Canon #79, Diaspore

Here’s my Canon #79 – “Diaspore.”

I wrote this piece to explore 11/8 time, divided as 3+3+3+2.

In a recent post, I reflected on why I hadn’t managed to use an odd time signature in any of my first seventy-five canons. The reason is that I’m often seeking rhythmic contrast between the two voices, and I found it difficult to achieve such contrast while still reinforcing the structure of the odd meter. It seemed to me that in order respect the meter, I needed to make the voices more rhythmically similar, but for reasons good or bad, I simply didn’t want to do that. Finally, in Canons 76, 77, and 78 I found an approach I liked. The idea was to have the theme alternate between different subdivisions of the odd meter. So, for example, the theme in Canon 79 alternates between 3+2+2 and 2+2+3 subdivisions of 7/8. When such a theme is layered on itself with a skew, we hear contrasting subdivisions at once. A sense of rhythmic contrast is built into the framework, as is the indisputable fact of being in the odd meter. But now with Canon 79, I think I’ve managed to take the simple, direct approach to writing a canon in an odd meter. In Canon 79, at all times, in both voices, the same subdivision of 11/8 as 3+3+3+2 is operative. And lo and behold, there’s still enough rhythmic variety for my ear.

The piece is harmonically simple, falling squarely in A major with no alterations. It’s an invertible canon at the second, with diatonic imitation, and a lag of one bar. The soprano is the leader in the first half, and the roles are reversed in the second half. The ethos is buoyant.

For whatever reason, I seem to be more at home writing melodies that favor stepwise as opposed to arpeggiated motion; this piece is a rare example where a more arpeggiated style felt natural to me.

I’m happy with how the piece came out, but as I was writing it and listening to some of the early drafts, I wondered if it was just a “toy.” This got me thinking about the differences between “toy” and “miniature” in my own lexicon. To me, a toy is a small disposable piece, a piece that you write to learn something or to demonstrate a point, but that you wouldn’t revisit beyond a few listens because you don’t expect to discover anything new in it. A miniature can be mistaken for a toy because it’s also small and might seem simple, but if you make it your focus, you find enough subtlety and beauty within the piece’s narrow confines to envelop your entire awareness. That’s to say a miniature can become gigantic in your mind, while a toy cannot. As for an etude or technical study, it can be either toy or a miniature.

Of course I’m aiming to write miniatures, not toys, but if one of my pieces seems like a toy should I still give it a name and number and include it in my collection? I suppose so, if I like it well enough. Sometimes what one dismisses as a toy turns out to be a miniature. And sometimes a toy can be made into a miniature with a few small changes. Many of the canons I now consider as miniatures began as toys.




Canon #78, Verdite

Announcing Canon #78 – “Verdite.” Listen to it here:

Canon 78 continues my exploration of odd time signatures – it’s in 7/8 – and it’s a companion piece to Canon 77 which is in 5/4. Like the earlier piece, Canon 78 is an invertible canon at the second, with a lag of one bar. The imitation is diatonic and the sonority emphasizes thirds and sixths. The piece is mostly in G major with some excursions to C. The melody is conceived with an alternating pattern of subdivisions of each 7/8 measure, going like this: 3+2+2 / 2+2+3 / 3+2+2 / 2+3+3. When such a melody is layered on itself with a skew of one bar, we repeatedly hear 3+2+2 against 2+2+3. At least, we hear a sense of 3+2+2 against 2+2+3; we don’t hear exactly that because the melody has been densely elaborated on top of that metrical framework and does stray from the framework or obscure it at times. The bass is the leader in the first half, and the roles are reversed in the second half. The ethos is sprightly and the texture is saturated. The piece came together pretty quickly, which for me means a few days. As with many canons, it was the cadences that caused me the most questioning. In many of my invertible canons I place a full cadence at the end of the first half and often leave a pause before beginning the inverted section. In this case I wanted to keep the motion going across sections, so I tried the make the cadence at the midpoint less conclusive than I normally would. As for the final cadences, they’re often challenging because, while you can always get the motion to stop, it’s not always apparent how to do that in a short space and do it in a way that’s convincing and satisfying. Here the solution involved bringing the lines quickly through an initial deceptive cadence, moving into an extra bar of free counterpoint which leads to the final cadence. A C# in one place hints at D major, which seems to add some freshness to the final return to G.

Music, Voice

Silent Night

I had a full day to myself yesterday to record a Christmas song. Here are two versions of Silent Night:

Making these recordings was a chance to experiment with a few performance concepts that I’ve been interested in. The first is the idea of singing with a smile. After making a handful of recordings and reviewing them all, the ones I liked best turned out to be those in which I had decided to physically smile while singing. I was surprised at how clearly I could “hear” my smile wherever it occurred.

Some voice teachers say that smiling improves vocal production, but others say that smiling with the mouth creates detrimental tension and a singer should really only smile with the eyes. In these recordings I’m unabashedly smiling with everything I’ve got, and this leads into the second concept I want to mention: vocal acting. In roughly seven years of taking voice lessons, I’ve spent a lot of time on the physical technique of singing but much less on the technique of acting, assuming a persona and conveying it through vocal nuance. In these Silent Night recordings, I’m imagining myself as someone who is ecstatically devout and I’m trying to convey that sense of devotion as overtly as I can. I think that’s what the song calls for.

I never expected that Silent Night would become such a significant part of my musical life, but it has. Back in 2014, when I was trying to build my knowledge of jazz harmony, I followed the pianist David Berkman’s advice to practice reharmonizing simple tunes like Silent Night. I made a dozen reharmonizations of this very tune and arranged my favorites into the first piece of what would become a full Christmas album. While I remain fascinated as ever by the complexities of harmony, and I’m now exploring some of those complexities in my guitar arrangements, I’m paying more attention to some “simple” things that I feel I skipped over in my musical journey. What have I skipped? Well, if I could go back and add one positive element to my teenage years, it would be that along with picking up classical guitar, I would learn to strum and sing folk songs (by myself, yes, but also in groups). Well, I’m thrilled to be doing that now.

What is possible with a voice and the plainest, simplest guitar accompaniment? In 2019, I’m hoping to sing more, strum more, and make more recordings like these to find out.


Phrasing Exercise: Anticipation

Performing a piece of music is a challenge in temporal awareness, in the sense that you have be conscious of the past (what you’ve just played), the present (what you’re playing now), and the future (what you’re going to play next). You want to be aware of the past so you can respond to it and build upon it. You want to be aware of the present so that you can stay connected to what you’re actually playing. And you want to be aware of the future so that you can hint at what’s coming next and be ready when it arrives. How can you do all these things at once?

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Album Release: Canons on Clavichord

I’m pleased to release a new album containing nine of my canons performed by Matthew McConnell on an instrument that is dear to me, the clavichord.

This album is called, simply, Canons on Clavichord, and it’s a sequel to Canons, which was released in May 2017. The earlier album features forty-five selections performed on the harpsichord. Both albums are part of my long-term quest to explore some tiny portion of the boundless possibilities of the canon form.

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Writing a Tabla Concerto

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my musical focus this summer has been on writing a concerto for tabla and percussion quartet, for tabla artist Shawn Mativetsky and members of the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble. I undertook this project along with five other composers who wrote concertos of approximately 8 minutes each, as part of the Shastra 2018 summer workshop organized by Payton MacDonald. It has been a wonderful experience in every way.

Here is a recording of the first movement of my concerto. Turn up the volume, it’s meant to be heard loud:

My goals for this first movement were quite specific. I wanted to explore how material from a traditional tabla composition or kaida could be shared by a four-player percussion ensemble. The idea is that that other instruments in the ensemble — cymbal, bongo, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, bass drum, tam tam — should each focus on a certain aspect of the tabla part and echo it, reflect it, or otherwise imitate it.

I should note that the idea of playing tabla material on an instrument other than the tabla is not new. All tabla compositions can be recited vocally using syllables that refer to specific strokes or stroke combinations — this vocal recitation is a central part of traditional tabla practice. Moving beyond tradition, percussionists like Pete Lockett and Dan Weiss have experimented with mapping each of the individual tabla strokes or bols to the Western drumset. However, I had a four-player percussion ensemble to work with and I wanted to go beyond merely translating the tabla part to one other percussion instrument.

One way I could have approached my piece is to take a long, fully-composed tabla solo and assign each tabla stroke to one of the ensemble instruments, thereby creating a direct orchestration of the tabla solo. For this piece, however, I took a different approach as I wanted to leave room for a more creative interplay between tabla and ensemble. Instead of trying to orchestrate an extended tabla composition, I took a short, four-bar composition as my seed material. The piece begins with the tabla stating this four-bar composition, after which the tabla player is free to improvise variations on the seed. As the tabla player goes on improvising variations, the ensemble echoes different aspects of the seed itself, staying true to its original form. This means that the outcome of the piece is quite dependent on the tabla player’s improvisational choices. When the tabla player creates a variation that differs markedly from the seed, the tabla part will seem to contrast with what the ensemble is doing; but when the tabla player restates the seed or creates a variation that’s close to its original form, the tabla part will seem to be in sync with the ensemble.

Neither I nor tabla soloist Shawn Mativetsky were sure how well this would work before we got to the rehearsals, but it turned out to work better than expected. Shawn told me that as he played, he found it interesting to hear the “shell” or “skeleton” of the kaida continuously echoed by the ensemble. He said that the oscillation of being in and out of sync with the ensemble, as he played closer and more distant variations on the kaida, added a level of variety to the piece which kept it interesting.

Another point to note is that the ensemble in this piece consists of melodic instruments like marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel along with purely percussive instruments like cymbal, tam tam, bongo, and orchestral bass drum. In writing the piece I faced the question: How does one create a melodic interpretation of a purely rhythmic composition? How to introduce pitch in a way that emphasizes the character of a rhythm rather than distracting from or overtaking that character? I had begun to think about these questions in working on my earlier percussion piece Escher’s Drum.  With Escher’s Drum, the melody came about in an expected way when percussionist Gavin Ryan chose to perform my purely rhythmic parts on pitched gamelan instruments; with the current tabla piece, I wanted to “melodize” the rhythm in a more deliberate way. The result can be heard in the repeating riff played by marimba and vibraphone.

The piece begins with a kind of fugal introduction, where the tabla part first states the kaida, and then the cymbal enters, imitating the tabla’s na strokes. Next the bass drum enters, imitating a different aspect of the tabla composition, the resonant bass strokes ge. Next the tam tam can be heard to double the tabla’s tun stroke.  (This was an aspect of the piece I was unsure about: the tam tam has a long sustain even when the player attempts to mute it, while the tabla’s tun stroke is quickly muted by subsequent strokes.  Would the tam tam’s tail be too long? In fact I think it worked out fine, as the tail creates a kind of textural mass that’s welcome in the piece.)  Next the vibraphone enters, doubling the tabla’s na strokes as the cymbal had begun doing earlier. And then the marimba enters, playing a riff that aims to interpret the tabla part melodically.  The vibraphone joins the marimba in this effort and eventually they play in canon. Later the glockenspiel enters, imitating the tabla’s na strokes mostly on a single note, but with bits of melody suggested. Then the bongo enters, trying to copy the tabla part as closely as possible, while the tabla moves to an accompanying role, the cymbal switches to a contrasting rhythm, and the vibraphone plays a chordal vamp. In the final part of the piece we hear the glockenspiel play a cadential melody three times, in dotted quarter notes, with the final statement skewed so that the last note aligns with the final rhythmic accent on the sam of the teental cycle.

A number of things about this piece worked better than I expected in live performance, including the improvisational freedom in the tabla part that led to that part being in and out of sync with the ensemble, and also the sustained tam tam strokes that added textural mass.  What didn’t work as well as I imagined? For one, I expected a greater timbral contrast between the marimba and the vibraphone, and I was depending on this contrast to create a sense of variety as the shared “riff” is stated many times by both instruments in the opening sections. In the recording, there’s less timbral contrast between the two instruments than I’d like, and so I feel the statements of the riff can seem too repetitive. I’m not sure this is a compositional problem though; it could probably be “solved” by a different recording technique along with contrasting mallet choices for the vibraphone and marimba parts.  The present recording was made from a distance with a pair of AEA N8 ribbon mics in a Blumlein stereo configuration.  If I could do it over again I’d move the marimba and vibraphone closer to the mics, or if even more luxury was afforded, I’d add add additional mics to isolate each of those instruments, and I’d then bring them forward in the mix so their individual characters could be heard more clearly.

The second movement of my concerto, a brief “interlude” that’s meant to be like a deep breath between the two intense outer movements, can be heard here:

The third movement of the concerto explores how a percussion ensemble can join the tabla in a traditional cadential composition or tihai. We would have needed a little more rehearsal time during the 2018 Shastra session to get a good recording of this third movement, but I’m delighted to have such great rendering of the first two movements, and I hope to continue writing for tabla, to continue collaborating with the wonderful folks at Shastra, as well as with anyone else who might be interested to join me in similar cross-cultural musical explorations.

My photography from the 2018 Shastra rehearsals can be seen here.