Consortium Comments

A theorist friend of mine noted the prominent perfect fifths in the “moderato” piano piece from my current piano consortium project (I posted a fragment here), saying that this was not something he was used to seeing in my music. I wrote back that the fifths – and the triads, for that matter,  were part of a conscious effort to freshen my harmonic vocabulary – to get away from a more exclusive focus on the 013, 014 and 016 world, with its tendency to octatonicism. I also wanted something different from the diatonic (with a few funny notes) vocabulary that is my usual other gambit. Actually there are a lot of fifths in my more diatonic music, a whole lot. I rely on stacked perfect fifths a great deal. Look at the first page of this.  (click on the image of the first page.)

On the local level, the new piece obviously uses the symmetrical structures of Bartok, Berg, and Varese that I learned about from George Perle and I think those patterns work reasonably well.  However, I look at the piece now with a certain amount of dismay at how the large scale structure seems arbitrary – the cadences, for example, are to:

B-flat over F
A-flat M
em7 (#11)

B-flat, E and G fall into the same symmetrical axis, but it is hard to relate the other harmonic resting points. (I’m going to skip over the tricky question of whether these points are all of equal structural weight.) I actually thought about revising the piece to end on A, but that seems no less arbitrary. Maybe the piece is more about other things – degrees of tension, polymodality, modal planeing – rather than some sort of post-diatonic tonality (a phrase of Perle’s – its partner being “post-tonal diatonicism”. The two sum up a great deal of twentieth-century harmony.) And just how important is it to end on the chord/key/tonal center that you started on? Is anyone really disturbed by the fact that the later strains of a Joplin rag are not in the same key as the first strain? (Actually, I have on my office bookshelf a score anthology for use in theory classes where the editor expresses concern about exactly that…sigh…)

The scherzo is very much an 016 piece, but there are other things as well. I liked the idea of writing something that seemed to be rather neoclassical, even neo-baroque (it’s a sort of gigue) but kept going off the rails every few bars. I also liked the idea of writing a seemingly straightforward ABA (the excerpt I posted only shows the first A), and even having a literally repeated first strain in the trio section (I can’t remember when I have ever used a first ending/second ending notation in a concert piece before this.) The second A starts the gigue in inversion, as a good suite movement should, although the tritones are now perfect fourths, at least part of the time. It’s as though the mode has changed. The trio is dominated by scales that are a compressed variant of the figuration in the A section that involves a step then a seventh.

It’s a very thin thread of connection, but I had in mind the scherzo of Beethoven Op. 2, #3, where the A section has imitations and the trio is just arpeggios, and relatively athematic, like my trio.

I hope the pianists will play the rhythms precisely so that the written out rubato and the written out accelerando will  come through as I  planned – they don’t need to do more than what is there. This reminds me of an interpretation problem in Brahms – when he writes an augmentation with a rit. over it, are you really supposed to rit., or is he just acknowledging what the augmentation is doing for you? Of course, he is the guy who puts < > over a single chord in a piano piece – which I think Schoenberg does as well. (I always took that to mean “espr.” or “dolce”.) Of course, part of the pleasure of handing a score to a performer is to discover new things about a piece that you (foolishly) thought you knew – after all you wrote it! – and my pianists will undoubtedly teach me things about the rhythm – and a great deal else – in my music that I didn’t know was there.

10 thoughts on “Consortium Comments

  1. You said in the scherzo post that the notation still needs editing, so maybe you were going to do this anyway, but to me the rhythms are easier to read (and execute precisely) if the dotted 32nds are written as 16ths in a 4:3 tuplet. For one thing, I think it draws attention to the 3/16 pulse and away from puzzling out the length of a dotted 32nd note.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dan. I certainly did think about the dotted 32nds vs. tuplet issue and I could see it going either way. I’ll be interested to hear what my pianists think, as well as other readers of these posts. I don’t think it is a problem of puzzling out the length of a dotted 32nd – the beaming makes it clear pretty quickly that it’s a compound beat with four notes (the tempo is fast). My concern was more a matter of what looked cleaner on the page, especially when you are mixing 3 and 4 to a compound beat, alongside 2, 3 or 4 to a simple beat. The dotted 32nds may look exotic and momentarily mystifying; but the tuplets involve additional notational elements – you can’t just mark a few and then write “sim.” given the mixing of beat units and durations that is going on.

      I will say that I learned my lesson and no longer write a string of dotted eighths across a bar of moderate 3/4 – why did I think getting rid of the ties helped anything? A similar (and similarly ill-advised) idea was – when in 9/8, grouped 2+2+2+3 – I wrote two dotted eighths across the group of three eighths. Cleaner, right? Fewer notation elements, right? However, you can hear in a live recording of a piece of mine where I wrote those dotted eighths for the double basses how the second of the dotted eighths is not together.

      Maybe I should post a re-notated version and we can have a poll.

  2. I’m still tinkering with it, but remind me to show you the fugue I wrote this summer. It (and its accompanying prelude) are an early birthday present for Don Freund, who recently recorded the whole of WTC I and is working on memorizing Book II. The fugue is in 6/16, occasionally 3/8, and among other unBachian things, there is exactly one moment where I used 2 dotted sixteenths. I go back and forth over dots versus tuplets. Some pieces look better to me from the standpoint of affect with tuplets than dotted values. I wrote a setting of a D’Annunzio poem years ago for female voice and 4 cellos. The vocal line looked much better and more lyrical and legato to me with quadruplets in 6/8 and 9/8 than it would have with dots, even though I still desire accuracy. I mostly use dotted values in these situations nowadays, but think every piece is different, and that as long as one is consistent within a piece that isn’t necessarily a problem. Of course, as soon as I see that a piece will have a lot of staccati, I’m a little leery of the dotted values. Seeing dots both next to and underneath the note still looks odd to me.

    1. Excellent point, Hayes – having staccato dotted notes does seem to be a contradiction – the augmentation dot suggesting greater length, the staccato dot suggesting shortness. Fortunately, my scherzo only has one spot where I asked for staccato dotted notes – staccato dotted sixteenths, actually. I think I will leave it so as to be consistent with my practice of using dotted notes instead of tuplets elsewhere in the piece. The fact that the tempo is quite fast contributes to making this acceptable – the duration of the note is already quite short due to the tempo; it would be different in an andante. That brings up an interesting question: Andante Moderato, 4/4 time – four evenly spaced staccato notes in the bar – do you write quarter notes with staccato dots? eighths and eighth rests with or without dots? Sixteenths and dotted eighth rests?

      All this can leave one quite dotty…

  3. The hypothetical Andante Moderato in 4/4 poses an interesting problem, one easier to solve if you actually have a metronome marking. This of course goes to how short staccato should be, as far as what proportion of the note value becomes silence. I think of the last three bars of Tristan, with the dots over the whole notes in the woodwinds and horns — with slurs above them, no less, slurs which because of the repeated chord are at first indistinguishable from ties. Interestingly, the trumpets, Bassoon 3 and the trombones have a specific duration indicated: a half note tied to an eighth, with rests for the remainder of the measure. Very specific, as contrasted with having to wonder just how much of a space Wagner wants in the horns and woodwinds. Generally I prefer to use rests in the situation you describe, but then, depending on the exact tempo you get into sixteenths as opposed to eighths, etc., and the issue of fussiness comes into play. (As a former editor, btw, I tend to be pretty old school — if I were to decide in favor of sixteenths, I’d follow a sixteenth on the beat with a sixteenth rest and an eighth rest, as per the Schirmer Style Manual, which says to avoid “syncopating” rests. Obviously, lots of people disagree, including, if I remember correctly, Stravinsky.) Did you ever read that old article about notation and articulation that Martino wrote for Perspectives of New Music back in the sixties? He gets into the messiness not only of staccati, but tenuto marks (dashes) for different instruments. Actually, in certain cases, with certain groups of instruments, tenuto seems to be a misnomer when referring to the dashes.

    Here’s one for you. Do you ever put a dash or staccato dot above or below a note that is tied to another note, and if so, do you put it on the first note of the tied group or the last? I’ve seen people do it, but I avoid it myself. If I were using a dash to indicate a longer note value than if there were a staccato there, I usually would avoid using it with anything tied. Generally, with tied notes, I’d judge based on the tempo and tie to what seems the most appropriate duration. It can get pretty maddening sometimes.

    1. I don’t remember the Martino piece, but I do recall a Wuorinen article that similarly dealt with the subtleties of notational issues vis-a-vis actual performance. I think they might both be in the anthology of Perspectives articles on notation and performance that Norton put out.

      I’ll deal with the tenuto over a tied note problem in another post where I can include a musical example.

      For now, let me say I have long been bemused by the “no syncopated rests” concept. This eliminates much of the rationale for the very existence of dotted rests. Would Schirmer forbid a 4/4 bar of eighth, quarter, quarter, quarter, eighth (notes, not rests!)? Surely they wouldn’t insist on ties, or would they? That strikes me as a lot more syncopated than a mere dotted eighth rest after a sixteenth note.

      The Tristan example is fascinating. What does it mean to write a dot under a slur for whole notes as opposed to just plain whole notes? He is trying to get you to phrase the notes together, or at least understand them as connected in some way? What about tenuto dashes under a slur with whole notes? (I can’t think of an example of that at the moment.) Charles Rosen writes about how dots under a slur are to be understood as a request for espressivo (I believe this is in his Beethoven sonata book), but this is in reference to strings of short values in a melody.

      I’ve only seen Tristan in the theater once, can’t recall if applause covered the last three bars…

      1. I’m pretty sure — as I say this I’m not actually looking at the manual — that Schirmer would not insist on the tied version (showing all main beats) of the syncopated rhythm, so beloved of Schumann and so many others, that you describe. They accept certain things as idioms. For example, beaming so as to show the main beats is a general principle, but 4 eighths beamed together in 4/4 has become a common enough usage that they don’t object to it. This seems to me to be a tacit admission that later on other things probably will become accepted as time goes on and people grow accustomed to seeing them. My own adoption of the non-syncopated rests in my own music is less about dogma than habit. It’s just what I’ve become used to over the years, and it’s the practice in a lot of editions of common practice music. I must admit, though, that it still looks odd to me to see a dotted quarter rest except in compound meter, nor am I crazy about seeing a measure of 4/4 in which the first beat is a quarter note, and beats 2 and 3 are represented by a half rest. I also don’t care for half rests in 3/4 or dotted half rests for the first or last 3 beats of a 4/4 bar, though more and more people use them, and it’s arguably not as potentially confusing as the half rest in the middle of a 4/4 bar. I must also confess, however, that I have no problem with a quarter note beat in a simple meter consisting of a dotted eighth rest followed by a 16th note. I do notice in choral rehearsals (admittedly a much more notationally conservative area in general), that people trip over such things in sight reading fairly often. But again, it’s more about what one is used to seeing than anything else. We all balance giving performers what they are familiar with, to whatever extent possible, with trying to show how the music really goes. I definitely part with Schirmer on things like extended beams with “stemlets,” à la Carter, in rhythmically complex passages. They don’t like them, though they will grudgingly tolerate them if they’re used consistenly. I often find them very useful and think they can save rehearsal time. They also don’t like beaming across barlines, or otherwise using beaming to show phrasing, but I can’t bring myself to be that rigid. Things like that have to be decided more on a case by case basis. I do agree with them that in contemporary vocal music with more metrical complexities, the beaming in the vocal line should be the same as it would be in instrumental music. Getting rid of all those flags makes the beat units easier to distinguish, and slurs can be used to indicate melismas. I should shut up now.

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