Some structural thoughts

Some structural thoughts

Thank you for the interesting thoughts on my sharps and flats research. I am currently in the midst of the next phase: trying to work out why D major and minor (and D dorian?) are the most popular scales. Hopefully it won’t be too long until I share more of my thoughts and findings with you. However, today I want to discuss another musical element.

Structure is something than often befuddle the composer. While a thematic idea may simply pop into one’s head – sometimes with full harmony and orchestration – structure is something that doesn’t necessarily come as naturally. This is definitely true of my compositional process.

Examining my earlier compositions, I find that structurally, I used a lot of the traditional forms. When at school, I wrote a lot that could used ternary, sonata, theme and variations, and strophic forms. I suspect these probably heavily reflect the music I was playing at the time: predominantly classical, as I was working on grade 8 / diploma piano music, as well as studying oboe and sax. I was singing a lot, and writing some songs, which explains the strophic. I was probably nudged towards the more classical forms by the way they were studied in GCSE/A level music, and the fact that they worked well as a base for composition for both these levels.While studying at university, more unusual structures crept in alongside the traditional ones previously used. While there are a couple of sonatas, there are also works whose structure is defined by their essence and material. Twisted Somatics is a piece for marimba and vibraphone (one player), which examines a relationship between them – and thus uses the concept of two separate entities, which slowly merge and combine. One piece I wrote whilst at university was structured around a game of cribbage!

It would seem that my relationship with gamelan has had a profound effect on how I view structure, as I now use cyclical structures to greater effect in my work. Recent examples of that include Circles for chamber orchestra (completed Jan 2011 – not yet uploaded, but soon!), and the piece for gamelan and string quartet I uploaded previously. Cycles seemed to dominate structures during my Masters degree, and continue to permeate today.

In other areas of my music, I like to give the performer as much freedom as possible. I’m one for using fewer dynamics in my work in order to let performers create their own interpretations – something I have been criticised for at various stages. However, as someone who performs myself, I know the frustration of feeling that written dynamics don’t match a chosen interpretation, but yet having to adhere to them anyway! Structure is normally such a fixed element of music. Why not give the performer the freedom to choose it themselves? Obviously there are inherent problems with this. Less fixed structures are normally present in contemporary music with graphical scores – however, although I have experimented with them, I don’t feel graphical scores are the way forward for my music at the moment.

However, I do want to experiment with giving the performer more freedom. I have decided to do this with a new work – Summer Rain, for solo marimba. Some of the material for this work has been sketched out already; I found I spent so much time reshuffling what I already had, that trying to create a fixed structure was inhibiting the progress of the piece.

How should it be handled? As I have composed material, this has to be present. George Crumb displays conventional notation in different forms:

 

George Crumb’s Makrokosmos.

George Crumb has some very different methods of displaying notation, as well as some different ways of creating unique performances every time. I saw Star Child being performed at the Barbican, London, last year, which features four conductors (two primary, two secondary), each in command of different areas of the instrumentation, and who don’t synchronise whatsoever. Another completely different way of handling structure..!

A different example of the arrangement of notated material on a page can be found in Peter Maxwell Davis’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, where one song is displayed in the form of a birdcage. However, both these pieces imply some form of organisation for their material, and issue performance instructions; these are both concepts I want to avoid as much as possible.

One of my favourite methods of planning compositions (and work in general!) is to use mind maps. I tend to use them to sketch out everything, as I find them less structured than lists or bullet points. Therefore, Summer Rain will be written as a mind map. I’m not sure how I will connect the ideas yet – but the central theme will be in the centre of the mind map, with the title, in the same way that the central theme of a mind map appears in the centre.

I will find some way of sharing this composition with you – probably in the form of a recording, along with some snippets of the ‘score’ after my wonderful marimba player has had a chance to look at it! I am hoping to complete it in the next couple of weeks, and will keep you updated.

Of course, I’m not abandoning the old traditionals. One of my newer personal projects is fundamentally based around a very traditional musical form – although I won’t necessarily be using it completely in a traditional manner! A project I shall share another day…

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