End of the weekend

This weekend’s been a bit of a struggle for Creative Pact – the need to make the most of Djelibeybi’s time at the house, and painting the temporary kitchen, and subsequent filling of the house with paint fumes for 3 days has made focusing on music a little tricky!

Today I’ve been trying to really push forward and set myself up for the week ahead. To that end, I pulled what I’ve got for Ladders of Escape into Finale – which totally confirmed my decision to not work on this piece on the computer. While I found I DO have recorder sounds, I also discovered that a) they are pretty bad and b) they all play at pitch. Except for the bass recorder sound which won’t play any note within the stave. Doesn’t matter which one you pick, it’s not transposing. There’s probably some fancy switch somewhere that will allow me to correct the transposition for each instrument, but honestly, if you make an instrument called a sopranino recorder and include it with all the other instruments that are automatically and correctly set up, surely it should have the qualities of a sopranino recorder built in so I don’t HAVE to mess about with transpositions… Anyway. Rant done 🙂

The purpose of getting this music into Finale was so I could send it through to Jen so that Pink Noise can run through it at their rehearsal tomorrow and I can get an idea of what works or not. As I think I said yesterday, I have concerns about the dissonances, and also about the use of held multiphonics over simple tones. I quite like the concept I’m working with but I really need some aural validation that it’s not going to sound horrific in practice. Simultaneously excited and nervous to hear how they get on.

I’ve not pushed on with the notes for Lilies on the Silver Sea today – I feel I need to let yesterday’s notes settle in a little more. So I’ve been doing some reading. I’ve never really encountered much music that uses quarter-tones, but I’m pretty familiar with some of Kyle Gann’s work in various tunings (if you haven’t heard his Custer and Sitting Bull, pull up a cup of tea and give it a go – it was a revelation for me when I heard Gann perform it in Brisbane in 2002) so I decided to start with Gann and see where it led me. Today I started with his essay “My Idiosyncratic Reasons for Using Just Intonation”.

Now, obviously, quarter-tones are not by any stretch of the imagination just intonation, but I wanted to find out what drew Gann to alternate tuning systems, and how he felt just intonation provided a different experience from assorted equal temperament tunings. There were a few things he said in this essay which I found particularly interesting. The first is that he doesn’t like the concept of transposability – in equal temperament tunings, because the intervals are standardised, you can pick up a phrase, start it on a new note and have the same phrase, just higher or lower. With just intonation the intervals are not standardised and you can’t do this. You can’t just map a phrase over a new set of notes and have those intervals be the same – it will be different wherever you put it. This is an intriguing idea. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. I’ve always been quite free with transpositions. It doesn’t particularly disturb me to transpose something up or down to fit what’s needed. I guess I kind of got used to just doing this from an early age. Having a very low vocal range for a woman, I found very early on that if I wanted to comfortably sing things like Christmas carols and hymns, they needed to drop down by at least a third, preferably a fourth.

When I write, I recognise when something is comfortable at a particular point, but I’m always happy to consider putting it somewhere else. Especially with my vocal music, it’s more important to get the patterns of tension and repose inherant in a singer’s tessitura mapped correctly over the course of the composition. So this idea of NOT transposing things is a new one to me. What would it be like to not be able to just shift something?

I also liked his emphasis on the importance of his way of thinking and working on the outcome:

… it’s not so much the purity of sound I get from just intonation as the creative influence of thinking in ratios that I treasure (along with the variety of interval sizes, of course). Some hot-shot who’s figured out that 137 pitches per octave is the perfect equal division will harangue me that my music could be redone in a 137-equal scale and I’d never be able to tell the difference, and maybe he’s right – but I would never have written the piece the way I did thinking in 137 equal steps… You can’t just ignore the impact that how you define your materials has on the creative process.

I think this bit is important for how I’m finding my way with Lilies because 137 equal pitches may be too many for Gann, but I think 24 may be too many for me! At least to produce something logical. My thinking about how to use the quarter-tones is going in two slightly different directions at the moment: 1. is to build a scale using quarter-tones (as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts) and to build the piece within the framework of that scale. 2. is to start with materials that are fundamentally 12-tone equal temperament and use the quarter-tones as emotional inflections, to push and pull a phrase to compress or extend its intervals into the space between the notes.

I’m leaning more towards 2 for a number of reasons. The first is technical: I’ve always been an intuitive composer rather than one who works to a scheme. I’ve never used a harmonic plan and rarely pick a scale or key and start from there. The modality of a piece is always determined by where the piece wants to go, not by some arbitrary starting point. Usually when I do pick a starting point the piece ends up gallivanting off in another direction entirely. The second is that I want to have a reason for using the quarter-tones that’s more than merely “they’re on the flute” and the scale solution does feel rather arbitrary in that respect. The second solution, however, would allow me to change the feel of a phrase ever so slightly, based on which intervals were compressed or expanded into that quarter-tone zone.

The second approach also makes it easier (I hope!) to work at the piano or on my own flute for this piece. I may be eschewing the computer as a compositional tool for these works, but I still need some kind of sound reference because, if I’m honest, my aural skills suck. They’re improving a little bit, but I’ve never been able to think of an interval and just write it down. If I’m working with a 12-tone base but then stretching or compressing it, then I can push forward with the piano and be able to get my brain around the piece, whereas if I’m working at the piano with notes that actually aren’t there, I’m going to drive myself bananas.

I felt I needed to push on with my quarter-tone listening too, so I pulled up the Wikipedia list of quarter-tone pieces and found a John Corigliano piece, Chiaroscuro, written – like the Ives pieces I started with – for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. I’ve been really quite surprised at the number of works written for this combination. It seems so gosh-darned awkward! To have to have a second piano with a totally different tuning, I really would have thought there’d be barely anything simply because of the logistical problems, but there they are. The Corigliano piece is marvellous. The central movement in particular is very beautiful and I love how the quarter-tones intrude on Corigliano’s usual equal-temperament style. An added delight is that the final movement, ‘Strobe’, incorporates the sung Grace my family uses every Christmas, “Be present at our table, Lord”, which with the addition of a halo of quarter-tones is just lovely. I’ve added Chiaroscuro to my Spotify Creative Pact 2012 playlist.

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