One area of interest since 2000 has been in twisting harmonic implications in Bach - out of humble respect, of course! The idea stemmed initially from merely replacing certain chords with not-quite-randomly selected alternatives, but this has developed into a more-or-less functioning system of controlling the relationships and harmonic movement between any given chords, a bizarre circle of not-fifths, and the use of peculiar modes peculiar to each key. If you're interested in how and why, then read on...
The main substance of the following comes from a postgraduate work-in-progress seminar given at Bristol University in May 2001. Included are various examples in the form of scores which you can see and hear.
It outlines the purpose and method behind a harmonic system which I have been working on since early in 2000. This system has a particular set of parameters, and a framework with its own set of rules and methods. It is initially only a harmonic system. It does not dictate the generating of notes or melodies or textures or structures or anything else. It deals fundamentally with harmonic relationships. In this sense it is no more than a compositional tool, in the same way that serialism is a tool and not a style; but it is a tool which has helped me to develop an idiomatic harmonic language.
1) First Experiments in Twisting Harmonies
2) The Complete Circle of Anything-but-fifths
3) Modal Implications
4) Summary of General Characteristics & list of pieces
I wanted to write a piece for the University New Music Ensemble's forthcoming concert in 2000, something to do with Bach, it being 250 years since his death. I had come to realise by this stage that the kind of music I wanted to write was like Bach, harmonically tight and coherent, beautifully shaped, with interesting material and a single over-riding Affekt. It occurred to me that the best way of learning to imitate those attributes of Bach was initially simply to copy him, chord for chord, bar for bar, but somehow making a new piece from it. So I picked the Prelude and Fugue in Bb (book 1), which I had already analysed, and arranging it for electric harpsichord and 5 instruments, I simply started substituting chord implications as follows:
Various little bits of random and tenuous logic went into the choice of new chords (bear in mind that this was merely an experiment!) - a lydian scale would produce a legitimately sharpened fourth, so chord IV became E; the dominant couldn't be F, and F# was too related to E, so it became G; chord VI is above chord V, so Ab; the secondary dominant leads into the dominant, so F#; and so on...
Any perfect cadence now became G to Bb, and plagal is E to Bb, and so on. These harmonic implications were more-or-less lost, obviously, because I was using unrelated chords. However it was held together by the regularity of use of each of the main chords, and because when there was what was originally a perfect cadence, often texturally and materially the music comes to some kind of rest. So the natural shape was not lost - in fact the other musical parameters and the limited number of chords make it quite clear that there is a definite shape, and some form of harmonic coherence, even if the specific relationships are unclear. I realised that in order to make the harmonic relationships at all clear, I would have to set them up, make it clear to the listener in what way those chords are related, and how you are supposed to hear them.
So, at the start of the piece I wrote an introduction made up of IV V I progressions, VI V I, IV V, IV V, II V I, IV V I - setting out tonic, dominant and subdominant, submediant (relative minor), and the supertonic (secondary dominant). These are short audible phrases, with a clear chord progression in each, with differing and relative degrees of finality, of landing. To help define these relationships I used the melodic phrase of an English cadence. This gives a definite cadential feel to the G-Bb progressions, with its aug 4th suspension, and double resolution, first to the major 3rd, and then to the minor 3rd.
See and play the introduction (right-click this link & open it in a new window)
One of the distinguishing features of the tonic chord is that it is the only minor chord - all others are based on major triads. You will notice that the augmented 4th (the suspended note which acts as the 4th of the scale, by the way it resolves), this E is also the subdominant note and subdominant chord. Whenever there is a dominant seventh chord (G7), it is actually G6, where the E is the main voice - the most audible added note - which then resolves to the 3rds of the tonic (see the last note of the oboe in the first bar).
Look at the cello in bar 2 - I added weight to the cadential feel by means of the semitone drop on the beat to Bb (A#). In a classical V-I cadence, the 3rd of the dominant is the note that goes to the root of the tonic - eg: in F-Bb cadence, the note A would rise to Bb. In a similar way, it is the 3rd of the dominant chord (G - note B) which leads semitonally to the root of the tonic, and although this is downwards instead of upwards, it is emphasised by its position in the bar as a movement of importance. It also emphasises the G to Bb relationship.
So the basic chord relationships are set out here, by various means.
* by relative positions within a phrase or longer passage,
* by textural shape of those phrases,
* by various voice-leading techniques, which are designed to imitate as closely as possible the harmonic function/effect of the equivalent voice-leading in classical progressions (7th to 3rd + 3rd to 1st are the main features of a classical perfect cadence).
The lack of any classical cadences, and the very limited number of chords used, means that a hierarchy begins to establish itself - there is no V-I progression, and the strongest progression in terms of rhythmic position, texture and voice-leading, is the G-Bb cadence. It is the strongest progression, and it is also very frequent.
The main barrier to hearing this cadence as the strongest cadence is both in the need to overcome centuries of musical baggage and also the natural physical acoustic qualities of G7 to C cadence. The desired effect ultimately is to make the listener want and expect to hear the chord of Bb after a chord of G. I have partially achieved that in this piece. However, it is hard to be objective in assessing how well I have achieved this, because I have written several other pieces now which use and develop this system and these chord relationships, and as a result my ear is now prepared to hear these basic relationships, and to expect them. It is difficult for me to tell whether I only hear these chord relationships merely because I wrote them like that, or because they are acoustic realities.
This piece was started in Spring 2000 and finished in January 2001. The Prelude is this introduction plus a loosely copied version of the harmonic scheme in Bach's Prelude. The Sarabande is in the relative minor, harmonic structure and other material taken from a Sarabande in Gm from the 3rd English Suite. This went into Abm - the new relative minor of Bb. The fugue is also directly pinched chord implication for chord implication, and the melodic material is heavily derived from Bach's. I realise that this piece is open to attack for being so heavily derived from Bach's material. I might defend it by asking,"If you did not know beforehand, would you be able to guess how it was written or that it was 'influenced' by Bach? Could Bach ever have written this?" Answers on a postcard, please.
Continuing from the 8 chords in the Prelude, Sarabande & Fugue, I completed a circle of anything-but-fifths. To make things simpler I transposed the whole lot into C - so every piece written subsequent to the PSF has the same relationships but transposed (in the classical sense) into C. This means that every key has its own unique set of subdominant and dominant - no two keys have the same intervallic relationships. So theoretically, in the hands of a good composer, each key should be distinctly recognisable from the distances of its related chords.
I then took the fantastic theme of Bach's great Passacaglia in Cm, twisted it, and based a new organ piece on it.
Passacaglia themes (right-click this link & open it in a new window)
The theme is played 21 times, sometimes in its original key of C, and sometimes transposed to other keys - so you get the same chord pattern (I V, I IV etc.) but in a new key, and with the theme's melodic line as similar in shape to its original as possible. My aim in this piece was simply to get a sense of longer-term harmonic shape in terms of relative distance to the home key. It starts in C, then moves slightly away and comes back for variation 9, then further away, then back. The sense of distance is achieved by textural means as much as harmonic ones, but I think I did succeed in achieving a definite overall harmonic shape - a curve of harmonic stability to less stable to stable to even less stable, back to very stable.
In November 2000 I wrote a short piano piece, Fantasy V, which develops the modal implications of the chord relationships (in the keys of C, F# and A), and the qualities of each note in the scale of the tonic and their relation to notes in the scales of the subdominant and dominant of each key - playing with relative dissonance and multiple suspensions - working out the specific possible harmonic roles of any given note in each of the three scales.
C D E F# GA A# B C (Mode on C)
For example, note B in C can only act as a dominant 7th, falling to A# (the 3rd in F# - chord IV); G and A are always played together so that A doesn't sound like it needs to resolve - they are effectively one note in the mode; G+A therefore is 2nd in F#. etc. etc.
Fantasy V page1 with chord markings (right-click this link & open it in a new window)
In the Piano Trio/Quartet I did the same but on a much bigger scale - in every key. I tried to develop the melodic writing and use of suspensions between chords and voice-leading, in every key in this circle of anything-but-fifths. I also tried to develop much stronger harmonic pulls in every key, working out the best inversions of chords and the best added notes for specific effects, and for specific relationships. Every note's existence is justified by a specific harmonic function, and the melodic lines reflect the particular qualities of each note in each of the 12 modes.
Coherent, recognisable, tonal harmonic language - stylistically unified and idiomatic, but where the chord relationships are not classical ones.
All the harmonies are (should be) functional - they imitate the pull of classical progressions.
You can control harmonic tension and phrasing at a local level.
Relatively pleasant noise - only a limited set of added notes work in any given context.
There are no colouring notes - all have harmonic function.
Somewhat limited ability to modulate suddenly to a large distance away, as the distance isn't necessarily recognisable by the harmony alone. Instead it lends itself to gradual movement through keys.
Each key area has its own peculiar flavour, given the unique chord relationships in each key.
There are modal implications of each key area, which are yet to be explored thoroughly.
Achieving large-scale harmonic tension is perhaps the next main goal.
Prelude, Sarabande & Fugue (completed after Fantasy V)
Passacaglia in C
The Voice that breathed o'er Eden
3 Sliced Mice
Jesus said "I AM"
Nuts & Bolts
I will raise him up at the last day