Oboe concerto teaser: I

As I mentioned before, I am working on an oboe concerto. This is a commission for the Handel Collection, and will be performed on 5 July 2011, 13:0014:00 at St Stephen Walbrook (warning: site plays music), 39 Walbrook, London, EC4N 8BN. Please come along if you can!

I’m currently working on the central movement, which is a sort of meta-canonical sarabande. I thought it might be interesting to say a few words about it while it takes shape.

The movement is based around three key ideas:

I’m going to describe the chaconne here; the other elements will come in future posts.

Viola, Violoncello and Double bass staves

One of my favourite musical techniques is the process of gradual transformation found in bellringing. In this process, a row of pitches is repeated over and over, but with each repitition any two neighbouring pitches can ‘change‘, swapping places. In campanology, there is a great discipline to coordinating a group of ringers to perform a whole sequence, or peal, of changes without fault; on a smaller scale this is a great way to produce musical material that maintains unity while developing over time.

In my chaconne, two rows are transformed: the viola has a descending chromatic scale from a′, while the cello and double bass have a figure that opens chromatically like a funnel from A:

On the second repetition, I apply a simple transformation to each row: in the viola, places 1 & 2 swap places, as do 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8, 9 & 10, and 11 & 12. In the bass, places 1 and 12 remain in place while 2 & 3, 4 & 5, 6 & 7, 8 & 9, and 10 & 11 all swap:

If I were then to apply the same transformation again, I would get back to where I started, so instead I apply the transformation originally used in the viola to the bass, and vice versa:

If I continued this long enough (24 changes), I would return to where I had started, having performed a plain hunt maximus (ie, the simplest possible pattern on 12 pitches); for this movement, I am more interested in moving from one row to another, rather than returning, so I finish the piece after 13 rows (12 changes), at which point both voices have reversed:

As you will see from the excerpt at the top, I have set these notes to an ostinato rhythm, whose purpose is to support the counterpoint above; each note in the row takes up a bar, so we have a total of 12 × 13 = 156 bars, which, anticipating my next post, happens to be 2 × (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 11 + 12).

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