Saturday, May 3, 2014

Three Paths

I've tagged this with "biographies" because it is just a personal anecdote, but it might be interesting. When I was twenty years old and trying to figure out what to do with myself I came to a three-way crossroads. Many of my friends had gone to university. I hadn't because I rather hated high school and wondered if university might not be even worse. Also, I graduated with a C- average, so, would I even be accepted? But I had started to think that I did want to give it a try. Also, I really wanted to get out of where I was, which was working as a laborer for a stuccoer. He transferred the stucco "mud" from a board to the wall while I did everything else. I loaded the truck with cement, lime and rock chips, then unloaded it. Mixed up batches of 500 lbs of "mud", put up scaffolding around the house and finally carried the mud up to the board on the scaffold. And then my boss transferred it to the wall. For this I got paid about $20 a day. It was the early 70s. At the end of the summer, I was ferociously strong, though.

Anyway, I had saved up $1000 and wanted to make a change. I never thought of myself as a stuccoer. But I didn't have much sense that a profession in music, my passion, was even possible. I saw three possibilities: first, I noticed that someone had a second-hand Jaguar for sale for $1000. Then I saw that someone else had a second-hand upright piano for sale for a bit less. And then there was university. It is kind of interesting to me to recall what I was thinking back then. I had over the last several months developed a real passion for classical music and spent most of my free time listening to it. I would start every morning with some violin music by Wieniawski:


In a version for violin and orchestra. I think there was some Vieuxtemps on the album as well:


So, my mind and my body were obviously in different places! I decided against the Jaguar. Cool car, but not really a change in where I was. So that left the piano or university. It is interesting that I was thinking about the piano. I was very attracted by composition and the piano seemed to be the instrument to take up. But I ultimately decided on university and it really changed my life. I was an A- student all the way through whether I was taking music courses, or German or Philosophy or Linguistics or English. I loved it. It was the kind of intellectual environment that high school was not. But I turned away from composition. Perhaps because it was the 70s and the kind of composition that the students were doing just didn't interest me. And I was very committed to the guitar. So that takes care of the next thirty years of my life!!


What is funny is that, since I have been taking composition much more seriously in the last several years, my thoughts are turning back to the piano. Don't laugh, but I am currently teaching myself basic piano technique. That should provide material for a few posts!

I can tell you one thing up front. The piano is a much easier instrument than the guitar. By that I mean that to play a relatively simple piece by Purcell on guitar, takes a lot of study. But I run into the same piece in the first week on piano. To do the same thing is far easier on the piano because so much of the note production is mechanized.

Of course, this very ease of production means that a real piano virtuoso can do astonishingly complex things so at the end of the day, it is the music that is easy or difficult, not the instrument.


8 comments:

Augustine said...

Hi. Topic suggestion: the use of 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, 13b9 etc (exotic chords, per se) in music

Bryan Townsend said...

As a good Classicist, I look at harmony from a functional point of view, meaning that I'm very interested in 7ths, slightly interested in 9ths and hardly interested at all in 11ths, 13ths and so on as they are probably the work of the Devil! Heh.

Rickard Dahl said...

I would also be interested in that topic. There are many interesting types of chords. Indeed those types of extended chords could be seen as more decorative but they can also be interesting from a functional standpoint, especially within modality I think. An example is how adding the a 4th to the IV chord in the mixolydian seems to weaken it (i.e. the chord/the 4th degree) and make a stronger resolution to the mixolydian tonic. So for instance if you take G mixolydian as an example: the tonic chord is G major and the 4th chord is C major but you can add a 4th to the C major chord (i.e. a F, so basically a C major add 4 chord) and then resolve to the G major chord to strengthen the G mixolydian. At least that's what I found. I guess using modality requires rethinking of the functional relationships and using various extensions can help. Plus the chord extensions themselves can lead to very interesting sounding chords, a few examples of nice chords are the major 7th, minor 7th and minor 9th omit 7th (i.e. for instance with C as root it would consist of C, Eb, G & D). But ofc, it's also a matter of context.

Rickard Dahl said...

Btw, I've read your post now. Interesting approach. It will be interesting to hear about your piano progress. Maybe you will get into piano improvisation and that way of composition down the road.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, I think you just wrote something interesting about the functionality of added-note chords in a modal context!! My studies and my own compositional practice have never really taken me in the direction of the church modes. I suppose I should get that book on modal composition you mentioned. But first let me pose a question: what musical composition would you give as an example of a really good composition using these modes?

For me, the piano is an interesting basic tool. But I don't think it will move me more towards improvisation. After all, I am perfectly capable of improvising on guitar, it is just that that is not how I compose...

Rickard Dahl said...

To be honest I don't really know any such examples. Basically pretty much everything has been major or minor, so in a sense it's a new territory to explore for the most part. But I like that, I like the idea of using unusual ways of composing that sound good.

Anyways, do you have a very good ear so you're able to notate ideas in your head? I still don't have that ability really. I can come up with ideas in my head but I'm a bit clueless to how to notate them (i.e. intervals and such). However, I think using the piano can be a useful middleground, although I'm not that good at playing ideas from my head either.

Rickard Dahl said...

from your head*

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I could name some compositions using modes, but I don't think they are the traditional church modes. Bartók in Mikrocosmos uses lots of modes, some of them are church modes. But in most of his writing he is using his own modal constructions, often based on extrapolations from folk music. Shostakovich and other Russian composers often use a wide variety of modes, such as the octatonic scale, but they are quite different from the church modes. I wonder if we might not find some examples in early Delius or Carl Orff?