoscopic pattern such as we might see in an ammolite gem itself:

There are three important technical elements at play in this piece. First, retrograde imitation is used exclusively. This means that the follower always plays a backwards or reversed version of the leader’s material (with a rhythmic skew and vertical displacement that changes from passage to passage). Second, all the themes are made from scales with five or fewer notes. Most of the themes are in the familiar major and minor pentatonic scales, but some themes use scales with as few as three notes. (I should mention that even in these three-note passages, the listener might hear four or more distinct pitches because the two voices may be playing in a different transposition of the three-note scale.) Third, the voices overlap extensively, to the point that they sometimes lose their individual identities and fuse into an emergent or compound melody. This fusion is an intentional aspect of the piece’s design, beginning with the opening passage which sounds like a single voice even though it’s formed from two.

Continue reading
Music

Canon #91, Birdsong

My latest canon takes inspiration from birdsong. It’s my first canon that refers to a sound-world outside itself, and at over six minutes, it’s also my longest canon so far. It’s able to be long because it’s not a single continuous canon but rather a montage of over twenty-five canonic episodes, each one attempting to capture something that I’ve heard in the universe of bird vocalizations. Each episode is a strict inversion canon, where the follower moves in the opposite direction from leader, and most episodes are what I might call “rapid-fire” canons where the follower enters very quickly after the leader. The piece doesn’t have an plot per se, but among the canons I’ve written, it’s the one that might be the most suggestive or accommodating of a plot. It was particularly fun to write, and I’m particularly excited to share it:

Continue reading
Music

Canon #90, Thorite

Announcing Canon #90, “Thorite.”

This piece is a sequel to Canon #89, “Thulite” — I chose the name “Thorite” simply because it’s another mineral beginning with “th.”

Like its predecessor, this piece uses the octatonic or diminished scale. The articulation is staccato, and the voices almost never coincide. Each voice speaks in the pauses and gaps left by the other voice. Sometimes these gaps are between phrases (creating a sense that the voices are “taking turns”) and other times they’re within a phrase (creating a sense that the voices are speaking over one another).

This framework (octatonic scale, staccato articulation, no shared hits) allows for a good amount of freedom in composition. I found that I didn’t need to micromanage the intervallic relationships between voices in the same way that’s necessary with other canons. There’s one exception. I tried to keep the voices from playing the same pitch in direct succession, because the sound of an octave (even if staggered) is distinct enough that the listener might expect it to have some special meaning; if no special meaning is found, the experience is slightly disappointing. Other than avoiding octaves, I could pretty much let the voices flow according to their own whims without having to plan their vertical relationship on a note-by-note basis. This meant that I felt comfortable writing the piece from beginning to end without going through my typical iterative outlining process.

One thing I loved about writing this piece is the way it all grew from the material in the first twelve bars. In writing those first twelve bars, I kept facing the challenge of inventing new material — pulling something out of thin air, so to speak — but once those few bars had been written, the rest of the work was about restating and recombining the opening material — finding new meaning in it — all the way to the end.

On a technical front, the leader is in the bass most (but not all) of the time, and there’s a one-bar lag between leader and follower. The piece is notated in 4/4. It stays mostly in the octatonic scale containing C#-D but occasionally visits the other two octatonic scales (the one containing B-C and the one containing C-C#). It starts with imitation at the major sixth above, but the interval of imitation shifts around throughout the piece.

A rough outline of the piece might go like this. First there’s about ten bars of “conversation” where various key phrases are introduced. The conversation gives way to a passage that I call the “drunken zigzag.” Here, the voices ascend in an up-down-up-down fashion that is highly patterned, but is made to sound chaotic through a jagged, unpredictable rhythm. After the drunken zigzag, there’s a bit more conversation that then leads into the first “stretto,” a passage where the same theme is layered on top of itself multiple times. It’s not exactly akin to a fugal stretto and one could argue that stretto isn’t the right word to use here, but it’s the best one I’ve got at the moment so I’m using it. Next we have a bit more conversation with echoes of themes from earlier conversations, and then we have a restatement of the drunken zigzag, this time with some doubling and a different interval of imitation between the voices. This second drunken zigzag then leads into a new stretto that’s based on the themes from the first two bars of the piece, rearranged so a phrase of the form AB now becomes BA. After this middle stretto we hear more conversation (again, with echoes of the previous ones) and this leads into another drunken zigzag that’s special because it’s at half the speed (e.g. the rhythmic values are doubled). Next there’s some connective material that has the purpose of launching us into the third and final stretto, which uses the same rhythmic structure as the first stretto, but now the theme is descending instead of ascending. This third stretto visits all three transpositions of the octatonic scale, and leads us back to the C#-D scale where the piece began. The piece concludes with a repeated statement of a now-familiar phrase, first introduced in the second bar of the piece, with the voices finally, conspicuously imitating each other at the octave.

I’ve tried to blog about each canon I write, but there’s always much more to say about the piece than I can hope to write down. Reaching my ninetieth canon feels like something of a milestone so I’m planning to try something new. I’ll make a video where I walk through the piece and try to share how it works. Stay tuned for that.

Music

Canon #89, Thulite

Announcing Canon #89, “Thulite.”

Many of my canons pursue an orderly relationship between leader and follower. As much as I want a canon to be interesting and provocative – a goal which sometimes results in musical complexity – I still want the canon’s structure to be clear. It’s not sufficient that the follower echoes the leader; this echoing must also be apparent to the ear. There’s a certain classic sound of contrapuntal imitation that I’m usually going for, regardless of whether the musical language is antique or modern. The leader announces a melody and we hear the follower reproduce it in a way that seems preordained, inexorable, “right” – like the voice of God. The leader sets an expectation and the follower fulfills it.

In writing my latest canon, “Thulite,” I wanted to try for a different aesthetic. I wondered if I could write a canon where the follower didn’t seem to be imitating the leader – where the two voices actually seemed to be antagonizing or contradicting each other – even if in fact, the follower was copying the leader exactly. Perhaps if the leader behaved in a more erratic, jagged, and unpredictable way than I usually seek, the follower too would sound unpredictable, as if it were doing its own thing altogether, even if that “thing” had been heard once before. Perhaps if the voices occasionally became entangled, the leader/follower relationship itself would be obscured.

To achieve this goal of a canon that doesn’t sound canonic, I put aside my typical writing process where I start with a skeletal outline and add detail in a series of iterations. Instead I composed the piece “on the fly,” one measure after another, without knowing anything about what might come next. The piece became a series of brief episodes, some of them having the jerky, erratic quality that I had been going for, and others having more of the classic imitative sound. The piece goes back and forth between chaotic and structured. But even in the latter case, the voices still seem to tug against each other with accents that don’t line up nicely.

The piece reminds me of the jerky, sudden, shifting movements of a cat-and-mouse game.

When I sat down to write, I intended to generate new material from beginning to end, but then I found a way to reuse some of what I had already written. One section from the early in the piece is repeated near the end with the same rhythmic structure but different melodic contours. And then, at the conclusion, we hear the material from the very beginning of the piece repeated in a different “key.” I put the word “key” in quotes because the piece is not conventionally tonal. Most of the material is in the B-C half-whole diminished scale (or octatonic scale). We hear enough material in this scale that its sound becomes familiar – a kind of tonal comfort zone – even though there is no specific center. In the middle of the piece, the leader remains in the established B-C half-whole diminished scale while the follower shakes things up, transposing material to the two other half-whole diminished scales (the A-sharp-B one and the C-D-flat one). As the piece approaches the conclusion it settles back into the pure B-C diminished scale, but then, in a surprise, the final passage is stated with both voices in the foreign C-D-flat diminished scale.

Importantly, the voices never play on the same beat, though they come as close as a 32nd-note away. I wanted the rhythms to seem whimsical and less ordered than my typical style, but I tried to achieve this without anything fancy like changing meters, complex polyrhythms, metric modulation, or the like. The score is notated in 4/4 and looks quite conventional. The imitation is strict: the follower copies the leaders intervals and rhythms exactly.

Some of the challenges in this piece were 1) keeping a sense of variety within the selected tonal material of the half-whole diminished scale, 2) maintaining a sense of gestural discord between the voices and avoiding the classic sound of imitation, 3) disrupting the beat while maintaining enough of sense of meter that the music can be heard as tugging against something, 4) creating episode-to-episode transitions that sound natural on the one hand but unexpected on the other.

My typical writing process usually leaves me with a result that seems final and unchangeable, but Thulite, written in an atypical way for me, opened so many possibilities, and could have gone in so many directions, that I feel the piece is only one of many possible manifestations of the intentions at play. Usually it feels right to name a piece after a gemstone or mineral, but with Thulite, for the first time, I wondered if I should change my naming scheme and use a more descriptive title. To keep things simple, I decided to stick with stones for now. My next steps will be to write a few more canons that explore the stylistic ideas that Thulite brought into focus for me.