Tag Archives: John Adams

Transition from fast to calm

Today when I get back to the computer to what I imagine is finishing up the loose ends from yesterday, I find that what sounds like an ending can just as well be the transition to a calmer middle part. The piece is full of contrapuntal movement, and I have finally reached a resting point for all the four instruments. That is why it feels so final. But I decide that I can start a new part here, and make the piece more of an ABA form. I’m at the end of the first “A,” and I can start on “B.”

Here are a few things that I deliberately do to change the feel of the music, to make it a contrasting section. 1) I slow down the tempo from 120 to 84 beats per minute, 2) I don’t write any sixteenth notes – the fastest note so far is an eighth note, 3) I give it a pianissimo marking, the first in the piece, 4) I make the counterpoint less busy, so I only have two different rhythm shapes, and they are only a little bit different from each other, and 5) I use a lot of sequence and try to make the section predictable.

Last Saturday I had the fantastic experience of listening to the Utah Symphony playing live at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City. They played Prokofiev’s 2nd piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 1st symphony. Their opening piece was by John Adams, The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra. As I listened to the orchestra, I was thinking a lot about repetition, and how much repetition is desirable. It clearly is a delicate balance! You want the audience to feel like they have some kind of idea of what the musical theme is, and how you are developing it. You can only know the theme if there are enough iterations of it, because otherwise it comes across as introduction or variation.

So as I’m writing the beginning part of “B” in the first movement of my first string quartet, I’m trying to introduce the theme enough times that a listener can feel like the music makes sense. I’m pairing the two violins rhythmically, and I’m also pairing the viola and cello. Then I switch rhythms between the two groups, so that the leading voice is in the lower register. I’m thinking a lot about two-part harmony, which does best when the intervals are a pleasing interval, rather than doublings (doublings kind of undo the idea of harmony).

In two-part harmony, a pretty safe bet in traditional arrangements is the third or the sixth. However, I love variety, and therefore I will mix my thirds and sixths up with seconds, diminished fifths, and the occasional fourth or seventh. I try to aim for a mix of countermotion and the parts moving together (with countermotion being favored). That is how I find a two-part harmony the most interesting.

Well, I finish up my first eight measures of that section, and I know that it needs something a little different next. I’ve just ended on a pretty high chord for all the strings, which lends itself fairly well for introducing the climax. I remember learning that when you’re looking for a climax in a piece, it generally means the highest point. Playing Prokofiev’s third piano concerto (observe that this recording is not my orchestra playing it) last spring, I definitely felt it was a high point when the entire viola section was maxing out by playing the highest notes we are usually ever asked to play in concert, towards the end of the last movement (listen at about 24-26 minutes for that part where the high strings are really high and lyrical, right before the peppy contrasting part by woodwinds, piano, and strings playing in a very different style).

So when I get back to writing either later today or tomorrow, I will try and make that high section fly.