Friday, November 11, 2011

Where does music come from?

I mentioned a few posts back that I have been struggling for months to complete a piece for solo guitar. It finally happened a couple of weeks ago. I was getting out of the shower and suddenly a phrase popped into my head. I sat down at the computer and a couple of hours later it was pretty much finished. Along with the opening phrase the idea of an interpolated chord came to mind. It is just two pages and is the last movement of what has turned out to be a five-movement suite for guitar. In many years of composing--sporadically--this is the first music for solo guitar that I have been really happy with. Most of my compositions have been for various chamber ensembles (two guitars, voice and guitar, flute and guitar, violin, viola and guitar) or guitar orchestra. Writing something that would be both satisfying musically and enjoyable to play has been a challenge. Here is a previous post on another movement of the suite, though at the time I thought I was writing a set of bagatelles!

So, I had an opening phrase and a chord that punctuated it. Oh, what chord? Well, I wanted something pungent so the "Jimi Hendrix" chord came to mind. This is a chord that Jimi uses in the song "Purple Haze". It appears around the 23 second mark:

This chord is usually described as a dominant seventh with a raised 9th, but of course it has no such function! It is simply a chord, in this case the tonic, with a major third, a minor seventh and an augmented ninth. Did I say simply? It is a great chord on guitar with a great clangy, spicy dissonance. The song "Purple Haze" has crossed over into the classical world already. Here is the Kronos Quartet performing it:

It would not be very interesting to just stick that chord into a piece, so when I wrote the piece, I let it help me create a harmonic structure. I wanted the chord to be functional. One way of looking at the chord is as a "split-third" chord, meaning it has both major and minor thirds. But you could also look at it as a minor chord with a diminished 4th. The diminished 4th was the favorite interval of Shostakovich. It sounds like something cheerful and major, but in context, you realize that it is not! It is actually something dark, something tragic, perhaps... Here is my piece:

Click to enlarge

No recording, sorry, I'm just learning how to play it myself. So there you have it: a new piece for classical guitar influenced in equal parts by Jimi Hendrix and Shostakovich. My kind of piece! 

UPDATE: I just ran across this remarkable speech by Leonard Cohen in which we find the words:
"Poetry comes from a place that no one commands, that no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often."

I put this here because the piece above came from that mysterious place, that as Leonard Cohen says, no one commands. I encourage you to listen to the whole speech; it is a moving speech by a remarkable man, and a remarkable songwriter and poet.


Jon Silpayamanant said...

I've never satisfyingly wrote a piece for solo cello that I've liked and was enough of challenge to be fully satisfying. Maybe it just has to do with these being our primary instruments and it's difficult for us to 'step away' from it enough to see it more objectively and without our personal idosyncratic playing mannerisms?

Bryan Townsend said...

It has been the opposite for me: I find it very difficult to squeeze the musical idea on to the guitar without it becoming impossible to play! Chamber music is easier because I have a lot more elbow room. I commissioned a duet once from a composer and he said he just thought of a piano piece and divided it between the two guitars. Um, the commission was a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label!

Anonymous said...

Most poets are incoherent about their art. Cohen is here coherent about that incoherence. His speech is worth listening to. The stories are sparkling. But the "so it is really you" ending rather a stretch and embarrassingly trite. Of course, what else can you say.

I heard him on the radio the other day explaining how, on emerging from monastic life inlatemiddle-age, he found his trustee had absconded with the $50M fortune that he made from our youth. And that he was faced with the implacable necessity of making a fortune all over again in what might otherwise have been more restful years. He said that in present circumstances he considers himself lucky to prefer simplicity over complicated (read "expensive") luxury.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Oh sure, I could easily squeeze in so many musical ideas and make it impossible to play--who was it that said the eraser is the composer's best friend?

What I find difficult is squeezing in the 'right' musical ideas. for the right person, for the right performing context.

Sure, I may know how to play some in CLassical Turkish style, but that's just an idiosyccrasy of my playing and background. Unless I meticulously notated everything out, I'd never expect a cellist to be able to perform a solo cello piece written in that style.

Hilarious story about the composer/pianist!

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous: yes, it is quite admirable how he responded to the loss of his hard-earned fortune. He just went out on tour and a good one it was. I have the DVD of his concert in London. Long concert and a lot of encores.

Jon: That was Schoenberg. I told the story in another post. Pointing to the eraser end of a pencil he said to a student, "this end is more important than the other one." One of the best things ever said about composition!

Anonymous said...

What makes his Hallelujah so great? (It is great.) I don't consider the original lyrics a big deal - though they rank among his more aenigmatic poems. Is it the melody? Some other musical characteristic that I don't know how to hear? Really. Asking. RG

Bryan Townsend said...

I've been listening a bit and looking at the harmonies, but by the time I dig into it, it will probably turn into it's own post! A question like this is for me one of the most interesting and difficult to answer.

But I think simplicity has a lot to do with it...