Sunday, March 24, 2013

Questions for Brendan Keenan

The following is an email interview which I conducted with Brendan Keenan, composer and co-author of this site. The format was as follows: I presented Brendan with a list of questions, and asked him to respond to several of them. I then added follow-up responses of my own, and the result was this discussion.

  • What are you currently writing? Do you feel that you are working in the context of a larger musical idea, or does each piece seek a new direction?

  • What is the future of your music: live performance, or recording? If the former, what variety of venues? What kind of ensembles? If recording, what formats will you use (single, EP, album, etc.), and how do you intend to distribute these media? Do you see a trend in either direction in “modern classical” in the US and elsewhere?

BOK: I’ll answer both of these together. Right now I’m writing a song to a poem by Thomas Moore, an Irish poet who lived from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. I actually wrote the song about 11 years ago; it was I think the first piece I managed to complete. I threw out almost everything except the melody (and that has been substantially altered) and effectively have written a new piece. As of March 21, 2013, it is done.

The piece is part of a broader project of mine. I will be forming my own ensemble later this year, and all of my creative energy is going into writing works for this group exclusively. The instrumentation will be a high soprano, acoustic and electric guitar (primarily acoustic), electric bass, drum set and accordion. All guitar parts will be done by me. The foundation of the group is a philosophy of communication: audiences can understand and deserve to hear sophisticated music written in the right language.

The future of my music lies both in live performances and recordings of this ensemble. Performance is more important than ever, and we will primarily be playing in rock-oriented venues. While I am very fond of physical media, in our current world I’m not sure it has any place, especially given that we will likely be operating on a small budget. CD printing runs of 500 or 1000 or 10,000 are probably never going to make sense. Music for download is currently the most important way for people to get music. I expect this to change as subscription services grow in popularity.

As for a trend in modern classical towards performance or recording, performance looks to me to be more and more important. Most composers don’t have the budget for highly-produced recordings, and the audience isn’t there to purchase them. Recordings here serve different purposes than being an end product. Rather they are a source for other people to hear a composer, hopefully deciding to see their next concert, an important item on resumes, and of course a source of pride and accomplishment. In this world, however, it’s the performances that matter.

WCM: You get the impression that finding the “right language” is a priority with other composers today, too, with traditional concert audiences dwindling. In light of that, it's seems a little odd that you feel performances to be more important and financially realistic than recordings; ensemble and orchestral performances in large concert halls are notoriously expensive to produce, and it's not likely that they'll become more accessible to composers in the near future. But, in thinking in terms of a small performance group, you seem to be heading away from this world, into the direction of a “band”. It also seems as though you're talking about venues other than traditional concert halls, although I'm not sure. Do you think these choices will help to solve some of the problems of getting performances through the “classical establishment”? Do you see small ensembles and venues other than concert halls as an important route for today's composers, and, if you do, are there any difficulties in presenting “sophisticated music” through these channels?

BOK: Regarding money, we’re talking about two different things: Composers don’t generally hire orchestras themselves. They aren’t the ones bankrolling the performance, the orchestra is–but if he wanted to record his piece with a symphony, he might very well have to pay for it. At any rate, he would certainly have to pay for production expenses. From the composer’s point of view, performances are free or they even pay, so it makes more sense for him to focus his efforts there.

And yes, you’re right about me basically starting a band. My own music is rapidly fusing together my rock and classical backgrounds (I initially went to Berklee on an electric guitar scholarship), and that accounts for a large part of wanting to perform outside of the concert hall world. But beyond that, audiences seem to be very different in the two worlds. The classical world does not command the same enthusiasm from its audiences that popular music styles do from theirs.

As far as other composers go, I am seeing more and more composers having pieces performed in non-traditional venues, whether they are cafés or jazz clubs or art galleries or anything else. I am also seeing more composers start their own groups, so there’s clearly a sense that music goes beyond concert halls! And everyone can see that the money for large, concert hall ensembles is evaporating.

Some styles of music will have difficulty being successful no matter the channel. But sophistication isn’t unwelcome anywhere–everyone wants to hear music that is good. But my point earlier about the language is, I believe, very important. Art can be stated beautifully and articulately when it’s also being complex. It doesn’t have to be alienating.

How does your composing process affect your music? How do your current surroundings affect it? Do your current attitudes toward the world, the sciences, the other arts, and toward people manifest themselves in what you compose?

BOK: My composing process is very internal. I rarely discuss anything I’m writing with anyone else until it’s nearly complete. I find others’ input distracting; I’m happy to receive feedback, but in general that seems to get applied to the next piece! The result tends to be that my music is a very honest representation of who I am at that time, for better and worse.

In more mechanical terms, my process virtually always begins with a desire to write something specific. I don’t mean a piece, but I mean this piece, and I spend days or weeks or months, and at times years, considering how to write it. Better ideas usually happen faster! A lot of my time is spent planning and understanding what it is that I want. When I know my destination, I can plot a path there. I’ve never been able to aimlessly wander into a piece. Once I do know what I want, on a deep level, writing happens very quickly.

I tend to also be somewhat scattered in my approach. For whatever reason, I don’t think very linearly, and this reflects in my writing process. I don’t ever really write from beginning to end – usually I start somewhere in the middle and work on whatever part I feel like writing. Eventually a picture emerges, but for almost the entire writing process it isn’t very clear to anyone else what I am doing! While I’m writing I study the relationships that are occurring and develop them further, trimming away parts that don’t have a close relationship to other ideas in the work. I continually evaluate the work to see what’s working and what isn’t, and I try to get rid of absolutely everything that doesn’t need to be in the piece.

This relentless attempt to get rid of excess is related to the fact that I’ve never really liked the idea of writing for enormous groups like symphonies or wind ensembles. I like intimacy and focus in my music, and that necessitates tight writing and smaller groups. The more people playing a particular line, the less detail it has in its sound. A single person playing a single line usually sounds much more interesting to my ears than a section of 20 people.

The current world is frenetic, always connected and technology obsessed. While I do from time to time compose electronic music, for the most part I am much more at home writing for acoustic instruments. The connection to real, physical sources of sound played by actual people has a draw to me that outweighs the infinite possibilities of electronic music. And as much as I enjoy pop music, the insane degree of studio production is off-putting to me, for mostly the same reason, and much of my music is bluntly a reaction against it. I find this always-connected technological obsession to have largely the opposite effect of what it advertises; it seems to me that it causes more isolation, not less. I am woefully inadequate at avoiding this in my life. Writing in an acoustic style is something of a symbolic rebellion against that.

I love learning about the sciences and exploring art, but those tend not to be primary sources of inspiration. Music, and art in general, is more than anything a way of relating to people, understanding them and allowing them to understand you. A woman once said to me, “The arts access and draw attention to what makes us human, and common experience. Isn't that part of what empathy is?” The core of human experience is our relationships to others and ourselves, and that empathy is what drives my composing – I desire to write music that really, deeply connects to another person on a level that goes beyond “oh, that’s an interesting compositional process.”

What are the realities of being a composer in 2013? Is your music in any sense a response to values, ideas, and movements of today?

BOK: Perhaps the most notable trend I’ve seen in classical music is an embrace of corporation-style thinking. Brand development and image is at the front of every composer’s mind, to the exclusion of the artwork itself.

This itself is obviously not limited to classical music, and honestly it’s not as bad. But I don’t hear many composers emphasize the qualities of their writing. I hear them emphasize the number of performances, who gave the performances, and their recordings. And their long lists of pieces and awards. No one has a choice in the matter; if you want to survive as a composer, this is what you have to do.

It could be worse. I haven’t heard of any composers employing focus groups, and while I still sort of expect it to happen eventually, I’ve never heard a piece in a concert be interrupted for an advertisement!

My music has evolved into a rejection of the world of modern classical music. There is better music to be written for more relevant instruments played for more appreciative audiences.

WCM: It's a little surprising to hear it described so bluntly as corporate-style thinking, but this is probably right. I've noticed something similar in the visual art world, where there's a certain sense that an artist's image has almost as much to do with his or her success as the work itself. How do think this trend affects the way composers approach music? I'd suspect there's a sense of, to put it nicely, “democratizing” the process of composition, in which a composer responds carefully to the interests of his audience. Obviously this is nothing new; for example, Josquin and Agricola both wrote songs in the simple, homophonic Italian style, which was, in the late 15th century, something of a courtly fad. But we've probably never seen anything like the level of market-consciousness that composers are developing now, and what interests me are the concrete, musical results of this trend. Can something new, musically, come out of composers' attempts to develop a “personal brand”?

BOK: There’s a difference between trying to predict the interests of your audience and writing in a way you think they'll respond to, obviously–I’m not interested in letting someone write a piece for me. The things I write are the things I need to say, but I’m trying to write them in a way that will get the message through. I think most composers are probably writing that way, at least I like to think that! Perhaps I’m being optimistic, I’m not sure.

I don’t see why it should be different in musical terms than any other movement, except that those movements were generally about music philosophies. One that comes to mind is the appropriation of pop music and pop culture sounds into classical music. Michael Daugherty is an example. His brand is defined by Americana–in a very self-conscious way. The effect is “Oh look, the Symphony is playing rock music!”

More often I think it’s the other way around. Philip Glass’s brand happened because he kept doing the same thing after people expected it from him. He wrote his minimalist music first, then continued to allow it to define him.

What role do computers play in your music, if any, and what would your music be without them? How have computers changed the role of composers in recent times?

BOK: Computers have been extremely important. Most obvious, notation software reduces the time necessary to produce a score by months. If I’m being careful, they also allow me to explore complex contrapuntal relationships and harmonies without being burdened by the physical idiosyncrasies of something like a piano. I mention that I need to be careful because if you aren’t aware of it, a notation program can railroad your writing.

More recently, sequencing has become important in my work. With the availability of high-quality sample libraries, credible mockups can be done that allow other musicians to understand a composer’s vision like never before. No matter how good the software is, it’s never as good as real musicians, but it allows for a great, tangible way of showing musicians how the composer wants the music to sound.

Of course, entire industries regard these as good enough, which is disappointing to me.

WCM: In what ways can notation software harm your writing, and how do you counteract that threat?

BOK: I first became aware of that railroading when I was in college and I noticed that everything I was writing was at 100 beats per minute, Sibelius' default tempo at the time (it’s 60 now). I have the facility with the program now to force it to obey me, but even now I still fight the program all the time. God help anyone who tries to write unmetered music in a notation program! The main problem is that they are set up for a specific kind of writing. If you write basic music, doing so is incredibly fast. The further you get away from traditional (and I mean traditional) techniques, the more effort it takes, and the more it slows you down. It can be awful having an idea and not knowing why the program refuses to write it down. It can be very easy just to give up and put something else in!

The main way I counteract it is simply knowing when I can save time and write directly into the program, and when I have to do everything on staff paper and find a way to notate it later. That’s a matter of experience, but if I’m not completely sure I write it out by hand.

Name a few musicians for whom you have low-to-middling esteem. What do you like about their music? What do you dislike about the music of your favorite composers?

BOK: I’m not a particular fan of Arvo Pärt. But I admire his simplicity, both in sound and in concept. The tintinnabulation idea of his (that he endlessly repeats) does result in a beautiful, easily understood musical phrase. It’s easier to make music complex than it is to make it simple (and still be worth the listen!). At the same time, he avoids the mindless repetition traps that ensnare minimalist composers.

I do like György Ligeti, but it’s a strained relationship. His music gets to be outrageously complex, and can be extremely harsh. I’m a little tired of the tendency of composers from that era to punish their audiences.

For all my love of Opeth, I wish they would break out of their square 4-bar/repetition phrasing. Try 5, just once!

WCM: Both Arvo Pärt and György Ligeti seem to get a lot of attention from composers in the US and Europe these days. Are they responding to something similar in these composers' works, despite the massive differences between, say, Fratres and Ramifications? Do people have the right idea about Ligeti and Pärt, or would you say that their strengths and weaknesses are misunderstood?

BOK: Ligeti’s best trait is his incredible imagination–nothing seems totally off-limits to him, and his intellect and curiosity give his music a breadth of expression that’s really unmatched. My sense is that his popularity comes from this dazzling display of artistic inventiveness.

Arvo Pärt couldn’t be more different! Imagination never sounds like the purpose of his music. Rather, his music seems to realize in its small way the promises made by every religion: the music has a singular purpose, a clarity in its role and method that strip away all excess in contemplating its truth. Fratres is far and away his best success in this regard, and for good reason!

Both composers have achieved something extraordinary in their ability to relate their perceptions of the world to their listeners, and that really is the essence of art to me.

How important to you is the idea of originality?

BOK: I’m reminded of someone I knew who was almost violently dismissive of Shakespeare, claiming he was a plagiarist. The “what” is never what really matters, it’s the “how” and the “why.” Shakespeare’s utter mastery of these is what makes his work so important.

Music is the same way. How much invention have musicians wrung from 12-bar blues songs? The originality is in the details. It is very important to me – I could never simply recycle ideas I’ve already used (Arvo Pärt, I’m looking at you) or take them whole from another composer (Osvaldo Golijov). I am of course very influenced by my favorites, but I somehow manage to never sound like them.

It’s important to me to explore new territory in every piece.

WCM: I guess this rules out musical “movements”, but are there any “currents”, present or historical (which I guess amounts to the same thing), musical or otherwise, that you wouldn't mind associating yourself with? I'm thinking of that passage in one of Morton Feldman's interviews where he talks about all the past musicians—Liszt, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ives—his life has been tangentially connected with through teachers and friends, and finishes by saying “they are not dead”. Schoenberg, too, of course, talked a lot about his ties to the past and their immense importance to him. Is historical continuity a meaningful idea to you?

BOK: It is meaningful to me. I still define myself as a classical musician and composer, regardless of what I’m doing. I adore older music–it’s how I got into composing in the first place! I admired Beethoven and Bach and wanted to understand them and do what they did. But I aim not to be held back by it. I hope to forge ahead on my own path, but everyone stands on the shoulders of those who came before them. Amusingly, the world of professional sports seems to have a healthy relationship with the past. Sports writes and fans are always talking about great games and reliving the best moments, without for a second trying to stop new ones. The past is past, but it’s inextricably part of my style.

As for associating myself with currents, one of the most important of the past 30 years or so has been a return to functional, more or less tonal harmony. I certainly fit in there.

How would you describe the role of emotion in your music? How does it affect form, melody, and harmony?

BOK: I am an emotional, deeply feeling person, so it makes sense that this would be fundamental to my work. I have little use for intellectually-derived elements as a rule–Fibonacci sequences, spectral analyses, stochastic processes, pitch sets, matrices and whatever else are basically never present in my work.

The music I write has to affect me in the way I hope for it to affect others. That often makes my melodies lyrical, my harmonies moody, and my forms shifting as the feelings I’m exploring do.

What are you listening to now?

BOK: Lately I’ve been listening almost entirely to pop music and metal. I’ve become especially fond of Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen! Opeth has long been one of my go-to groups, and they’ve become an important influence and source of inspiration for me. Immortal, Emperor and Jimi Hendrix are also constantly on my playlists.

I find that I can’t really listen to classical music during the periods of time where I’m actively writing music (I go through phases, sometimes lasting months, of either writing continuously or not writing at all), and during those times I’m generally listening to popular music.

WCM: From looking at some of your most recent scores, I've noticed more emphasis on clearly metrical melodies and a precedence of the voice over accompanying instruments. Would it be wrong to relate this to pop? What musical values in pop do you admire, and how does the pop music you mention intersect with your views on music?

BOK: Yes, you’re right about the more metrical melodies. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’ve always believed that the voice is the primeval instrument. Sofia Gubaidulina wrote a piece called “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm,” but I don’t buy it. The voice is the most important instrument to me, although I spent a long time away from writing for it simply because it can be very frustrating!

As for accompanying instruments, it’s been more about defining general roles, and embracing the general roles that have been pervasive in popular music.

But they do show my influences. The values in pop music, while noting that we do not live in a perfect world, are really about clarity of communication and understanding people. There’s a reason nearly every pop song is about falling in, being in, or falling out of love! Pop music aims to explore the things that matter most in a direct, clear way. The first argument against that would be that popular music is there to make money, but to that end it's worth asking why, if you want to make money, you would write that style of music! It has a broader appeal because it’s meant to be understood. While classical music has typically sought to explore emotions on a grand, transcendental scale–think Requiems, or “everyman” characters in operas, or the myriad settings of Faust–popular music attempts to explore the same thing on a less exhalted, more everyday level. I see no reason not to do both, and this is another way in which popular music is intersecting classical music in my writing.

That’s the idealized version of pop music. Reality is different, but part of being a classical musician is tirelessly pursuing the ideal.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Witchcraft fell from my hands

I folded paper into a crane,
then lit it on fire in my hands.
I asked the wind to take its ashes away,
But I dropped it, ashes and all,
Before it burned me.
Nothing now remains of the crane,
The witchcraft I let fall from my hands.
I wished, “Secret Benediction, ease the woe away,”
But a wish does not make it so, at least,
Not when wished by me. 
© Brendan Owen Keenan, 2013. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Life and Transformation of European Melody

Over a few crucial centuries, the “classical” music of the West developed a trait that separates it from all other music that exists or has existed: its trademark disconnect with the human voice. Where other cultures (and, in Europe, other times) looked upon the voice as a sort of fertile soil and metaphor for all music, it vanished from the core of European music, taking with it the idiom of vocal melody; in its place, the motive (or “idea”, in its more sublime guise) flowered into the new lifeblood of music. What is, for the world's other musical cultures, an art of the voice and its instrumental proxies is, in the West, and art of ideas and the sounds that clothe them in physical form.

The centuries-long process that took European music from the former art to the latter is, in essence, the story of the fragmentation of melody, and of its disembodiment—that is, the growing disassociation of music and the human voice. In very general terms, it is a transformation that takes us from the music of the late Middle Ages (interwoven melodies of sublime vocal character) to (at least) the music of the mid-20th century (disparate, non-vocal events unified by an abstract concept).

The first heralds of this transformation seem to me to have raised their voices in the early 17th century, although the seeds of this change were likely planted much earlier. The millennium-long melodic heritage inherited by the 16th century masters gave birth to the flower of European polyphony, an art rooted firmly in the powers of the human voice. Through the innovations of 17th and 18th century musicians, polyphony was transmuted; shaped by the forces of instrumental, metered music, and by the new ‘tonal thinking’, the progeny of the old vocal music was a different musical language, in which motive, chord, and meter were the key terms. By the time of Beethoven, melody in the old, vocal sense had vanished, replaced (at least in Germany and Austria) by a fragmented idiom built from the generating force of motivic cells. The composers of the latter half of the 19th century brought this music of atomized melody to its apotheosis; Wagner, in particular, envisioned music as streams of motivic ideas, woven together into a tapestry of ceaseless evolution, a perspective shared by most 19th century composers throughout Europe. Taken by Schoenberg and Strauss, the form-uniting motive gained in power and mystic significance: it became the ‘idea’, an abstract formula holding sway over every molecule of a piece. Music, as understood by the 20th century heir of this worldview, was a series of events in time, unified by warp and woof: the generating idea, and the magnetic force of vertical structure.

One hundred years later, this perspective has become the most widely-believed musical theory that the world has known; it pervades the music of almost all modern composers, from the most abrasive underground experimentalist to the ‘neo-Mahlerian post-Minimalist’ of Grammy-winning fame. Melody is a fragmentary creature composed of borrowed elements, usually the inner parts of some eviscerated harmonic structure; or perhaps it is a symbolic embodiment of the Concept, the social and intellectual significance of which must be discovered in the impenetrable arcana of the ‘artist's statement’. It is an accepted fact that melody is an undefined term, that music without an idea is out of control—and that the composer's task is to give meaning to his sometimes chaotic constructions by musically explaining to the listener what relations bind these events to each other. Idea and structure, warp and woof: and, between them, the manic pandemonia of every sound known to human kind.

Western music grew from roots common to its cultural cousins, yet its flower is of a shape and color that bespeak unique influences. To understand the genetic load of this organism whose inheritors we are, we must trace some stages in its growth.

The Line and the Melodic Tapestry

If there is one feature that renders the pre-1400 musical world alien to the modern musician, it is the purely linear, vocal character of the music. In this time, the first term of musical art was melody. The foremost talent of the medieval musician was for the invention of melodies—lines, as beautiful as possible, harmonizing with the idiom of the human voice and carefully constructed, with close attention paid to their proportions and melodic shapes. The earliest identifiable composers, among them Hermannus Contractus, Léonin, Pérotin, and Guillaume de Machaut, were heirs of nearly a millennium of musical thought—dating as far back as the times of Ambrose and Augustine, if not further—that regarded the perfection of the single melodic line as the sine qua non of musical art. The newer polyphonic approach in which these composers were steeped forced some deviations from this ideal: for example, lines in 3- and 4-voice music could not be as perfectly-formed as their monodic kin if the demands of harmony were to be met. Still, as the following example from Pérotin shows, the strong, proportioned melody of the individual voice had not been seriously compromised in the age of florid organum: 

Fig. 1: (c.f. recording)

Both the “modern” understanding of harmony and the motivic technique were in embryonic form by the early Renaissance. Harmony was concerned with uniting the several voices in a consonance (5th, octave, or unison) on accented beats, and with the avoidance of awkward cross-relations between voices; as yet, it was very much an art subordinate to that of melody. The motivic technique, archaic in origin, was used (to some extent) in the Gregorian liturgy and was probably a common heritage of all composers of the 13th and 14th centuries. For the entirety of the Renaissance, the use of motives was a simple means of relating separate voices and of unifying regions of music—in other words, it was a technique applied to the art of vocal melody, not something intrinsic to it. By weaving a memorable figure into a vocal line, and by duplicating this figure in other lines, the various strands in a polyphonic composition were given a sense of organic wholeness. The motive was therefore a tangible thing with none of the abstract properties associated with it in recent centuries; it was probably not regarded as the ‘fiber’ of music, but merely as an effective addition to the art.

Polyphonic music reached its pinnacle of complexity with the composers of the 15th century. Composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois, and, later, Josquin des Prez wove individual melodies of striking beauty into compositions of immense structural sophistication. Central to this sophistication was a greater scope for the motivic technique; in this music, whole regions of large compositions are unified by motivic units, which assert their presence yet never undermine the integrity of the melodies in which they inhere.
Fig. 2

Harmonic thought had begun to influence the composition of lines as well, although its effect at this point was mainly to broaden the range of melodic combinations; the explosion of the fauxbourdon style (attributed, at the time, to John Dunstaple) brought the intervals of the third and sixth—formerly considered somewhat dissonant—into popular use. This development, in turn, pushed the Pythagorean temperament into gradual obsolescence and spurred the gradual adoption of just temperaments; the way was being cleared for a fully triadic music of greater melodic density. 

Melody in Eclipse, Idea in utero


With the final culmination of polyphonic art in the 16th century came also a simplification. Music for 5 or more voices became common, while, at the same time, a simplicity of melody and form replaced the ornate styles of the previous century. The relationship between these twin developments is clear: the growing density of the ensemble placed greater limitations on the individual voice. Complex methods of unifying separate vocal lines—canon and all its derivatives—that had been popular in the music of the 15th century Franco-Flemish masters now lost ground. The motivic technique had gained by leaps and bounds; 16th century composers like Orlande de Lassus and Palestrina followed the lead of Josquin and others by using motives to delineate separate regions in their compositions:
Fig. 3 (c.f. recording)

The density of the larger 16th century ensembles restrained the melodic possibilities of each voice, while the intricate weavings of 5- and 6-voice polyphony fed the development of stereotyped vertical patterns, popular progressions that simplified complex melodic movements by representing them in cross-section. A transition to a new, vertical understanding of music had begun in earnest: as the art of the line found itself increasingly constrained, harmonic thinking gained ground rapidly: polyphony was being transmuted, in an entirely subjective sense, into a procession of 'harmonic moments'. A newly-popular shorthand—figured bass—provided a simple means of notating these melodic cross-sections, fueling the spread of vertical thinking among practical musicians. By the late 17th century, the chord structure had developed from its origin as a kind of melodic derivative (instantaneous cross-section) into the primal substance of much new music. No prophet of this newly-transfigured art grasped its possibilities more consummately than the celebrated Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713):
Fig. 4 (c.f. recording)

It may be difficult for us to understand the impact of this gradual shift in the concept of melody; it may be described as almost metaphysical. Prior to the growth of vertical thinking, melody was music, was the substance of all musical art; during the ascent of chordal thought, melody, though still crucial, was morphing into a dependent of harmony, an expression of the chordal substance beneath. If a 4-part ‘chord’, to the early 17th century composer, was merely a moment in the (highly distinct) lives of four melodic lines—that is, merely an accident of the melodic substance, the opposite relationship obtained between the two phenomena for the composer of the next century.

Two reciprocal axioms make clear the reversal of this relationship, and the clash between the old and modern melodic worlds. “L'harmonia nasce dal cantare, che fanno insieme le parti delle cantilene” (“Harmony arises from the simultaneous singing of melodies”), wrote composer and theorist Gioseffo Zarlino in 1558; nearly 200 years later, Jean-Phillippe Rameau wrote its antithesis: “La mélodie provient de l'harmonie” (“Melody comes from harmony”).[1] Though the influence of harmonic thought did not transform melodic composition from the flowing vocal lines of Monteverdi to the arpeggios of Mozart overnight, our example from Corelli indicates that, even at this early time, ‘chordal melody’ had made powerful inroads.

Rhythmic developments, too, helped feed the growth of this new form of melody: the sudden explosion of metrical music—in previous centuries, a style associated primarily with secular music, as distinct from the primarily free rhythms of sacred music—in the early 17th century lent a strict rhythmic structure to the progression of harmonies, and melodic composition followed suit. ‘Harmonic rhythm’, a product of strict meter and the new vertical perspective, was to shape the concept of melody throughout the 17th and 18th centuries: with pieces increasingly viewed as metered blocks of empty chord structures, to be ‘filled in’ by melodies tracing a path through these progressions, composers quite naturally began to write melodies that cut close to the harmonic backbone. Arpeggios and other harmonic figurations—frequently in sequence—were entirely idiomatic to the new music, and the best composers of the era made extensive use of them: 
Fig. 5 (c.f. recording)
These factors, combined with the popularity of the new homophonic style, gave birth to an era of music (extending from the early 18th to the mid 19th centuries) that was harmonically conceived, strongly metrical, and with a melodic style that referred to motives and figures, rather than linear composition and the human voice, for its form. Polyphony, as such, dwindled (despite the efforts of Bach and, occasionally, Händel), and the new dichotomy between (chordal) background and (melodic) foreground began to dominate music. No longer could each staff in a composition be called an individual voice; in the music—especially the orchestral works—of the mid-to-late 18th century, the vast majority of voices were employed in doubling the single melodic line for timbric effect, or in providing harmonic filler:
Fig. 6 (c.f. video performance)

As the new music of motivic and harmonic figure burgeoned, the vocal-type melody was gradually relegated[2]; by Beethoven's time, flowing, linear melody was to be found only in specifically vocal music and in regions of larger pieces in which a polyphonic texture was needed.[3] The motivic technique gained rapid ground, especially in instrumental music, as a means of binding together the strands loosed by the decline of melodic polyphony. Perhaps the ultimate blow of this development was landed by Beethoven himself, whose music placed the motive more firmly than ever at the center of the art:
Fig. 7 (c.f. video performance)

Partially due to Beethoven's volcanic demonstration of the possibilities of motivic music, the generation of composers that came of age in the mid 19th century focused almost entirely on this approach. Melodies, in the time of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Berlioz, were shaped along motivic and harmonic lines; accompanying ‘voices’ were frequently tasked with the incessant repetition of motivic rhythms, in addition to providing the standard harmonic backdrop.[4]


With the arrival of the monumental works of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms in the Western musical consciousness in the latter half of 19th century, polyphony began to reassert itself with a vengeance. In this music, counterpoint (newly in vogue, with the revival of interest in Bach and earlier polyphonic composers) was married to the rigorously developmental composition pioneered by Beethoven and his immediate successors; the result was what Ernst Toch calls “fermentative counterpoint”[5], a fluid music in which the tension generated by the motivic interplay between each voice was used to drive larger developmental structures. Gone (to some extent) were the harmonic ‘pads’ of the earlier homophonic orchestral music; in their place, Wagner and Brahms added motive-driven supporting lines that were equally important in shaping the direction and character of the music. A simultaneous development was the return—after over 150 years—of non-metrical melody that eschewed the strict, iambic/dactylic rhythms of the previous era.
Fig. 8 (c.f. video performance)

But this was not the polyphony of Josquin, Monteverdi, or even Bach; the musical transformations of the past three centuries made the polyphony of Wagner and his contemporaries a very different music from that of the earlier arts of interwoven melody. The linear concept of melody, mostly ignored since the mid 18th century, was given only slightly more attention now. Harmonic construction of melody was firmly entrenched, and the motivic technique enjoyed unsurpassed popularity as the main structural element of music: by this time, in fact, the mystic significance of the latter technique was growing, with larger and larger expanses of music deriving their generating force from a primary ‘Idea’. The expanding power of the motive, and its new association with a word drenched in philosophic and spiritual connotations, was the distinctive mark of late-19th century music, and the concept of polyphony, as practiced in this time, must be understood through this artistic lens. Polyphony was understood by the Renaissance composer as the interweaving of independent melodies; for the musician of Wagner's time, it was the interweaving of ideas. Thus, in comparison to the melodies of 15th or 16th century polyphony, the individual lines of Wagner or Brahms appear more as fragments than as internally-complete melodic forms.

Since this distinction captures a crucial aspect of the transformation of melody, let us briefly compare an example of Wagner's polyphony with a few measures from Palestrina's Missa de Beata Virgine:

Fig. 9
Fig. 10

Two interrelated contrasts are immediately noticeable:
  1. The music of fig. 8 is remarkable for the flowing, linear character of each voice and the absolute cohesion of melodic form; each melody presses forward to its conclusion, with careful attention payed to the logic of its linear structure and to the idiom of the voice. In fig. 9, on the other hand, each instrumental voice (excluding the vocal line) is only transiently possessed of a sense of line; no instrumental voice persists long enough to be considered a melodic form in itself—rather, each only lives long enough to present a new collection of motivic figures. Wagner's melodic language, too, is (again, excluding the vocal line) emphatically non-linear.

  1. In contrast to Wagner's intense, line-splintering concentration of ideas, Palestrina's use of the motivic technique is almost disarming in its subtlety. In fig. 8, the primary motives of the composition are woven into the individual lines, and do not, to my ear, draw unusual attention to themselves. Their formal rôle is clear, but the continuity of melody is never disrupted for motivic emphasis. The fragmented instrumental ‘entries’ (one hesitates to term them ‘melodies’) in fig. 9 are, in contrast, aggressively motivic, their linear form dictated completely by the demands of the ideas they present.

However striking, these observations do not quite succeed in capturing the essence of what happened, in the centuries that passed between the composition of fig. 8 and fig. 9, to the notion of melody. Again, our language must tend toward the metaphysical. In the Palestrina example, we may (metaphorically speaking) regard melody—the line, in its individual, linear nature—as the substance and condicio sine qua non of the music. Palestrina's primary concern seems to be the creation of internally perfect melodies; the ‘ideas’ of the composition inhere within the melodic substance, and serve to unite the discrete melodies—complete in and of themselves—into a larger whole. For Wagner, the Idea is core, the first term of the composition. The presentation of ideas is the business of each instrument, with the goal of spurring motivic and dramatic development; the individual ‘melody’ is merely a component of the idea-fabric of the work, and need not conform to any internal logic beyond that imposed by the ideas themselves. Palestrina's music is a polyphony of melodies; the music of Wagner, a polyphony of ideas.

The last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th brought the implications of the ‘idea-polyphony’ of Wagner to their logical conclusion. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg took Wagner's compositional approach as their point of origin, and developed from them striking new implications: Strauss applied the ideas of developing polyphony to orchestral program music, and Mahler, to a monumentally enlarged concept of the symphonic form. Schoenberg, in perhaps the most far-reaching development of ‘idea-polyphony’, concentrated and streamlined his polyphonic style to an extraordinary extent before bringing it beyond the bounds of tonal harmony. All three composers, along with most of their contemporaries, composed music of great polyphonic complexity with non-metrical, free-flowing melodic forms. That this music was still very much of the 19th century, idea-oriented approach perhaps goes without saying; certainly, no previous era in music ever displayed the kind of ‘melodic fracturing’ present in the works of Schoenberg and his contemporaries:
Fig. 11 (c.f. recording)
Fig. 12 (c.f. video performance)

Few composers have digressed as far from the ideal of linear melody as Schoenberg's remarkable student, Anton von Webern. While fig. 11 is by no means the least ‘vocal’ music ever written (even by Webern[6]), it is a remarkable example of how exactly how far from linear melody some 20th century music had come. It is virtually inconceivable that forms as disjunct and fragmentary as these would be regarded as anything like melody by other musical cultures; only through the centuries-long process of transformation that we have been describing could such a music come to pass. 

The Prestige of System

Although it lies outside of the scope of this essay to consider the music of the mid-to-late 20th century (and of the current century), some fallout of the previous centuries should be discussed. The early part of the last century found composers obsessed with motivic integration (the musical Idea of Schoenberg and Strauss) on all levels of a composition. This obsession metastasized in the generation of composers that followed into a love of organizational systems; while some (e.g. Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Milton Babbitt) championed the serial methods introduced by Schoenberg, others (John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti, to name just a few) argued effusively for a very different set of musical processes. Regardless of their differences, the vast majority of composers of the mid 20th century had some form of unifying musical theory that dictated the content of their music. To propose to musicians of this era and mindset the view that a beautiful, balanced melody justifies itself without reference to any theoretical construct would have been—and still is, to some extent—regarded as a mild heresy. The origin of this bias toward system and idea must be sought in the past: namely, in the historical events that led to the renunciation of melody as the prime musical substance, and to the corresponding exaltation of the idea.

Admittedly, we are only touching upon a small corner of the musical happenings of the past century; vast numbers of European and American musicians were never consciously involved in ‘ideas’ or ‘systems’. The doings described in the last two paragraphs could be classed as somewhat extreme ventures into the depths of idea-music. But the crucial point is that the majority of musicians of our time and culture accept, to some degree, the distorted sense of melody—or the exaggerated reverence for the Idea—that is the fruit of almost a millennium of transformation. No system of musical art has enjoyed the worldwide success of the Western tonal system that reached its stable form in the mid 19th century; therefore, no system has been more successful in foisting its entailed propositions on a world of musicians. We see examples of these assumptions in the language and music of the less venturesome musicians of our era: chords are treated as immutable forms, governing bodies to which melodies owe perfect allegiance—and the interrelationship and basic sameness of the two phenomena is ignored. Harmony is taught as a discipline entirely separate from counterpoint; melodic composition is never taught at all. In the dry circles of academic music, motivic structure is hallowed as the essence of music, and a multivalent compositional system is the most revered approach of all. In the experimental world, too, concept and process reign supreme. All these attitudes owe much to the unique history of Western music.

All score examples used in this article are, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain.

  1. Quoted in Knud Jeppesen, Counterpoint, p. 52 (1992, Dover Publications)

  2. This was not wholly the case in French and Italian music, and even the German and Austrian composers of the time frequently emphasized a linear melody in their homophonic compositions. The important thing to note, however, is that the foundations of polyphony—i.e. polymelody, the perspective that the weaving together of independent vocal melodies as the substance of music—had by this time vanished from virtually all European music, replaced by the melody/accompaniment formula of homphonic composition. Even the lyrical, linear melodies of Rossini, Berlioz, and Schubert were inevitably accompanied by chordal/rhythmic backgrounds; actual polyphony, again, was used primarily as a style or effect.

  3. c.f. Beethoven's Symphony no. 3, movement II. Very much a homophonic piece throughout its A section, the B section sees a sudden division of the orchestra into individual voices of a fugue. These voices emerge essentially out of thin air, and disappear with equal suddenness at the conclusion of the B section.

  4. This technique of using motivic rhythms in the accompaniment was developed primarily by Beethoven, although it was used by earlier composers, notably Bach (surprise, surprise). By its use, the rhythmically bland ‘background’ of homophonic music could be enlivened, and, for a composer as obsessed with the motivic technique as was Beethoven, legitimated. I suggest that this approach and its popularity in the mid 19th century sowed the seeds of the “polyphonic Renaissance” that began with Richard Wagner: as composers became more concerned with motivically integrating all of the voices of a composition, the independent potential of each of those voices likely became more obvious.

  5. Ernst Toch, The Shaping Forces in Music, p. 141-145 (1977, Dover Publications)

  6. c.f. Webern's later works, op. 21 and above (Unfortunately, I am unable to include selections from these works due to copyright issues). In these works, Webern's sophisticated application of the 12-tone technique and other serial processes generates melodic lines of astonishing non-linearity; some ‘lines’, for example, are composed entirely of leaps, while others frequently alternate linear progressions in seconds and thirds with leaps of ninths, tenths, and larger intervals.

    It is frequently asserted that the music of Webern and Schoenberg is ‘difficult’, and that this difficulty stems from their chromatic tonal language, or perhaps from the irregularity of their rhythms. In opposition to this opinion, I would argue that the non-linearity of this music is the main barrier to the listener, and not the lack of key or regular pulse. Schoenberg and Webern scorn the necessity of linear cohesion in their melodies, and the angularity of their linear structures generally has the effect of formlessness on the unfamiliar—and, perhaps, even the familiar—ear. Having listened to both composers for several years, I confess that I am unable to sing more than a few bars of any of their works from memory, so uncongenial are their melodies to the human voice. But enough of this.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Scene, 1 Follen St.
By Brendan Owen Keenan

For Christina

Old joints creak as the floorboards do

When hollow bones, animate, push
Yellowed ivory keys, surface split on some,
Smooth on others;

Every hit from a hammer awakens them anew, 

Long copper bells lurch and groan
Out of rest, first into a howl,
Then into resonance in sympathy with each other;

Hands, tools of the dread Artist,

Are no more just bone, but flesh;
Cold dust becomes warm perfume,
And an audience hears pedals click;

Allegretto in A-flat major, it quickly changes

To F minor, and every bar in three
Calls a new figure to life;
Summoned by delicate, careful strikes.

The piano keys are skeleton keys in her hands;

They unlock hearts as she plays them,
The hearts long dead from oblivion
But remembered now;

The Artist’s youthful, flushed face

Never lifts from the keyboard,
But she sees and she knows the listeners

That she conjured by melody;

Unlife, but not so, the atmosphere is
Convivial and solemn attendant to
The Artist’s lead, herself following the

Composer’s word, unforgotten, unlike the Artist.

But Dominants and Tonics are the only chords now,

And the spectators know the coda; they know
The arrival of the penultimate bar
And the final cadence.

Her youthful face lifts, then darkens into bone;
The revenants applaud then depart,
The air chills, and snow falls
Outside the frosted windows.

Cracked keyboard, creaking floor, and dusty air,

The love given by the Artist is gone;
An unobserved occurrence, occult, it happened

And no one noticed; the scene remains unknown.

For now. 

© Brendan Owen Keenan, 2012. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Staring from Her Hood of Bone

Death and Ceremony in Sylvia Plath's Edge
Brendan Owen Keenan
by Sylvia Plath

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

One of Sylvia Plath’s final two poems, the other named Balloons, tells of the end of a journey, an end free of sadness and darkness, instead calm and neutral, almost content.
The Defiance
It is also defiant. At a time of tremendous medical advances, to be perfected in death, and not in life, is anathema. Feared and hated, death is to our culture the final failure, the moment when the natural world has defeated our wisdom won across the ages.  We work tirelessly against it, unwilling to embrace finality but unwilling to despair, and evermore we find ways to slow its relentless advance.

And we hate with equal fervor those do embrace it, those who take it for themselves, unsympathetic as we are to the questions of why. We need the answer, of course, objectively, but we only resent the act; perhaps it is in envy, “taking the easy way out;”  perhaps it is in vengeance that we feel wronged, as is the case with the common Abrahamic beliefs that a person who takes her own life commits herself to Hell; still further perhaps in pity, mourning the life that might have been with a little help and protection; maybe simply in surprise. We title her "Victim." We are fighters.

Here we find a darkness not to be scorned or feared; rather, it is the apotheosis of the traveller’s journey.

The Perfection
Perfected, without flaw in death. The possibility for errors is past. Ancient and civilized as the Greeks, Christian-pure in her white toga, a body smiling to invoke a grinning skull. The age grants authority and gravity to the eternity of quiescence; on the scrolls of her toga are written the last chapter of the woman’s life.

Lifeless, the imagined room is soulless, for nothing lives there. The body is here but not the person; the life is spent, not only in the woman but in the children; perhaps in literal terms these are hers: one at each breast, but dead for the lack of milk in them. It might be a horror were it not for the white serpents, dead evils of a dying Garden of Eden, by death free of the sin it birthed. Life was the horror, not death. Back into her she reclaims them, and like a dying garden that once flowered and bore fruit, the body offers no more gifts.

She smiles defiantly that these gifts, her dead children, are at her dead breasts; she of course should be smiling only at the birth of her children, the true demanded accomplishment of a woman. The reclamation of them into her as dead, white serpents furthermore tells that the woman’s Death is feminine: the asp at Cleopatra’s breast is the perished one here, undulating as it does with her curves. Slain by Woman, head uncrushed under the heel of Man; instead dead by the lack of sin to nourish it in the way these pitchers of milk once nourished her children. Passionate, corrupt Woman is gone, and in Her place is a pure, amoral statue barren of temptation, unrisen and unfallen.

Even the statuesque, stone burial, in dispassionate repose, suits itself. Bare footed, white robed, but without ascension; no rebirths need follow. She is passionless and devoid of sadness, like the moon made from bone. And why should the moon be sad? She is the light in the night sky, in turns accepting and rejecting the dark but always predictably; on time, we can set our calendar by it, and we do. She is, like death, a watcher who always arrives to dispel the surrounding black of emptiness; a white comfort, the moon together with the stars dresses the somber earth like the toga the perfect woman wears on her funerary bed.

Here lies neither a glorification of death nor a condemnation of it. Here lies the total neutrality of existence. Here lies the body hardened in rigor mortis but draped under a soft robe; she is the stiff, dead stem of a still-beautiful flower whose soft petals follow her. And when bare feet, callused skin worn away in empathy with a weary, heavy heart, finish a sojourn forced upon them, the rest is welcome, dolce far niente after the pain and horror of life.
The Cold Embrace
Would that the rest of us envisioned such an end in concord with the inevitable future, one with no soul to cheat a harvester, no carving of a name in stone to cheat oblivion. To live without the terror of the end or even the simple anxiety of failure is enviable in its way, and simple ceremony, kind respect, and a warm regard of the beauty that always is and was suffices.

Special thanks to Nicole K. Miller.