Tag Archives: Two-part harmony

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.

More thoughts on writing a symphony, part writing, etc.

I ended up getting in another fifteen minutes last night and I worked on making the orchestration shimmer with some more woodwind parts.

Today when I pick up work on the symphony I’m thinking more about the clarinet line. There was this section where I had two bassoons playing, and it seemed a little bare. So I put in two clarinet parts and a flute part, and it’s more complete. I’m finding that I’m very pleased with the string parts I worked on yesterday, but second guessing the ending again.

I settle on changing the viola part at the end, which easily lends itself to another five measures of closure (I’m hoping it’s actually the end, because the piece is over seven minutes now), and I pump out a second violin part and a cello part to harmonize and play with the viola line. I’ve got to listen through the entire piece to see if I feel content with the way it ends.

I go to clear my head, walking outside, visiting a neighbor for a little while. Listening through the piece, I conclude: It’s probably not the end after all. It’s not definitive enough. Breaking for lunch. Adding in one more measure, extending the wrap-up. Adding in another measure at the previous transition, and the key change is more satisfying now.

I go back to the beginning of the last section, and start filling in contrabass and cello parts. What kind of accompaniment figure/bass line should they get? Well, after writing a piece that runs about 24-28 minutes, I think I have an idea of what figures will feel like they belong in the piece. It is not time to introduce lots of new material. It is time to wrap up, and we want to hear something that sounds like the ideas already introduced to the piece.

I’m reflecting on my first exercises in my first arranging and composition class as a junior in high school (Södra Latins gymnasium, Stockholm, Sweden). I think I wrote some songs, that were more like vocalises, and I was supposed to write a harmony part, so it was two-part harmony. I think a group of my classmates and I sang it together, and I think we performed it in some obscure venue that I have since forgotten. When I took my first composition class in college, with Dr Christian Asplund, one of our first assignments was to write a duet for flute and oboe. You can hear my piece, “A play for two“, right at the top of the page titled “Woodwinds.” It is a very basic skill to master as a composer. You want to be able to find a harmonizing line that stands alone. I find that much of what I do when I work on my symphony reaches that far back into my training, and I think of independency of lines, of what harmonies I want to hear, and it extends to a third part, and a fourth part. The more parts you introduce, the more doubling you will need to introduce, so you don’t end up with a total piece of mud cake.

I come back some hours later, and I fix this and that. Some articulation here, adding a second trombone to a particular line to give more volume when that sounded a little thin against a full string section and woodwinds. I add in dynamics where I notice some missing. I’m wondering if I should add in the violas at rehearsal E or just let the violins take care of the accompaniment to the soft woodwinds. Should I add any percussion in that section? I’ll probably spend some time thinking about soft options for percussion next time I have some time to poke around. Hmm…

I know I’ll need to look through each individual part to look for any anomalies that I may have overlooked while working on the score. More missing dynamics, phrasing, articulation. I’m happy to leave the project for tonight fairly confident that most of the shaping of the movement has been done.