Sunday, November 15, 2009

Grad School Portfolio!

Its that time of life again, applying for college. Except this time they don't all send you cute little info packets. Its been quite the hunt to narrow down the list and choose an acceptable amount to apply to. I'm most excited about my portfolio...There are three works that I would like to describe here.

The first work is my movement for string quartet, newly revised. I will probably rename it "Looking Glass" or the Russian equivalent, "Zerkalo" - what do you think? It is a purely minimalist work. It takes note groupings of 2, 3, 5, & 7 in constant juxtaposition. During the first performance last year the players had to count under their breath like the devil was out to get them. The first section has just the cello, viola, and second violin with 2, 3, and 5 respectively. They trade entrances and build into the second section, where the first violin enters with 7. This section continues for 210 beats, the lowest common denominator of the four sections. (I remember I was in my Politics class when I figured that out!) A sustained chord marks the break into the third section, a more sustained passage where all four instruments trade off with each note grouping in turn -7 twice, 2 seven times, 3 five times, 5 three times. A darker center passage leads up to another sustained chord which is immediately repeated. This is the exact center of the work: the repeated chord serves as a pivot point. What follows is a retrograde inversion of the first half, or in non-music lingo, the second half of the piece is an upside-down-backwards version of the first half. The darker middle section now sounds more poignant, followed by the sustained trade off section, the 210 beat section, and finally just the viola and two violins finish out the piece, ending on the same two opening notes, an octave up. Hence the name 'looking glass' or 'zerkalo' - it is a looking glass in the sense of Lewis Carol, a reflection, but not one that was expected, one that takes you on a different journey than just a brush of the hair or straightening of clothes. Perhaps suggesting to the mind that when we look in the mirror we are not always seeing all there is to see.

The second piece is "Lovescape" for harp, dedicated to my beautiful harpist-wife, Kathryn. My friend Thomas described it as the 'loveliest' piece I've ever written. I humbly submit that he said that not because it is overly lovely but because it is lovely in comparison to some of my more avant guard works. (see the attempt at describing my atonal prelude and fugue below!) Lovescape is a sort of organic theme and variations. The initial theme is really more a short idea or motif, played in bell-like harmonics in the opening of the piece. (5/8 time!) It is immediately treated to a little variation - simply reversing the order of the notes in each measure. Thereafter in the piece, except in the last chord, the main notes of the theme always remain the same, only the surrounding and underlying harmonies change. After the initial statement of the theme follows an extended version that uses the notes of the theme as the first beat of each measure. This lilting tune lasts for seven measures before an upper voice introduces a simple counter-line. Then it loses a measure each repetition before only first measure sounds and leads into a new section, with the theme transformed into a rising, tension building section in 6/8 and 5/8. This releases into a 9/8 section that cools down to the next variation, a more elaborate extension of the melody. This features a constantly evolving motif and harmonic echoes. Another section in 5/8 follows with another variation of the theme, ending in an ascending passage and glissando. The buildup to the climax begins with a series of chords using the theme as the bass line. An accelerating, syncopated variation of the theme wanders upwards until finally, the melody is repeated over swooping glissandi. A final series of variations echo the beginning, but offset. The final chord is sounded as a simultaneously ascending and descending arpeggio, containing all the notes of the theme sounding a tri-tone up. I guess the idea with this piece is to express something of the way I feel about love - constantly evolving and growing, but always with that same familiar foundation.

The final piece for my portfolio (for most schools - BYU, for example, wants 4. They'll get a hymn!) is a prelude and fugue for chamber ensemble. This piece has it origin a few summers back as an experiment with a 12 tone row. (shock! horror! disappointment!) I wanted to do something personal using a 12 tone row, this prelude and fugue were the result, somewhat meant to be for the piano but not specifically. I arranged them for my portfolio so that I have a work for larger ensemble, so now we have a string quintet, harp, piano, marimba, and a sort of wind quintet with oboe, clarinet, trumpet, horn and bassoon. The prelude contains 3 elements: A, B, and C. A is an ascending fourth, given to the strings. It begins long and grows shorter throughout the piece, following the tone row. B, a descending forth, is given to the strings. It begins short and grows long, following the tone row backwards, thus we end where we began. (order in chaos!) C is a sort of in between punctuation chord, sounded by the harp, marimba and piano. Its harmonies are the notes (the fifth) that bracket the fourth of the A and B that precede and follow it. The harmonies for A & B are derived from the notes contained within the motif's fourth, excluding the ones that are in the C chords after and before. Whether or not that makes sense, the point is that it creates an artificial sort of harmonic motion to the chords - each chord contains different notes from the one before it and after it, so that there is a feeling of progression. Although chord quality changes every time, one half of each in-between chord leads from previous chord and the the other half leads to the next chord. So it is an atonal work that I'm pretty proud of, at least for not sounding like its my cute son imitating Stockhausen on the piano. (no offense meant to a great experimenter, I mean - who else does string quartets in helicopters & 24 hour works?) The orchestration also makes the form clear, and I think that you don't have to understand any of the above to appreciate it on some level at least.

The fugue takes the same idea of ascend and descending fourths built off of each of the 12 notes of the row. I think the uber-tonal sound of the fourths helps obscure the non-tonal-ness of the piece, at least at the beginning and end, when basically only an F, Bb, and C are sounding. The mathematics of the fugue are so complex I had to graph them out and color code them. Basically there are three voices.

Upper voice - short ascending motif grows longer with each repetition, followed by long descending motif growing shorter. The first takes the tone row frontwards and second takes it backwards.

Middle voice - back to back long motifs - ascending then descending, both taking the tone row backwards and growing short to the end of the piece.

Lower voice - opposite of the top - short descending motive followed by a long ascending motif, again the first takes the tone row frontwards and second takes it backwards, the short gets longer and the longer shorter.

There is also a calculated and decreasing amount of space, meaning that there are an increasing amount of 'collisions' or harmonies as I like to call them (silly rabbit, atonality is for kids!) as the piece goes on. Also there is a different amount of space between the two motifs of each voice - one beat on the upper voice, three in the middle and two on the bottom. This helps create the alternate entrance sort of flavor that defines a fugue, it also means that the piece ends perfectly logically with a simultaneous sounding of all three voices on a short motif. Basically this prelude & fugue is an exercise is using as simple of means to do as complex a thing as possible. Again, the fugue is helped out by having it orchestrated, the form becomes a little clearer and some of those yummy harmonies created sound even...crunchier. (for kids!) Did I mention this all happens in about two minutes (prelude and fugue combined!)

Thanks to any of you who took the time to read any of this. Recordings of each piece will be made next week (many schools have December 1st deadlines so here we go!) and I will try to post them as soon as I can. Then you can hear what in the world I was talking about with a piece that has a fuzzy mirror for its second half, a piece that has 'organic' theme and variations, and whatever in the world is going on in my prelude and fugue.