09 October 2009

For the birds

Severe economies of line, apparent restriction of activity (I think I want the whole piece played piano, for but one instance) . . . the title and a scheme for the music came to me at about the same instant.

My glance chanced to fall upon the cover of the slim Taschen volume on Mondrian; and the sudden reminder of open, geometrical canvases whose space is defined by a spare grid of lines at right angles, gave me the musical answer to a question which (really) I don’t think I had formally asked myself yet.

(Nor am I one to stand on formality, where asking myself artistic questions is concerned.)

The birds, of course, come from the flute and clarinet playing together. Their lines would be strictly governed (‘caged’); indeed, at first I thought they should play the entire piece in rhythm together.

The governing of the lines is a matter of intervals. The idea struck me as a novel departure, but then, so many people have done so many ‘new musical things’ that I neither flatter myself by imagining that it is any ‘new discovery’, nor really care. But the idea is this:

The series of pitches in a twelve-tone row is apparently designed on the principle of non-repetition of pitch; but functionally, it is the series of intervals between the pitches of the source-set which are the governing force.

I wanted to borrow the idea of a series of ‘governing intervals’, but I wanted to restrict their powers slightly. In a twelve-tone series, the intervals determine sequences of pitch (and can be used, for instance, harmonically as well as ‘melodically’).

In All the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage, there is a series of intervals which governs the harmonic relation between flute and clarinet, but I elected not to use it in any pitch-determining application. So far as I can tell, for the where to go? pitch-wise, I went ahead and used my ear (or, my inner ear, since I drew the MS. on the bus).

The overall duration of the piece was the first compositional given; and when I had settled on a tempo and general rhythmical profile, well, that was the block of stone, and my task was to chisel the artwork out of it.

Along the lines of not worrying to find profound reasons to drive compositional decisions, I had written through to the bottom right corner of the first sheet of MS., and as I ruled the top two systems of the second sheet for employment in the piece’s end, I felt that this was a good point at which the two wind instruments should become gradually independent rhythmically. Chances are, I realized that this was the easy, organic, ‘eco-friendly’ solution to how to write an ending that will feel like an ending to a piece which in its genesis was a compositional ‘process’.

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