Tag Archives: Harmony

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.

What is a third movement?

Basically, as a composer, you can do what you feel that the music demands. At the same time, it can be extremely helpful to call on tradition to help make it more understandable to the audience.

I do not have extensive experience playing string quartets. My musical schooling was honed primarily in choirs. So my language has been deeply affected by this – which means that the vocal line is something I treasure even in instrumental playing. Like I mentioned in a previous post, the Prokofiev piano concerto no 3 has a very lyrical part in the middle of the third movement, which although it was a little difficult because it was as some say “up in the stratosphere”, it was so beautiful, and ended up being one of my favorite sections of the piece. It is also a line that reminds me of vocal writing, something you’d like to hum or sing, which can’t be said for many other string lines… some can be very disjointed and extremely challenging to sing.

The first movement I wrote ended up deeply affected by Felix Mendelssohn’s style, with the type of counterpoint that he likes using, even though I use my own harmonic and melodic language which is a lot more inclusive of all sorts of accidentals and at times sounds a bit atonal. For the second movement I decided to constrain myself to a waltz form, with the repeats traditional to that form. I was going for a piece that people would like to get up and dance to, at least after they got used to it.

So today when I sit down with some time on my hands to write more notes, I just google “third movement string quartet” and see that I have already broken tradition. Typically the second movement is a slow movement, but the third is a dance, like a menuett and trio. Now I have already written the dance movement and see that my challenge ought to be to write a slow, lyrical piece, that still feels like it is a part of the other two movements completed.

I’m thinking about how impatient I can sometimes be. How many notes I want to fit in, and how often when I’m sitting in orchestra, I’m actually having to count rests. Yes, this is a string quartet, but I don’t have to rush it. My challenge with this piece is to slow down. The harmonic changes will be slower. The piece will be perhaps more tonal as a result. I’m going to keep doublings to few in number, so that the harmonies can stay more interesting. I’m writing a Largo, which means that each note just takes more time, right now at a quarter note equals 56, which may change slightly. As I often don’t know, I also this time don’t know how long the piece will be, but trust that it will become apparent when it’s done.

And maybe at some point, I will change the order so that the Largo will be the second movement. I’ll decide that later.

Writing a waltz

Yesterday I was able to find about fifteen minutes to write. There were about fourteen measures that I had only a violin part on, so I filled in parts to complete the quartet on those.

Today I’m torn between constant requests to help with this or that when I sit down, but I actually said I can’t help because I’m in the middle of something. It doesn’t take long to write down the next thing, but after listening for 1,5 minutes until I get to the place I’m going to work on, I have the idea for the continuing flow, and write in a couple of more phrases. If I’m interrupted at that moment though, it’s kind of frustrating, because I may be kind of lost in the piece, and not know where to pick up unless I go through the process of listening at least to part of it again. Writing in the parts is similar, but like I wrote a different day, the harmony is implied in the melody, and therefore is easier to figure out. I know what kind of intervals I’m working with most of the time. I know that I dislike a lot of doublings. So it follows that it’s not that complicated to write in the next thing.

I’m afraid that because I don’t work on it every day, that it’s going to be too disjointed. I need to make more regular progress on this piece. I don’t know how long it will be, but a common waltz lasts maybe 2-4 minutes, so I guess somewhere in that span is ok. And repeats are common. I already have one written in. There should probably be another one. And if I’m true to form, you could repeat the whole piece again after the two parts. And if you’re really feeling it, you can repeat it three times. That would be the style for a folk-dance waltz in Sweden at least as I know it from my time in Umeå.

I’ve got 63 measures now, but each half (37 and 26, in case you’re wondering what halves I’m talking about…) is repeated, so it’s really 126. And then the idea would be to play it twice (or three times).

And just like that, the waltz is done. I guess I need to figure out what the third movement should be called, and what kind of character I want it to have. And print off or send the parts to my string player friends.

Articulation, and what it does to a dance

As I’ve said previously, it’s been intimidating to write a second movement to my string quartet. I wasn’t sure if I loved what I had so far, and I was kind of second guessing myself.

Today’s workplace happened to be outside a classroom where they were learning ballroom dance. I have my headphones on, but they do not cancel the noise outside, and I find myself in the waltz mode a little more easily because of the ambient music.

I look at the piece I’m working on, and realize that what I need is some more clear articulations to help the string players play the right kind of lightness. A waltz cannot be played heavily. It just doesn’t work right. You want it to kind of float. So despite all the more or less dissonant melodic material, harmonized into what I think sounds right, but maybe isn’t the typical Johann Strauss Jr kind of harmony, if you know what I mean, I am really attempting to write a “light” atonal waltz. It’s a fun challenge, and after adding in the articulation, I find that the viola part isn’t hard to write at all. (I had left off the piece with gaps in the middle parts, so next will be some work on a second violin part).

However, the dance class switched and they are playing something Latin inspired, and the rhythm doesn’t work at all with what I’m doing now. I have a hard time finding flow, and I hope to get back to writing later today.

Writing parts – also known as harmonizing

It’s actually really interesting to me that so much of the harmony is implied in the initial melody. If the melody follows a tonal pattern, then it begs for harmony that reinforces that – and conversely, if my melody is more atonal, toying with twelve-tone patterns, the harmony is demanding to be more like that too. If I should try to insert lots of regular trichords (think major or minor chords, mainly) to an atonal line, I think it would feel misplaced – unless, of course, it isn’t trying to follow exactly a regular bass-line or chord progression from the tonal tradition.

So while I feel like it’s not hard to write in the harmony, I’m questioning my choices yesterday. Do I like what I hear? I think I will continue to work on this thread – meaning the melody I wrote yesterday, with its accompanying harmonies I’m continuing on today – a bit longer and see if it redeems itself before scrapping it.

What makes music compelling? Why do you want to continue listening? The counterpoint certainly helps, but if the melody doesn’t want to stay in your head after listening, maybe it is just another piece you’re going to forget as soon as you heard it. So I’m second guessing my choices but don’t want to give up yet. I’ll let you know what I decide to do as I look at it again with – hopefully fresh eyes – next time.

About different modes in music

As I mentioned last time, there were gaps in the piece as I left it, and I start by writing in a second violin part, that extends past what I wrote last. Somehow, it seems to ask for a key change, at least temporarily, rather than a change of mood. So I’m ending up with a different tonal center for a little while.

Let’s talk about keys and tonal centers a little bit. I was in high school when I first learned about different modes. I found them very interesting to work with. I actually employed a few different modes in my first opera writing. I started out very traditional in a mostly Dorian B-minor, but I wrote a part for the soprano to sing in Phrygian mode, and later on, a song for the mezzosoprano in Lydian mode. This way, I could keep the key signature, but just change the tonal center, and I liked the way it turned out.

There are certain harmonies that I tend to favor. I really like four-note harmonies, which means I don’t double many notes in the string quartet. So I’ll add a sixth or a seventh or something to fill out the trichords that are so common. One of my favorite trichords is the augmented one. It’s so mysterious! I also like the diminished trichord, and you can easily make it a diminished seventh when you add the fourth note.

This is kind of hard to express in just words. If you know what I am talking about when I talk about different modes, the best way to learn more is by just experimenting. You can listen to Tavasz (It means Spring in Hungarian) by Béla Bártok. It starts with a melody with a high fourth, just like in the Lydian mode. Maybe this is one reason his music resonates so much with me. The modes are different enough from the common practice era to make me sharpen my ear, but still really beautiful.

I just keep writing more notes on the string quartet, and suddenly I write a cello line that sounds like it could be the ending of a movement. What in the world? I thought the piece would be longer. The movement might be nearly done but my brain is spent. I’ll get back to it tomorrow and see what happens. The piece is close to five minutes of peppy music, and maybe the contrast I was looking for will just appear in the second movement. I think I’ll go for a slow, sweet style.