Assignment 4 – Revision and Reflection

This is the last of my assignments to revise for formal assessment – I waited until the end of the course for this one as I decided to post it on the OCA forum as an exercise in asking for feedback from my peers.  NB: my log entry containing an analysis of this piece and the original Soundcloud track can be found here.

I received one response from the forum:

I really liked listening to your piece!  Flute and vibraphone is a good combination.  Lots of nice counterpoint here and I particularly  enjoyed the  changes in tempo.  I am not a flute player, but my flute-playing tutor has drummed it in to me to be sure to allow sufficient space to draw breath between phrases.  Bars 31 – 43 look particularly challenging in this regard.  This section has a nice flamenco feel to it.   My only other thought is whether  a change of key for one or more variations might be good way to introduce even more variety? 

I definitely appreciated having my attention drawn to breath considerations; I decided that the performer would benefit from some breath mark indications in the long phrases of the middle section and so have now added these in.  The suggestion to modulate to a different key was also an interesting one, and definitely one I would consider if I was to develop it into a longer piece.

From my tutor’s report I was glad to see that he thought I had been successful in achieving the aims of this assignment and created a musically pleasing piece.  One suggestion he had was to consider augmenting the score to make use of some different vibraphone techniques or ornamentation.  I was aware of the versatile capabilities of the vibraphone from my research but had initially stayed away from anything very advanced in order to let the music be focused on the intensity of the counterpoint itself.  However on reflection I do agree with my tutor that there is room in the piece to explore at least a few of the vibraphone’s techniques, and so have experimented with this just a little by adding the following enhancements:

  • Additional octave passages to create a fuller sound at certain points, such as bar 49 and 67
  • A sudden roll in bar 46 as a more effective ‘announcement’ of the last section
  • A glissando in bar 38

The final result can be played below:

On the technical presentation front, my tutor drew my attention to the rhythmic notation of the main theme.  By using the dotted crotchet originally I was trying to create a clean score with minimal use of ties, but I can see that it is more important to indicate the 4 crotchet beats in each bar and so have revised it as per his suggestion.

Finally, I also decided to make a change to the vibraphone part in bar 40 as I wasn’t happy with the pedalling: I didn’t like the gap in the bass notes but pedalling the whole bar was too  muddy.  I decided to utilise the multiple voice notation and created two separate lines, playing the bottom melody twice which I think works better.

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Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms

Continuing on the theme of counterpoint, I listened to Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’, the second movement of which is written as a fugue.  It starts with a single oboe line, adding in flute, then second flute, third flute, second oboe, fourth flute, and finally piccolo, bassoon, cor anglais and trombone, before the voices and finally strings.  As the different instruments come in they take turns at playing the fugal theme on the tonic and the dominant.

It’s a very chromatic piece; it starts off being identifiably C minor, but already the third note (B natural) played without the context of any adjacent notes takes you by surprise, and creates quite a tense and atmospheric mood.  I really like the instrumental introduction, the individual lines although chromatic work very cleverly together, and the rests at the beginnings of the phrases are effective in building up the tension.

When the voices come in, the fugal theme is played by the lower strings and the whole mood of the piece starts to become more and more threatening in the build up to the climax.

Finzi: Fughetta

This piece is the final of Finzi’s ‘5 Bagatelles’ written for clarinet and piano.  I listened to it after writing my piece for Assignment 4, but have included it in the research notes for this section since it is relevant to the subject of counterpoint.

It’s a very upbeat, fun piece in 4/4 time and a major key.  I think the style really suits the clarinet, it makes good use of the instrument’s wide range and I like the contrasts between the legato passages and staccato off-beat rhythms.  After a short introduction, the clarinet introduces the main fughetta three bar theme which has a distinctive syncopated rhythm.  The theme is then played immediately by the piano, this time starting on the dominant, while the clarinet plays a quiet chromatic passage in accompaniment.  The clarinet and piano take turns at the theme (or parts of it) throughout the piece; sometimes we hear it in the left hand of the piano as well as the right and towards the end we hear it stated one last time in octaves.  The ending itself is a cheeky conversation between the clarinet and piano with the piano having the last word.

The Study of Counterpoint

This fascinating book is the English translation of Johann Joseph Fux’s ‘Gradus Ad Parnassum’, first published in 1725.  It was written as a dialogue between student and master about the art of music composition, and counterpoint in particular.  It was a very influential work and is known to have been studied by eminent composers such as Bach and Beethoven.

The book lays out a method or a set of rules for writing counterpoint, with lots of examples and exercises for the student to complete.  It was interesting to read the author’s observation in the foreword that:

‘..music has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself..’

It just goes to show that musicians have always been rebelling!

Here are a few examples of the rules given for two-point counterpoint:

  • Avoid difficult to sing intervals such as tritones
  • Never use similar motion towards a perfect cadence
  • Never leave the unison / octave consonance by a step-wise motion
  • Dissonances are permissible only during step-wise motion

The first is I think still very relevant, even when writing for instrumental music.  After experimenting a little with the second two I tend to agree that this approach ‘sounds better’, although that could very well be because my ear is used to hearing music where these rules are followed.  The last one really needs to be analysed in the context of when it was written – at the time the perfect fourth was considered dissonant, so it would be interesting to explore this further.

Another piece of advice I found quite useful is that the student is encouraged to think of the line as a whole, not just note by note, for example there may be parallel fifths or octaves that are obscured or hidden by an inconsequential note in between.

 

Assignment 4

This was a really enjoyable assignment, though quite a challenging one!  I followed the plan I prepared and created a piece in three sections.

Analysis

The flute opening introduces the main motif of the piece, a three and a half bar melody. This theme is itself imitative in nature (bar two copies the last phrase from the previous bar a third higher) which sets the scene for the whole piece.

In the first section I used several imitative techniques.  The vibraphone first repeats the theme directly, with the last note also serving as the beginning of a new phrase and a sudden change in dynamic and mood.  In bar 12 the vibraphone plays an inverted form of the main theme, and in bar 19 the two voices echo each others’ short fragments.  In bar 7 the vibraphone also plays an augmented version of the flute line that started in the previous bar.  Towards the end of this section I built up to the climax with the two voices closely following each other on a repeated phrase based on the last bar of the main theme.

For section B I shifted down a gear or two to a more thoughtful mood.  As I wanted to keep some connection to the rest of the piece, I based it on a rhythm of two quavers followed by a longer note which is reminiscent of the main theme.  I introduced some pedalling on the vibraphone here to fill out the long bars and give it a dreamy feel.  The counterpoint is less intensive in this section but you can still hear the vibraphone imitating the flute patterns e.g. in the second half of bars 36 and 37.  I also used inversion again in bar 41 in the repeated semiquaver-semiquaver-quaver pattern.

In the final section we are back to the main theme, and this time the vibraphone plays it on the dominant.  In bar 61 the flute plays an augmented version of the theme; this is slightly modified to a straight minim – crotchet – crotchet rhythm which I thought sounded more deliberate and final, appropriate for the end of the piece.  Then there is another build up towards the final climax of the piece, with the voices closely following each other again.  I used some sudden changes in dynamics in the last few bars which I thought helped to intensify the ending.

Reflection

I enjoyed writing for this combination of instruments and I think they sound good together.  I’m aware that the vibraphone can be used in much more demanding ways than I have done here but I thought writing a single line was the best way to focus on the counterpoint itself.  I also tried to be aware of the relative pitches of the two voices, to make sure they are well balanced throughout the piece.

I’ve marked vibraphone pedalling only in the second section where I explicitly wanted the notes to sound together; probably some pedal would be necessary to sustain the long notes in the rest of the piece but I have left this to the discretion of the performer who would best be able to judge this.

Structurally I think the plan for the piece worked out well enough; the middle section was a nice contrast, though I think there is a possibility that I slightly overdid the climax at the end of the first section, detracting a bit from the ending.  I again put quite a bit of effort into the dynamics and articulation, and I think the staccato, accents and sudden dynamic changes all help towards developing the energetic character I wanted to create.

Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint

This is a piece in three movements: Fast – Slow – Fast, and like much of Reich’s music is minimalist in style.

In the first movement, all the instruments start by playing the same rhythm (a repeated quaver line), and the instruments come in and out at different times, varying the harmony.  Gradually one of the guitars starts playing a new line which is then used as the basis for imitation by the other instruments, creating a very hypnotic effect.  Over the top of this we start to get repeated quavers coming in again, building up the texture before it fades out into the second movement.

This movement has a ‘feel good’, chilled out kind of flavour to it at the beginning, plenty of major thirds and high pitched instruments.  The repeated quaver line comes in over the top again, played on bass guitars which adds a more ominous feeling into the mix.

I think the third movement is genius – you can listen to it and follow along to the score here.  It has a syncopated, catchy rhythm which the live guitar picks up and plays out of phase (two quavers later).  The imitation is started cleverly with just a fragment of the phrase before being played in full.  Other guitars then also start the out-of-phase playing, developing into a very full and satisfying texture.  I really liked this movement.

Chopin: Fugue in A minor

I was inspired after discovering Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues to try and find some more fugues written by other composers, particularly some that I could get the sheet music for easily.  In my search I came across this one by Chopin, which was a surprise to me as I am quite familiar with much of Chopin’s music but was completely unaware he had ever written a fugue.

You can listen to a recording and follow along with the score here.  Ashkenazy plays it a little too fast for my liking, it feels like it should be slower and more intense to me.  It has quite a dark mood, and is chromatic in places.

The subject is first stated in the left hand, in A minor.  As is traditional in fugues, this is a solo line when first introduced.  Then the right hand plays the subject on the dominant (E minor). The left hand now plays an accompaniment, which imitates the rhythm of the main subject and supplies key notes in the harmony.  This same accompaniment to the subject is used throughout the piece (modified where necessary).

A short bridging section comes next which modulates briefly to C major, and then the subject is back again in A minor.

The subject is played 10 times in total (to my count!), in A minor, E minor and D minor.   Some of these are not full repetitions of the entire subject, but just the first two or three bars.  Stretto is used towards the end (bar 52), when the right hand starts the subject on the dominant just two bars into the left hand’s entry.  Sometimes the subject is started before the end of a phrase in the accompanying voice (e.g. bar 38) which is a technique I particularly like.

At the end of the piece the subject is played in full by the left hand in A minor one last time, with a trill being held over the top.  Then we can hear fragments of the subject appearing, and an inversion of part of the theme in the right hand in bar 67 before the piece finishes on an octave interval.