Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Founts of Inspiration

[If you don't want to read 1000+ words about music right now, you can just skip to the end and hear the music.]

I don't tend to refer to myself regularly as a "composer," though compositions sometimes seem to happen. (Poetry, too. See recent post re: accidental verse.) I suppose it's mostly that I don't compose regularly, and that so many of my compositions are based on pre-existing material. Of course, just about anything is based on pre-existing material to some degree, but I tend to find inspiration mostly when 1) I have a familiar musical idea as a starting point, and 2) I have a particular performance purpose in mind.

The idea of starting with something familiar connects, at a fairly deep level, with my own tendency to be more interested in music that I know than in music that's new to me. I fully understand that this can be limiting, and I try to fight it, though I think it's also fair to say that this kind of attitude partly defines what "classical music" is as a cultural phenomenon.

[At its most positive, returning again and again to the known is a way to experience the natural pleasure that recognition brings; recognition of a tune or style or whatever provides a perceptive framework which can make it easier to process other details and connections. Of course, there's a partial paradox in that music has to begin life as unknown and somehow cross over into the known, or whatever you want to call it. I guess the point is that, as a composer, I like to cheat by starting with something from "the inside."]

Anyway, I believe I'm fully capable of coming up with my own original musical ideas, but I just haven't spent much time doing that. However, working as a church musician gives me plenty of opportunities to compose with pre-existing materials as I'm a big fan of the chorale prelude model for service music.

This past Sunday, the church was celebrating a summer service trip members of our congregation had taken working with the admirable Appalachia Service Project, so we'd chosen hymns that relate to that mission and that have a folksy, American flavor. Among the hymns was the ever-popular "Come, thou fount of every blessing," which I've found is the rare hymn that is pretty well-liked across the high-church/low-church spectrum.

As it happened, I already had planned to have my teenage daughter on hand to play a fiddle tune during Communion. (Technically, "Hector the Hero" is Scottish, but it's in our "music we can play with virtually no prep" rep. Daughter of MMmusing has a pretty busy life!) And if you don't happen to know "Come, thou fount of every blessing," here's what its tune (Nettleton) sounded like when Daughter of MMmusing played it eleven years ago at age five:

Rough, but sweet.

Speaking of which, since I was already going to have my "house violinist" in the house on Sunday, my mind turned to Charles Ives' Violin Sonata No. 2. Its last movement, subtitled "The Revival," happens to be a meditation on "Come, thou fount of every blessing" which whips itself up into a fervent climax, before ending simply.

[The hymn tune makes its first clear appearance around 1:15, though it's hinted at before.]

It's possible I'm writing this post just to boast that my daughter can be handed five pages of Ives (I gave her the piano score to make it easier for us to stay together) on a Saturday night and perform them beautifully and idiomatically about 14 hours later as the prelude. Ives' sonata isn't exactly Appalachian, but it certainly embodies the American spirit, and it has the composer's trademark combination of rough and sweet. This finale is immensely gratifying to play.

Ives is, of course, one of the best examples of a composer who loved working with pre-existing material. As it happens, I had also done some composing around "Nettleton" this summer when I needed something solemn but uplifting as recessional for a memorial service at which the hymn was sung. So, I reprised that piece on Sunday as the postlude, and am presenting it here today for anyone who might be interested.

I always like it when the postlude is either based on a tune from the day and/or when it is in the same key as the final hymn that precedes it, but I got a nice bonus surprise on Sunday just before I started postluding. Between the recessional hymn and the postlude, comes the spoken Dismissal:
LEADER: Let us go forth in the name of the Lord. Alleluia, alleluia.
PEOPLE: Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia.
...and in that moment of hearing those "alleluias," I realized that the primary motif of my postlude has the same rhythmic profile as a spoken "alleluia," so the music felt righter than I'd expected.

It will have to fall to others to decide whether this composition is successful, but I'll say a bit about the compositional process, since that kind of thing interests me. The music opens in a way that is intentionally formulaic, beginning with a simple scalar descent in the bass that morphs into the hymn tune at the end of the second bar. As I recall, the "alleluia" motif just kind of happened as I was trying out different ways of countering the tune in the pedal. However, there are some interesting ways in which the complexity builds as tune and [newly christened] "alleluia" motif play off each other.

First of all, as the first phrase of the tune is finishing up in the pedal, the "alleluia" motif suddenly runs through the entire A section of the tune very quickly:

One thing that's interesting about this is that at the very moment the "right hand" is quoting the tune, it also seems to be breaking free of the formulaic melodic patterns that have persisted until this moment. It becomes independent by means of imitation.

The tune itself has a simple AABA structure. After the first two statements of 'A' have been heard in the pedal, a strange little interlude intervenes. First of all, the "alleluia" motif now anticipates the pitches of the 'B' part of the tune in m.10, while the "left hand" (not pedal) repeats the F#-E-D sequence which both opens and closes the 'A' section. (That's a really lovely feature of this tune that I don't remember having noticed before. Its end is its beginning.)

More importantly, you might noticed that the rests have disappeared from the treble staff above, and the "alleluia" rhythm is replaced by the "teach me some" rhythm that opens part 'B' of the tune. However, this motif, without the eighth note rest, occupies only three-quarters of a beat in this 3/2 meter, which means that, depending on how one hears and feels things, the right hand features four beats against the three of the left hand.

It's a fun little metrical interplay that isn't quite the same as the typical "4 against 3" because the right hand rhythms can easily be perceived in different ways. However they're perceived, the effect is that the 'B' section of the piece feels considerably less settled. Metrical order is restored just before the "recap" in which the final 'A' section is stated in m.24.

That's probably more than needs to be said about a piece that lasts less than two minutes, but as happens often once I've gotten some distance from the creative process, the various compositional procedures slip into the background as I listen to or play the music, and somehow it just sounds right. Because now I know it. (If only I could always write pieces I already knew, I might write much more!)

You can listen to the entire piece below. (The words, of course, are not intended to be sung.) If, for some reason, you're interested in playing it, please let me know! I'd love to hear a "real organist" play it.


H. T. Monroe said...

Well, I am impressed. Although I'm not an organist or even a pianist and know little music theory, it sounded great to me.


Thanks, H.T.!