Sunday, December 18, 2011

Five and Six

This piece is very special to me for several reasons. First, I have put a great deal of thought into it, which is unusual. Frequently in the past I have found that, if I think too much about what I'm writing, my music comes out dry, cerebral, and uninteresting. However, in this case, I felt like I was able to keep true to my original musical inspirations while still being able to identify in them some basic structures that I could exploit to build the piece in a way that felt relatively organic. As a consequence, “Five and Six” is more harmonically, rhythmically, and compositionally sophisticated than anything I've done so far. (This is not to say that it is especially sophisticated; I'm just a music school drop-out, after all.) At the same time, it still feels right and meaningful to me.

Another reason that this piece is significant to me is that its completion comes roughly a year after I first started exploring making synthetic music. This time last December, I had just discovered the Linux Multimedia Studio, an open source DAW written for Linux and Windows. After messing around with the program for a few weeks, I produced, in the early hours of Christmas Day, “In Three II.” The experience fanned the fires of a long-dormant passion and I have spent most of my spare time since educating myself on the current state of music synthesis (as well as its history), re-acquainting myself with music theory, and listening to as much electronic and/or minimalist music as I could find.

Not to be terribly profound about it, the music I find most compelling is that which is in some way emotionally evocative, while also being intellectually interesting. It does not have to be consonant or even tonal, but, for me, it does have to be “musical.” That is, it must speak to – invoke, require – that part of my psyche that distinguishes organized, communicative sound from random noise. “Five and Six” is the closest I've yet come to writing something that evokes an emotional state while also holding an intellectual interest.

Anyone who knows Steve Reich's work will recognize some his ideas here – indeed, my working title for the piece was “Reichspiel” – in particular his use of repeated phrases that cycle asymmetrically relative to each other. I was initially playing around with phasing, a Reichian technique where one part slowly modifies its beat relative to the other parts and so briefly goes out of phase, and this got me thinking about how different parts' time signatures might be structured to produce a phasing of phrases rather than of beats. In this case, three of the parts play in 5/4 time while the two other parts play in 6/4 time (hence the title), while the quarter-note beat is shared across all parts. Further, the number of repetitions of a given phrase varies across parts, for example, the string-like voice repeats its phrases three times, the reed-like part repeats five times, and the cycles for the marimba-like part are based on 18 repetitions. In this way, the music as a whole offers, at any given moment, a familiar anchor for the listener, while still changing constantly. 

In order to give some structure to what would otherwise be a free-for-all, I developed all the horizontal components within a relatively simple vertical structure. Working in g minor, I used as my guide to writing all harmony only the i7, v, v7, VI, and VI7 chords, which essentially sum to a major 11th chord based on B♭. Being a string player by training, vertical structure was never my strong point, so taking a simplistic approach like this allowed me to create a warm, consonant, yet colored sonic substrate over which the four inherently linear voices might interact. Too, it gave me some guidelines for how to write the linear parts so that they wouldn't clash. (Not that I don't like strongly chromatic, or even atonal, music; I'm just not facile enough with the rules of tonality to break them in musically meaningful ways.) 

As always, I invite your thoughts on this:  please comment and let me know what you liked or didn't like!   (Including demands that I take back my trashing of Philip Glass, given the last phrases of this piece!)