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Instrumental composition: Verflochtene Tänze

Author tanders
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I just sent a piece for potential corrections etc. to performing musicians. This is a piece for a campanula -- a variant of the cello with resonance strings -- and accordion. It is somewhat demanding rhythmically, still awaiting their feedback.

The performance is thus only a mockup so far and far from perfect.

Synfire was very helpful for me during the composition process for creating an initial version of the piece, where I could focus more on higher-level aspects, and leave details to the software. I used a custom catalogue and custom palettes designed for certain non-diatonic scales. All rhythms/figures were drawn by hand, and the final result was manually revised. 

Feedback is welcome!




Tue, 2023-12-05 - 11:01 Permalink

Interesting work. Thanks for sharing. A lot of work went into it.

As I don't know anything about this style of music, I can't really judge it or give any advice. I can only say what I hear and experience subjectively. I listened to it on headphones while reading on my tablet and again today at work. It wasn't easy to find access at first. Listening to it several times then made it more clear.

I hear many pleasant resonances and beautiful timbres and combinations. It is completely unpredictable for me. If there are patterns, I didn't notice them (but I wasn't looking for them either). It has a bit of an ASMR feel to it. I like it best from about 40% runtime.

Since I'm not familiar with this style, I'm pretty sure I missed a lot of subtleties. For me the dissonances are organic and make sense throughout. There are works by Arvo Pärt where your brain is squeezed out by the tension and dissonance. Not here. I find it consistently pleasant and almost meditative. Partly like film music.

However, I didn't feel much association with dance. For that, it lacks clearly recognizable repetitive patterns (or my notion of dance is too limited). I rather thought of lucid dreams.

What I am particularly pleased about is the broad range of what can be prototyped with Synfire. I know from many other users personally that they compose for stage, small ensembles, theater and film.

I am curious to see how this piece will sound when it is played by musicians.

Tue, 2023-12-05 - 20:17 Permalink

I think one can clearly hear where you learned your craft. Good work in that respect. 

Tue, 2023-12-05 - 22:33 Permalink

Thanks a lot for taking the time to listen to my music and to respond.

> this style of music
Well, I think it is contemporary classical music, which is a very broad category, but generally music for a concert performance. Intentionally, I tried to make this music reasonably approachable, without obviously imitating any existing style.

> What I am particularly pleased about is the broad range of what can be prototyped with Synfire.
I like trying to "engineer" my own musical "styles", in large parts consciously, but not fully of course. I consider Synfire very helpful for those interested in "engineering" their own harmonic language (as long as this harmonic language can be organised in chords and scales -- by contrast, it does not work, e.g., for spectral music or dodacaphonic music). I really like the generality of Synfire in allowing users to define their own catalogues and palettes. And once some foundation is there in terms of catalogues and palettes, the easy UI allows to explore the resulting harmonic world by ear and to bring it to live with figures. Beyond that, I feel Synfire also helps us to keep an overview over relatively complex/long and hierachically organised forms.

> If there are patterns, I didn't notice them
In case you actually want to know, the piece is formally organised in a nested ABA form (i.e. the A part is itself in ABA form etc.), but between these main sections, there are transitions that get longer and longer during the course of the piece, so that in a way the transitions become more dominant than the main parts.

On the motivic/cell level, their are two main rhythmic motifs. The most important rhythmic motif is just long-short-long expressed in 5 pulses (e.g., 1/8, 1/16, 1/8).

> I didn't feel much association with dance. For that, it lacks clearly recognizable repetitive patterns
Yeah, indeed ;-)  The repetitive patterns are actually there, but there are usually 2 and often more of them with different accent structures layered, and then their accent structures are also not as repetitive as in a standard dance, but they are twisted, getting longer and shorter -- the dances are "verflochten" (interwoven/braided). WIth the title I try to point the audience to the interlaced rhythmic structure, and also try to persuade the musicians not to take it too seriously, to perform it somewhat lightly.  

Anyway, I am open to alternative title suggestions -- I consider this all still a version open to revisions.

> I think one can clearly hear where you learned your craft.
Oh! I am curious as to what influences you hear here ;-)  

Anyway, this book helped considerably for this piece.

>  For me the dissonances are organic and make sense throughout.
For the chord progressions I often used some guidelines I generalised from what Schoenberg shares in his very conservative Harmony textbook (he is only explaining it for plain triads there). If you are interested, this strategy could be implemented as a custom colour-coding of palettes. Happy to share more details.

> There are works by Arvo Pärt where your brain is squeezed out by the tension and dissonance. Not here.
Oops. I am flattered to be favourably compared with Pärt, who I consider a master. I don't feel I am quite there yet. For example, I feel his forms are more strict than this piece, but still very expressive.

Anyway, in terms of harmony/counterpoint there is indeed a principal difference between this piece and Pärt's style, which you directly point to. In Pärt's music, the dissonances are the result of counterpoint (his tintinnabuli rules): some voices are going in stepwise motion "against" some voices that quasi arpeggiate some plain triad. By contrast, the dissonances in the piece here are "baked into" the underlying harmony: it is based on chord progressions consisting of more dissonant chords over non-diatonic scales (which are related to the wholetone scale, and then the piece modulates from one such scale to another, while Pärt's music tends to be more static in terms of key or even chord).

If you really want to dive further into such details, I can share an analysis that makes explict the formal structure and the underlying harmony (chords and scales).

> I am curious to see how this piece will sound when it is played by musicians.
Yep, me to!! I really hope the rhythmical difficulties are managable.

Again, thanks for taking the time to listen and to respond! 

Wed, 2023-12-06 - 09:16 Permalink

Thanks for the insights. I wish I had more time to follow my creative curiosity.

My first contact with Arvo Pärt was through his ECM album "Arbos". The ECM label as a whole is a great source of inspiration.

The range of styles in contemporary classical music is vast (the term is a contradiction in itself, btw). I like John Adams very much, for example. But as a listener I'm more on the emotional "take me on a ride" side. Nested structures and systems don't become obvious to me, unless they are up front and emphasized with distinct forms, instruments and tone colors (in other words: contrast). The analytic part of my brain is not very active when I listen to music. That is why I pointed out that I am not familiar with this style.

I think the biggest challenge with making music is to face an unsuspecting, unprepared listener, because as a composer you are unable to experience your own work in that way, ever. If you don't have a reliable systematic method to prepare and engage an audience (anticipation, build-up, etc), it will be hard to win over people on the sidelines that aren't part of the small circle that is "always prepared" anyway.

Wed, 2023-12-06 - 21:52 Permalink

Oh! I am curious as to what influences you hear here ;-) 

I agree that you don't imitate an existing style (but rather you are trying to deliberately avoid that), but a few associations still come to mind. For example this:

But of course your piece is much more rhythmic (obviously, it is "dances" after all) and also more clearly structured and less sharp in terms of dissonance, almost traditional. And yes, I can definitively hear the motif :)

Ligeti's "Hungarian Rock" (which is sometimes performed on accordion too) also comes to mind: 

Fri, 2023-12-08 - 00:49 Permalink

Thanks again for taking the time to respond, and apologies for the delay. I hope this response is not too long.

I agree with many of your views. For example, analysis or systems are not really relevant for me as an end in themselves. My musical preferences depend a lot on my emotional connections.

However, I am also highly interested in studying compositions as a craftsman -- trying to understand how certain styles or specific pieces "are made" -- in the hope that this understanding will improve my own compositional ability or my understanding of music in general, even if such improvements are only small increments and never reach a final goal. I assume any algorithmic composition software designer feels like that at least to some extend. More easy early steps can be modelling fundamental rules of harmony and counterpoint (where an important goal is just reaching some smoothness), while understanding how a compositional form develops over time such that it keeps the audience engaged is more tricky. As you say, the latter is about playing with expectations and anticipation, so it is (more) difficult to find reusable strategies for that.

I also agree that contrast plays an important part in structuring music (and the longer a piece the stronger and more varied contrast is needed). Indeed, during later revisions of this piece I explicitly increased the contrast between certain sections. On the other hand, Schoenberg's ideal that a piece should be deduced from a single musical idea (e.g., motif) rubbed off considerably on me. I do not really agree with the rather extreme view on this he expresses in his writings (everything in a piece should be based on a single idea), but I do agree that having only a few main ideas -- which are then varied in many ways and slightly or strongly transformed -- helps to reach some consistency that better blends contrasting parts together, and which I believe also helps the audience to better follow a piece. (BTW: I consider Schoenberg -- through his multiple books -- as my most important composition teacher for laying a foundation.) Anyway, getting the right balance between consistency and contrast is tricky, and I hope I can still improve over time in that regard.

> I think the biggest challenge with making music is to face an unsuspecting, unprepared listener
I think this issue is multi-layered. For example, some music a written to perform a clear function, e.g., dance music. Dance music should of course also appeal it audience, but it also must not distract from its function. So, good dance music must be relatively predictable both on its micro and macro scale, or it does not really "work". On the other end of this spectrum is music written for a concert audience, which pays close attention to the music over a relatively long time span: for this context the music must be much less predictable to "work". And then there is certainly room between these extremes (e.g., ambient music for a chillout room).

Anyway, beyond such very rough categories I don't feel I am well able to second-guess my potential audience. I feel such second guessing is what, say, studios try to do in judging the marketablity of certain music, or what film composers have to do so that their music not only serves the film and is agreed by the director, but also by the producer and reaches the final audience. These different parties can have clearly contrasting views (as examples in film music history show), which is why film studios actually test this before releases, because this can all be so unpredictable.

For my current music, I don't really feel the need to maximise the audience that might like my pieces. In fact, I think I would prefer having some smaller audience that really likes my compositions instead of having a larger audience that find it just reasonably agreeable. In this situation, I think it is actually suitable to focus on pleasing the only audience I really know, i.e. myself.

Nevertheless, I actually do try to avoid writing music for a specialist audience only. For example, I consciously try to "construct" my musical language based upon time-tested compositional principles, which I then expand or somewhat bend. For example, I may try to understand certain psychoacoustical principles underlying some traditional compositional approaches, and then expand or develop these approaches such that they are not directly following the tradition, but still play with the psychoacoustical principles. I could provide concrete examples (e.g., playing with durational accents -- common in Western music, but also empirically proven -- and then re-using that notion with Karnatic rhythmic techniques, which is also a whole system of time-tested compositional techniques), but this response is already pretty long, sorry.

BTW, I also did test performances of this mockup in front of family members, who usually enjoy very different musical styles ;-)  Also, I try to treat my performing musicians as quasi my reviewers, and I already did change the piece in multiple ways based on their feedback.

>> Oh! I am curious as to what influences you hear here ;-) 
> a few associations still come to mind, for example Wolfgang von Schweinitz' Plainsound String Quartet "Holy Howl" and Ligeti's Hungarian Rock

Wow, I would not have expected that you would feel this piece is connected to these influences (e.g., there is not a trace of JI harmony in this piece that is so important for Schweinitz' compositions). Anyway, I can easily agree that you are absolutely right that these two composers were/are a very important influence on me.

I feel very privileged that I could study with Wolfgang von Schweinitz for a few years. I did study with rather many composers, but none impressed me that much. I just felt he was sooo way above my league, because of his very sharp ear, his great musical curiosity, open-mindedness and very wide knowledge, and his compositional dedication and determination leading to very personal results. In the end, I spend most of my time with him studying Schoenberg's writings, discussing my results to Schoenberg's exercises, and reflecting on various compositional topics in general. I rarely showed him any actual composition of mine (I just felt too inadequate), but he fully respected and supported that I wanted to focus first on improving my traditional technique. Rather shortly after that time, he composed "KLANG auf Schön Berg La Monte Young" (), which is an adaptation of some chord progression Schoenberg wrote for one of this textbooks. Von Schweinitz never said so to me, but perhaps our one-on-one classes impacted him a bit too.

I could share a few anecdotes of my time with von Schweinitz, but I think the most important lesson is what he tried to explicitly pry out of his students: develop your own preferences! (Note that this rather contradicts the notion of maximising your audience, which we discussed above.) While studying with von Schweinitz, I also started to dive into algorithmic composition, and this activity soon took over and was my main focus for very many years. I assune now partly it was a way to improve my compositional technique on a more abstract level, but partly it was also a way to deal with writer's block. (David Cope discusses the impact on writer's block on his journey into algorithmic composition elsewhere.) 

Anyway, it took me rather long, but meanwhile algorithmic composition is "just" a day-job for me, but my main goal is back to the advice I received from Wolfgang, developing my own compositional preferences. This actually does include expanding harmony with fresh microtonal material, which I plan to compose -- with Synfire -- in my next piece (focussing on just septimal harmony, though, instead of the high limits Wolfgang employs, but the 7-limit harmony world is already pretty large).

You might know that von Schweinitz had studied with Ligeti, and he sometimes shared advice by quoting Ligeti. For example, you may know that writing for harp has some unique challenges. Von Schweinitz told us that Ligeti could explain that (paraphrasing): Essentially, this is very simple. The harp can play the seven tones of the C major scale, and when the 7 pedals you can either raise or lower each of these tones by a semitone.

For me personally, Ligeti is indeed the most important composer of his generation. For example, I admire how composition technique and music perception are linked in what he does. I feel he developed his musical language of a certain period by perceptually very drastically changing one musical parameter that had relatively rarely been developed in Western music history: texture. We have only very few different musical textures traditionally (mainly monophony, polyphony, homorhythmic/choral texture, melody + accompaniment and combinations of these). Ligeti added something new to this small set (micro polyphony), and he did it in a rather traditional way (a dense contrapuntual net).

Sorry for such a long message. I think I should just stop here.