Monday, October 27, 2014

12-Step Program

Kind of disappointed I didn't think of the title above for the post in which I actually created a program  for manipulating 12-tone rows, but I feel like I am on some sort of longterm program in how I think about 12-tone technique. Like many music students, I had virtually no use for this notorious compositional method when I first learned about it, and on the whole, I'm still something of a skeptic; I suspect the 20th century might've been better off if this way of doing business had remained on the periphery or, perhaps more importantly, been allowed to evolve more naturally and gradually instead of being taken SO seriously so soon and for so long.

But I suppose an inevitable result of teaching about this method for many years, and thus being compelled to make a fair case for its merits, is that I've become more sympathetic to its possibilities. As I explored in my 12-tone Sandbox project (the "real" 12-step program), I think it would be fruitful to have students approach this seemingly severe system in a more playful manner. As I further explored in my 12-tone Satie Generator, there's also an advantage to hearing 12-tone material used in fairly conventional, otherwise familiar contexts. For me, at least, it's made the 12-tone palette seem more appealing and less forbidding. [Listen here.]

So when I was asked recently to make a little video birthday greeting for a musician friend, and knowing that this musician friend (and former student) has little use for atonality and other 20th-century innovations, I thought it would be fun to throw together a 12-tone greeting. This also meant I wouldn't have to see or hear myself on video, since I enlisted the help of my virtual singers to do the honors.

In this case, the familiar rhythmic structure and melodic shapes help to orient the listener. I'll admit the ghostly presence of the "real tune" means this also becomes a bit of a "wrong note" exercise. That's interesting enough in itself, but not really the point of 12-tone music, in which all of the notes should seem equally right - or equally wrong.

When I say above that 12-tone technique didn't evolve naturally enough, one of my complaints might be that Schoenberg and many of his followers seemed intent on underlining the disorienting experience of losing a tonal center by also exploiting disjointed rhythms and, especially, by preferring jarring accents and disjointed melodic shapes, with leaps larger than an octave common. I found myself thinking about this last week and, having developed more of an attraction to the lovely sound worlds that can be evoked in a 12-tone context (especially via the Satie connection, about which more blogging soon), I thought about writing a 12-tone piece designed to sound as coherent and "follow-able" as possible.

My goal was NOT to write a tonal piece that happens to feature 12-tone rows, though there are surely ways to cheat and make that happen. I suppose my main preliminary goals were 1) to keep the melodic shapes relatively conjunct and "hummable," and 2) to avoid the harshest kinds of harmonic dissonances. Minor seconds (a staple of so many 12-tone compositions) were especially to be avoided, but I also hoped to stumble into fleeting moments of pleasing sonorities.

I started out with the idea of writing a piece for church choir that would somehow sound both exotically disorienting and yet not too threatening for a fairly conventional congregation. In thinking of possible texts, the simple words of William Billings' famous canon, "When Jesus Wept," came to mind, and then came the sudden "moment of discovery" that really set things in motion. The opening line - "When Jesus wept,  / a falling tear / in mercy flowed / beyond all bound" -  has exactly 12 words, which also happen to divide up nicely into four 3-word chunks.

I came up with a row I liked pretty quickly; it's most notable for having a good 'ol descending minor triad occupying the second 3-word chunk - text painting, yes, but also part of a series of falling thirds which I figured would come in handy, although it turned out that most of the harmonies in the piece arise from the row heard against itself in counterpoint (as opposed to deploying row pitches vertically into chords). Note that the four 2-syllable words (one per chunk) each result in the repetition of a pitch, which might seem like rule-breaking, but I hear them functioning more as re-articulations than "new" notes, plus there really aren't any hard and fast rules in 12-tone music. I'm the boss here.

[Incidentally, Anthony Tommasini, in this 12-tone intro video, only manages to get around to a couple of actual 12-tone pieces, and the one that's featured is this charming little Schoenberg musette which happens to feature repeated pitches all over the place AND a constantly repeated pedal tone throughout! Yes, I understand that a musette implies a bagpipe-like drone style, but the presence of a constant pitch anchor absolutely orients our hearing in a way that makes this a very strange "Exhibit A" for 12-tone music. While I'm in this bracketed paragraph, I might as well mention that online 12-tone tutorials are just a big mess, full of misinformation and misleading assertions that confuse more than enlighten (not that there's anything wrong with that), but this white paper by Mark DeVoto is pretty cool-headed and informative.]

I'm the boss, and yet, following the rules is part of the fun/challenge. It's probably better to think of whatever rules one chooses as self-imposed constraints anyway since that's really the point, and that's really what set me on my way with my own double constraints: 1) use 12-tone technique, 2) make the music sound melodic and somewhat conventional. So, I liked my "when Jesus wept" row (I hope it wouldn't "make the baby Jesus cry"), especially because it seems like a melody that a good choral singer could internalize pretty quickly. As first presented, it all falls within a single octave and only features two intervals larger than a third.

"Making music sound melodic" suggests helping the listener to identify a pitch set as something recognizable on return, so although 12-tone technique is so often associated with non-repetition (of pitches), my new little piece is very much about using repetition strategically - as is most music, I suppose, since musical structure usually boils down to varieties of statements, repetitions, contrasts, and embellishments. But again, I think the history of 12-tone music has been dominated too much by music in which repetition is hard to perceive.

I thus began with the kind of imitative, contrapuntal texture that focuses right away on the row as melody. In conventional tonal contexts, harmonic support actually helps to reinforce our perceptions of a melodic idea, but 12-tone "harmony" tends to pull focus from the individual lines, so I let things evolve slowly so that one doesn't hear all four parts at once until well into the piece. I also made the choice to repeat the brief "exposition," both for the benefit of the listener and also because I was thinking of ways to help the singers feel grounded.

Except that somewhere along the way, I abandoned the idea of singers altogether (though I may return to it) and the piece morphed into a string quartet. I suppose I was worried about finding singers who'd want to take the time to learn a 12-tone piece, but I also just don't really like strongly dissonant music in an a cappella context, which means I'd already kind of failed in my original goal. I think as much as anything, I found that thinking in instrumental terms provided more opportunities for developing ideas through different registers and gestures, even though the finished-for-now product doesn't really push the strings very much.

For now, I've left those 12 words in the opening 2nd violin statement (not to be sung, though!) as a sort of historical marker, and as a subtle guide to melodic inflection. I chose a more generic title, Lacrimosa, as it still references tears, but generalizes the theme in a way that better suits what takes shape. (Also, there's a lovely tradition of instrumental Lachrymae pieces from Dowland to Britten, which also generalize from more specific vocal tears.)

[Obviously, better viewed in full-screen (and HD) on YouTube.]

And what took shape was genuinely unexpected - it's only three and a half minutes, but includes a fairly dramatic climax that just kind of happened. 12-tone technique has a long history of producing very compact musical structures, which makes sense given the intensity of the material and the relative economy with which ideas can be developed. No worrying about modulations and establishing new key areas. It's almost surprising that the 3-minute 12-tone standard didn't become classical music's answer to the 3-minute pop song. Almost.

Obviously, the recording provided above is a very unsatisfying synthesized rendition. (It would almost be more unsatisfying if synthesizers could do the music justice.) I've also included annotations for every use of the row, because I was making note of them along the way anyway, and they make it clear what processes I used. [You can see the row matrix at the bottom of this post.] Although many people mistakenly think of 12-tone technique as insisting that no single pitch can re-sound until all 12 have been heard, the unfolding of this piece depends on various transformations of the row sounding against each other and thus creating all sorts of passing harmonies and even a few unisons. For example, in this passage, the two violins end up on three unisons in m.51, including on the first and third beats. (It's the kind of passage that I don't think would sound as effectively sung because the big leaps would stick out too much - it's much easier for instruments to deliver gestures like this in an even-keel manner.)

In fact, it is at only at the two most climactic moments that the rows are distributed vertically into chords, at m. 32 and m. 68. Actually, in the second instance, the first violin plays the prime version of the row as a melody, but the other parts are accompanying not with their own versions of that row, but with sets of pitches deployed such that every chunk of three notes in the top voice is accompanied by the other nine distinct pitches below - and, each of the other parts plays its own 12-tone set going horizontally. These tightly chosen parameters made this passage the most vexing for me compositionally, and I'm still ambivalent about the results. There's a big, purple major seventh chord that happens right at the climax of this climax and I'm a little embarrassed about it - but it felt like that's what the music wanted to say. I'd certainly never have arrived at that solution without those constraints in place. So, whether or not you find this music meaningful or worth hearing (my own jury is still out as I now work on establishing some distance), I think this does say something about the creative process.

A few more details about the process: Without fully intending it, I found the three parts converging on a long held A at m.53 (to be fair, the 2nd violin and cello have just played the same row successively, with each lingering on the final pitch) and that set in motion a pedal tone passage in which this A is repeated in the cello part for 12 (!) bars while the viola turns the prime row into a frenetic ostinato figure, which finally explodes into all four parts playing the ostinato in unison four times. This is actually a very classical technique, distilling all the parts in a texture to a single musical line, never used more thrillingly than by Mendelssohn at the 10:38 mark here.

Note that (as in Mendelssohn) this most manic presentation of the melody is immediately followed by the climactic recapitulation mentioned above in which the first violin triumphantly re-states the prime row as a "big tune." Again, the use of conventional structural technique is intentional as a way of helping the listener make sense of the row as melody. The music then collapses into a final, fragmented statement of the row with ghostly counterstatements haunting it.

So, now I've got this piece. If I end up liking it, I could imagine it as the first movement of a string quartet (the chromatic, fugal opening is vaguely reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven's Op. 131), maybe letting the 12-tone chains fall away as the movements progress. Or maybe I could pair it with a re-imagined choral version of "When Jesus Wept." Or maybe it will sit in a forgotten virtual desk drawer for several centuries and then be rediscovered as the work of a visionary genius - or not.

The decision to post it here (unperformed and all) is as much as anything an exercise in what blogging can be - thinking out loud not just in words, but in notes, or images, or videos, or whatever. Several years back, I imagined embarking on a regular series of "piano blogging" posts, in which informal recordings were posted as ways of "saying something." Spontaneous composition makes even more sense in this regard. In fact, this entire post was originally just going to be about the 12-tone "Happy Birthday" (as a follow-up to my two previous posts in which I was blogging about silly creative things done in response to former students), so the Lacrimosa can legitimately be thought of as part of the blogging process.

One of my first favorite music blogs was Matthew Guerrieri's Soho the Dog, and though he's since gone on to blog less while writing actual critically acclaimed books, I always loved how he'd blog not only brilliant cartoons, but also little compositions he'd written. I've never been able to get "Bring Us In Good Ale" out of my head, and hope to convince some choir to learn it some day. Perhaps you too will struggle to get my little Lacrimosa out of your head - and hopefully it won't produce the wrong kind of tears. (There are at least two wrong kinds, in this context: tears of pain and tears of laughter.)

P.S. I've realized there are lots of nice video links embedded in this post for reference, so I thought I'd make a little YouTube playlist of all of them, which you can view here.

P.P.S. If you're curious, here is the row matrix which makes it easy for the composer to find the various transpositions, inversions (I), retrogrades (R), and retrograde inversions of the pitch set. This matrix was generated by my own little 12-tone Sandbox. The prime row ("When Jesus wept") is the 12 pitches across the top. (Note that whether a pitch is ID'd as flat or sharp makes no difference.)

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