Interpreting pre-compositional structures,
What to do if you (momentarily) lack "inspiration"
This was developed from comments I made in an undergraduate
composition seminar in Spring 2000
(It might take a moment for all of the images to load, so be patient.)
We begin with a bit of harmonic structure fragment, a background voice-leading plan of
4 chords that a student was trying to work with:
E A C Db
C Ab A C
F E G# G#
Db F F E
We'd like to do more than write an atonal chorale. (Though that's not necessarily bad
in itself.) How do we make this rather plain "background" into an interesting "foreground"?
Fist, let us consult the dictionary randomly:
We now free-associate to get musical ideas.
Some words suggest textures, others suggest so-called "parameters", others, ????:
panhandle ----> Handel -----> how "French overture" are the rhythms?
salt ------> SA -----> Eb - A ------> these two notes form a drone against a line.
letters testamentary ------> saying who controls a will -------> death ------> 5th -----> when
to double with a 5th
china ------> dishes --------> how clangy are the articulations?
Platte -----> river in Nebraska ---------> meandering chromatic line
hundredfold -----------> present a motive. then present it "multiplied" many times.
major ------> the only simultaneities are major triads.
capillary ----------> capillary action in plants ------> gradually "clusterize" chords from
top to bottom
launch ---------> that annoying Mannheim rocket motive that Classical symphonies often begin with.
Now we will come up with some "duets" "between" the above concepts. (All duets will actually
form, in the end, a "trio" with the E Adams-style harmonic structure)
(I choose these randomly)
What do I mean by "duet"? Well, somehow these ideas are counterpointed against one another.
As an exercise, before you go on, think about each duet, how would you compose
music combining these ideas with the Elizabeth's harmonic structure? Free associate briefly on the
composing process. Then, you can check out the example of this that I came up with. Scroll down.
Here, then, is one fragment of an example "solution" to the
"problem" posed by the
first of the suggested "duets."
This "duet" is between "letters testamentary" and "Platte". Through free association,
I come to the idea of a "meandering chromatic
line" plus "doubling at the 5th". Thinking about this for a while---we
could have lines
chromatically meandering from one chord tone (that is --- a tone of one
of the chords from
the Adamsian chord progression) to another. thus:
example 2---a typical line, perhaps for flute:
example 3---another typical line, perhaps for clarinet, (untransposed):
example 4--- and a third, perhaps a viola line (in bass clef for your reading pleasure):
"Letters testamentary" led us to the idea of the 5th doubling. So, let's
up these lines where
there are 5ths. We're just exploring,
here, where the lines might or might not join together:
example 5--- connections between the three lines
Now after examining the possible relationships between these, we can write the
stuff out neatly (well . . . ok, I have horrible handwriting) in a contrapuntal sketch.
The rule is, if you're ("you" being a contrapuntal line) not participating in a
stacked 5th sonority, then jump back to a tone of the current
example 6---counterpoint network (I'm writing in easy-to-read clefs, and
with no transposing
instrument business, for now):
This "thing" that we have come up with, even if you compose it out in the
simplest fashion, rhythmically, will still be interesting, because it
"contains" a lot of
rhythmic information in it already. I.e.---there are places where some
and other voices continue; there are little
quasi-neighbor-note formations (neighbor-notes automatically
give you some kind of rhythmic hierarchy, since one note is "more
important" than another),
and speaking of hierarchies, well, the notes of the original chords
could be held longer, and are
"more important" in any case, thus suggesting
kinds of accent----these accents could be in counterpoint to other
accents that you
compose out on the musical "surface."
This is what I've meant when I've spoken about composing
interesting rhythm "into" the structure itself---as
opposed to trying to make an interesting rhythm, at the last moment, for
a structure that is a mere succession of events.
Thus even if we simply compose out with, rhythmically speaking, simple
sequences of 8ths and
16ths, the result can still be somewhat musically compelling:
I might make some improvements to this little fragment---probably notational,
perhaps simplifying the meter changes so performers don't freak;
maybe I'd add some other instruments to emphasize the meter at certain points,
etc. etc.; also, the flute part is low,
which will work at a dynamic of pp, but if everyone starts getting loud,
it's gonna be swallowed up. There may be other issues as well.
But, hopefully I've made my point.
You might want to check out
something I wrote
a Chromatic Harmony and Counterpoint class a few years ago
which deals with related, lack-of-inspiration-moments issues,
in tonal settings.