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This 21 message thread spans 2 pages: [1]  2  > >  
  Compositional technique  MartinY at 09:53 on 13 January 2009

I was thinking the other day about the "dark cloud constellations" of the Andes, where the shape is created by the lack of light in the Milky Way, caused by dust obscuring the light from the galaxy behind it. There is an analogy with the Sherlock Holmes story where "the dog which did NOT bark in the night" is an important clue.

I have tried to compose some experimental music files where what is missing is important, rather than what is there. Possible backgrounds which have holes in them could be note series, whitish noise, clusters or a truely random collection of notes, which thereby becomes not random. The results are not successful so far.

Maybe this is as daft as listening to the music minus one of a concerto? Has anyone written a successful piece where what is missing is as important as what is there? I am sure they have and the idea is not totally daft.

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 09:55 on 13 January 2009

I have been rather silly in that one obvious example is the Enigma Variations of Elgar....... but not really the sort of sound I was thinking of. Sorry about forgetting that.

  Re: Compositional technique  scott_good at 23:57 on 14 January 2009

Interesting thoughts.

Of course, the constellations can also be looked at as the outline of what is there ;-)

I have sketched a work in which a tone row series of 37 notes is through repetition, whittled down to a 6 note scale - I am quite happy with the idea, but am saving it for a trombone concerto for which the opportunity has not yet arisen. There is a dramatic purpose - I think of it as a clarifying throughout the piece - a blurry and highly chromatic idea reveals it's underlying nature (in the way that I want it to). From chaos to order.

I did use silences between figures in varying lengths to give a work it's unique shape - it's effectiveness is of course in the ears of the listener. Please have a listen at and listen to fugato - the work in it's entirety is posted (well, it is the 5th of 5 movements). But certainly, the spaces are as important to the quality of the musical effect as the notes themselves - at least in my intent.

Another technique using the computers is to filter sounds of various frequencies - a very common use. This can be very interesting, and I found in particular with ringing metals. I don't do this sort of thing anymore, but, perhaps another here could shed some light on this subject.



  Re: Compositional technique  scott_good at 16:32 on 15 January 2009

oh ya...

Martin, what is obvious about Enigma in this regard?

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 20:47 on 15 January 2009

Thanks very much Scott. Have had a quick listen but I am off to London for a Lute Society meeting shortly, so I will come back to the computer later.....

The enigma is that the beginning of Elgar's piece is not a theme, it is an accompaniment to a theme which we do not know. Many believe it is Auld Langs Eyne but Elgar says it isn't. Several other tunes can be made to fit.

So he set a music minus one problem for all. We have to guess the missing notes. If you had to guess the missing notes removed from a piece of truely random music I suppose it becomes like the solution to Turing's Enigma problem, where the solution came from the fact that there was one letter in the alphabet which could never be generated at any given time. This is not something you could perceive while listening to the music and probably impossible as it could be any note if the notes are truely random. You would just be able to show that the notes were not truely random. In fact it is now obvious that the missing notes from a random sequence are.... Another Random Sequence.... so no good.

Notes emerging from white noise is a better idea, as you say by transforming metallic sounds.

Should not write while waiting to go and get a train..... Thanks for your indulgence ...... Martin.

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 21:12 on 15 January 2009

Sorry, my brain has become completely addled...... I was right the first time. Every time you remove a tune from a random sequence of notes you leave behing some, but not all information about what the 'tune' is. If you do this repeatedly, statistically you will have left behind the information to fully reconstruct the tune sequence, which does not occur in the music.

However as only a code breaker, and not a listener could get the tune this is rather a useless concept. However the holes in whitish noise or whiteish noise evolving into something else is a totally different thing, and as old as some baroque pieces, for instance the eighteenth century Rebel's Les Elements, where primeval chaos is represented by a chord of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. I have something to think about on the train.....

  Re: Compositional technique  Misuc at 21:21 on 17 January 2009

Sorry I missed the start of this fascinating discussion. If you stretch definitions as far as allowing the not particularly subtle 'Enigma Variations' surely you shouldn't forget that this sort of thinking is a (hidden?) thread that goes right through serious music of all periods - the hidden and broken up fragments of plainchant in so much mediaeval music, renaissance masses on folksongs, quodlibets and ricercares.... but when you get to the period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven it is the incomplete patterns and hidden threads and cross-references that underly the motivic material and mark the stagesof the music as it passes that create the very style and substance of the epoch. E.T.A Hoffmann called this music 'Romantic' for that very fact (we tend to call it 'Classical'. Look carefully at e.g Haydn's 'Farewell' Symphony or the Mozart Clarinet Quintet for the underlying pattern that is not there or Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.... (What is the non-existent folksong that pervades the first movement, for example? Where does it begin? How does it go on?.......)

  Re: Compositional technique  scott_good at 22:43 on 17 January 2009


At another music site, someone brought up Basant Raga - one thing that was interesting is that the ascending version of the Raga is a fragment of the descending:

Aaroha (ascending version) -

C - E - F# - Ab - Db - C (descend thereto)

Avaroha (descending version) -

C - B - Ab - G - F# - F - E - Db - C.

I wonder if this is common? I know very little about Indian music.

Btw, check out a performance of this Raga - it is sublime:

Also, I am giving a talk on Brahms 1 tonight, and in my research, was inundated with information that he used the Ode to Joy theme for the final theme of the symphony. I had never noticed this before, but upon informed listening, it suddenly popped out clear as day - funny, he directly quotes from the middle of the theme, so, a bit hidden (at least, it was for me...). I guess this kinda relates to what misuc is talking about.

  Re: Compositional technique  Misuc at 10:16 on 18 January 2009

I just listened to Scott's 'fugato', and I've got to say I found it great! And actually it conforms to Martin's idea far more than the Enigma Variations, Indian Ragas, Brahms' 1st symphony or the examples I gave. I found myself listening for what must have been going on during the spaces between the bits that were being played...and which held them together in a 'fugato'. Very engaging. A valuable swipe - incidentally - at the false categories:'popular vs elitist' 'tonal vs avantgarde' etc. This is a good example of a piece which is able to transcend all that (not that every piece necessarily has to fall between categories every time)

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 20:43 on 19 January 2009

I've just got back from London and must listen to Scott's Fugato again but I had some interesting ideas from the Lute Society meeting which are not exactly a million miles away from the absent theme idea.

A lot of time was spend on examples and discussion of ornamentation, an absolutely vital component of the core of baroque music. Some ornamentaion is a vital part of the melody, the ornamentation is a shorthand for a portion of the theme. Perhaps we should call that 'line ornamentaion'. A trill or vibrato on a tenor subsidiary note could be 'note ornamentation'.

But back to subject - one of the purposes of ornamentaion on plucked and percussion instruments is to make something which is not there appear to be there; e.g. sustained lines, more parts (as in violin music implying 4 or 5 parts from a single line). The function of grace notes and arabesques on the piano imply a more sustained experience than the written lines to overcome the percussive nature of the instrument.

But this raises many practical issues of what ornamentation in contemporary music should be. Should we regard it is 'ornamentation', should we write it out in full detail, should we use some of baroque notation or invent new notations, what does it mean when performers play grace notes differently from what was expected? Does ornamentation have any place in contemporary music at all? (I wrote loads of trills last week so I clearly was expecting something to come out from the notation.)

I noticed in a Bartok score a few weeks ago that the same tune gets wind ornamentation on the wind instruments, and string ornamentation on the string parts, even when they are playing together so I have something to think about there.

  Re: Compositional technique  scott_good at 22:53 on 19 January 2009

hello again,

misuc, thank you for your kind words. i'm glad enjoyed the fugato!

about ornamentation. my rule to start is anything is possible in musical composition - thus, so is creating a work which facilitates ornamentation - simply put, why not?

i would also take the bold step to say that the spirit of ornamentation should be at the wings when performing much new music. many times i find that those pesky 5plts or 7plts should be approached as more ornamental, perhaps more like one would find in chopin, which i guess is more like rubato.

i think the main issue of composing music for ornamentation is to have players play it that can! then, there needs to be lines and harmonies that will accommodate their skills in ornamentation. of course, one can go beyond just the idea of ornamentation in varying degrees of improvisation - the key is finding the right information to maintain coherence in the score, whether that be melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, descriptive, or parts thereof.

just a few thoughts,


  Re: Compositional technique  Misuc at 11:47 on 21 January 2009

This is an interesting chat which has thrown up many fascinating potential threads which are related to one another but only indirectly 'by proxy'.

I too found the Basant Raag performance phenomenally beautiful. I followed up by listening to some more versions of the same Raga, each of which I found equally beautiful in its own way: all strangely similar and strangely dissimilar: like various trees of the same variety. Of course every Raag is by its very nature based on the idea of an "Absent theme" i.e. they provide a musical thesaurus of fragments and formulae of potential themes for the performer to realise: the parallel is with the various processes of 'precomposition' used by serial, post-serial and other 'modern' composers.

[By the way, I also know much too little about 'Indian music. But if you go to
you can see and hear for yourself that the feature Scott refers to (where the upward version is a subset of the downward) is not confined to the Besant, but seems pretty well universal.]

Ornamentation - like everything else - has got to be looked at in its its historical context: the story of the emergence of Bebop from Swing and Rococco from Baroque shows most clearly how the ornamentation of one era can become the thematic substance of another.

Where there is a distinction between performer and composer, the story of ornamentation is the story of the fight between each of them.

Music in the early and mid Baroque eras was subject to thousands of unstoppable local performance- and ornamentation- traditions. In general performer/composers in France were able to ensure, under royal privilege, that the ornaments were confined to what Martin has called 'note ornamentation' were to be regarded as such an intrinsic part of the basic 'affection', character and very essence of a piece that publications detailed to the last hemidemisemiquaver how and when they were to be performed. In the operatic and concerto [relatively] free market of Italy, the composer as such,however famous, usually had little more effective power than a Hollywood script-writer.
Handel felt himself impelled to physically suspend his Prima Donna out of a window and threaten to drop her in order to stop her from putting in her own roulades and warbling cascades.

[This tradition carried on until well into the 19th century in some places. Spohr, in his Memoires took the trouble to write out for the reader some of the immensely complex cadenzas which oboes and horns used to put in at every cadence say in a Beethoven symphony. The cor anglais player in the slow movement of Berlioz' 'Fantastic Symphony' simply refused to play the hauntingly simple unaccompanied theme unadorned.]

But in general by the second half of the 18th century composers were already beginning to feel their own strength: that they could form a line of communication between themselves and a 'public'. Musicians like Quantz complained that earlier composers "used to write their adagios quite plain, leaving for the performer what they should have done for themselves"....

Turns of phrase, melodic alterations, abrupt changes of 'affection' etc. which had previously been subject to a soloist's whim had become part of the composer's game-plan: part of the underlying substructure of a composition, the submerged and only partly conscious network of motivic and harmonic interconnections and 'Grundgestaelte' which Hoffmann referred to in his famous essay on 'Romantic' [= 'Classical'] Music. (Obviously Mozart Piano Concerto slow movements - which are loosely written and incompletely notated - sound impossibly coy and cutesy without adding the required ornamentation, but just try to do this to one of his quartets or symphonies!)

It is interesting to trace how once you pursue one line of development to its conclusion and beyond, things come full circle.[This applies to many aspects of music history. In this case, as composers asserted and extended more and more 'thematic' control over ever more features of their creation, they began to lose it. By the time we get to Boulez' wonderful 'Le Marteau sans Maitre' there is no theme at all, not even an absent one: nothing but ornamentation. It is like one long broken up collective series of arabesques or cadenzas. It is no criticism of the work or its performance to point out that his own phenomenal recordings (at least the one I have) bear little relationship to the complicated time-relationships of the notated score. The ornamentation is the substance.

I don't know if any of this helps the discussion along, anyway, for what it's worth.....

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 16:31 on 22 January 2009

Scott's collection of music on myspace is very impressive, and a variety of styles, all effective.

The use of silence in fugatto is really fundamental. When conducting amateur groups a lot of the silences get played in, even the ones on the beat in Giovanni Gabrieli, which create a terrific emphasis by being empty. In a Gabrieli play through session I once had 15 consecutive silences played in. I think that is a record..... I hope so.

The Raga reminded me of a statement by Bartok somewhere that the whole tone is the strongest melodic interval. (If I remember rightly Kodaly's method starts with quite a few Doh / Ray tunes.) I feel this is true but in descending the semitone is as strong, so it makes sense to have tones ascending and more semitones descending. I suppose there has been some proper research on this.

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 10:25 on 24 January 2009

I have been away from composition playing and doing science all week, but I have been thinking about Misuc's comments about classical music and seen how indeed these ideas of omission and transformation were such a big part of the string quintets and late baroque quadros we were playing this week. One particular quadro had a movement based on the chorale 'O Sacred Head Sore Wounded' and I could feel the missing tune even in the simpler movements which were not the 3rd elaborate variation movement. (This is by Janisch (spelling? he is not in Wikipedia! Must rectify) and is a really fantastic piece with an elaborate viola part. if you ever get the chance to play in it you should do it.)

I am going to apply some of these ideas, especially ornamentation, in a piece for recorder, violin, guitar and 'cello, which should cover singing, bird, wind, scraper's, Italian style and twanging ornamentation, giving each instrument a distinctive character and the chance to transform the material in different ways. The guitar is a difficult instrument to write for in this respect because of all the subtle nuances which have to be used to make it less twangy and make it sing, and also to give a better illusion of multiple parts. Also it is very easy to write technically impossible parts, or parts which are too simple.

Misuc's comments about the accuracy of little notes and rhythms are very on the ball. Clearly Boulez wrote what he wanted to express within the limitations of notation, not exactly what he wanted to get, which you can get accurately from a computer. There was some discussion at the Lute Society whether anyone can play paired quavers in the ratio 4:3 in the time of 7 accurately, which is what has been suggested for inegale. The general opinion was you could not, and even if you could playing so mechanically for several minutes would not be desirable. It was felt that to some extent mechanical ornamentation in France was brought in by Lully when they moved from individual instruments to a band of 24 violin family instruments.

Sometimes I have written ornaments where the players have put them in the wrong place with respect to the beats. This tells you something about how they think the line goes. Should we be more specific as Quantz suggests? or leave it as a 'laissez faire' operation? In Quantz' time what you wrote was limited by what it was possible to print. I think this is still the case.......

  Re: Compositional technique  MartinY at 07:16 on 31 January 2009

I have been editing baroque music and done no composition for a week now. I realise this is bad because another of my activities is fundamental algorithms and computer programming and there it really helps enormously if you do it at least a bit every day.

I believe composition is similar and editing, even though it is excellent as an ear test is not the same and may even make you go backwards creatively. I have noticed I am now so facile at spotting and correcting wrong notes in the initial typesetting that I should buy a wig and write neoclassical music!

('All the best music has already been written by men wearing wigs' (Frank Zappa), I paraphrase slightly.)

But what does this mean for the way my brain is working? I am going to make an effort to write in my diary just a bit of original composition, computer programming and (optimistically) playing an instrument every day, even if only for 20 minutes. Hindemith told a student 'what's wrong with 2 in the morning if you are short of time' but I think you should also have 8 hours sleep.

When we were at school we did many different things in the same day in small chunks. Anyway I have loaded up W. F. Bach on the computer to put off looking at my messy half-finished viol piece.

Seriously though does anyone else have methodical work methods or strategies for using the time on long train journeys effectively etc, (hopefully without using a laptop or mobile phone Grrrrr).

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