Concerto for Two Double Reeds in detail: III — Loops

This is the third in a series of post-performance analyses of my Concerto for Two Double Reeds. You can also read about I — Tessellations and II — Meta-Canon.

The structure of this movement is fairly simple, building up a contrapuntal structure over a double-bass ostinato. Click here to have a look at the score or listen to the live recording*.

The ostinato itself is made of two 4-bar phrases, each repeated. Each phrase has 12 notes: each of the notes of the pentatonic scale, although the sequence is not used as a row. The rhythm alternates between 3-quaver and 2-quaver beats to give a distinctive rhythmic identity to the whole movement.

Bassline. Two 4-bar phrases repeated

Over this ostinato, the bassoon and orchestra conduct a dialogue which builds up a contrapuntal texture. High in my mind at the time of writing this were Kerry Andrew‘s wonderful performances of folk songs, delivered live with just a loop console for accompaniment. I love the textures she can create by laying down one part over another, and the way the piece slowly comes together, and wanted to explore this idea with an ensemble, acoustic piece. Another image that springs into my mind with this music is that of a 3D printer, which can create a solid artefact by laying down layer upon layer of 2-dimensional material.

The movement is divided into 16-bar sections. In each, the bassoon plays two 4-bar phrases, each of which is then repeated immediately in the strings. In the following section, the string part that has already been layed down is played again, and the new material is played by the next part up. This means that the cellos repeat their material 4 times, whereas the first violins only get one exposition.

This cumulative structure is repeated twice, with different material. In the first, the material of the ostinato is performed first, and played by the cellos (as well as continuing in the double bass); in the second part, this material is saved for the last entry, and appears in the first violins. As each section builds up, the dynamic increases; at the end of Section 1 we drop back to 16 bars of ostinato played pianissimo in the double bass; at the end of Section 2 we hear the ostinato played in octaves by all the performers, crescendo to fortississimo, and which point the movement stops dead.

The material is fairly straightforward. Some phrases are derived from the ostinato, and others play with chains of intervals. My intention was that there should be a range of different syncopations, so as to achieve a rhythmic counterpoint alongside the melodic counterpoint. I made no attempt to inject any harmonic meaning into the parts, but made sure there was a good range of tessitura so as to keep the identities of the parts fairly distinct.

Note: if you would like to listen to a recording of this performance, please get in touch and I can send you a link.

(*Please read my note on copyright.)

Concerto for Two Double Reeds in detail: II — Meta-Canon

I have already posted analyses of two aspects of this movement: the permuted chaconne in the lower strings, and the mathematical structure of the soloists’ meta-canon. In summary:

  • The lower strings play 13 permuted repetitions of a simple, 12-bar phrase
  • The oboe and bassoon play 12 phrases of different lengths, in different orders

In this post I will explain how the musical material of the solo parts is derived, and discuss a few other final details. You can also click here to read the full score of the movement and listen to the live recording*.

The melodic material is based on a 28-member interval row generated by rolling a die:

3 3 4 5 6 6 1
1 5 6 4 2 5 6
6 3 2 1 1 2 6
1 3 1 3 5 5 5

In writing the material for each section, I followed a simple set of rules:

  • The first pitch is always a D
  • Each new note is found by moving either up or down by the corresponding interval in the row
  • Any octave transposition is permitted
  • Hence in the oboe part, starting from d´, and with an interval of 3, the next note can be b, f´, b´, f´´, b´´or f´´´
  • Any note or succession of notes can be repeated, including sequences (eg u–v–w, u–v–w–x, u–v–w–x–y, u–v–w–x–y–z)
  • The pitch material for each section is derived separately, although certain techniques and motifs recur

The first two phrases of the oboe part illustrate these principles:

Eight-bar excerpt from the oboe part.

The first phrase uses the first 7 members of the interval row in sequence: 3 3 4 5 6 6 1. The second phrase repeats the notes of the first phrase, adding one more note, again generated using the interval row.

Another illustration can be found from a bassoon passage half-way through the movement:

Four-bar excerpt from the bassoon part

In this passaged again the material is generated from the beginning of the sequence, but the process is drawn out by the repetition of sequences of notes.

As the interval row is fairly large, it is only used in the 9, 10, 11 and 12 unit sections. In sections 1, 2, 3 and 4, only 7 members (one line) of the row are used for each section, and in 5, 6 and 7, 14 members (two lines) are used. Section 8 is silent.

The other patterns in the material are that in odd-numbered sections the oboe and bassoon parts are inversions of each other, while in the even-numbered sections they are rectus. Sections 1, 4, 6, 7, 9 and 12 are lyrical in nature, and sections 2, 3, 5, 8, 10 and 11 are more mechanistic (8 trivially so).

Here then is a brief analysis of each of the sections, following their order in the oboe part:

Section 12

The longest passage in the movement, the material in this section is lyrical, covering a wide tessitura. The passage falls loosely into two sections, the first  characterised by sustained notes which lead into arpeggio-like flourishes; the second by repeated notes leading into material which meanders around a small cell of pitches.

The material from this section recurs throughout the movement.

Section 9

This section is a reworking of the material in Section 12. It is rhythmically simpler and less discursive. Gestures from the solo material are picked up in the violins and form part of their ostinato (see below).

Section 6

This section picks up material from Sections 9 and 12 and develops it a little further.

Section 3

The first ‘mechanistic’ section in the oboe. This introduces the technique of gradually adding to a cell of pitches.

Section 2

This is the one point of true coincidence in the movement. At the beginning of the movement, Section 12 in the oboe is accompanied by Section 2 in the bassoon. At this point, this relationship is reversed.

The material is extremely simple: just a falling sequence notes. The number of beats between the notes decreases over the course of the 4 bar section.

Section 5

Section 5 is structurally fairly simple: a 2-bar phrase is repeated for two different sets of pitches. It’s then split in half, and each half is repeated independently. The opening motif is then repeated on its own.

Section 8

Section 8 is silent, primarily to give the soloists a chance to get their breath back!

Section 11

Section 11 is highly mechanistic. The excerpt of bassoon music above is taken from the beginning of this section, and illustrates the way the material is generated. Its nature is fairly relentless, and had to be reworked a couple of times to make sure the performers had enough space to breathe.

This is also one of the moments of minor coincidence in the movement, as the oboe starts this section 6 bars after the bassoon. This makes this passage one of the more obviously canonic parts of the movement (inverted of course, as 11 is an odd number), and the driving rhythms of the material make this the climax of the movement.

Section 10

Section 10 is fairly simple, and similar to Section 5: a phrase is repeated and then deconstructed.

Section 7

Section 7 provides another explicitly canonic passage in this movement, as the oboe starts this section 8 bars after the bassoon. The section is divided in two, and the second half is an exact inversion of the first. Because this division happens after bar 7, and because the oboe and bassoon parts are inversions of each other, this means that the second half of the section in the bassoon is in rectus canon with the first half of the section in the oboe, with a delay of one bar.

I am particularly fond of this section because of this canonic cleverness, so here are the bassoon and oboe parts on their own to clarify the structure:

Oboe and Bassoon parts demonstrating double canon

Section 4

Section 4 takes the movement’s opening motif as its sole source of material, and leads into…

Section 1

The final coincidence of the piece, oboe and bassoon play Section 1 simultaneously. The material again uses the opening motif, so in the oboe it follows directly from Section 4. As 1 is an odd number, the parts are inversions of each other, so they open away from middle d´.

Upper Strings

I have discussed the chaconne in the lower strings, which is made of 13 repetitions of a 12-bar phrase. The material in the upper strings is made of 12 repetitions of a 13-bar phrase, and uses entirely extended techniques: tapping the strings with the wood of their bows, playing the short lengths of string beyond the bridge, tapping the wooden body of the instrument, and playing notes with Bartók or snap pizzicato.

There are a few melodic elements in this material, principally echoes of the soloists’ material in Section 9, and I was keen on the idea of building a background soundworld, elements of which could then come into focus in the right context.

This movement is by far the most complex compositionally, and probably the most challenging to listen to, but I think that, despite all its complexities, it has a lyricism that works well within the structure of the whole work.

I also have a feeling that this movement would work well rewritten for oboe, bassoon and electronics. A project for another day!

Note: if you would like to listen to a recording of this performance, please get in touch and I can send you a link.

(*Please read my note on copyright.)

Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2011: first impressions

Many moons ago, in what feels like a completely different life, I did some work with a fantastic small opera company called Tête à Tête, and I was hugely impressed by the quality of performance they produced with really limited means, and by Bill Bankes-Jones’s directorial vision.

Since then I’ve kept a close eye on their work, so I was really keen to get to some performances in their 5th annual Opera Festival at Riverside Studios (which is also conveniently near Shepherd’s Bush, where I live).

I met my lovely friend V there at half past six, and we were treated to three entertaining, moving and thought provoking performances.

Catherine Kontz and Danny Standing’s Larvae was an effective piece of music theatre for baritone and radios performed in the lobby of the studios. A bit of humour, a bit of weirdness, and the odd dash of audience participation (both intentional and un-) made a fantastic introduction to the evening.

Tête à Tête have made quite a fetish for airing works in progress, sometimes in the very early stages of gestation. Robert Fokkens‘s Love Songs was presented as little more than a sketch, but already had a great sense of identity and purpose. Fairly predictably, the moment that stood out for me was the marriage scene, where Fokkens sets the priest’s homily as Anglican psalmody to an accompaniment on the melodica, which slowly gives way, with gentle insinuations on the drum kit, to a slow dance for the ‘happy couple’ before returning to the liturgical style for the pronouncement of marriage. Fokkens has a sure hand with the various genres he plays with, and the narrative uncertainties in this initial sketch should work themselves out as it’s developed further. (Bill did put out a plea for funding to develop this piece further, so anyone with £100k to spare should look no further!)

With four studio performances in one evening, it was tough choosing what else we wanted to see. Nick Owen and Gary Carpenter‘s Closing Schools for the Future had the most unlikely premise: a social policy research project cum opera based on the closure of a primary school in the Wirral. The texts were all genuine material: council minutes, excerpts from research papers, interviews with teachers, parents and stakeholders, and the performers were dressed unassumingly in suits and ties. What came out of it however was a funny and poignant study of an event which affected a community very closely. Whether poking affectionate fun at the conventions of policy documents (as citations flashed up on the screen in an overenthusiastic powerpoint slideshow), or examining the repercussions for children with physical or learning impairments (will they be left behind, or by some miracle or local planning encouraged to gain more independence), this performance managed to be both entertaining and moving. The final section, set to the sound of three iPhones running Brian Eno’s Bloom app was haunting, charming and slightly disconcerting.

The other involving aspect of the evening was the question and answer session that followed each of the seated performances. I think it’s really valuable to have a chance to discuss new music, and when one piece is very much a workshop, and other is so tied up in a community, it makes a lot of sense to follow them with a discussion. I feel I came away with a better sense of the pieces context, and I hope these discussions also help guide the developments of the pieces. There was even a threat of another opera on the closure of bus routes!

Concerto for Two Double Reeds in detail: I — Tessellations

This is the first in a series of post-performance analyses of my Concerto for Two Double Reeds. Click here to have a look at the score of movement I — Tessallations or listen to the live recording*.

The first movement of my Concerto for Two Double Reeds is for oboe solo and orchestra; it builds on two ideas:

The first idea is stolen from György Ligeti, and it is to divide the chromatic scale according to the keys on the piano: the white keys form a diatonic scale, and the black keys form a pentatonic one. In this case, the white notes are given to the oboe, and the black notes to the orchestra.

The orchestra play their notes with two textures: sustained chords, and descending pizzicati passed from instrument to instrument. The five notes of the pentatonic scale are divided between the five parts: Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello, Double Bass in a succession of narrowing, then broadening spacings:

The following chords:  [͵A♯ G♯ f♯ d♯´ c♯´´] –  [F♯ c♯ g♯ d♯´ a♯´] –  [c♯ f♯ a♯ d♯´ g♯´] –  [g♯ a♯ c♯´ d♯´ f♯´] –  [c♯ f♯ a♯ d♯´ g♯´] –  [D♯ c♯ g♯ d♯´ a♯´] –  [͵A♯ G♯ f♯ d♯´ c♯´´] –  [͵D♯ D♯ d♯ d♯´ d♯´´]

Throughout this sequence the second violins hold middle d´♯, which acts as a pivot for the other notes. Within the pentatonic scale, the first chord can be considered to be build on 5ths (A♯ – C♯ – D♯ – F♯ – G♯ is five successive degrees of the pentatonic scale), the second on 4rds, the third on 3rds, and the fourth on 2nds, so the spacing is entirely regular, albeit within an irregularly spaced scale.

The second idea is to base the oboe part, within the confines of the diatonic scale, around a repeating group of intervals. All the oboe material is based around a ladder, or tessellation, formed of rising perfect fifths and falling major seconds, a technique which acknowledges Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition, whilst doing pretty much the opposite!

Treble clef, in succession the notes e´ – b´ – a´ – e´´ – d´´ – a´´ – g´´ – d´´´ – c´´´

Pushed much further this pattern would encounter black notes, but then again, pushed much further it would exceed the oboe’s range!

The resulting movement is in two sections:

In Section 1, the strings hold each, successively narrower, spacing of the pentatonic pitch set while the oboe plays increasingly florid, improvisatory material. For each chord the oboe plays three phrases of increasing length, followed by the pizzicato string motif.

The final, close-spaced pizzicato motif of Section 1 becomes the first motif in Section 2, which is for strings alone. The abandon the sustained chords, and just play the pizz motifs in reverse order. Finally, reach a 4-octave span of D♯s, which they play three times, ending fff to end the movement.

In workshopping this movement, we discussed various ways to notate the oboe passages. I had originally been fairly specific about which notes should be triplets, and about dividing the material into bars, but felt that this detracted from the rhythmic freedom the performer should have in interpreting the material. Rhuti’s performance brought a lyricism to this movement that went beyond what I had envisioned, and even elicited comparisons — unexpected, but not unwelcome — to  Delius.

Note: if you would like to listen to a recording of this performance, please get in touch and I can send you a link.

(*Please read my note on copyright.)

Concerto for Two Double Reeds: performed!

On 6 July my concerto was performed. St Stephen Walbrook was filled with lunchtime concertgoers, and my many late nights of work, along with our intense rehearsals over the last day and a half, finally paid off.

I owe a great debt of thanks to our fantastic soloists, Rhuti Carr and Andrew Watson, to the Handel Collection and their leader Irina Pakkanen, and to Edward Adams, whose conducting and oversight brought the performance together, and who first suggested I write the piece.

I have already posted a little analysis of the second movement of this piece, and I plan to post more in the coming days, along with some score excerpts and perhaps some audio samples. In the mean time, I would like to jot down a few general reflections:

  • I was really fortunate to get feedback from Edward and Rhuti during the compositional process. I had early conversations with them about the shape of the piece, and we then ran two workshops while I was writing the work, which were invaluable in steering me towards writing more idiomatically for the oboe. (As an aside, it strikes me that this approach has certain similarities with Agile software development insofar as a dialogue is maintained between composer / programmer and performer / end user. A thought for another day.)
  • Another piece of luck was that Andrew was able to step in as bassoon soloist. The original plan had been to write an oboe concerto, but the second movement was calling out for another soloist, and once I had a substantial bassoon part in that movement, it seemed a little unjust to make the performer sit aside for the rest of the piece! The third movement, which is the bassoonist’s showcase, is in part a solution to this problem.
  • The other problem that the third movement attempts to solve is that the finale is completely stylistically incongruous. It started life as a little sketch which I played to Rhuti and Edward, and which they liked so much that the insisted I keep it in the piece. However, the transition from the atonal, rather austere second movement to the (poly)tonal, jaunty romp of a finale was really rather jarring, and needed something to act as a bridge. I hope that the syncopated, motoric rhythms and cumulative counterpoint of the third movement achieve this. The finale retains its original character, but I hope I’ve done something interesting with it, as well as showing I can write a good tune!
  • Even after the workshops, a few points did arise during the rehearsals, particularly to do with the string writing, and it was really useful to be able to talk through them with Irina and agree a few revisions to bring the performance closer to what I had had in mind.
  • Finally, I got the impression that the performers had fun playing the piece. Two moments particularly stick in my mind. First, about half way through the rehearsal of the third movement, the structure of the piece revealed itself to Irina, and I could see her face light up, and she turned to the orchestra and told them ‘Ok, I want to you stop counting bars and just listen to the bassoon, because whatever he plays, you repeat.’ The second moment that sticks with me is in the final movement, where I’ve given the double bass pizzicato slides from a very high note down as low as possible, and where I’m sure I caught the bassist exchanging grins with the viola section.
So, finally, a few more thank yous. First, to my husband Peer for putting up with me in the throes of composition and bad MIDI synthesis at ungodly hours. Second, to my colleagues at 7digital: I haven’t worked anywhere else where so many of my colleagues would come along to support me, particularly after only 6 weeks in the job. And finally to the woman who stormed out half way through the second movement hissing ‘I’ll come back when they start playing something with tunes’: no premiere is complete without the odd naysayer!