23 September 2008

Composing Today

23 September 2008
A little history: about a year ago I received an email out of the blue from the Duo Ahlert and Schwab asking if I would write a piece for their mandolin guitar duo. It seems these folk are the foremost mandolin-guitar duo in Europe and like modern music and especially American composers. I wrote back and said I’d write something small by Christmas of this year. I’ve finally come to embrace the idea of writing this piece – on the one hand I have no performances scheduled and any performance is a good one especially if it gets me to write a new piece. I began to think about the instruments and realized that I could actually get some serious harmonies out of these two fretted instruments especially if I retuned the strings. So I began exploring the retuning possibilities of the instruments.
If we begin with the guitar, one problem I encountered was no matter how I tweaked the tuning I still ended up with that awful fourth-laden sonority that defines the guitar. I realize now that the problem was result of the fact that I was approaching the tuning from the wrong direction – I was trying to get the most quarter-tones I could get out of the combination of the instrument rather than rethinking the instrument completely. So today, I began trying to rethink the pitch continuum of the guitar. Guitars are normally tuned E-A-D-G-B-E which is a two octave span; 24 semitones or 48 quarter tones. I thought that what I should do to the guitar is divided this space up evenly. Thus the five intervals between pitches would be divided into the 48 quarter tones which obviously is uneven. So if I expand the space to 50 – I could tune in equal 10 quarter tones orfive semi-tones or P4 which sounds like the guitar. Instead I shrunk the space and tuned it in equal 9/4 tones: E – Aqb – C# - Fq – A# - Dq – this actually changes the sound of the instrument.
For the mandolin we usually tune in fifths like the violin: G-D-A-E. Instead I thought to again retune the space. My choices were equal 15/4 or 13/4 intervals. 13/4 intervals tend to sound a hell of a lot like tritones, but 15/4 intervals have their own special sound and that’s what I’ve currently chosen: Gqb – D – Aq – F. The other thought that comes to me now is to tune the mandolin like the guitar – thus with a smaller interval between strings 2 and 3, something like: G-Eb-Ab-E or something with quarter-tones, perhaps I’ll experiment with that as well.
I was talking with Carla about the poetic concept for the piece and the image that kept coming back to me was of a blind man we saw in Urumqi. He was being led around by his wife and was playing the erhu, she held a bucket to collect coins; most people gave. What is striking about this image in the context of the retuning of the guitar is that for this man, and for the blind, he could have been walking this path for fifty years playing his erhu. His path remained the same, but the environment around him changed – thus for the guitar and mandolin players we have a similar thing – they are strumming their strings but the instrument is different – the environment of sound is different though the fingerings and strummings are the same.
I realize also in retuning these instruments that we have then three separate pitch worlds possible: the tempered world; the quarter-tone world and the fusion of the two. Perhaps I can work something out whereby the environment moves from one to another. We’ll see.
Today I composed out some rhythmic sections that may make it into the final work – likely toward the end. We’ll see about that as well.

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18 September 2008

Xenakis' Oresteia

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Xenakis' Oresteia in a performance at Miller Theater. The music remained elemental, glissandos throughout (the clarenettist remarked that he got good practice on them), it was honest and with a great dramatic force, the opening groans from the orchestra seemed as is the rocks and stones themselves were crying out. Other interesting musical notes, Agamemmnon's shrill fanfare - piccolo trumpet in the air. As for Agamemmnon, Wilbur Pauley - this man, newspapers reviews have spoken of his stature, is indeed enormous made all the more so by his stadning on a plinth to sing the Deese Athena moment at which point Athena establishes trial by jury. One beautiful moment of stagecraft came in the preparation for the Kassandra scene - Pauley stands, removes his sleeveless jacket, turns it inside-out and puts it back on, in the meantime a dancer hands him his psaltery. At the end the same happens in reverse. The music of Kassandra worked much much better in the theatrical setting. On the recording, it comes across as remarkably annoying but here is remarkably effective - the facial expressions bring out the two roles and the unreal falsetto ably reflecting on the lack of female performers in the Athenian stage. In the end, the gestures and switching from high to low gives the sense of the performer/character entering a trance for that section.

The chorus was remarkably effective, strong and powerful, the women singing with outstretched arms the men with the grace and strength implied in this music. Other intersting moments - the use of the children's choir at the end singing over the frantic activity on the stage, channeling almost Bach's St. Matthew Passion with its entrance of the children's choir in the chorale passages of the opening. The final rush into the audience seemed hokey and contrived - like something from a high school musical. (Though from my perch in the far balcony, I saw it only in absence.) As for the dancing, my companion wasn't too keen on it, but I found it to be a well-done writhing.

A final word on ICE - the International Contemporary Ensemble - showed themselves to be very able performers of this unremitting music. Obviously, one must signal out David Schotzko for his percussion work (he received an enormous ovation) as well as the less recognized players of low winds - Campbell Macdonald on contrabass clarinet (how nice to hear that) and Rebekah Heller on contrabassoon. Joy in these obscure combinations belching out sound is half the fun of Xenakis.

All in all George Steele, now leaving for Dallas, should be congratulated for bringing a good show to the stage and the performers pleased with their excellent showing.

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15 September 2008

Schoenberg Canons

In honor of Arnold Schoenberg’s recent birthday, it was the thirteenth, I present the following.

Those who set about to peruse all of Schoenberg’s work come upon the difficult issue of his canons. These appear in two publications (among others certainly), a volume from Barenreiter, the 30 Kanons, published in 1963 and the complete works edition (Schott 1980). Unfortunately these two don’t share the same numbering scheme and certain canons that are included in the Schott edition are not in the Barenreiter. What follows is a correspondence of the Barenreiter numbers to the Schott numbers. I’ve included the common name, when there is one, the Schott number, the Barenreiter number and a presumed date for the composition.
Some are recorded, but many aren’t. The recordings include Craft’s survey (only available on LP) , some on a Boulez recording, others on an obscure recording by Les Jouers de Flute and finally others on a saxophone album by Marcus Weiss on Hat Art called “Conquest of Melody.”
For more information see Wayne Shoaf’s spectacular discography.

Canon Name DateSchott Number Barenreiter Number
Eyn doppelt Spiegel- und Schlüssel-Kanon 2/16/22 1 3
- 4/20/26 2 4
Von meinem Steinen 12/25/26 3 5
Arnold Schoenberg Begluckwunscht herzlicht Concert Gebouw 3/7/28 4 6
Dreistimmiger Kanon 4/8/28 5 7
- 4/1/31 6 8
- 12/15/31 7 9
Spiegle Dich im Werk Dec. 1933 8 10
Doppelkanon (in der Unterquint) im Spiegelbild 12/27/32 9 12
- 4/14/33 10 15
- 4/14/33 11 16
Jedem geht es so 4/14/33 12 13
Mir auch ist es so ergangen 4/14/33 13 14
- 12/10/33 14 17
- 3/10/34 15 18
- 3/12/34 16 19
- 3/12/34 17 20
Wer mit der Welt laufen will 7/30/34 18 21
Es ist zu dumm 9/1/34 19 22
- 9/3/34 20 n/a
- [1934] 21 n/a
- [1934] 22 n/a
- [1934] 23 n/a
fur Alban Berg 2/9/35 24 n/a
fur Charlotte Dieterle 11/15/35 25 23
- 1/22/36 26 24
- [1938] 27 25
Mister Saunders I owe you thanks 12/25/39 28 26
- 6/7/43 29 27
I am Almost Sure 3/12/45 30 28
fur Thomas Mann 7/6/45 31 29
Gravitationszentrum eigenen Sonnensystems 8/1/49 32 30
- undated 33 11


14 September 2008


I have been impressed with the music of Luigi Dallapiccola ever since I first heard the Concerto per la Notte di Natale many years back. I was further impressed by his rhythmic use when various pieces of his were used in an atonal ear training class I took during my Masters' degree. (Now that was one of the hardest classes I've ever taken). So, I decided to give his work the chronological looksee. What follows are notes on what I've heard so far:

Fiuri de tapo. Drei Melodien für Gesang und Klavier

Exists only in manuscript


Caligo für Gesang und Klavier

Exists only in manuscript


Due canzoni di Grado für kleinen Frauenchor, Mezzosopran und kleines Orchester

Exists only in manuscript


Dalla mia terra. Vier Gesänge für Mezzosopran, gemischten Chor und Orchester.

Not available. Apparently a version of the third song exists in the Italian magazine Agorà from Turin, August 1946


Due Laudi di Fra Jacopone da Todi für Sopran, Bariton, gemischten Chor und Orchester.

Exists only in manuscript

La canzone del Quarnero für Tenor, Männerchor und Orchester

Exists only in manuscript


Due Liriche del Kalevala für Tenor, Bariton, Kammerchor und vier Schlaginstrumente.

Apparently no1 is supplement to March/April 1938 Revue Internationale de Musique

It’s a shame that this is all we have of this piece what is there is a bit for chorus with some humming and an Italian bass over it all come recitativo. Modal, and attractive.

Partita für Orchester.

This appears to be the first work of Dallapiccola that I can get my hands on, it’s a large orchestral work, readily transparent, that is recorded only in a live recording from the 1960s on an old Stradivarius CD that is quite hard to get - the recording quality is poor. As for the piece: in four movements ending with a broadly lyrical soprano lullaby. It shows some sign of promise, with securely competent and confident writing throughout. The opening passacaglia is totally clasical in style beginning in quiet drumbeats working up to a fury and then returning. The second movement Burlesque is loud and angular melodically in a way that recalls Hindemith and other exercises in quartal harmony. The lullaby itself is quite lovely if overlong. Shows interest in neoclassical techniques and an almost Respighi-like neo-gregorianism. Dallapiccola must have been thinking laudi with the closing lullaby. Keen ear for harmony - trichordally derived.


Tre studi auf Texte aus dem Kalevala-Epos

Exists only in Manuscript

Estate für Männerchor a capella auf ein Fragment des Alkaios

For men's choir with big strong chords in an almost neo-gregorian modality that then expand into something far more chromatic. Has an almost sense of antiquity to it in a fascist manner.


Rapsodia. Studie zu La Morte del Conte Orlando für eine Singstimme und Kammerorchesterauf

No information


Sei Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane - Malmaritate, Malammogliate

Two works for mixed choir on bawdy lyrics of Michelangelo the younger - the sculptor's nephew. The flavor of Istria is apparent in the repetition of the names of relatives and the household busybodiness. Musically thought they are quite tame in a style that is 1930s tonal, I don't know how else to phrase it. More modal than chromatic, with an occasional quartal flair. Not groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination.


Divertimento in quattro esercizi für Sopran, Flöte, Oboe, Klarinette, Bratsche und Violoncello

Very nice in four movements for the interesting combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, viola, cello and soprano. Uses baroque dance forms - note the closing Siciliana and the third movement Bouree. Harmony is astringent, yet modal. Plays with division of the measure simultaneously as 3, 2, and 4.


Sei Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane- Balconi dela Rosa, Papavero

This is the second series of Michelangelo choruses, here scored for Sopranos and Contraltos with instrumental ensemble. There is no recording. The score shows a work almost like a pastorale, filled with open fifths and slow changes of harmony. The second movement has some almost bell like sonorities and shepherd pipe type wind gestures. It is no doubt a lovely work still in the style of Resphigi.


Musica per tre pianoforti (Inni)

Conservative work for three pianos, though probably could be arranged to be played by two. Three movements, makes use of that easy mix of quartal harmonies and a pandiatonicism reminiscent of Pulcinella.


Sei Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane - Coro degli Zitti, Coro die Lanzi Briachi

If only there were a recording of this work for orchestra and chorus, my playing through of the score can only give a hint to what is a constantly forward-looking tonally directed success. The opening chorus moves over an alternating major third-minor third bass line that alternates with fugal passages and some quartal harmonies. The second is third oriented much in the way that "Inni's” opening is, however the harmonies are well thought out and the lines lyrical. One gets the sense of each section of the work moving toward a larger and higher goal.


Tre Laudi für hohe Stimme und Kammerorchester auf Texte aus dem Laudario die Battuti di Modena von 1266

It took my quite some time to sit down and actually play through this taut setting for soprano and orchestra - in a reduction for soprano and piano. It has some beautiful harmonies - the final chord is quite lovely. Two slower movements that surround a quicker movement in the staccato style of Inni. He is moving toward a more refined melody, with notes truly well chosen. I look forward to hearing a recording someday.

Volo di notte. Operneinakter nach dem Roman Vol de nuit von Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Based on the same story that would become the actually-quite-good American film "Only Angels Have Wings" this is the sort of opera that only a young idealistic composer could write. The story is ludicrous, the mail must be delivered in South America and we learn over the radio (which is a major character in this) that a pilot has disappeared. The muisc is consistently solid particularly in the set pieces - Dallapiccola, borrowing from Berg (a little too much at times) is able to unite the various scenes around musical forms: there is a chorale and variations, an invention on a rhythm, and others. These though work and give coherence to the overall. Other elements include a good deal of sprechstimme (notated as Berg does) and the twelve-tone row borrowed from the Tre Laudi, which is presented over a B major triad and which is intended to be symbolic of the heavens: it appears at the beginning and end of the work as well as at the moment we lose the pilot - thus twelve-tone writing becomes an emblem for something beyond human comprehension. Otherwise there is no systematic twelve-tone writing, it remains a lot of quartal harmonies. I'd be interested in hearing a recording as my struggles with the piano-vocal score are not always so successful.

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03 September 2008


A while ago, I had started looking into Bartok's works. After some difficulty I began with the works known only by their Dille numbers (after Denis Dille's catalog). Many of these came to me only in brief segments - the catalog provides only the incipits of the works. Some however have been published in the two collections "Der Junge Bartok" and in the "Documenta Bartokiana" series. Thus, here I begin my observations.

Walczer for Piano, Op. 1, DD 1

The beginning is found in a Photostat in Dille's survey. Straussian - alternating tonic and dominant.

Changing Piece (Változo darab) for Piano, Op. 2, DD 2

Beginning in Dille - tonic dominant alternation in duple time.

Mazurka for Piano, Op. 3, DD 3

Again tonic-dominant, again only opening in Dille, again like Strauss - Johann that is.

Budapest Athletic Competition (A Budapesti tornaverseny) for Piano, Op. 4, DD 4
Seems the whole thing exists though Dile lists only the opening in Allegro tempo a scalar passage followed by descending marcato thirds.

Sonatina No. 1 for Piano, Op. 5, DD 5

Two movements, first opens over an Alberti bass, with alternation of you guessed it, tonic and dominant seventh. Second features a touch of imitation. Bartok is really trying to learn in this his first year of composing.

Wallachian Piece (Oláh darab) for Piano, Op. 6, DD 6

About thirty seconds of this survives and begins like one of his folksong settings might, at least the easier ones.

Fast Polka (Gyorspolka) for Piano, Op. 7, DD 7
A quick polka begins with what seems like it will be a parallel period.

Béla' Polka for Piano, Op. 8, DD 8

Over an Alberti bass comes arpeggiations of tonic and dominant chords..

Katinka' Polka for Piano, Op. 9, DD 9

Simple accompaniment, tonic-dominant. Children's songs all of them.

Voices of Spring (Tavaszi hangok) for Piano, Op. 10, DD 10

This is a longer work - Dille lists it as being about five minutes, its opening is a Straussian melodic figure over a sustained D major harmony.

Jolán' Polka for Piano, Op. 11, DD 11

Opens with a scale in octaves in dotted rhythm. Dille doesn't provide anything more and it's impossible to guess what might come next.

Gabi' Polka for Piano, Op. 12, DD 12

Has an almost Venetian feel with its opening phrase in thirds.

Forget-me-not (Nefelejts) for Piano, Op. 13, DD 13

It's a more pianistic work, in three with an arpeggiated bass line and an expressive cantabile beginning. All these openings beg their second halves - they are very much a solid thought and very much in a particular style, But still the boy is in his early teens.

Ländler No. 1 for Piano, Op. 14, DD 14

There are five of them, they show some invention at least their beginnings. Number one scans with "Beautiful Dreamer"

Irma' Polka for Piano, Op. 15, DD 15

About one minute survives in B major.

Radegund Echo (Radegundi visszhang) for Piano, Op. 16, DD 16

Simple and sustained, it calls out for a contrasting section in the minor.

March (Indulo) for Piano, Op. 17, DD 17

A march for piano in 4, sounds like it could be Vive la Compagnie.

Ländler No. 2 for Piano, Op. 18, DD 18

16 measures with a little rhythmic interest. He has also by this point started using a predominant chord.

Circus Polka (Cirkusz polka) for Piano, Op. 19, DD 19

The opening four measures show a leap down of an octave.

The Course of the Danube (A Duna folyása) for Piano, Op. 20, DD 20

It is believed that Bartok performed this nearly 17-minute cycle in 1891. It seems like a set of variations but admittedly, it’s hard to make any judgment based on what I've seen. The beginnings look similar and the harmonies are as you might expect tonic and dominant, so if this were the measure of variation, then the entire corpus that he's composed to this point could be variation. The opening movement shows promise.

The Course of the Danube (A Duna folyása) for Violin and Piano, DD 20b -- arrangement of DD 20

An arrangement of number 20.

Sonatina No. 2 for Piano, Op. 21, DD 21

Two movements, the first fast the second Adagio with sustained triads in the left hand and a melody homorhythmic above.

Ländler No. 3 for Piano, Op. 22, DD 22


Spring Song (Tavaszi dal) for Piano, Op. 23, DD 23

Perhaps the first work here in the minor, the accompaniment is simply arpeggiated chords, but the melody makes use of the five and six scale degrees of the minor.

Szöllos Piece (Szöllosi darab) for Piano, Op. 24, DD 24


Margit' Polka for Piano, Op. 25, DD 25

The beginning of what must be a parallel period.

Ilona' Mazurka for Piano, Op. 26, DD 26

Amazing how much he does with tonic and dominant and all of it not particularly interesting. These would be good compositional exercises for a harmony class.

Loli' Mazurka for Piano, Op. 27, DD 27

Parallel period in I and V7 then adding embellishing 2 - its really close to Johann Strauss especially also with its leading-tones jumping to supertonics on the downbeat (F#-A-G-C#-E-D|B)

Lajos' Waltz ('Lajos' valczer) for Piano, Op. 28, DD 28

Good one for looking at appoggiaturas and their use. Very close to #28.

Elza' Polka for Piano, Op. 29, DD 29

Tonic dominant opening with a trio in scalar passages and using the secondary dominant.

Andante con variazioni for Piano, Op. 30, DD 30

A five minute set of variations with an exhortatory opening.

X.Y. for Piano, Op. 31, DD 31


Sonata No. 1 in G Minor for Piano, Op. 1, DD 32

It seems with this four-movement piece and judging just from the openings of the movements, that Bartok had got his hand on a collection of Beethoven's sonatas. The first references the Appassionata and the fourth the Tempest.

Scherzo in G Minor for Piano, DD 33

A scherzo with trio in the minor and then the major - the melody is actually put in the left hand.

Fantasie in A Minor for Piano, Op. 2, DD 34

Definitely made at the piano.

Sonata No. 2 in F Major for Piano, Op. 3, DD 35

A twenty-minute sonata that shows the influence of Mozart.

Capriccio in B Minor for Piano, Op. 4, DD 36

More Beethoven in this opening.

Sonata in C Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 5, DD 37

A lot of promise in this multimovement piece. The first movement is a monument of diminished chords. It seems at this point that Bartok is consistently tuneful, consistently foursquare and shows major influence of Beethoven and Mozart - Beethoven for openings and slow movements and Mozart for Rondos and lighter elements.

Sonata No. 3 in C Major for Piano, Op. 6, DD 38


Pieces for Violin, Op. 7, DD 39


Two Fantasias for Violin, Ops. 8 and 9, DD 40 and DD 41


String Quartet No. 1 in B Major, Op. 10, DD 42


String Quartet No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 11, DD 43


Andante, Scherzo and Finale for Piano, Op. 12, DD 44


Three Piano Pieces (Drei Klavierstücke), Op. 12, DD 45 Spring Song (Tavaszi dal), Valse (Valcer), In Wallachian Style (Oláhos)

Only number one is fully printed - in Der junge Bartok, it's a little presto that's reminiscent of Elf-Mendelssohn and Grieg - without the harmonic fun. The other two I've seen only the opening, the third is an adagio in Abm.

Piano Quintet in C Major, Op. 14, DD 46


Two Pieces for Piano, Op. 15, DD 47


Great Fantasy for Piano, Op. 16, DD 48


Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 17, DD 49


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