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Exploring Aspects of Style in my Music

‘I think, and I have found out that what you may call style, personality, are [actually] your limits, and I hope that is also what Picasso meant when he said that style is coming after me. I just do what I want to do. But when you try to do something completely different you find out that you're confronted with the fact that you cannot do too much, you have your limits, and I fear that that is what people call personality.’


 Louis Andriessen: The John Tusa Interviews


The Role of Intuition in the Emergence of Style


I gravitate to this quote by Louis Andriessen because it expresses a fundamental wisdom: we are who we are, despite our ‘best laid schemes’[2]. Of course we possess the ability to further our craft, but there are intrinsic and essential aspects of our make-up that exert their influence upon our artistic development, guiding us towards the fulfilment of some ambitions and the surrender of others. The quotation is an acknowledgement that for Andriessen, composition is essentially a human endeavour and thus riddled with unrealised possibility. In many ways, we are defined by our limitations. This assertion is by no means defeatist, for the compelling truth is that the only way we come to know our limits is by buffeting up against them in an attempt to over reach ourselves.


Andriessen’s declaration, ‘I just do what I want to do’ is particularly salient for me, as it betrays the marked assurgency of intuitive thinking that underlies artistic concerns of style. Intuition is the faculty for decision making, which manifests not in the service of any empirical justification, but purely to satisfy some internal and unquantifiable motivation: a motivation that evolves over years in parallel with an artist’s identity and, I would argue, comes to form the dominant basis upon which creative choices are made. Ultimately, within the limitations of ability, it is an artist’s aesthetic choices that most define their work. I believe the ‘personality’ alluded to by Andriessen is driven primarily by intuition, and thus represents the artist’s essential quality, being a reflection of their unique human experience.


It is my understanding that the art of composition relies on the coordinated operation of two related forms of mental activity: reason and intuition. These faculties are in continuous flux throughout the creative process, informing a composer’s technical and aesthetic choices from the establishment of constituent compositional vocabularies to the formulation of large-scale musical structures. Reason is transitive, objective and functional; it exerts itself through analysis. Intuition is intransitive, subjective and aesthetic; it exerts itself through association. I do not see these terms as mutually exclusive, but rather as representing the gravitational field through which my compositional decisions are resolved. Both faculties are integral to the development of musical ideas, but as analysis is a function of reason, and reason through logical abstraction is causally connected with the manipulation of musical structures, it is often the preferred subject of academic investigation. Intuition, however transient, deserves attention if only because it is a constituent of creativity that is largely overlooked by composers when attempting to describe their methodologies, and yet it would appear to play a vital role in the individuation of artistic identity.[3]


We live today in a time of convergences: cultural and aesthetic convergences facilitated by the proliferation of information sharing technologies and the expansion of the global Internet, historical and stylistic convergences encouraged by the dissemination and reinterpretation of genres. Confronted by the sheer volume of potential directions, it is easy to imagine the dissolution of individual identity, and yet this is not the case. Composed music enjoys the greatest influx of stylistic variety in its history. I believe it is the power of intuition that enables a composer to mediate these diverse influences. Style is an expression of personality, and personality is a cultivated construct. It is the resounding affect of years of accumulated memory. Good composers engage in a constant pursuit of novel auditory experience, but not every experience carries the same resonance. Through the ritual of identification, composers are driven to pursue and understand some experiences above others. It is through these various creative alignments that they come to express their individuality. In composition, I believe style reveals itself in the way we filter our influences and adapt our materials when devising and presenting our work, and it is a composer’s intuition that ultimately guides these choices. Intuition is the ‘inner voice’[4] that presides over our most demanding decisions, those of an aesthetic nature. All practical and technical considerations aside, composition is ultimately about developing the faculty to make these kinds of decisions.


Influences of Cross-Cultural Exposure


Having only embarked on a formal study of music later in my artistic development, my early musical exposure lay largely within aural music streams. In the absence of an overriding pedagogy, my approach to sound composition is and has always been highly intuitive, and my early immersion into an urban-music environment was to have a profound effect on the direction of my compositional style. I describe the music as ‘urban’ because it is within the urban environs of cosmopolitan cities like Toronto and Montreal that I first pursued my music vocation, and where a bustling cross-cultural artistic underground continues to flourish. It is exactly in the reclaimed areas of the inner city that artists, drawn together by a collective experience, impact directly on each other through the mingling of their disparate individual histories. I would qualify urban-music as containing paradoxical virtues: it is socially cohesive but culturally diverse, steeped in music traditions but irreverent and experimental. The challenge and reinvention of aesthetic values that occurs as a by-product of this environment is instilled my musical identity. For me, music is at its most powerful when it is in the throws cultural convergence. This is true of popular music of the last century, and even more so of the more experimental music at the fringes of pop culture from which mainstream music feeds. The eclecticism found in modern music is no doubt caused by the social, political and technological upheavals of our age, but it may also be understood as a natural evolution of the creative dialog that has always taken place between aural music traditions. Today, this is music whose DNA contains the vestiges of so many music legacies, as to make the tracing of its origins a complex and multifarious procedure.[5] French-Canadians’ have a term to describe the arbitrary mixing of languages that occurs in conversations between people of differing cultures. It is known as: joile. My compositional style carries similar properties. The initial sound material in my work is derived from what may be described as a cross-cultural slang or joile. It is the bifurcation and reassembly of language and the subversion of linguistic conventions in the service of new expression.


But my relationship with the music of other cultures, regional or historical, is not a formalised one. I am not categorical; all listening events hold the potential for pleasure and edification. Simply put, I seek out new listening experiences and allow the sounds that move me to enter into my work. Sometimes there is long delay between a listening event and its appearance in my work, sometimes this occurs immediately. It may be a melodic turn of phrase, a sound collection, a rhythmic pattern or simply a stylistic expression. Any experience may become the impetus for creativity. It is the transformation of the experience, through its integration with my existing aesthetic construct, which makes it meaningful. Once something enters, it never comes out the same. It is altered through the free association of the subconscious mind, where it interacts with other experiences and is reconfigured into something new. The longer the memory stays in there, the further it is transformed. Until eventually, it becomes part of the basis upon which new experiences are understood and internalised.  


The Evolution and Emancipation of Polystylism


In many ways, the modern communication matrix has conspired to overtake the aesthetic considerations proposed in Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music, Alfred Schnittke’s prescient 1971 article on the increasing stylistic eclecticism found in contemporary music. The article reflects, I think, a desire from ‘serious music’ composers of the day to re-engage with their cultural surroundings, and forecasts the migration of many composers away from the purist tendencies of movements like serialism and sonorism towards a more integrated and inclusive style. Schnittke associates this migration with what he understands as the ‘polyphonisation of human consciousness’. This term alludes to the immense impact contact with world cultures would have on the stylistic imaginations of future composers.[6] Many composers living and working today situate themselves stylistically on the peripheries of the European musical canon, where they pursue an idiosyncratic creative path, filtering an array cultural influences through Western compositional techniques rather than generating their material from any one tradition. Indeed in the 21st Century, a form of ‘abstract pluralism’ is a dominant aesthetic trend.


The exposure of musicians today to the diversity of world music is so extensive they may consider distinct cultural and historical elements as simply a part of the vast musical resource now available to them. Schnittke’s insights in this regard are lucrative, nonetheless. Firstly, he introduces contrasting terms to describe the use of adopted language,[7] which he defines as existing in a continuum between overt ‘quotation’ and veiled ‘allusion’. He considers adopted language as consisting of two aspects: the importation of idiomatic expressions, (e.g. melodic intonations, harmonic sequences and cadential formulae) and/or the importation of period devices, (e.g. isorhythm, hockets and antiphony). Schnittke then goes on to describe the phenomenology that arises when musical languages from diverse geographical and historical sources co-exist within a single composition. He explains the effect of these confluences as the ‘play of temporal and spatial associations’. These lead to a ‘widening of musical space’, by broadening the social, cultural and historical context of the piece.[8]


Schnittke’s abstract model for understanding the use of adopted language carries strong resonances for me. My compositional language is an assimilation of abstracted influences from numerous cultural and historical traditions cultivated over many years of creating and listening to music. Although my compositions betray inherited aesthetic contradictions, these have evolved in simultaneity with my praxis; they are native to my musical imagination, and their formulation into my work is organic and intuitive. If I think of my style in terms of the aesthetic qualities upon which I place value, what distinguishes my work is the transparent integration of mixed musical legacies. To clarify, ‘musical legacies’ are the discrete technical and stylistic aspects, drawn from a wide range of traditions that combine and surface, consciously and unconsciously, in my works. The ‘transparency’ of their integration is arrived at through the absence of ‘cultural translation’. Music transcends culture.  Thus, I am free to draw my influences from any historical or geographical sources and there is no imposed cultural hierarchy in my musical language.


I am perhaps fortunate, in the sense that my early musical induction is so far removed from the milieu for which I now compose that any attempt at notation involves a large migration of aesthetic context. This is fortunate because the migration of musical imagery from one milieu to another, or from one idiomatic tradition to another creates the potential for new stylistic complexes and ultimately new listening experiences. Musical ideas that may be tired or clichéd in one idiom can become revitalized in another, and their inherent significance transformed in the process. When stylistic gestures are freed from their cultural moorings, they are allowed to take on new associations. If the idiomatic translation is successful, and the musical gesture arrives intact, it may even become more potent when expressed through a new medium or within a new context. I would describe the process of mixing diverse geographical and historical styles as a re-contextualization of culture iconography. In itself, the concept is not radically new, and variations on this theme have occurred throughout history in all art disciplines.[9] The novelty occurs in its realisation, and this is a direct consequence of the artist’s unique perspective.


My initial material is largely derived from traditional music streams; it is culturally, historically and geographically diverse. These ideas are then transformed by the application of compositional techniques and by their integration into new stylistic contexts. The juxtaposing of idiomatic vocabularies means that aesthetic contrasts occur implicitly between alleged dichotomies like: tradition and innovation, east and west, hi and low, sacred and secular. Often multiple idiomatic gestures and period devices appear in different strata of the music simultaneously. Filtering musical vocabularies through compositional techniques that are alien to them instils the resulting material with an underlying tension. There exists, in my work, a conscious subversion of conventions. It behaves eccentrically and displays many paradoxical virtues. It is rhythmically active, with a strong pulse and tempo, but it is metrically complex, passing through many time signatures and modulations of tempo. It is melodically driven and betrays strong modal tendencies, but it is harmonically unstable, containing disparate modulations of pitch collection and areas of increased harmonic density. It mixes freely the traditional acoustic instruments of many traditions with electronic instruments and studio generated sounds. It thrives on contrasts: consonance and dissonance, density and transparency, stasis and fluidity, and uses these contrasts to heighten the kinetic effect of the music.


Although I consider the use of contrast to be a defining constituent of my craft, I do not consider these works to be polystylistic. The aesthetic tensions exerted in them are always resolved internally, within the architecture of the piece. Once adopted vocabulary is absorbed into a composition, no further external referencing occurs. My axiological concerns for this material are defined purely in relation to its new context. I believe Schnittke would have described the extent of stylistic integration that exists in my works as having crossed ‘the boundary from quotation to allusion’.[10] This is an important distinction for me, as Schnittke uses these terms to describe the music of Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky is the one composer included in his study that he is unable to rationalise as a ‘polystylist’. He describes Stravinsky’s use of ‘borrowed’ or ‘adopted’ vocabulary as having passed from ‘quotation’ to ‘illusion’. Because Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic personality is ever present in the manner in which he manipulates his influences, he is able to draw from any chosen musical language and transform it fundamentally into his own. This is my ideal, and I have taken great care to filter my own eclectic listening history into a individual and identifiable sound. Often this sound occurs through the idiosyncratic manipulation of conventional compositional techniques like: polyphony, melodic and rhythmic cadence, transposition, modal and harmonic modulation. These are combined with other historically and/or culturally derived concepts like: polyrhythm, polymetre, isorhythm, ostinato, organic and deconstructive processes. There is a keen awareness of musical properties like: the harmonic second, (major, minor and compound) motion in parallel fifths, dyads, quinary harmony, incomplete tertiary harmony or a fractured combination of both, modal and polymodal structures, a melodic use of the tritone, altered diatonic scales, timbral amalgam, musical texture and auditory space. I use these properties in a highly distinctive manner to achieve a personalised sound signature. Often, tension is created and resolved via the friction between the horizontal projection of melody and the imposition of shifting vertical structures.


At the beginning of this dissertation, Stravinsky describes himself as being ‘formed’ by all the music he has known and loved. This could be taken as being sentimental, but I believe it reveals a powerful courage. Today, as in Stravinsky’s era, the worlds of popular culture and high or ‘academic’ art are once again transecting. Through out history, many composers have either embraced the notoriety of popular forms or rejected them outright. These days either of these stances requires little imagination. The detractions of popular forms are easier to target, as the medium requires very little personal investment. But it can be as much of a creative abdication to take refuge in the relative safety of dissonant structures and abstract theoretical logic. I have chosen to reside in the border regions between these two positions.


Very few composers have been able to resurrect popular forms with the genius and originality of Stravinsky, as evinced in Les Noces (1923) and Ebony Concerto (1945). Fewer still have invented new forms using the language of cultural myth, as evinced in Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) and Oedipus Rex (1927). I consider my own work as moving in this direction. For me, musical intelligence is a result of emotional investment. In this portfolio, I have attempted to create an individual style through the convergence of experimental and vernacular traditions. In the following pages, I will illustrate how aspects of vernacular music are dealt with in the production of my scores, while providing examples of their integration and re-contextualization into my compositional language. In the process, key features of my compositional style will be introduced and explored.


Microtonal Intonation and Melodic Inflection


One essential aspect of vernacular music (music of an aural tradition) that continues to challenge our standard system of notation is its expressive use of intonation and melodic inflection. A desire to incorporate these performance aspects more effectively into the notation of my scores has led me to explore various ways of altering or embellishing the twelve-tone pitch lattice. Many composers today are investigating methods of further subdividing the twelve chromatic intervals of equal temperament through the introduction of microtones. I have also conducted research in this regard, developing an 18-tone division of the octave based on a selection of ratios taken from just intonation and degrees of the overtone series.[11] Although initial compositional sketches were made using the 18-tone division of the octave, a global system of microtonal tuning has yet to enter into any of my works. It became apparent during these experiments that my interest in microtones lays largely in their expressive melodic power, and that this could be elicited more effectively by applying alternative methods of pitch identification at the local level of the music.


In Helicotrema, music for spatialized mixed-octet, I rely on the following collection of altered accidentals to indicate microtonal changes of intonation. The symbols are intended to designate the subtle inflective alteration of specific frequencies, rather than a global redefinition of pitch hierarchy. They are reflective of my approach to notation; I value legibility above rigorous precision. In the flow of music, it is hoped the player will interpret these symbols as subtle adjustments of a pre-existing pitch, rather than the introduction of new pitch material. I employ microtonal adjustments primarily to depict, more acutely, the modal characteristics of melody. These mirror similar microtonal alterations of pitch that occur in musical systems like the Persian dastgah[12] and Arabic maqamat,[13] in which the alteration of equal-tempered tuning is necessary for the production a specified modes. The symbols may also appear in my scores, to lesser degree, during periods of sustained harmony when a more detailed harmonic composite is desired.


Diagram 1: A Collection of Altered Accidentals


The harmonic language of Helicotrema is derived from three altered diatonic scales: Lydian Minor 7th, Lydian Minor 3rd and Dorian Augmented 4th (or Lydian Minor 7th Minor 3rd). Although I conceived of these scales initially as alterations of Western church modes, they all have a cultural precedent in the folk music of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The melodic and harmonic content of Helicotrema derives from the modal modulation and harmonic transposition of these three pitch collections. I have placed microtonal accidentals into key passages of the work to accentuate the modal characteristics of individual melodies.


            In the following excerpt, occurring in 4/4, the music modulates every measure and half between two independent fields of vertical harmony, A Lydian b7 and G Lydian b3. The melody of the left hand of the piano and cello, dictate the current mode and points of modulation. This occurs every six quarter-notes, or one and a half measures. Microtonal alterations to the melodies of the clarinet and flute are designed to intensify the significant modal colour-tones of the pervading harmony. The raised c# in the second measure of the clarinet (notated at concert pitch) is an anticipation of the harmonic modulation and represents an inflective alteration of the augmented 4th in G Lydian b3. The lowered bb in the third measure of the clarinet represents an inflective alteration of the minor 3rd in G Lydian b3. The raised g and d# in the fourth measure of the flute part represents an inflective alteration of the minor 7th and augmented 4th upon returning to A Lydian b7. These changes in intonation are not the result of a global microtonal system, but occur as discrete alterations in a mixed-modal context. They are introduced as a way of adding expressive detail to the notation of melody.


Excerpt 1: Helicotrema - Scala Tympani, page 34, measure 337 (quartet 1 & flute)



Another notational technique, which has come out of a desire to enhance the fluidity of melodic expression, is the use of inflective glissandi. These are contoured glissandi, used to indicate the velocity and scope of fluid melodic motion. They may occur between two fixed pitches, where they indicate, through their contour, the acceleration or deceleration of fluid pitch modulation. They may also occur before or after a single fixed pitch, where they indicate an inflective rise or fall of varying degrees. I apply inflective glissandi to both vocal and instrumental parts. They are a useful visual aid and provide an increased level of notational accuracy.


In the following excerpt from Sphèrós, composed for spatialized choir and soundtrack, inflective glissandi are used in the composition of the soprano voices. They provide a strong visual cue for the performer, displaying the acceleration in pitch modulation that occurs between the low f and high db in the second measure, and the rhythmic anticipation that occurs between the db and c in the third measure and to a lesser degree between the bb and ab in the fourth measure. I employ inflective glissandi in this case to imbue the melodic line with additional pathos. It also serves a more practical function. The overall vocal texture is quite active in this passage, and the vocal sweeps help to distinguish the principal melody from the other voices.


Excerpt 2: Sphèrós - Tableau E, page 34, measure 106 (Choral Group 1)



The Composition of Mixed Idiomatic Vocabularies


Perhaps the most integral means by which a composer can modulate an audience’s listening experience lies in their choices and treatment of instrumentation. Considerations of instrumentation are most evident in my chamber works. Instruments are highly specific. The distinctive timbres and idiomatic features that one comes to associate with regional and historical music streams are often contained within their construction. Instruments carry their cultural and historical legacies in their design. By combining instruments from distinct musical spheres into hybrid ensembles, one is able to provoke an instantaneous temporal and spatial dislocation in the listener. The formation of unique instrumental configurations helps to suspend an audience’s susceptibility to external references through sheer lack of historical precedence. As well as widening perceptual axes, there is an elevated sense of the present. This is produced by the uniqueness of the combination, and the breaching of perceived social and cultural boundaries.


Unique instrumental combinations lead to unique timbral amalgams and so perhaps new modes of expression. While it is possible to redefine the semantic interpretation of instruments through their re-contextualisation, this occurs mainly within the language of the composition. The use of hybrid ensembles presupposes the existence of ‘crossover’, which occurs when the stylistic and idiomatic expressive techniques of different musical streams are incorporated into a new context. By mixed idiomatic vocabularies, I mean not only melodic, harmonic and rhythmic characteristics, but also characteristics of intonation, phrasing, articulation and sound production. This may present challenges to a performer, as modes of expression drawn from outside their expertise have to be understood and internalised. When the idiomatic aspects of traditional vocabularies are combined with contemporary extended techniques, a truly expanded musical language is created. It is the natural friction arising from the disconnection between traditional and contemporary perspectives, which gives my music its vitality. Through the re-interpretation and re-contextualisation of traditional and contemporary aesthetic perspectives, I am attempting to create music of a highly personal nature that is reflective of its time and place, and yet continues to evoke the atmosphere and energy of its diverse historical legacies.


In the following excerpt from Helicotrema, (occurring just prior to Excerpt 1) the piano, which provides the main rhythmic thrust of the music, is in the final stages of entering into a polyrhythmic relationship, in which the right and left hands play a sequence of alternating sixteenth-notes. The right hand of the piano plays only upbeats and its melodic content is phrased in 4/4: a sequence of three descending melodic statements followed by one ascending statement. The left hand of the piano plays only downbeats and these notes are phrased in a recursive three-note motif in 6/8, lasting six quarter-notes. (Please refer to Excerpt 1) The piano part has undergone a slow transformation from a sparse 6/4 pattern to a polyrhythmic relationship of 4 over 3 via a process of rhythmic interpolation. This is accomplished by deconstructing the completed rhythm in retrograde. Basically, I work backwards from the point of highest activity, extracting rhythmic components of the melody in an ever-increasing manner, and replace these with rests or held durations until the material displays very different rhythmic properties.


The propulsion of the 4 over 3 polyrhythm that enters at the end of the next excerpt, and drives the music in the following section, is a legacy of West African drumming techniques. This distinctive idiomatic musical gesture is combined here with more shadowed or ambiguous modes of sound production. In Excerpt 3, the woodwinds are climbing stepwise out of a transposing and recurring 13 measure melodic sequence (6 + 7). The four independent melodic lines are offset rhythmically to blur the effect of the dynamic envelopes that occur within each held tone. The cello performs a perpetual sequence of unstopped glissandi. This is an extended performance technique, in which the player’s finger glides up and down the strings of the instrument between harmonic nodes. As it does so, it elicits a sweep of the strings overtone series. With eerie effect, the overtone series rises and falls in contrary motion to the movement of the glissando. The entire passage of music is underpinned by a quarter-note melody in octaves on the marimba that displays a similarly ambiguous metre.


Excerpt 3: Helicotrema - Scala Tympani, page 33, measure 325 (piano & quartet 2)



I believe the pronounced effect of the 4 over 3 polyrhythm is altered significantly by its new musical context.  Firstly, it has undergone a physical transformation in timbre, by its placement into the right and left hands of the piano. This sonic abstraction is further enhanced by the timbre and harmonic complexion of the accompanying instrumentation, which are drawn from a radically different aesthetic pretext. I believe this convolution of stylistic idioms leads to a unique and evocative listening experience, and it comes directly out of the mixing of disparate idiomatic musical vocabularies.


A Transparent Use of Cultural Influences


Sinsearach Cainteoir is a piece that transects many of my concerns in relation to style. It is composed for a large hybrid ensemble, which incorporates instruments from the domain of chamber music, (viola and cello) chamber instruments with strong traditional associations, (flute, clarinet, concert harp and percussion) and instruments that remain largely outside the domain of chamber music, (uilleann pipe and electric-bass). These are combined with a mixed vocal group of 2 sopranos, 4 altos and 2 tenors. Its libretto is made up of a collection of phonetically transcribed Irish and Scot Gaelic texts taken from an ancient Gaelic poetic tradition known as Sean Nós.[14] The piece contains a strong theatrical element. Performers are organised into spatialized groups, designed to blur the conventional distinctions between audience and performer spaces.


In Sinsearach Cainteoir, I am attempting to fuse elements of Irish traditional music with contemporary compositional practices and performance techniques. By engaging with my material directly and transparently, I hope to create a seamless and balanced synthesis of traditional and contemporary vocabularies, avoiding residual social or cultural stereotypes in the process. It is my intention that both the historical and contemporary are allowed to flourish, without one aesthetic dominating the other. This balance of aesthetic quantities is difficult to achieve. Move too far in one direction, and the traditional elements are subsumed into the language of the avant-garde and rendered ancillary or unintelligible. Move too far in the other direction and the piece becomes a form of pastiche or even worse, a parody of appropriated cultural stereotypes. I believe I achieve an aesthetic balance by maintain my allegiance solely to the depiction of my chosen poetic narrative. Ideally, the power of the Gaelic texts will be allowed to flow out of the performers, as if by some kind of ritual possession their ancestors were speaking through them. I believe the marked absence of ‘cultural translation’ makes the work exciting because the friction between traditional and contemporary languages remains present and tangible.


            I think the music from the following excerpt achieves this aesthetic balance. The vertical harmony is relaxed and the harmonic rhythm regular. The entire section takes place over a progression in D Mixolydian: [d - f# - c/g - g - d - c - g - e]. It is a diminution, (1:2) of the harmonic rhythm of the opening section, which precedes the entrance of the vocals. The diminution creates a subtle intensification of the music. I describe the effect as subtle, because the shift in harmonic rhythm is tempered by the global pandiatonism of the music. Interest here is generated mainly through orchestration and the interaction of independent rhythmic and melodic statements. Inflective glissandi are used in the vocal texture to enhance its melodic contour. A counter melody, that echoes the contour of the voices is introduced spatially in the flutes.


Excerpt 4a: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 3, page 67, measure 329 (voices & flutes)



The following excerpt (4b) displays an accompanying harmonized legato line shared by uilleann pipe and cellos, which colours the modal modulations underpinned by electric-basses. This line was more active during the opening sequence, but concedes the foreground to the vocalists at their entrance. A syncopated four-measure rhythmic motif is shared spatially by clarinets and violas. This is punctuated by two and one beat rhythmic statements at the end of each measure that are reinforced intermittently by the harp and natural harmonics in the electric bass.


            The rhythmic motif in clarinet and viola is a kind of expanded isorhythmic ostinato. The rhythmic component (or talea) is four measures in length and metrically fixed. It alters slightly every eight measures, where the sixteenth-note on the upbeat is pushed back one beat to incorporate a measure of 6/8, but it is metrically stable. The melodic component (or color) of the isorhythm is forty-eight notes in length, and based on two twenty-four-note melodic phrases, which begin with the same six notes: [g - a - e - a - d - c]. It was conceived initially as an eight-measure melody in 6/8. The color is not metrically fixed and with every measure of 5/8, the melodic content shifts backward against the rhythmic motif one position. It takes the entire formal section for the color to retreat half way through its entire sequence. The overt 6/8 phrasing of its motivic content, however, means the initial melodic sensibility of its phrasing is recycled every sixteen measures, or six melodic positions. This occurs three times in the section, at measures 299, 315 and 331. A similar and subtler relaxation in melodic tension occurs every eight measures or three melodic positions. Through this simple device, new melodic material is generated after every measure of 5/8, as the melody passes through its isorhythmic phase and its rhythmic articulation is altered.


The core rhythms of this passage are shared between electric bass and percussion. This part of the texture travels across the performance space due to the spatial configuration of the ensemble. The music in this section is not overtly complicated, but because of the exacting nature of the notated score, its parameters are strictly controlled. This leads to an interesting friction between the aesthetic of the raw musical material and the manner in which it is executed. I believe the passage exudes a kind of contained tribalism.


Excerpt 4b: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 3, page 67, measure 329 (partial ensemble)



The music of Sinsearach Cainteoir includes more overt uses of adopted musical vocabulary than the other pieces in this portfolio. This represents a creative departure for me. As my relationship to the texts of the libretto developed, I decided to introduce more recognizable elements of Irish traditional streams. During another passage in the 3rd Movement, the players perform a kind of composed jig. The principal melody of this section is invented, and transits through four autonomous themes that modulate modally. The first theme begins at measure 355 and occurs in E Dorian. The second theme modulates modally to G Ionian and contains two complementary statements that begin at measure 379 and 387. The fourth and fifth themes occur in A Aeolian and begin at measure 395 and 411. The following excerpt displays the fourth theme in A Aeolian. The texture of the accompanying instrumentation builds throughout, becoming more and more unorthodox. Here it involves the introduction of polymetric counter motifs. The style and presentation of the music is unmistakable, however, and I would consider this passage a form of musical adaptation.


Excerpt 5a: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 3, page 81, measure 427 (fl, cl, pipe & harp)



The principal melody is carried here by uilleann pipe and vibraphone; it is a four measure repeated refrain in duple time. This is harmonized in rhythmic unison by clarinet, which plays an altered retrograde of this melody. Throughout this section of the music, the flutes and clarinets, which trade the counter melody, also play sporadic bursts of sustained multiphonics. Harp and viola provide a rhythmically offset chordal accompaniment. In contrast to the strong rhythmic pulse of the principal melody, the cellos and electric basses perform a polymetric counter-melody that is phrased in 2/4 and 3/4, aligning with the principle melody every eight measures. This is done partly in preparation of a metric modulation from duple metre to triple metre that occurs in the following measures. The metric sequence of the cello and bass counter-melody is: [2/4 + 2/4 + 2/4 + 3/4 | 2/4 + 2/4 + 2/4 + 3/4 | 3/4 + 3/4]. The sustained tones of the cello and bass ground the more active melodic texture of the clarinets and uilleann pipe in a modal progression.


Excerpt 5b: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 3, page 81, measure 427 (vla, vlc, eb & perc)



During this formal section of the piece, the style of Irish tradition music is brought into the foreground and fused with contemporary compositional practices (polymetre and melodic retrograde) and with extended performance technique (multiphonics). Although many of its conventions have been subverted in this realisation, the fundamental rhythmic and melodic aspects of the Irish tradition remain. The setting of the music is carried out with respect and sincere affection for the material.


At a later stage in Sinsearach Cainteoir, (measure 469 to measure 486) there is a passage for solo uilleann pipe over very sparse accompaniment. The melody here goes even further toward musical adaptation. It is a realisation of an old Irish air, An Raibh Tú ag an gCarraig (Were You at the Rock?). I discovered the piece, while researching the uilleann pipe, in a recorded performance by legendary piper Seamus Ennis. I have never consciously used musical quotation in my work before, but had arrived at a point in my creative process, where nothing else would capture the mood I wished to express more completely. I chose to adapt the passage because it best served my intended dramatic narrative. The resulting melody is employed as an instrumental segue into the final movement of the piece. I believe it enters the realm of quotation.


The melody of the pipe takes place in a combination of D Mixolydian and D Dorian. The harmonic progression of the accompaniment in the following excerpt is:


 [(Domit3 - C Major/D) - (Csus4 - E Minor/B - Dsus4 - D Major) - (D Major - E7sus4)]


I tried to avoid conventional tertiary harmony, as I did not want to detract from the elegant modality of the pipe. The progression attempts to take subtle advantage of the pipes modal gestures. The rise to d in the second measure becomes the 9th of C Major. In the third measure, it performs a momentary plagal cadence in C before resolving to the third of E minor. Returning to D in the fourth measure, it rises from the Mixolydian 7th to the tonic, before performing another momentary plagal gesture in the fifth measure on E Minor. The relative repose of this harmonic realization is intended to allow the intrinsic qualities of the air to come forward.  


Excerpt 6: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 4, page 87, measure 455 (pipe & ensemble)



In working with the material of Sinsearach Cainteoir, I found myself balancing an objective reinterpretation of my adopted musical vocabulary with unconscious associations grown out of exposure to the poetry and tradition. I have attempted in the writing to maintain some inherent properties of the music, while altering their functional and expressive parameters. I believe a purely objective or critical approach to this work would have failed to capture the spirit that is so integral to the Irish tradition, while a purely subjective or sentimental approach would have failed to inject the language with any renewed energy. Both empathy and analysis were needed if the music was to speak in an original or compelling way.

The Integration of Diverse Stylistic Influences


The last piece we will discuss in relation to style is Authorization Codes, composed for orchestra. I believe this piece is a good demonstration of the thorough integration of musical influences that occurs in my work. Through the contemporaneous application of a variety of compositional techniques, the idiomatic vocabularies and stylistic characteristics that make up my eclectic listening history are submerged into a potent new aesthetic context.


In the following passage, taken from the Introduction of Authorization Codes, the musical texture incorporates a melodic scale of Middle Eastern origins. This is manipulated through a sequence of global modulations and a pronounced use of polymetric relationships. The harmonic and melodic content of excerpts 7a, 7b and 7c is derived entirely from intervals of the Double-harmonic scale,[1] a heptatonic scale consisting of: tonic, minor 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th and major 7th. Its interval sequence consists of: semitone, tri-semitone, semitone, whole tone, semitone, tri-semitone, and semitone. The scale is symmetrical and palindromic, displaying the identical interval sequence both forwards and backwards. The inclusion of two tri-semitones in the scale, (minor 2nd to major 3rd and minor 6th to major 7th) results in four potential leading tones, greatly enhancing the prospect for interesting harmonic resolutions. The scale also contains two tritones, occurring between the perfect 4th and major 7th degrees, and between the lowered 2nd and perfect 5th degrees. The remaining pitches form an augmented division of the octave: tonic - major 3rd - lowered 6th - octave, which is the natural resolution of the second tritone. These characteristics have a profound effect on melodic contour and the realization of vertical harmony, instilling the entire introduction with a distinct harmonic quality.


In the following excerpt of Authorization Codes, this collection of pitches is modulated harmonically down a third every three measures of 6/4 or 18 quarter-notes. The complete sequence of modulations is cyclical: A - F - D - B - G - E - C - A. The principal ascending melody is shared by two spatialized brass quintets, located at opposite sides of the orchestra. It is treated in the manner of mélodie de timbre or klangfarbenmelodie,[2] progressing through the registers of the brass sections, as it is passed back and forth across the body of the orchestra. It is composed as a transposing isorhythm 54 quarter-note-beats in length. The simultaneous use of the Double-harmonic scale and the modulating harmonic sequence represents the contrasting use of two distinct geographical idiomatic expressions. The simultaneous use of melodie de timbre and isorhythm in treating the melody represents the adoption of two distinct historical devices. I believe the integration of these diverse elements causes a modulation of musical space.


The isorhythm of the ascending brass melody contains twelve rhythmic values or talea and ten melodic intervals or color. The tenth color shares its place in the melodic sequence with the first color of the repetition; for the sake of clarity, I will describe the melodic component as having 9 colors. The rhythmic values are all multiples of an eighth-note, and may be expressed as a sequence of integers, which reflect the number of eighths-notes in each of the twelve rhythmic values, for instance: 2 = 2 eighth-notes or 1 quarter-note. The complete sequence of rhythmic values forms a palindrome: [(3-4-3-2) - (3-3-3-3) - (2-3-4-3)]. This sequence of rhythmic values is synchronous with the modulatory sequence, and begins again every three measures or 18 quarter-note beats. The nine colors of the melodic component ascend by alternating intervals of a step or half-step, and a leap of a third, or fourth, with the last three notes occurring in the trumpet staves. It takes nine measures of 6/4 or fifty-four quarter-note-beats to complete the isorhythm. Four repetitions of the melody are equal to three repetitions of the rhythmic pattern: [(4x9) = (3x12) = 54 beats or (9x6/4)]. During this period, the irregular phrasing of the ascending melody moves out of phase with the metric position of harmonic modulations, but its pitch content continues to conform to the changing vertical harmony through a manipulation of its pitch axis and a chromatic manipulation of its individual pitches. Its contour has been crafted to take advantage of its shifting relationship with the points of modulation.













Excerpt 7a: Authorization Codes - Introduction, page 3, measure 11 (brass sections 1 & 2)



In Excerpt 7a, the first three measures occur in A Double-harmonic; this modulates to F Double-harmonic in the fourth measure. The ‘b flat’ in the third measure of the tuba staff is a lowered 2nd in A and a perfect 4th in F; it rises to ‘c natural’ at the point of modulation, the perfect 5th of F. The ‘e’ in the third measure of the 1st trumpet staff is a perfect 5th in A and a major 7th in F. The relative continuity of these melodic trajectories with the vertical harmonic structure helps to bridge the points of modulation. The resulting harmonic language is unsettled, but cohesive. The music progresses in a decisive manner, moving relentlessly forward.


In addition the isorhythmic brass melody, there are two other layers of polymetric activity contained in the passage, which further blur the strict periodicity of the modulatory sequence. Firstly, in another part of the texture, violins 1a and 1b perform a repeated eight-beat ostinato. It is not a true ostinato, as its melodic content is altered at each point of modulation to conform to the pervading harmony, but the continued repetition of key features in its rhythm and contour promotes a similar effect. The ostinato is a sixteen-note melody, eight quarter-note-beats in length. It is played as succession of sixteenth-note couplets, which alternate asymmetrically between violins 1a and 1b every three beats. The melody contains a pronounced duple rhythm and is made up of two antecedent and consequent phrases. As its duration is eight quarter-notes, the point of the first modulation arrives on the fifth note of its third repetition, or the start of the consequent phrase. In order to maintain the contour of the melodic gesture over the point of modulation, the next sixteen-note ostinato begins on its consequent phrase. This increases the cohesion between areas of modulation and creates the illusion of a continuous melodic through-line. This cycle of antecedent and consequent phrasing is reset at the third point of modulation, or after six measures of 6/4. The part helps to bind the harmonic progression of passage together, while introducing a new layer of metric complexity.


Excerpt 7b: Authorization Codes - Introduction, page 3, measure 11 (violins 1a & 1b)



The final polymetric layer occurs in the low register. The entire section is underpinned by a modulating ground bass or repeating bass motif played in octaves by violoncello and contrabass and doubled by bassoon and contrabassoon. This is supported by timpani.  This motivic sequence is phrased over four measures of 6/4 or 24 quarter-notes beats, ending in a momentary cadential statement on the IV of the pervading vertical harmony. Its phrasing coincides with the modulatory sequence, and the ostinati of violins 1a and 1b every 12 measures of 6/4, or 72 quarter-note beats. This occurs only twice in the entire passage, at measure 23 and measure 35. Its metric phrase never coincides with the isorhythmic sequence of the brass instruments. The stabilising affect, and conventional role of the ground bass as a compositional device is subverted through its polymetric relationship to other aspects of the compositional texture. The idiosyncratic use of the ground bass motif, when combined with the ostinato like melody of the first violins could also be interpreted as another example of the concurrent application of two distinct historical or period devices. Certainly, their aesthetic or stylistic associations come from two very different musical spheres. Their combination here is purely unconscious and arrived at intuitively. They represent two very different approaches to the composition of two different registers of the musical texture.


To moderate the metric ‘disconnect’ that occurs between these principal areas of activity, second violin and viola form a kind of textural ‘bridge’ between the low strings and the ascending brass melody. At times, (measure 11-12 of Excerpt 7c) they reinforce the harmony and metre of the low winds and strings and at other times, (measure 13 of Excerpt 7c) they harmonise and reinforce the ascending brass melody with momentary cadential gestures: e.g. measure 13, Asus4 (add10) resolves to Bb major/D, the bII of A Double-harmonic. They create cohesion between independent elements of the texture, while enhancing the harmonic realisation of the modulating Double-harmonic scale.



Excerpt 7c: Authorization Codes - Introduction, page 3, measure 11 (vln 2, vla, vlc, & cb)



The ‘pseudo’ ground bass melody of the low winds and strings progresses in an interrupted sequence of descending third relations, shifting the modal axis of the modulatory sequence every measure. This melodic movement transects the harmonic modulatory sequence at the 1st, b6th, 4th scale degrees, imbuing the three measure harmonic rhythm of the modulatory sequence with more subtle shifts of modal colour. Every fourth measure, they perform a temporary cadential statement on the IV of the pervading vertical harmony. In measure 14 of Excerpt 7c, this occurs on Bb, the fourth degree of F Double-harmonic.


These two tiers of harmonic transformation are described in the following diagram. The numbers indicate the measure number of the music. The capitalised letters indicate the primary areas of harmonic modulation, which change every three measures. The (dh) stands for Double-harmonic, the pitch contents of the harmonic field. Small case letters indicate the modal transposition of the low strings, which shifts every measure. The (_) indicates an interrupted measure, where the low strings do not play the strong beat of the measure. The (*) indicates the shifting metric position of the temporary cadential statement on the IV of the pervading vertical harmony.







Diagram 2: Authorization Codes - Two Tier Modulatory Sequence

There is an abundance of compositional activity here. Techniques have been absorbed from many different spheres of my musical interest. Historical compositional techniques are combined with more contemporary approaches. Middle Eastern melodic aesthetics are harmonised and filtered through western style modulatory sequences. Aspects of compositional process are integrated with free composition. In short, diverse cultural, historical and geographical elements are fused together into a new aesthetic context, one in which their stereotypical associations are blurred or effaced and the possibility of new associations brought to bear.


In Closing


In this chapter we have explored various concepts of ‘style’ in music and identified elements of these in my work. We have discussed the influence of intuition in the development of personal style. We have explored my use of adopted idiomatic vocabulary and described the manipulation and transformation of musical legacies, through the application compositional techniques, and their integration into new dramatic contexts. In the process, we have alluded to the formation of a compositional language, which occurs when basic musical elements are deconstructed and recast through a directed aesthetic perspective.


[1] This scale has also been described as the ‘Byzantine scale’ or ‘Egyptian scale’. It is often used in Arabic music, where it is known as Shehnaz, a scale of the Hijaz family, a region of Western Saudi Arabia. Powers, Cameron, Arabic Musical Scales: Basic Maqam Notation (Boulder CO: GL Design, 2005). Pg. 10

[2] Mélodie de timbre (timbre melody) or klangfarbenmelodie (tone-colour-melody) both describe the sharing of a single melodic line between various instruments or instrument groups of the orchestra, as a means of altering its timbre or spectral content. I apply this technique often in the orchestration of Authorization Codes. Distinctions of timbre are subtler here, as the independent voices all belong to the same instrument class, the morphology of spectral content occurs nonetheless, as the melody is passed from individual player to individual player.

[1] Andriessen, Louis, The John Tusa Interviews: Transcript of the John Tusa’s Interview with Dutch Composer Louis Andriessen BBC Radio 3, 29/08/09

[2] Excerpt from the poem: To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest, with the Plough Burns, Robert, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock: John Wilson, 1786). Pg. 138

[3] Individuation is a term borrowed from Jungian psychology. It describes the development of the self, achieved by the resolution of conflicts arising at life’s transitional stages. I use it in this context to denote the evolution of an individualised aesthetic, by the filtering of experience through identification.

[4] Intuition is derived from the Greek word intueri, and may be loosely translated as: to look in.

[5] Many contemporary music genres (e.g. rock, r&b, rap) are a hybrid of multiple genres, (e.g. blues, country, gospel) which are themselves the result of the blending of cultural music traditions. (e.g. West African Yoruba, European Folk-Song etc...)

[6] Schnittke, Alfred, A Schnittke Reader: Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music, Alexander Ivashkin (ed.) John Goodliffe (trans.) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002). Pg. 89

[7] ‘Adopted language’ is my own term to describe ethnomusicological vocabularies. Schnittke’s actual terms for these stylistic elements are: ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ language, but I think given the ideological transposition, of most composers today, away from nationalistic identifications, has rendered these terms obsolete.

[8] Schnittke, Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music Alexander Ivashkin (ed.) John Goodliffe (trans.) Pg. 90

[9] The African origins of Pablo Picasso’s cubist figures are a salient example.

[10] Schnittke, Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music Alexander Ivashkin (ed.) John Goodliffe (trans.) Pg. 88

[11] Please refer to Appendix I for a more thorough explanation my 18-tone microtonal division of the octave.

[12] Dastgah means mode or pitch collection in Farsi, but it also describes the organisation of pieces around specific modes within the tradition.  Farhat, Hormoz, The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music (Camridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Pg. 19

[13] Maqamat means scales in Arabic. Powers, Arabic Musical Scales: Basic Maqam Notation Pg. 7

[14] Sean Nós translated literally means ‘Old Song’. It is a poetic and vocal tradition that was often used to mark important events in the life of early Gaelic communities: e.g. the passing of a loved one.

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