Thoughts no.8 – some musical “effects” I like

Score of The Star-Spangled Banner

Score of The Star-Spangled Banner

What interests me a lot is the transformation of musical ideas. Not the kind of change that is only made clear by careful analysis, but the sort of overt change you get in Wagner’s thematic transformations. I compare these effects to the use of depth in painting (where the surface is dissolved away). When thematic connections are made between different parts of a work, I can find it quite magical. Having mentioned Wagner, I should nevertheless confess that my two favourite examples of transformation are from Boulez and from my own Magritte Weather – there is in that work a quite wonderful transformation of some initial ideas, made towards the end. And in the fourth movement of Pli Selon Pli, there occurs a superb transformation of ideas first heard in the opening movement. Enchanting.

Although you can liken these effects to recapitulations in classical sonata movements, a better comparison might be made to the altered bridge passages you find there, or to the transposed material that follows on. Incidentally, it is not at all the durchführung sections of sonatas that I like most, though you might assume so. Indeed, it tends to be only the retransitions that I like in this context. I can be fairly sniffy about all those modulations……

And come to think of it, modulations can often strike me as repulsive. The brief one near the beginning of the American National Anthem is truly, truly vulgar. And ludicrously, the music for this anthem apparently derives from a popular British drinking song. What a crass idea, to take a drinking song as your national anthem. Anyway…………

For me, though, nothing is quite so uncomfortable as a slow cadence at the end of a piece, with a long pause on the tonic. That’s like soap under the nails.

I think you could argue that both cadenzas and durchführung sections are primary sources for modern music. Therefore I should like them, I suppose. But the only thing I tend to like about cadenzas are the 6-4 chords that launch them and the perfect cadences that sweep them away.

String Quartet no.2 (in progress)

Laura Burton (Alia) in Dune

Laura Burton (Alia) in Dune

I have been, mostly, very relaxed about composing this new string quartet. I’ve been doing only two hours a day, sometimes less, sometimes nothing. Usually, I am stressed out with worry about chasing deadlines, and whether the new piece will be any good, or “really new”, or “out of date”. Or this, or that. Well, there are several dozens of such possible worries (“voices”, as I call them). And the more seriously you take them, the more serious they become. In addition, when I was somehow aligned with a group of colleagues, back in the UK, I had in mind a standard to which I was aspiring. Actually, I doubt that anyone just writes for themselves. Even if there is no actual target audience, there is always “the hypothetical other”, as Stravinsky puts it.

But usually at this stage of a piece – there are now pages and pages of sketches and even finished sections in biro or pencil (nothing on computer though, as yet) – I am getting very concerned about “what is this?” “What is this piece and how do I justify it?” These moments of concern are the source for some of the “subjects” of my pieces. Round about this moment, there is a quite urgent search for something to focus the material on. That was the case with Magritte Weather (1990), for example.

It is a story that I once told in a progamme note……In my apartment in the Hague on the Grote Markt, it was very hot in the summer of 1990. I had hung a dark blue bedsheet at the window, because I had no curtains and I was blocking out the sunlight this way. One day I noticed that some beautiful blue light was falling on to my manuscript. There was a small tear in the sheet and that was the source of a little patch of light – only about the size of a matchbox……

Right after that, I dreamed about Magritte. His eye sockets were completely filled with the same blue light (clearly, also a reference to the “spice” aspect in the novel Dune). I think it was in this same dream that I reached out to shake Magritte’s hand, and he refused it. If so, I should have taken the hint………….for surely Magritte Weather has very little to do with the kind of oneiric surrealism he went in for. The title is extremely charming, but the real title should be something like Chamber Symphony.

Perhaps one day I will write a REAL oneiric piece………………
For the new string quartet, I did not reach out for “subject matter”. But in a quite separate enquiry (a meditation) I got a fleeting and faint (we can do a lot with fleeting and faint) image of a woman crying out, and a long strand of hair. That image was in my memory somewhere and when I searched, I could quickly locate it. It was Rapunzel in her tower, singing, with her long tresses falling down from the window. So, as my quartet was without “subject”, and this meditation was important to me, I decided to marry the two together. Well, what else does one do, but marry and produce………….? It’s normal. We can do that.

So, the working on the music, got a sort of focus. A narrative, a program. Needless to say, several days later, after having taken this turning (oh, what a crooked road this is), I woke up in a state of stress. A voice was saying “you are just doing something 175 years out of date…..what Berlioz did……and how can you justify that?”

So that’s why I say the work on this piece has been mostly relaxed. I imagined subsequently that dealing with some of these “voices” is like tackling a cliff face – something in one’s nature to explore and to climb, but something that must be tackled without any presumpteousness.

I don’t know what sort of music “I am supposed to be writing”. I didn’t make myself, nor this musical epoch I am in.

In truth, this new piece has just been sprouting energetically all on its own. Even when I lie down for a rest it goes on developing. Like the six cactus plants in my front window. They began as snippets from elsewhere, just as the quartet did (Poulenc was one source and a theory book on jazz, another) and they have been shooting out in all directions. I am in agreement with the cactii. That much I am sure of. Yes, I like them, and it can be that they also like me. Why not?

String Quartet no.2 (in progress) and a reference to Vivaldi’s “Not The Seasons”

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

The ten methods of development (“change” is a less loaded word) chosen for the quick music of the first movement were not all used up:- 1/transposition 2/new register 3/inversion 4/retrograde 5/chromatic decorations 6/divisions into sixteenths 7/cantabile 8/double stops 9/pizzicato 10/hocket.

This list could have been carefully chosen, or randomly chosen or spontaneously chosen.

As far as texture is concerned, I spread the material (a fake folk dance) either in solo form or in duo form, in the following ways:- S./A./T./B./S.A./S.T./S.B./A.T./A.B./T.B. Of course, where these extensions coincide, they may even result in four-part textures. And you have solo moments, duos and trios.

I already alluded to the problem of formlessness [Sunday, May 20th] and it happened that I liked very much the first duo I wrote (bitonal in harmony, but polyphonically good, also). So I decided to make a ritornello from that.

This is not the only baroque reference. I had meanwhile taken the first of the sketches from the Poulenc model and changed my mind about what to do with it [Thursday, May 10th]. I have made it into a single mood, texturally constant slow movement, such as you can find in Vivaldi (his op.8 no.1 and 3 have slow movements like that). Incidentally, I intend to call Vivaldi’s
“Not The Seasons” just “op.8″ from now on. I hope others will follow suit.

That “single affection” kind of movement is the simplest thing you can do. So why choose it? Three reasons. 1/ It breaks the habit of trying to be difficult and complex in order to impress colleagues. 2/ It was the first thing that came into my mind and so the choice breaks with the habit of calling into question one’s imagination. 3/ Like a meal, a piece needs contrast, and simplicity contrasts well with complexity.

I like concerts that have varied “courses” too. Six grim dirges in a row are not very appetizing. But Satie’s flouting of such classical music conventions in the Gymnopédies is vastly entertaining. And in Vexations, even more so.

An incorrect response, authenticity, and sticking to your guns. Letter (part 3)

Lady Writing a Letter (Vermeer)

Lady Writing a Letter (Vermeer)

I went for a long walk. For days now, a four note motive has been going through my head. It seems to come from working on the string quartet, though why, I don’t know, as it’s not a theme.

Going up it’s B F# A and then down to a C# and back to the B again, then on and on in a circle. It’s in my head as those specific pitches, and when I get home and test them on the piano, the level hasn’t dropped and it hasn’t risen. I am not so constant with tempo. When I start working on something, I measure the tempo. Later on, when I consult the metronome again, I find that the tempo in my head has changed.

The only thing that I would remark about the four note group is that it is, typically for me, an idea that can likely occur in folk music, but less likely in old classical music.

I walked through Erasmus Park, then on to Rembrandt Park. Then back again. Not there and back in a line, but in a wide circle (clockwise).

Rembrandt Park is leafy, and today, it was all dripping wet. There are some comical looking water birds on the canals. And the seagulls make a loud noise. The mallards are randy.

Here is the third part of my letter about new music. I’m talking about the relation between avant-garde, and popular taste:-
An incorrect response by musicians in the minority

It follows logically from the points I have made that it is utterly foolish of contemporary composers when they start to complain bitterly that the general public takes no notice of their vast dissonant violin concertos. What presumptuousness! It is not for us to demand what should or should not be popular. Music is something of the spirit, as I said, and there is a great spiritual movement involving popular dance music and song. That movement does not involve the music we think of as great, so not Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, but also not those comparatively popular ones by Mozart and Bach. Violin Concertos are tangential in this context……

Authenticity as the correct goal for musicians alienated from the world of mass taste

I used the phrase “colossally attractive” when I spoke about the reaction to American-derived modern music. The word “attractive” is my personal key to issues about orientation in our society. To know what attracts us is to be authentic. And authenticity does not lead to popularity because what is popular is that which speaks to a deep need in the mass of people. We noted the case of Vaughan Williams. He described The Lark Ascending as “an English landscape transcribed into musical terms”. If composers want to be truly popular with classical music lovers in the UK, perhaps they can head in that direction. If however they want to be authentic, they should pay attention to their own tastes/feelings, though that may lead down uncomfortable paths (like sticking unperformed symphonies in the drawer, or whatever).
Sticking to your guns

Louis Andriessen once said to me “the public can bring us nowhere”. He meant it cannot help us to develop in new directions, so its tastes should therefore be discounted. I’m not wholly in agreement with that view, but the history of our times can be argued to confirm it. There are endless anecdotes one can tell. Just today, because it was hot, I wandered around a little in the factory district west of Amsterdam (where I work three mornings a week) before cycling home. I noticed walls and windows and outlines that directly resembled a non-figurative period of Mondriaan’s work. They don’t resemble at all the nice landscapes that the public would have preferred him to produce. What was unpopular has become the very stuff of the environment. So how stupid that it was condemned as worthless. And this same pattern crops up with us – because “useless” avant-garde music is all over Hollywood soundtracks.

Evolution of the string quartet and fat sausages

sausagesToday’s work on the quartet was influenced by seeing images of children drawing. Flowers and plants poking out of grass, big letters, random looking scrawls. And the colours – those bright crayon ones. Up and down, quickly represented by a scrawl of blue for sky, a scrawl of green for grassy ground. They were still photos, but you could see the movement and speed and fluency of it all in the untroubled faces, the happy smiles.

I had yesterday evening mapped out the first movement of the quartet, or at least as much of it as I could be bothered to do, that late at night. What I had thought of as the slow movement (the section I derived from Poulenc’s harmonies), turned into an introduction to a fast movement. Just about three minutes long. This “slow movement” had ended with a long drawn out oscillation between two chords which could have been a dying fade away (O bad, bad, bad, cliche), but – suddenly – I saw that you could segue into something fast from there. And so, as in a gay bar, I quickly dropped one possibility, for another. Heh-heh.

We like segue………mmmm………oh yes we do. Anyway, as I started to work this morning, I had the childrens’ drawings in mind and that inspired me. As I sometimes do, I just took a pencil and “scrawled notes”. But quickly it became “organized” of course. I thought of ten different ways to develop material and also wrote a four-part fiddle dance (sort of) to provide subject material. Well, I needed something lighter after that dreary introduction. In my hands, the civilised Poulenc had become wintry and miserable.

We like tunes and dances………mmmm………oh yes we do.

However, that will just give me an endless stream of notes, pretty formless – like those long slabs of material in the movements of Le Marteau. Well Messiaen does that too and after a while you start to think “hello, I’ve had enough of that”.

Probably some people (people lacking my rigid self-discipline, I mean) start at such moments to think about sausages dipped in mustard. Or of licking around the base of chocolate liquors, prior to crunching on them and letting the alcohol trickle down their throats.

I agree with Pope Benedict that the public has become dreadfully hedonistic. It is distasteful, but there we are. On the other hand, I do enjoy a nice fat sausage now and again, and I feel that a German pope should show a bit of understanding here.

Anyway, I diverge……I don’t want a long unchanging slab of music, so…………em?…………er?…………

The Poulenc model


I worked on the Poulenc piece, as model, just putting the score in front of me and freely composing lines and chords that – albeit in transposition – resemble some of his material. No one could work out the connection I have made, however, because it’s not systematically done. And the rhythm becomes different, because I push the melancholy beat of the Poulenc into the background. In the foreground, in place of what he has, I set unstable and fragmentary figures, with plenty of “air” in between them. That’s what came into my mind, and I went with it. Working on texture and tessitura, by the way, is something I take time for, I don’t just leave it to chance.

How nice that one can work at a desk with paper and pen and not have to rely on a computer. That must be a bit of a prison. I don’t say that in a spirit of smugness. On the contrary, I am keenly aware that the results of new ways of working can be startlingly good. And not just aware, as, like a shoplifter, I keep my eye open, and my jeans very baggy……………..I just mention the desk thing, because it’s such an exqusite pleasure to write music from one’s head.

This was all done quite quickly and I decided to marry this new sketch with the one I already had from the other day – the one which had strayed “too far” from the model. So now I have a slow movement that has music in close relation to a model and music with a distant connection to it – that distance becoming so great as not to be apprehended, perhaps.

Incidentally, composers vastly overestimate what listners can follow. Of the millions who listen to the Firebird, what proportion follows that simple four note figure Stravinsky uses as theme generator? Yet he blares it out as clearly as possible at the end. And presents it at the beginning, and throughout the piece.

Or come to that, how many people listening to West Side Story, know that a single sharpened fourth works still more transparently as theme generator? That is a master stroke, as the entire mood of the piece is captured there, in miniature.

Yes, in miniature. And I’ve said that a scale is not adequately described as a series of notes, but is instead a spiritual thing, though I think I will be saying that until I am dead………….. Teachers will go on teaching scales as if they are abstract constellations of notes. Or the nuts and bolts of tonality. There is a lot more to it than that.

Back to the idea of a model……………Of course I always think of Picasso, as he is my “bible”. It is adorable how he does a series of representations that become steadily more obscure.

The Language of Modern Music

angerMy new string quartet is shaping up, slowly. What is helping me this time is to think of an audience. As a matter of fact, I have been thinking quite specifically of an audience of woman factory workers and composing “for them”. I am visualising them and even the spot where they and the quartet will be sitting.

Music without a goal is rather difficult to f…………

At that very moment I was interrupted by a Skype communication from a pianist friend (he’d better remain anonymous) complaining about having to work on the Ligeti Etudes. (He’d already written earlier in the day to complain that “I am up to my BIG BALLS in work” and “I have had ENOUGH of LIGETI . F U C K that dead jerk …. I have to do all his etudes on Friday”….)

Here is what he said this time……

Geoffrey King says: how are your 2 large balls?
Geoffrey King says: I am just writing a note about my quartet for the blog, so that I understand what I am trying to do
Anon says: 2 conditions to write ugly contemporary music : SOFT and EASY . otherwise it’s PURE RUBBISH
Anon says: DIRT 
Anon says: TRASH
Anon says: CRAP 
Geoffrey King says: The la grenuoiller movement will be the second one 
Geoffrey King says: grenuillere
Geoffrey King says: grenouillere
Geoffrey King says: FROG
Anon says: SHIT 
Anon says: VOMIT 
Anon says: PUKE 
Anon says: STINK 
Geoffrey King says: I’m glad I have a friend who’s such a fan of contemporary music… (chuckle) 
Anon says: am going. bye

As I was saying……music without a goal in mind is difficult to write. So, my first big piece, written when I was sixteen or seventeen (Contrasts for piano), explored the number seven within the language of 1960s style Stravinsky and also that of Webern. And because of this focus, it was fairly easy to write. And I still love it………but I certainly wouldn’t recommend dishing that piece up to an audience of factory workers.