Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Triangulated Counterpoint

As I started working on adding a third voice to facilitate the contrapuntal combination of two different national anthems (see previous two posts), I had an emerging sense/memory that I had done something like this before. I could just almost see three staves in which a newly written bass line interacts with two distinct melodies, and I could feel the sense of satisfaction in having completed an unlikely trio. I even remembered writing a blog post about this process as a kind of compositional triangulation. I searched my blog and came up with...nothing. 

Finally, after a day of being taunted by this déjà vu, I shut the radio off while driving, did a deep memory search, started to have a vague idea that it had to do with writing for church, and at last the story below came back to me.  I had indeed started a blog post, but never finished it and thus never published it. Here's what I had so far:
As my interest in various kinds of mashups has grown, I'm drawn again and again to the idea that mashups are a kind of counterpoint  -  or, seen from a different vantage point, counterpoint is a kind of mashup. (Yeah, yeah, this could extend to saying all music is a mashup, but that's less interesting.) Mashups and contrapuntal works both draw on the kind of stimulation/pleasure the brain gets from following multiple musical strands simultaneously. Of course, coordination (of a beat, of harmonies, of voice-leading, etc.) certainly plays a role in making mashups and counterpoint effective, and this raises an interesting question. For any two given musical works, is there always some kind of coordination that can be applied to make them function effectively together? My best guess is: yeah, probably, though I'm not in a hurry to fuse together "The Hoedown Throwdown" with a Telemann flute sonata. (I really don't like Telemann.)

But an interesting sub-set of that question might be this: for two works which fit together in terms of time-scale, is there some third-party musical work (pre-existing or not) which can serve to bring the first two together in a more satisfying way than if they're simply heard mashing against each other? The idea is that the third party music sort of triangulates between the features of the first two musics, accentuating where they already work well against each other and building bridges in places where the differences (or similarities) are ineffective.

OK, I didn't just come up with this question out of the blue. It arose when I was preparing music for the church's children's choir to sing on All Saints Day (Nov. 1). We'd already decided that they'd sing the delightful, slightly batty* "I sing a song of the saints of God," (hear here) although some of the children didn't seem that enthusiastic since they'd also sung it the year before under a different music director. It's a great little choir, and though the age-span of the children and our limited rehearsal time mean things can't get too complex, I thought it would make things more interesting to add a descant. So I began experimenting. For some reason that I don't remember (the muse is amusing that way), the tune of "Jesus loves me" came to mind and I had the idea that it might kind of fit with the Grand Isle tune we'd be singing. ("Jesus loves me" probably has a privileged place in my mashup memory bank because of the beautiful way it's used by Ives in his 4th violin sonata.)

Like thousands of other hymn tunes, each has a 4-4-4-4 phrase structure in common time, so it was just matter of what happens when they go together....
To pick up from that unfinished post, here's what happens when they are paired with my then-newly composed bass line:

They go together remarkably well for two tunes that have nothing to do with each other. From a contrapuntal perspective, the most vexing problem is a few instances of parallel unisons (m.11, m.13-14, and, going into the final cadence), though only the last one really bothers me. (There are also parallel octaves between tune #2 and my bass line going into m.7 and probably several other sins, but Jesus still loves me. I actually like the parallel 5ths heading into m.4.) In the Glenn Gould national anthem mashup I mentioned a couple of posts back, he also complains about how his little discovery is partly spoiled by concluding parallel octaves. Nonetheless, I feel like I successfully completed the triangle.

As it happened, we didn't have time to have the children split into two parts, but for the final verse of the hymn (after I'd dazzled everyone with my musical depiction of "a fierce, wild beast" in verse 2), I had a flutist play "Jesus loves me" above this new harmonization, and the effect was lovely. Hopefully it will return for All Saints Day this year, and I'll try to get a live field recording.

I've heard it said that any given artwork is, in some respects, a discovery of a work that already exists in some kind of infinite web of theoretical works. I'm not sure how useful such an idea is broadly speaking, but in the case of the "composition" above, it feels close to being true. It's not at all difficult to imagine someone else coming up with the same basic idea, though the mediating bass line would likely be different in some ways - but maybe not that different. I've definitely had enough experience now with various kinds of mashing things together to be not so surprised when surprising intersections appear.

For example, it's surprising that a person I don't know on Twitter, whose timeline I only saw because he'd tweeted out a perversely hysterical video (no longer available, alas) of an Olympic swimming announcer miscalling a race, led me to the same Twitterer's suggestion about playing national anthems simultaneously in the case of a tie, which led to me bringing the U.S. and Canada together, which led to me remembering to finish a blog post I'd forgotten about from almost a year ago. Perhaps if I go check my Twitter feed now, I'll end up writing Beethoven's thirteenth symphony...

See also: My Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring

* I don't necessarily mean "slightly batty" as a bad thing. One of MY FAVORITE PIECES OF MUSIC EVER is Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb," a setting of words by Christopher Smart that leave the slightly part of "slightly batty" way behind.

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