Thursday, June 16, 2011

Music Composition

I had a teacher once that related to me a Zen saying: "Before Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; after studying Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers." For some reason that seems to resonate with my experience of composition. Before you study composition, a piece of music just seems to appear out of nowhere; while you are studying, you are aware of all sorts of technical tasks and processes; after studying composition music just seems to appear out of nowhere. I'm writing a set of bagatelles for guitar and last weekend I wrote one--I'm calling it Bagatelle x for the moment because I don't know where it will appear in the sequence. This piece just seemed to come out of nowhere. I had been looking at a Bach fugue where the theme was in long note values: whole and half notes. I also wrote a blog post about pulse that I ended with a piece of Gregorian chant which has no real pulse. No, wait, the idea really came from another post I wrote where I talked about unmeasured preludes. Somehow these things came together and I wrote a piece that has very little pulse. Here it is:

This is a very odd-looking piece, I realize. The unmeasured prelude, which was a sort of aide-memoire with just the notes written down and no rhythmic values, worked very well with lute tablature, because you didn't have to show rhythms. But with 'vocal' notation, every note has to have a value. And music software is even more fussy: you have to have a time signature as well. If I were still writing on blank music paper, there wouldn't be many bar-lines here! But I like using music software, so I tried to get it to do what I wanted. To indicate that the notes don't have a fixed time value, I just used all whole notes. Then I grouped them in phrases: each phrase is a measure, hence the weird time signatures of 5/1 and 16/1. There is a contrasting idea with grace notes (and I probably stole that from Chopin!). Grace notes officially take up no time--well, sure they do, but it isn't a measured amount. So the grace notes were another way of avoiding a beat or pulse. Then, in the middle, I quote a Gregorian chant, the Pange Lingua, which doesn't really have a pulse, but a bit more than the rest of the piece. I wrote just the plain notes down and then went to the guitar and played it through over and over. Then, when I knew how it should sound, I put in the dynamics, which are more important than the rhythm (in this piece). Then I added a single note. Can you guess which one? It's on page 2, the fourth line, the next to last note 'B'. Why? I can't say why, it just needed to be there! And that's it. I quite like the piece and can't think of any other piece for guitar that it resembles in any way.

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