Monthly Archives: May 2012

What I’m Listening To – 5/29/2012

This is the first of a weekly series that will either focus on the music I’m listening to (and what I think about it) or be a guest post from another composer.  I decided to focus on one piece per week instead of a list of pieces (as I do listen to more than one piece a week…).  I also hope that this will engender discussion – tell me what you think of the piece, or if you disagree with the way I see it (or agree, for that matter).

To that end, I’ll also try to pick pieces that have youtube videos, so we can all be on the same page.

So this week, one of the pieces that I listened to was “Fanfares” from the Ligeti Etudes.  This piece was written in 1985, and was part of the first book (of three books).  I was listening to it in particular for a couple of reasons:  a) I’m (slowly) learning to play it, and b) I’m gearing up to write a piano piece, and so I’m picking up some inspiration (I wouldn’t be surprised if next week’s WILT is also a piano piece).  Oh…and I really enjoy listening to the Ligeti Etudes!

(Note on the recording:  I chose this one because it had some helpful explanations of what is happening in the piece.  It does have a few errors, though – there are many recordings to choose from if you want a “perfect” rendition.)

So what makes “Fanfares” (and most of the etudes) tick?  All in all there seems to be a pre-occupation with time and the subversion of our expectations regarding it.  Ligeti approaches that subject differently in many of his etudes.  Here, he supplies a continuously running ostinato that switches from hand-to-hand and octave-to-octave.

Ostinato from "Fanfares"

On top of this ostinato (which is interesting because it has an uneven beat structure – 3+2+3 – which Ligeti requires the pianist to emphasize) is a fanfare-like configuration, which is also generally made out of twos and threes (in terms of eighth notes).  When the piece begins, the ostinato beat pattern and these fanfares tend to line up (although not necessarily with the first beat of the bar – the idea of the bar becomes more and more irrelevant as the piece progresses).  The idea is that you should hear the fanfare as the beginning of a temporal grouping (that is, as a beat 1), and the fact that it lines up with the beats of the ostinato encourages that way of listening.

Things begin to break down at measure 46 (around 0:42 in the recording I linked).  We suddenly lose the dyads and their longer note values, making this section feel much more contrapuntal.  The hands are still accenting beat-groups together at the beginning of this, but a few measures in, the right-hand plays a group of three while the left-hand plays a group of two.  While the accents are re-aligned when the left-hand takes over the “melody,” they quickly fall out of sync again.

When the longer dyads come in, the rhythmic stability returns for a brief while before being subverted by strings of quarter notes (which go against the 3+2+3 rhythm of the ostinato).

At measure 116 (around 1:42 in the recording), the right-hand has a stable rhythm.  Unfortunately for the pianist, this rhythm has seven beats to the ostinato‘s eight.  That means that the beginnings of the patterns will only line up after every 8 repetitions of the right-hand pattern (and what happens at that point in “Fanfares”?  The hands switch so that the right-hand has the ostinato and the left the 7-beat pattern).

This breaks up in measure 137, where both hands have the ostinato for a few bars (around 2:01), but then it’s back to business as usual.  In this section, Ligeti plays with the dynamics of the fanfares, suggesting, perhaps, that whoever is “performing” them in the musical world is moving away from and towards the listener.  There are also some shocking dynamic changes (pppp to ff in m.171) that add drama.

Finally, towards the end of the piece, the “fanfare” lines start to get longer and feel slower (because of longer note values), and finally the ostinato travels all the way from the bottom of the piano to the top, which signals the end of the etude.

Why is it exciting?  Ligeti manages to subvert our metric expectations even though he has a constant eighth-note figure running throughout the piece.  I enjoy listening to all the etudes, but this one is a good introduction because it is the easiest to grasp (aurally) in terms of what’s going on.  I also like the way that the piece ends un-synced.  There is a tendency for me (as a composer) to want to finish a composition with a burst of “togetherness” (or something like that).  Here, Ligeti’s ending creates fascinating polyrhythms which, combined with the rise of the ostinato from the bottom to the top of the piano give the piece a very satisfying ending (although I must admit to being a little puzzled at the last note in the left-hand, which seems to be left hanging – it’s like the piece has been an explosion of perpetual-motion energy that finally gives way to physics in the end, and comes to a full stop).

So that’s the first installment of What I’m Listening To!  If you think there is something I should be listening to, leave me a comment and maybe it will show up here one week!  I’m still getting a feel for how these posts should run – more analysis/less analysis vs. more of my feelings about the piece/less feelings?  I’ll experiment – let me know what you think.


Brass Quintet: Quirky?

As I promised last time, this post will delve into the first variation, which is labelled “Quirky” (which, to be fair, could describe a lot of what I write, and perhaps who I am…).  I knew that I wanted this to be one of the more “fun” variations to balance out the mysterious atmosphere of the beginning.  So I sat and wracked my brains about what’s fun, and went to an old standby – the waltz.  

Why a waltz?  Well, while I can think of a few sad waltzes (mostly by Chopin – and they are all very beautiful), the genre tends to elicit joyful or “fun” memories for me.

So a waltz.  Now, when it comes to waltzes, people usually think of Chopin and Strauss (Johann, not Richard).  When I think of them, I tend to gravitate more towards Satie, and the Gymnopedies in particular.  A nice slow waltz.  A little ethereal.  I used a Satie-like section in my piano piece Frenetic Delicatessens (which may appear on this blog at a later date) – it is definitely my favorite part of that piece.

So, without further ado, I set out to create a quirky, Satie-like waltz (that uses material from Sousa).  If you listen to the MP3 (at the end of the post), you’ll notice that it starts out  more traditionally and gets more “fun” as we go along.  But what is actually going on?

Let’s start with the melody.  It may sound/look familiar, and that’s because it is (if you’ve been reading from the beginning).  It is the horn line from the failed opening that I wrote about early on (reuse and recycle!).

Horn Melody

This is, to begin with, basically the melody from the Sousa without the repeated notes.  When I got to the chromatic middle of the phrase I thought it was time to break off so that a) we didn’t get stuck moving around 3 notes for a long time, and b) I didn’t give away the theme too early.  So you can see the beginnings of the chromatic rising and falling line, but then the horn breaks away with a soaring B-A that serves as the high-point of the phrase.

Meanwhile, the other brass are filling out the harmony.  The first chord (C-E-G-A) is very similar to the first chord of the Sousa, but that quickly gives way to other harmonic material.  This accompaniment thickens as the horn reaches its high note, creating a brief falling texture that is reminiscent of the opening, and then reverting back to the waltz.

Rather than keeping it simple again, I add some chromatic motion into all the voices, which takes us to another high point where the trumpets have a more obvious reference to the Sousa (the second trumpet starts it, then they both have it).  This slight revelation leads to another chromatic collapse into the second part of the waltz.

Trumpets - Sousa Moment

This time, the harmony is more cluster-y (built of seconds), and the link to the Sousa comes from the fact that the 3rd beat is emphasized (in a similar way to the pattern of accents in the theme).  The horn comes back in with a similar melody.  This one, however, has a more traditional shape, and doesn’t hold on to the Sousa source material for so long.  The bass-line that the tuba plays also supports this melody in an almost-tonal way (see Satie!)  By the end of the second page, the tuba holds down the skeleton of a harmony while the other instruments have versions of the melody in a stretto configuration.  In this section, the horn loses the center stage, and I think the audience will notice moments where instruments pop out of the texture or take the lead (the main one being the trombone in 68-72).

By this point, things seem to have settled into a pattern – we have the waltz in the background, a melody based on the Sousa, and the occasional break-away moment followed by a regrouping.  I like it – it keeps things organized.  The problem occurs when I try to get into the next variation.  What can I mess with to cause an irrevocable breakdown?

  • Melody?  Nope – done that.
  • Harmony?  I don’t think that’s been an organizing factor, really.
  • Texture?  That’s the main thing – the build-up and dissolution of texture…it’s what’s been keeping the variation going.  It’s possible that this is the answer, but there is a better way.
  • Rhythm/Tempo!  Yep.  So far, we’ve had the same basic rhythm and no real moments of speeding-up or slowing-down.  It has just been plodding along.

So here’s where I choose to break my waltz.  I start preparing for it in measure 73 by eliminating the overlapping melodies and giving a it a very stable rhythmic profile.  This begins to break down in measure 80, where the waltz, as defined by the tuba, suddenly gets shifted into triplets.  Since we’ve been paying attention to that line from the beginning to define the measures, the lack of a steady beat is disconcerting.  This creates the illusion that we have an accelerando, even though only the tuba and the horn have the triplets.  The texture thickens, and the rising chromatic lines return to give us some tension that explodes into the next variation, labelled “Aggressive.”  I’ll walk through that one next week.

      Brass Quintet Variation 1
 – MP3

Brass Quintet – Variation 1  – PDF

Please comment and let me know what you think or if you have questions or if you want to discuss anything!  Starting next week, I’m going to have a second post that will either deal with what I’m listening to or be a post from a guest composer discussing some aspect of their work.