Tag Archives: Counterpoint

What about some pizzicato?

I started on this kind of contrapuntal line in the second violin last time, without giving it backing from the other instruments, and I realized when I got back to it today, that I wanted it to really stand out. So I actually give the first violin a few measures rest, and I decide to give the viola and cello an accompanying line that is plucked instead of bowed. This means that the line will really come out. I remember studying 18th century counterpoint and especially Bach’s inventions and fugues, and I try to imitate his style a little bit when I write the next line, which I give to the first violin.

It’s always fascinating to try and pin a stroke of inspiration on what’s going on. Easter just happened, and I was part of a women’s choir that sang “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (which was written by Bach), so the Bach-ian lines are pretty fresh in my mind from singing that piece. But since Bach is one of the ostensibly most accomplished composers of all time, I don’t feel like it can ever be wrong to get inspiration from his music. One of the many things I admire about him is his sheer size of work he left behind. He wrote so much music. His music also typically really sounds like his own, which means that he refined his own musical language in all the pieces he wrote. He has this lovely way with working from one chord to the next, and it feels like it fits, and you come to expect it a certain way. One of the things we probably all like to hear in music is some kind of predictability, and also some surprising elements. So a piece that starts out with inspiration from Philip Glass, and continues with inspiration from J. S. Bach, I hope will still sound like my music to the listener.

So after the first violin finishes the answer to the first line, the viola gets the response. I have to go now, but I’ll probably let the cello answer to that line, and then let them all play something together, which sounds like it belongs, with the right blend of anticipation and surprising elements.

The discipline to write

I think I must have written about this before. Sometimes you just don’t feel super excited to write, but the piece has to get written anyway. And the case right now is that I’ve written three movements, and I’ve commenced on the fourth and final movement. It’s not hard to fill in more notes to keep the ideas going, and to weave in the previous movements’ themes. It does require a good amount of focus, and I know it will be hard if I’m interrupted a lot while I’m working on it.

When I pull up the score today, I decide to start with a cello line, and I write what I think will be a good bass line. Then I add in the viola line, and next the second violin line, and last of all the first violin line. It is really interesting to me, that even though the top line typically will sound like the melody, that all the harmony underneath really supports that line, and while I could write a few different versions of the top line, it is quite constrained by all the other lines. The counterpoint in a string quartet is one of the most compelling reasons to write a string quartet. You try to give all the parts interesting lines to play, that lets them give the line to one another, and it’s best if all the lines will feel melodic and connected.

Once I’ve gotten to the end of that small section, I decide to lead with the first violin instead. I’m keeping in mind the idea I had early on with this piece, which is harmonic rhythm, that I let that be one of the things I focus on. Not switching harmony too often, or if I switch, it’s a smaller switch, where maybe just one note changes instead of the entire tetrachord (four notes that form a harmony, as opposed to a trichord, which is what you find in a major or minor chord, and with four notes, you’d often have doublings). There’s this one part where I notice that a measure is a beat shorter than the surrounding ones, and I make a 3/4 measure in the middle of the 4/4 piece. I see that often in the music I read, and it’s just part of what makes the music more interesting.

I finish that part, and I hear in my head a cello line, so I start with that next. Sadly, the kids are playing really noisy music toys upstairs, and I don’t know if I can keep the music straight from what I’m writing. It’s definitely the wrong key, and it just doesn’t fit. I think I’ll get back to this tomorrow. I conclude that I’ve added another 25-40 (depends on how you count) seconds of music, and decide to be content with my progress.

The aesthetic of a Largo (or other slow movement)

A year or two ago, the orchestra I played with played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I think it’s not surprising that the piece is popular and played frequently. It is really beautiful. It has its challenges, but it wasn’t too difficult with some practice to get it reasonably performable.

I guess I just started on the Largo one week ago, and I have only taken three sessions to work on it. I’m pretty happy with how those 44 measures turned out. At such a slow tempo, it really is more up to the performers to make it beautiful, but I have attempted to write in lovely harmonies, interesting counterpoint, and fairly straightforward articulation. I look forward to trying it out with some friends before too long.

One thing I did more this time around than I have before is voice crossings, which means that a lower voice plays higher than a voice above it. For example, the second violin has an ascending line, which crosses the first violin’s line, or the viola skips above the second violin. I also have the viola and the second violin playing the lowest note (at different times), instead of the cello, a few times in this movement. The voice leading demands it. It will be interesting to hear how that turns out. I have a few times where two instruments temporarily play the same note, and I am curious to hear how that turns out.

The one thing I don’t have now, that could be good to write in, if I decide to add to it, is a section where the violins play “in the stratosphere” or in the extreme high register. I don’t know if I want to though, and I’ll revisit that idea tomorrow.

I anticipate that the fourth and final movement will take significantly more hours to write. Typically, a fourth movement will be a fast and sometimes furious movement. Anytime you have to write more notes, it just takes longer.

End of the first movement SQ1

Sometimes, a piece of music has a very imaginative title. Other times, it is more abstract, and I just call it “String quartet #1”, like so many before me. Maybe some day, I’ll have an idea that demands a change, but for now, that is what I call my work.

I filled in the last few measures of music for the first movement. I added in some more articulation where I thought it was needed, and some dynamics markings. The piece is at least a completed draft. As I was going through the parts I wrote today, I noticed several times I had had all of the parts moving in the same direction. Generally, that is frowned upon. So I changed a few pitches, letting the second violin go down as the other three go up, and letting the cello later stay on the same pitch when the other three go up. Last instances, I just let the viola go higher than the second violin, because the chord was pretty tight. Now the second violin goes down when everyone goes up, and the viola gets to go down when all the others go up on the next instance.

I think it can work to have all move in the same direction, but it really sticks out in a piece otherwise adhering to counterpoint rules as best as I can, which is why I try to eliminate most of my rule-breaking voice leading.

I’m a little nervous about giving out the parts to my friends, but also very excited to hear a better rendition than my software does. Live musicians breathe their own life into my ideas, and it is such a lovely feeling when you hear your ideas with their fantastic sound.

Surprising move, or not

I’m picking up the string quartet this morning again. I write some notes for the first violin, and then I work on the second violin. I find that this time the second is leading, and it’s a fun change. I had the viola part extending the longest from last session, and it just seemed like the line should be repeated (nearly) but with an octave higher, and the second violin naturally took that line. It seems that next, I should develop the line in the first violin, and let that instrument take the lead.

But instead, I catch the vision that the cello and second violin play contrary motion to make for an expansive section.

Small essay –

Contrary motion is when you have two lines, and whenever one line is getting a pitch that is higher than the previous one, the other line is getting a pitch that is lower than the previous one. If I have one line that is consistently climbing upwards, the other line climbs downwards on the staff (and in this case, you would expand the span of the interval between the notes, little by little – which is why I call it an expansive section). If I have lots of up and down alternating, they would be alternating opposite. It makes for more interesting lines, more independence of lines, and I like the way that harmony works out that way too. –

End of small essay.

When I get back in the evening to put some more notes on the page, I on impulse add in a few notes where previously there had been a rest for a couple of the instruments. I add in an accent for the violins to match the viola in one place where it looked like I had just forgotten to do it.

And then the line flows out of first violin at the place where I’d left off this morning. I have the three lower parts in what amounts to the viola playing a melody with the others accompanying for a few measures, and the first violin adds more harmony to the accompaniment, and then moves over with quarter notes accompanying the second violin. When the second violin part ends, it seems very natural to keep going with melody for the first. All I had was a cello bass line to relate to, and I try to remember to use contrary motion a lot, because I like the way it sounds. Sometimes a line gets to repeat the same pitch, but I’m thinking about the melody like a line you have to hold on to for dear life, or you might drown. The first violin is kind of holding on to a hope that she or he has to keep going up, or they will go under water. So I keep going up, sometimes repeating pitches so the harmonic span doesn’t get too wide too quickly. Once I land on the high A, which I know is kind of high for the violin because my software marks it red (I have confirmed that the violinists I work with have played this pitch and higher in concert, so I’m not worried). But I decide to leave that idea there, and move on to playing a kind of counterpoint with the cello line. Until that ends, and then I just improvise, and write the ideas I had that came while I was listening through the entire piece.

I often start my composing sessions by listening to the piece I’ve been working on. That way, the improvisation that is part of composition seems to flow more easily. I have this section with rhythmic unison (all the instruments on the same rhythm) that comes to give the listener a break from all the busy counterpoint, and I feel like it is very needed now. I just need to hear those accents again, all the four instruments together. As many times as my ear requires a rest, and then I can start on counterpoint again.

When I’m getting to the viola part again, I have to write lots of sixteenth notes again to make the counterpoint right. I have been listening to Cristina Cordero’s rendition of Weber’s Andante e Rondo ungarese today, and I was following along with the music. She has really beautiful tone, and I’m inspired that there are musicians like her that can play so many notes so sonorously on this instrument. She was only 18 when she made that recording, and I actually listened to several others of her videos today, and I try to keep this lovely sound in my head, and trust that the viola can play the notes I’m putting down, even though I know it will be a challenge.

It can be helpful to imagine someone better than yourself playing the music you’re writing. I’m imagining I’ll be better after working on this piece as a performer, and I’m ok with that prospect.

I’m getting tired of working on this piece. I think it’s getting close to ending though, so that is a good thing. I just need to wrap up this movement, and then I think I should probably write three more. But they will be contrasting enough that it shouldn’t feel like I’m working on the same piece.

So I write a few measures for the second violin, imagining the general environment that the other instruments will play against that line, and I decide to make an ending. It’s nearly seven minutes, and I think I can be pleased with that length. I’ll end for tonight and look at it again tomorrow.

The middle part of the first movement

Continuing work on the string quartet today. I add in the remainder of the cello part that was missing from last time, and I decide to pick up the tempo a little bit for the next part. I’m feeling like another five measures of mostly unison rhythm is enough, and I decide to start on the repeat of the beginning part. The question that lingers is – how exact of a repeat am I wanting to include, and where does it diverge to something that’s different?

I decide to go for six of the opening measures to start the fast section, and then it just starts flowing. There’s a first violin part stretching out four and a half measures, and I decide to move on to the second violin. I have found that it’s usually easier to work from the top part and then down, as each part contributes to the spread of the chord and the sound. There are exceptions, especially in a piece as contrapuntal as this.

The second violin part flows four measures past the end of the first violin part now. As I work on the viola part, I kind of dread having to learn all the fast notes! It stretches two and a half measures longer than the second violin’s line, and I move on to the cello part. The last two measures of the viola part I have written, thinking of another rhythmic unison part, and I write the cello part up until the end of the viola part.

But when I go back to the piece, I hear the viola part inside my head stretching forward into the next little bit, and I write down what I imagine real quick. I just have to quit now for today anyway because I have something else I have to work on. Until next time!

Ten full measures

Ok, so I felt ok with finishing up when I had gotten at least one part all the way to the added twenty seconds yesterday. But they were not filled out with all the parts. Today when I pick up work on the string quartet, I first fill out the remaining parts, and then I go to work to add another ten measures.

I alternate between contrapuntal movement and unison rhythm sections. I think it’s a lot of fun, and I guess that was a lot of what I heard in my Mendelssohn listening too.

After filling up the ten measures, I have a floating four measures of just cello line to build off of next time I pull out my composing work.

I’ve heard people complain that they can’t focus long enough to write music. I don’t write for very long stints either, usually. It’s intense while I work on it, but then I have to break it up with something else or my mind starts going to mush.

Also, if someone starts playing music in the background it becomes impossible to keep my focus. So that is out. When I’m writing music it is also difficult to take interruptions. If someone wants my attention when I’m writing, I’ll usually hold up a hand, to show them that I’ve noticed them, but they must let me finish what I’m working on. It’s usually just finishing up a phrase that’s hard to interrupt. And in an Allegro movement, there are many phrases!

Counterpoint rhythms

I’m thinking of how a regular Bach fugue (for example, listen to this fantastic one for organ) goes. There are usually notes, subdivisions of that note, and then subdivisions of that note, and maybe one more subdivision. The rhythm is pretty straightforward, but the variety makes it so that each part can come out rhythmically at different times. This subdivision is at the heart of the art of counterpoint.

I think you’ll hear that I’ve listened to Bach when you hear my string quartet. I am not trying to write exactly like him, but he was a master of the craft, so if some of it bleeds through, I think it’s ok.

I’m doing nearly exactly the equivalent of what I did in my most recent composing session. A new line for each of the four string instruments, each extending a little further than the last. Except this time, I hear inside myself this viola line that has to come right as the cello line ends its line. And the viola ushers in the next section, and I’ve gotten to two minutes. I’m going to quit working on this for today.

It’s Jeremiah’s birthday, and I’m trying to figure out how to best honor him. We visited his grave, and sang a song. We had some cake, and some of us looked at pictures from the day he was born. I guess the main thing is I want to remember him, even though we didn’t get to keep him very long.

I’m listening to Requiem again, the piece I wrote to commemorate the dead babies I didn’t get to know. It has five movements – Eternal Rest, Day of Wrath, And the trumpet will call me, This tearful day, and Lamb of God.

When I read the scriptures, it really seems like trumpets will play an important role in the resurrection. In fact, trumpets have historically played an important role for many aspects of religious service and worship. For those interested, I wrote an article some years ago about brass instruments and religious worship.

More on counterpoint

Picking up the string quartet again. I’m listening through what I wrote last time, and I’m adding in a crescendo where it seems obvious I ought to. I add in some slurs where I hadn’t gotten to that earlier. Then it’s time to write another part of the first violin part. True to form, I write on that part until I’ve extended past the end of the last cello line. I put in a rehearsal mark to assist with rehearsals.

And I do something similar with the second violin part. Rests here and there add to the interest of the piece. Trills give you a break from the melodic line. Changing the articulation helps show that it’s a new part. (I’m talking about a staccato section for all the strings at the same time. But it could just as easily be another change. Very legato, accents, marcato, etc.).

As I put in the viola line, I decide to make a little bit of a canon. Letting the viola play what the second violin just played, but delayed two measures. We’ll see how this shapes up! And then a change in mood happens. The careful staccato leads into octave jumps and some accents. I’m going to have to see if I can incorporate that figure into the other parts eventually.

The cello line gets to shine a little now, playing some high notes, and I think it will sound really beautiful. But I’m running out of time to write this moment, and I’ll have to leave it for a while at least.

Next time, more work on each of the lines. It is exciting to see what will happen.