Thursday, September 26, 2013
This week I took a break from the modes of limited transposition and decided to focus on another technique that Messiaen used. It was nice to take a break from the modes and take a different approach. In The Technique of My Musical Language, Messiaen writes a lot about prime numbers, mainly in regard to phrase length - phrases with a total rhythmic length that is a prime number are preferred.
I decided to use primes in a different way here. I constructed a sequence of intervals that used exclusively prime numbers, that was non-retrogradable, and that had a total number of thirteen intervals (also a prime number). Basically, I had to use these intervals like a row, using each one before the next, following their order. I didn't repeat the intervals within the sequence. The sequence is the following: [-3,11,5,1,7,2,13,2,7,1,5,11,-3]. I made the thirds minor to avoid a diatonic situation. All other intervals are major or perfect.
After I finished, I was looking up prime numbers on the internet, mainly to find a title for a piece. I noticed on the Wikipedia that 1 is not considered a prime number. My relationship to prime numbers mainly consists of them helping me with stage fright in public restrooms, so I wasn't really aware of this. But my use of 1 turned out to be one of the most important decisions I made. It really defined the character of the piece because it was realized with repeated notes. It was actually annoying to deal with in the composing process, but, along with the juxtaposed perfect fifth, it gave the piece a specific vibe.
The title, Refresh, not only refers to a refreshing break from the modes of limited transposition, but also the September weather in New York City (it's the best), and the refreshment allowed by my recently acquired means of surfing into the cooler months (it's also the best).
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Thursday I was surfing with my buddy Justin Keller out at Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY. The waves were okay. Not the best, but still some fun rides. Halfway through the session we spotted some unusually large animals surfacing about 150-200 yards out to sea. At first we thought dolphins, which we have seen before. But soon these creatures were jumping out of the water and they were clearly something bigger. Some construction workers working on the boardwalk thought they were Humpback whales. They were too far to accurately identify by my knowledge, but they were definitely whales. They spent about 45 minutes surfacing, doing back flops, and spraying mist out of their blowholes. It was truly an amazing sight, unforgettable. All the surfers were cheering them on as they showed off. I was so surprised to see whales this close to New York City. It was the best. I felt a connection to nature. My cozy wetsuit was an imitation of the skin of these magnificent creatures and we were both playing in the sea.
So I had to somehow relate this to a composition. I had already started the piece before we saw the whales, but decided that it had a "watery" enough sound to warrant a whale referencing title. The piece is constructed of Messiaen's third mode. First I extracted all the seventh chords I could out of the scale, then constructed a melody, and finally harmonized it with the chords. At one point I was playing with the idea of having pedal tones underneath, but finally decided I liked it better with out. For my improvisation I stayed within the scale. It was a little tricky and you might hear me hesitating a bit, but halfway through I started thinking in blocks of these chords which I had used to construct the piece, and I think the improvisation opens up a bit then.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Filbert Street utilizes all six transpositions of Messiaen's sixth mode. Each phrase, separated with a measure of rest, is written in a different transposition. I also used non-retrogradable rhythms for this piece. Each phrase is an extended palindrome. Ironically, to create a non-retrogradable phrase such as these, one has to compose a phrase up to a certain point, and then actually retrograde the rhythm to finish it. So the retrograde is what makes it non-retrogradable. In The Technique of My Musical Language Messiaen explains his use of rhythmic pivot points. Each non-retrogradable phrase has a center note at where the reflection takes place. This ties in with his preference for phrases who's total rhythmic value is a prime number, such as a phrase equaling eleven eighth notes. Conventional phrase lengths are typically in even numbers, and the use of prime numbers can create a sense openness, and get one away from the ubiquitous four-bar phrase. I didn't actually concern myself with the prime numbers while I composed. But afterward I noticed that all the phrases were actually prime in length, with the exception of the last one.
Filbert Street in San Francisco is one of the steepest streets in the world, and my wife and I had the pleasure of driving down it a few weeks ago. It was scary and fun. The hills of that city really give it a vibe.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
For this one I'm working with two transpositions of the second mode, which is the diminished or octatonic scale. The right hand chords are derived from the second transposition, the left hand from the first. An additional organizing parameter was used, in the area of intervals. The left hand and right hand intervallic structures mirror each other. This is different from Attraction (July 25) in that here the mirroring is not concerning the geography of the keyboard (if that makes any sense at all).
The combination of these two organizing parameters (the scales and the interval structures) limited my choices quite a bit. As I worked, my process evolved into this: For each of the four bar sections, I first composed the melody, then filled in right hand harmony with mode two, second transposition. Then I inverted the intervals and found appropriate notes for the left hand in mode two, first transposition. What it came down to was choices between left hand structures that were a minor third apart.
For the improv sections, I decided to improvise with the two modes. In the first open section my right hand continued with the second transposition, with the left hand continued with the first transposition. In the second open section, I flipped the two. It is quite sparse and simple, but I am improvising with polymodality, which felt like a good brain exercise.
The title seems like a stupid reference to the composing process. But I'm actually referencing my general feeling the last couple days. This is a great time of year in NYC. The weather cools a bit, the air seems clearer. It reminds me of three memorable moves in my past. One, moving to NYC (gulp) eleven years ago. Two, moving to Brooklyn seven years ago. Three, moving downstairs in the same house in Brooklyn two years ago. All three moves were exciting. Late summer/early fall is the time when I'm sad to see summertime ending, but also looking forward to getting back into the routine and getting some work done. It's bittersweet, and it can leave me feeling stuck and then unstuck quite rapidly.