Friday, August 24, 2018

Fugue State: Day 11

Here at last is the final fugue from my summer project. Based on the widely-used German hymn tune Lobe den Herren, which is sung most often as "Praise to the Lord, the almighty," this is the finale of the set simply because it's the last I wrote before going on a two-week August vacation from the organ bench. You'll find in it a lot of the same features I've returned to again and again, though two are worth noting.

As with two other fugues (here and here), I've created a very short subject from the first part of the opening hymn phrase and then used the concluding part of that phrase as countersubject (heard against the next entries of the subject as answers, etc.). In this case, I also sped up the second half of the tune so that, while the pitches are the same, the character of the melody is changed significantly. One could argue that I've made it less interesting since the original is a rather unusual six bar phrase, and mine is four bars. It surprised me how easy it is to miss the connection altogether, especially because the 6-bar version puts strong emphasis on E (on "King"), a relatively unstable scale degree. (If you try to sing the words placed below my fugue subject, you'll find that they don't fit well because "King" falls in an unstressed metrical position.)

My version, which conflates bars 2-3, simply outlines the notes of a dominant harmony in what becomes the penultimate bar. It is simpler and more square than the hymn tune, but also provides more rhythmic variety as countersubject.

Also, I have again tweaked the normal expectations about where the "answer" (second entry of the subject motif) is pitched; in this case, it enters on the third scale degree, rather than the more normal fifth or fourth. This results in an almost immediate switch to a more minor-sounding mode, although that bit of shadow passes quickly.

I'll save for another day the opportunity to write more broadly about this whole project, now that all the fugues are out in the open.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Fugue State: Day 10

As I've mentioned, I began this blogging series ten days ago thinking I'd written ten fugues this summer. This little setting of Rockingham is the one I'd forgotten, so unless something else turns up from the shadows, we'll end things tomorrow by turning it up to eleven.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Fugue State: Day 9

I mentioned yesterday that most of these summer fugues are in triple time, but today we get a nice four-square tune sung at both the royal weddings of William and Harry and the funerals of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. The Welsh Cwm Rhondda is most closely associated with the words "Guide me, O thou great Redeemer" or "Guide me, O thou great Jehovah," and it has a dignified but fervent character, although the opening phrase I'm using emphasizes the former.

The main feature here is that, after writing so many fugues that modulate quickly and often to far-flung keys, I decided to restrict myself to the seven pitches of the original key, so this fugue has no accidentals. That doesn't mean it doesn't move into different tonal areas, but by disallowing accidentals, none of the diversions can be in a major key, so the subject takes on different modal characters as it wanders about. You can hear this right away when the second entry sidesteps the leading tone C-sharp for a C-natural. In fact, as I recall, it was after I made the decision to treat this "answer" that way that I decided I'd keep forgoing accidentals and see what happened.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Fugue State: Day 8

As we arrive at the eighth of these ten summer fugues, I just realized a few things:
  1. Eight of the set are in triple time (seven in 3/4 and one in 3/2).
  2. Seven of the triple time fugues begin with a pickup note (or two).
  3. There are actually eleven fugues, not ten, so there are three in duple time, and it looks like this series will extend one day further.
Since we emphasize singability and familiarity in our summer hymnody, and that often trends a bit more to folksier hymns, that may explain part of why we're in three so often, although I may also have simply underestimated how many hymns are in triple time.

Speaking of folksy, Land of Rest is another tune with some shape-note roots, so today's fugue definitely has echoes of the Resignation and New Britain fugues; all three feature pentatonic subjects (meaning basically that they omit the fourth and seventh scale degrees) which certainly contributes to the folksiness. This is the third four-voice fugue* of the set, and the first to use the more traditional pattern of alternating entries between tonic and something else, though in this case that else is the Subdominant, not the Dominant. (Basically, the second and fourth entries begin in the key area a fourth above the first and third. The most common approach would be to alternate Tonic-Dominant-Tonic-Dominant.)

* The other four-voice fugues are on America and Suttgart.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Fugue State: Day 7

In yesterday's featured summer fugue, I mentioned that I was more openly flirting with intentional parallel fifths. The next week when, as best as I recall, I needed to produce two fugues in short order, I decided I'd go all in on the open sound of fifths as a sort of voice-leading motif.* I was facing down Stuttgart, a very square, generic tune for which shows 78 different text pairings! It's not a favorite of mine, but we still use it fairly regularly, and it's certainly inoffensive.

As with several others of these fugues, Stuttgart is not an ideal fugue subject because it has zero rhythmic interest. I decided I could take advantage of its neutral quality by having the subject heard almost continuously throughout the fugue, albeit sometimes in inversion. (A more lively subject might wear out its welcome if heard non-stop.) Most fugues have "episodes" which allow for freer counterpoint to connect various entries of the subject, but here it's pretty much Stuttgart all the way.

As with a previous four-voice fugue (on America), the voice entries follow an unusual progression. Instead of the more common tonic centers of F-C-F-C, we have F-C-d-F. (Because this tune begins on the 5th scale degree, that means the actual pitch starts for the voices are: C-G-A-C.) This gives the entry of the bass voice a special role in bringing the exposition back to the prevailing tonic, but the music then modulates regularly, with the generic subject serving as a gateway to...well, wherever I felt like going.

The combination of a not particularly distinctive subject and lots of parallel voice-leading means the whole fugue is a little less fugue-like than the others I've written since there's not a strong sense of independence among the voices; however, the subject is regularly passed around the four voice parts, which gives the texture a subtle shape-shifting fluidity. I think what I've most enjoyed about playing it is the combination of squareness and steady forward motion, and the process has actually made me appreciate the versatile tune more than I had before.

* So, for example, you can see right away that when the left hand comes in with the second entry of the subject, the right hand voice is simply shadowing the pitch changes a fifth above. This is not something Bach would have done.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Fugue State: Day 6

So, I wrote a 12-tone fugue, and it was fun, but the next week it was back to my old mildly sentimental style. The most notable thing here has to do with counterpoint rules. I've mentioned in several past posts that I'm not scrupulous about avoiding "illegal" parallel fifths and octaves or breaking other "rules." Still, aside from a more liberal approach to dissonance, I've mostly kept those guidelines in mind, and frankly, when you're on a deadline, that can be annoying. (Annoying in the sense that I'll sometimes write something I like, that sounds fine to me, but then realize I've broken a rule and have to decide how important it is to re-work.) The classic rules of counterpoint are, of course, particular to bygone styles in some ways, although I'm also interested in capturing the spirit of those styles, so it's an interesting tension, even if there's more than a century worth of well-known music in which parallel fifths and the like are commonplace.

All that is to say, for this week I decided to thumb my nose at convention right out of the gate. Resignation is a wonderfully open-spaced tune from Southern Harmony (part of the American shape-note tradition) most commonly associated with "My shepherd will supply my need," a versification of the 23rd Psalm. (You can find the original, with tune in the middle voice, on p.38 here.) Because shape-note singing often features rustic harmonies with lots of open fifths, I decided I could explore that sonority more freely. If you don't know about the principle of illegal parallel fifths and octaves, it basically has to do with avoiding those relationships because they diminish the independence of the voices in question, although it also simply evolved into an aesthetic preference for how counterpoint should sound.

As with my first fugue on Aberystwyth, I decided to create a countersubject from the second half of the opening hymn phrase. Since both parts of the phrase begin with identical ascending triads, having the second voice enter a fifth above results in blatant parallels fifths - even more noticeable because they're outlining a fifth and there are no other voices to temper the effect. That melodic triad and its rhythm of two short notes leading to a longer note become the primary motivic material for the rest of the fugue, which features some of my typical quick modulations to unexpected places.

But the open exploitation of parallel fifths had only just begun with this fugue...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fugue State: Day 5

After having made it through four weeks of my summer fugue-writing project, I started to worry that I'd just keep writing the same fugue over and over. Not literally, of course, and in fact there would still be good use in having a set of same-sounding fugues based on distinct hymn tunes: even if they were to sound strangely similar, they're only intended to be heard one at a time, not as a set. Still, as I was facing down my third of five fugues that would begin with an ascending fourth, based on a tune that has some passing similarity to Amazing Grace (which I'd already fugued), I decided it was time to break free - not from the structure of fugues so much as from the structures of tonality itself.

To be honest, I'm not such a big fan of Azmon, best-known as O for a thousand tongues to sing. It is about as square as a tune in three can be, though I have a soft spot for it because of how Ives uses the hymn in the opening movement of his "Camp Meeting" symphony. In fact, I once used Ives' movement as source for a kind of very free, half-improvised prelude, which I wrote about towards the end of this blog post. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by Ives to imagine this tune being distorted by a musical funhouse mirror.

This fugue isn't really built on Azmon, but rather on a 12-tone row that borrows Azmon's rhythm and general melodic shape, while avoiding the repetition of pitches. (The fragment of the tune I've borrowed only uses six distinct pitches among its first twelve notes.) Strangely enough, the rhythm is quite close to that of the 12-tone theme*of my unfinished string quartet, which I wrote about here. (Creepy synth recording here.) So perhaps this whole O for a dozen tongues to sing result was inevitable.

I suppose I should say a little about my method, especially as I'm not necessarily a 12-tone true believer. However, I've always thought 12-tone rows (and their various permutations) work better for counterpoint, when their melodic/intervallic shapes can be perceived, than for building lots of vertical sonorities (chords). I understand that a well-constructed row can yield some interesting possibilities for chord combinations, but I'm not convinced...oh, who has time for this?

Anyway, this three-part fugue simply unfurls one permutation of the row after another in an imitative style that is definitely fugal. I actually played it as prelude (with O for a thousand tongues following as the opening hymn) and no one threw anything sharp at me. So there's that. I have really enjoyed playing it, and I think it does have a satisfying tone and structure, but your mileage may vary. Schoenberg supposedly imagined a future in which "grocers' boys would whistle serial [12-tone] music on their rounds." It's true that this hasn't happened yet, and we may be running out of grocers' boys, but maybe the problem is that these 12-tone tunes need to be brought to the people. So, we start with church and build from there...

* Interestingly, at least to me, I chose to repeat pitches in my string quartet theme. That theme was based on an abandoned choral setting of "When Jesus Wept," and I allowed the words 'Jesus' and 'falling' to be intoned as one-pitch units with articulated syllables. Like so:

Friday, August 17, 2018

Fugue State: Day 4

One of my favorite things about this project has been approaching composition as a quasi-improvisational process. I don't at all mean that I sat and improvised any of these fugues or that I'd be capable of such a thing (like that Bach guy who supposedly improvised a 3-part fugue for Frederick the Fantastic - on a subject much more difficult than Amazing Grace), but rather that my working process each week was pretty fluid and time-constrained. Things happened quickly enough that I've already forgotten a lot of the specifics of how each came to be, but I'm pretty sure Fugue #4 was one of those times when I ended Saturday night dinner by saying, "well, better go write that fugue."

The subject here comes from a wonderful old Lutheran hymn, Wer nur den lieben Gott, sung as If thou but trust in God to guide thee in our hymnal. The hymn is memorably featured, in a slightly different version, in the Oscar-winning Danish film, Babette's Feast. (OK, that's actually all I remember about that film other than a lot cooking.) It's also a tune that Bach showcased in his Cantata No. 93, and indeed there are lots of wonderful prelude settings of this tune from Bach and others, so I've never been at a loss finding music to pair with it on Sunday morning.

I think this fugue does sound more improvisational than the first three. There's no real countersubject and the first episode (starting around 0:23) relies on a very simple kind of sequential patterning, although I like the way that these 8th notes get passed around the three voices. Motivically, the descending 3rd (with short-long emphasis) that concludes the subject is featured a lot and the ending kind of just dissolves with memories of the final three notes of the subject, a descending minor triad. I use augmentation (stretching out the notes values of the subject) in many of these fugues, but I especially like the lengthened (note quite complete) presentation starting in the bass at 1:04 as a climactic feature, and I also like the general flow and sense of being at a loss through much of the fugue. This music is looking for someone to guide it.

If you think all of these fugues are starting to sound the same, be sure to return tomorrow...

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Fugue State: Day 3

If yesterday's Amazing Grace fugue featured one of the best-known hymns, today's fugue, written for the Sunday before July 4, is based on an even more famous tune. Identified in our hymnbook as America (Beethoven and others have referred to it as "God save the [Monarch]"), we didn't actually sing "My country, 'tis of thee" that morning, but I figured a fugue on the subject would still carry some meaning. And if we happened to have any visitors from across the pond, they could happily hum along without worrying about 1776.

Like our country, this fugue is a bit quirky. This is the first of the set to feature four voices, so I decided to do something a bit unusual with the entries. The normal procedure would be for the second entry (the "answer" to the subject) to begin in the dominant (the key a 5th above) or subdominant (4th above) with the third entry back in the tonic (repeat of subject) and fourth entry back in the key of the "answer." So, in an F Major fugue like this one with a subject beginning on F, the exposition entries would begin on: F, C, F, C. I decided to heighten the tension by having the third entry on G (supertonic), with the final voice returning (rather suddenly!) to F, so: F, C, G, F. It creates a bit more tonal drama right off the bat, for better or for worse.

I also chose to use only the first six notes (my coun - try tis of thee) of the tune which makes for a very simple subject that only includes three unique pitches - kind of the opposite of the problem with the rangy Amazing Grace. The dotted rhythm of "tis of thee" is thus the most prominent motif, and you'll hear that it's used again and again as gateway to various quick modulations. Some of these modulations are admittedly a bit jarring, but Americans are often in a hurry.

My favorite feature of this fugue is a kind of extreme stretto that happens around the 0:27 mark, with all four voices presenting the theme just one note apart from each other, starting at four different pitches. This results in some fun metrical disruption (only one of the voices starts on a downbeat) and is also enabled by my more freewheeling approach to voice-leading and dissonance. But I think the section really works, and maybe it even embodies a bit of the virtuous struggle to make a diverse country work.

It turns out that once again, for the third fugue in a row, I chose to reference the climactic part of the tune (otherwise not part of the subject) near the end at 0:48. I am pretty sure I backed away from this effect as the summer went on, but we'll see in the days ahead.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Fugue State: Day 2

My second and third summer fugues (see previous post) feature the two best-known of the ten tunes I've taken on. Today's subject is New Britain, a tune much better known by association with the words of Amazing Grace. Although I'm not sure I could say exactly what makes for a perfect fugue subject, this melody strikes me as less than ideal for the job; but facing challenges is part of what this project is about. The opening of the tune has a simple rocking quality, with mostly intervals that are larger than a step. (Stepwise motion is very useful in creating counterpoint.) The pentatonicism is an important part of its folksy charm, but this certainly doesn't sound like a Bach fugue subject.

I took all of this as license to let my folk fly, so I was even less worried about illegal parallel intervals than in yesterday's fugue. There's a wide-open-spaces parallel fifths moment going from m.5 into m.6, and there are plenty more violations, so it's definitely not Bach. As happens in several of the fugues to come, there's a sentimental Copland flavor at times, but I'm still happy with the result, even though it's always a surprise to me when something I write turns out sentimental.

Perhaps you'll notice that the little rocking 3rd motif in the countersubject is borrowed from notes 3-5 ("...-zi-ing grace...") of the subject. As with the fugue on Aberystwyth, though the fugue subject is based only on the opening of the tune, the climactic phrase of the hymn sneaks in towards the end (1:24). I think I stayed away from this technique in the fugues to come, but we'll see. Fugue #3 arrives tomorrow...

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Fugue State: Day 1

Earlier this year, when I was having fun writing fugues and the blog was cruising, I'd had some thought about starting a podcast with the name "Fugue State." As you may know, fugue state actually refers to a psychiatric disorder, and though I don't want to make light of such things, a musical fugue can conjure up the feeling of hearing voices talking to each other. Maybe. Anyway, I have found that my mind enters an interesting state when writing fugues. I had thought of it as the title for a podcast because so many of my blogging/musical interests have to do with following an idea where it takes me and enjoying the collision/connection between differing ideas, musical or otherwise. A psychiatric fugue state is a kind of temporary amnesia, and experiencing a good fugue can certainly feel like being lost in thought. But that podcast hasn't happened, and I've since learned that the band Vulfpeck already gave one of their albums this title, so it seems less original now.

Though I haven't blogged yet this summer, I did undertake a fun fugue-writing project, and it's time now to mine that for blogging gold. At the beginning of the summer, I considered the annual problem of choosing lots of instrumental music for church when there is no choir around to sing the usual two anthems. In summer of 2017, as I wrote here, I featured a lot of "composer Sundays."
"This past summer, with choir on hiatus, I had a pre-July 4th All-American prelude-offertory-communion-postlude lineup of Ives, Copland, Barber, and Beethoven's Variations on God Save the King My country 'tis of thee. I also had Sundays of all-Bach, all-Mozart, all-Scarlatti, all-Ravel, and all-Shostakovich!"
For this summer, I decided to write at least one fugue for each Sunday based on hymns sung that day, and I now have a set of ten. Most of these were designed to serve as Offertory, which only requires about 90 seconds or so in summer, so I had a good excuse to write short fugues. For someone who's always been more of an occasional/accidental composer, it was a really good exercise to take on this challenge each week. It suited my procrastinating tendencies well since I generally submit work titles by Tuesday morning. This meant I could make myself commit to writing something that often didn't actually come into existence until Saturday night! (Ask my family...)

Although I tried to set myself various compositional challenges to avoid falling into the same tendencies over and over, I was a bit surprised at how many of the resulting fugues sound similar in many ways. Of course, there are some general principles of fugue writing that contributed to this, and I was also choosing to write in a mostly slow and contemplative style. My basic method is to write the kind of piece I wish I already had on hand, and even once I start writing, my process is pretty much: write a phrase, imagine what I hear next, try things out until something works, etc.

My plan here is to feature one fugue a day over the next week and a half. I'm not sure if they'll all be presented in the order I wrote them, but for Day 1 I begin with the first fugue from the project, based on a lovely Welsh tune with the lovely name Aberystwyth. Our summer hymn selections generally stick with tunes the congregation knows well, which means from a practical perspective that I've created a little repertoire of pieces I'll be able to use often. (All of these fugues are based on hymn tunes as they appear The Hymnal 1982.)

You can hear this tune here and you can see various uses of it in countless hymnals here. Although many of these fugues should work well on organ or piano, these recordings will all likely be made on my own not-perfectly-tuned piano because it's simply easier to do that way - especially since I'm something of a fake organist. Unlike past compositional experiments that I've featured on my Youtube page, I'm choosing to withhold the complete versions of these scores as I'm hoping I might get around to self-publishing them. However, for anyone interested, I'd likely be happy to send out complete scores. They are all fairly simple, and all still somewhat in draft form; but as a set, it's the kind of collection I wish I'd had on my shelf to begin with, so perhaps someone else will feel the same.

The most distinctive feature of this fugue is that the entire first phrase of the hymn tune is split so it serves both as subject and countersubject. In a fugue, the subject is the primary thematic idea which is treated contrapuntally among multiple voices. When the second voice enters with the subject, the original voice often continues with new material that functions as countersubject. In this case, the countersubject is simply the second half of the full opening phrase. This has the effect, especially for anyone who knows the tune, of making the second voice entry seem like it's coming in early - in fact, it does arrive earlier than is usual for a fugue since the second entry begins with the final note of the subject.

For contrapuntal purists, you might find that I don't shy away from parallel 5ths and octaves as much as I should, but I think this one is pretty tame in that regard. In fact, this is probably among the most conventional of the set. There are a few very quick modulations in the middle, though handled in a very standard sequential style. At about 1:13, the top voice clearly references the climactic phrase of the original tune, even though that's not part of the subject. (This is a technique I've used a lot in the past, for example at the 1:34 mark of this synthetically recorded Christmas fugue, but as the summer of '18 rolled along, I tried to avoid relying on this trick too often.)

I promise I won't write nearly so many words in the days head, but a new fugue will debut tomorrow, and hopefully that pattern will continue through mid-August.