The Application of Form and Structure in my Music
‘Form and content are of the same nature and amenable to the same analysis. Content derives its reality from its structure, and what is called ‘form’ is the ‘structuring’ of local structures, which are the content.’
Claude Lévi-Strauss, excerpt from L’Homme Nu
A Reinterpretation of Structuralist Perceptions
Claude Lévi-Strauss was one of the foremost anthropologists of the 20th Century and a central figure in the structuralist school of thought. Structuralism attempts to identify the patterns of thought that underlie human endeavour. In this quotation, he is concerned with hierarchies of social organisation, which lead to the creation of individual and cultural identity. Its implications, however, on sound composition are significant, as the organising principles underlying a piece of music may be understood as being a microcosm of the process he describes.
This quotation was adopted previously by Pierre Boulez, for the introduction to a lecture on Form delivered at Darmstadt in 1960. At the time Boulez was composing Structures II, (1961) a work composed for two pianos, in which he applied the techniques of integral serialism as a means of abolishing external musical references from his work. I believe these pieces also represent the dissolution of internal formal distinctions. This aesthetic approach is echoed in other works of the period, and was part of a pervading trend in European Modernism, which Karlheinz Stockhausen described as ‘moment form’. Claude Lévi-Strauss understood form as being, ‘defined by opposition to material other that itself’. His observations as to the nature of ‘form’ and ‘structure’ influenced modernist thought, and encouraged the dismantling of internal structural hierarchies, in order to achieve a perceived ‘democratisation’ of musical elements. This is evinced in the continuous juxtaposition of opposing musical structures, which results in the suppression of musical continuity through structural imitation or variation. My own artistic intentions run counter to the aesthetic of ‘moment form’. Retaining a variation in the tempo and intensity of structural morphology is of primary concern to me. My works contain large areas of sustained structural cohesion or stasis; these are interrupted with areas of heightened dislocation. I believe this variation gives my music increased psychological and physiological dimension. The insights offered by Claude Lévi-Strauss into the nature of structural and formal levels of transformation are compelling, however, and their correspondence with musical architecture is irrefutable. Perhaps a reinterpretation of their potential application in regards to music composition would be of value.
Later in the text of Mythologique Volume IV, in response to criticisms of his equating content with structure, Lévi-Strauss makes this observation: ‘It can be readily admitted that every structure has a genesis, provided we also recognise that each anterior state of a structure is itself a structure’. This would imply that musical language exists in an abstract hierarchy, in which ascending levels of organisation qualify those below through a process of expanding context; as music expands in time, the listener’s understanding of its ‘content’ is shaped through ascending hierarchical levels of contextualisation. Change at the structural level is perceived as partial transformation: the alteration or requalification of existing structures. Change at the formal level is perceived as complete transformation: the introduction of opposing material.
Music is a subjective medium, and its ‘meaning’ is largely a construct of the listener, and is thus open to interpretation, but the tempo and intensity of change in music modulates the urgency of its communication. If music intends to communicate, there must exist some kind of coherence in the hierarchy between content and form, or the music becomes irrational and its communication is obscured. This may well have been the intention of ‘moment form’: a radical reconstitution of the relationship between form and meaning. I, on the other hand, am not interested in overthrowing the innate syntax of musical language, but only in adopting these observations to further my ability to communicate using the abstract medium of sound. My interest lies in generating and sustaining attention, by increasing the psychological and physiological investment of the listener. By controlling the tempo and intensity of structural transformation, one controls the dynamics of a musical experience.
Form and Structure: A Dichotomy of Active Listening
Form and structure are two terms that carry great potential significance in the analysis of sound composition. To their detriment however, many composers employ them without any real distinction. In this thesis, for the purposes of clarity, I will introduce a dichotomy of function on these terms; one that I believe facilitates precise musical analysis and better illustrates the listener’s actual experience when attempting to navigate an extended passage of musical architecture. Herein, form and structure will inhabit two opposing poles of the listener’s interaction with organised sound. ‘Form’ will describe transformation at the macro level of perception: relationships between large scale independent sections of musical narrative, their scale, their dramatic purpose, their distinguishing harmonic and textural features, and their placement in the global topography of the piece. ‘Structure’ will describe transformation at micro levels of perception: the inner-dynamic of the musical material, its motivic, rhythmic and harmonic content, and its contrasting and corresponding aspects. It is understood that structures are often a conglomerate of constituent parts and may be further subdivided into ‘substructures’ or ‘cells’, which lay at the most elemental level of the listener’s awareness, and are the building-blocks of musical content.
When used in correspondence, these terms are an effective tool, not only in understanding the artistic intentions of the composer, but in describing the phenomenology of active listening, which exists simultaneously on many levels of a perceptual continuum between the momentary acquisition of aural stimulation and the assimilation and formation of musical meaning. These poles of active listening are linked deterministically, however, and their relationship is relative. Structural elements or ‘cells’ are modified, combined and reiterated to create larger structures that are arranged into formal relationships. As the temporal scale of a composition increases, the listener’s subjective understanding becomes more comprehensive, but this understanding continues to be permeated by changes at the structural and cellular levels.
The Influence of Song-forms in my Compositions
Establishing hierarchical distinctions between formal, structural and cellular levels of the material is particularly relevant in analysing the pieces in this portfolio because their organisation relies to a great extent on the application of ‘expanded song-forms’. I propose this term as a general description of any large-scale, non-developmental composition, which takes advantage of the discrete formal relationships found in conventional ‘song-forms’ as a means of organising its material. The basis for conventional song-forms is largely poetic in origin, and the formal organisation of material is governed by poetic conventions that dictate the function and arrangement of these events in the service of a dramatic narrative. In conventional song-forms, this syntax comes to be understood by anyone inducted into the tradition. Expanded song-forms, however, while taking advantage of the functionality and dramatic potential of this modular construction, do not adhere to any particular convention. Expanded song-forms may enjoy myriad possible configurations, including many autonomous sections, each composed of inter-related discrete sub-sections, rendering the underlying musical form very complex. It then becomes useful to define at which level of perception the intended object of the analysis is operating.
With the dissolution of a priori compositional conventions, which governed the formal arrangement of extended works of European art-music before the 20th Century, contemporary musical forms have largely become a posteriori. Compositional form is no longer self evident, but comes to be understood through the listening experience. A composition’s form is unique unto itself, and its design is linked to the internal characteristics of its chosen sound material. In my case, this sound material is vernacular in origin, deriving largely from traditional music streams. It seems relevant then, that I should explore the formal possibilities of traditional song-forms in the creation of large-scale contemporary works.
The earliest documented secular song-forms in Europe are found in the lyric poetry of the medieval troubadours of Occitania, a cultural region in the south of France. It is the evolution of this genre that most influences my compositional practice. Some scholars have connected the troubadour themes of love and honour with similar themes found in the lyric poetry of the Classical Greco-Roman era. Others have suggested that similarities in form and subject indicate the influence of Sufi sacred song traditions, perhaps through contact with the Islamic culture of neighbouring Andalusia. Through generations, the passing on of songs has always been an oral tradition, with each new exponent of the art encouraged to interpret the material. While this makes the transmission and dissemination of song features between cultures highly plausible, it makes tracking the progress with any level of certainty very difficult. Suffice to say, the practice of song writing is surely as old as civilization itself, its essential feature being a fusion of musical and poetic aesthetic considerations.
Compositional Aspects of Expanded Song-form
In adopting the concept of ‘expanded song-form’ as my organising principle, I am able to distinguish my music from other models of non-developmental composition, by introducing a rationale for the organization of formal events. Unlike open-forms or polyvalent forms, which allow for the internal restructuring of events by a conductor or performer, or moment forms, which disregard the necessity of a sustained developmental curve, my compositional practice is predicated on the establishment of single or multiple narrative through-line(s). Each formal section of the music is invested with a specific dramatic function in relation to these. This function is qualified by its placement in the over-all chronology of the piece. The concept of musical trajectory is implicit in the writing; form gives meaning to content. Unlike other modular forms, in which change is a more controlled process, occurring incrementally through alterations at the cellular level, in my work, change occurs dynamically. It may be realised gradually through the transformation of existing structures, and/or suddenly through the introduction of contrasting material at the formal level. The compositional landscape is varied; with each shift in context, the listeners’ understanding of their surroundings is challenged. Throughout the realisation of a work, I am intrinsically aware of a desire to take the listener on a journey. Change is relative, but it exists within the parameters of perception. There is opportunity for identification of large-scale formal events and there is mimesis between these. As the piece comes to an end, I hope to convey, not a sense of conclusion, but of arrival.
Many composers of the 20th Century have used related non-developmental models as an affective method of organising large-scale compositional works. Perhaps the most influential is Igor Stravinsky. His use of ‘segregated’ formal sections as a narrative device is well known and perhaps most convincing in his early dance suites: L'Oiseau de feu (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913). In this period, Stravinsky was strongly influenced by the vernacular and he transformed his source material in a very transparent way, primarily through motivic manipulation and re-contextualisation. The adaptation of his musical thinking towards the production of theatre and dance performance was prescient, and these forms became ideal vehicles for his compositional language. It meant he could rely on the dramaturgy of his chosen mythos to formally organise his material, concentrating his creative efforts on the realisation of its internal conflict. The form of Le Sacre du Printemps is pseudo-programmatic, in that the tableaux, which make up its two movements, are each invested with vivid titles portraying the ritual acts the music intends to invoke. In a work of varying complexion, Stravinsky’s use of ‘motivic development’ becomes a principal means of creating a unified aesthetic. This compositional technique features prominently in my own works, and is discussed later in this chapter as recurrence at the structural level.
Another composer to successfully employ ‘segregated’ or ‘modular’ forms was Oliver Messiaen. An example of ‘episodic form’ can be found in his Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps (1941). The compositional narrative progresses in a non-developmental manner through a sequence of eight autonomous, self-referencing tableaux. Each formal division of the music expands the narrative context, questioning and qualifying the material of the other tableaux through contrasts in harmonic and rhythmic language. The music is heterogeneous in nature and dramatic tension is created through the juxtaposition of contrasting languages. The same ‘conflict of styles’ is evident in Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948). The interpolation of disparate elements is pursued more vigorously here, as Messiaen introduces four ‘cyclical themes’ that reoccur throughout the piece in different guises. The autonomy of the material and the manipulation of formal contrast are very evident. The ‘cyclical themes’ continue to reassert themselves as the piece progresses through ten independent movements, each invested with a title alluding to the intended meaning of its content. These kinds of ‘extra-musical’ associations permeate my own musical thinking. If the piece is based on a libretto, features of the music will come to symbolise aspects of the text, but even within instrumental forms, I have found the transmigration of poetic or literary symbolism be a powerful creative impetus in the construction of music language.
The long history and ubiquitous presence of songs in the development and communication of culture leads me to surmise there is something in their scale and construction that is essentially human. The influence of these formal models can be found throughout the historical development of European art music, but influences can also be felt in the vocabulary of many other time based artistic disciplines: e.g. theatre, dance, cinema. I use the term ‘expanded song-form’ in regards to my work, because it best illustrates my musical thinking during the compositional process. By acknowledging the influence of song-forms, I am able to access a stock of dedicated terms, which I use to qualify the internal dynamic relationships between discrete musical events. Many of these are well established in the domain of popular music: e.g. verse, chorus, bridge, reprise. Some of these terms come out of European religious music: e.g. prelude, interlude and postlude. Some are shared with other time based art disciplines: e.g. introduction, transition and dissolve. To this collection, I add other designations of function, which are perhaps less well known, but that have similarly evolved from this mode of thinking.
The rest of this chapter will be devoted to exploring core aspects of the expanded song-form method. Often, this will include the analysis of distinctive compositional features. The dedicated nature of song-forms means that each formal section of the music performs a specific function in relation to the global architecture of the piece. These dedicated functions are achieved largely through the manipulation of compositional elements. A ‘chorus’ behaves like a chorus because of key aspects in its design, change these and its syntactic purpose is altered. Form and function are connected and thus will be discussed in relation to each other.
1. Break Down: An abrupt suspension of play intended to feature key timbral
elements of the ensemble.
2. Lift: A transitional passage of increased harmonic and rhythmic activity that builds
in momentum towards a cadence or chorus.
3. Plateau: A protracted passage of static musical material that maintains its stability
through a balance of opposing musical forces.
4. Suspension: A cyclical and contained progression that delays movement towards an
5. Vamp: A self-contained, harmonically sparse, repeating musical figure, rich in
rhythmic activity and open in melodic variation.
6. Transition: A shorter transitory passage of music, containing one fixed idea, which
joins or separates two larger formal sections.
Implications of Recurrence at the Formal Level
An important characteristic of expanded song-form is the use of interrupted and varied repetition. At the formal level, this is known as a ‘reprise’. Because of the intrinsic nature of a reprise, its familiarity to the listener tends to encourage a relaxation of dramatic subtext, but this is not necessarily the case. In this portfolio, each reprise is treated with some level of musical transformation, either through the alteration of pre-existing structural elements, the omission of pre-existing structural elements or the introduction of new complexity. Through the manipulation of musical aspects like timbre, tempo, texture and harmony, a reprise can be imbued with new signification, and the listener’s semantic understanding of it altered. The ‘essential identity’ of the recurring musical passage is retained, however. This is important, because apart from any material transformation, a reprise also undergoes a ‘poetic’ or ‘syntactic’ transformation through its submersion into and re-emergence out of the compositional narrative.
The proposition of ‘poetic transformation’ is contingent on a belief that compositions carry a latent structural syntax, or at least that the mind in the absence of a physical dimension, places distinctions of significance on key passages of the music in an attempt to align itself with the auditory experience. Different minds may place different distinctions depending on personal experience, but general distinctions can be the shared property of many listeners. I consider the recurrence of established passages of music as a dynamic process. Our subjective understanding of a reprise may be fundamentally altered due to circumstantial changes in our relationship to the musical narrative, and to the proximity of new musical events, which colour our perception of it.
Implications of Recurrence at the Structural Level
We have been discussing at the implications of recurrence at the formal level of the music, but interrupted and varied repetition also takes place at the structural level of a composition. This is a migration of identifiable or related local structures from one formal section to another. These reoccurring structures can be drawn from any independent aspect of the music: motivic, rhythmic, or timbral. Recurrence at the structural level may be used to foster compositional cohesion between formal sections by alluding to an atmosphere introduced earlier in the piece. By their incorporation into different surroundings, recurring elements or ‘echoes’ may be imbued with new musical meaning. The dislocation of local structures becomes even more potent if there is a pronounced contextual contrast between the sections involved. I describe these ‘echoes’ as being atavistic in nature. I use the term ‘atavistic’ because these recurring structures are not connected through conventional musical development and are often separated by large passages of unrelated material. Although their external character may be dramatically alter by changes in musical context, on an interior or ‘genetic’ level, they continue to carry innate structural attributes that strongly relate them. Examples of recurrence at the formal and structural levels of the music will be explored in the following two case studies.
Sphèrós (The Sphere): A Study of Form
The first piece of the portfolio we will discuss in its entirety is Sphèrós, composed for spatialized choir and electronics. Its formal design may be described as ‘episodic’ as it consists of a series of seven tableaux, derived from a division of the libretto into distinct fragments. Each tableau explores a complete and unified musical statement, except for the final tableau, which is a restatement of the first. There is no dominant thematic material traversing the piece; instead the narrative is constructed via a succession of conditional episodes that lead the audience in stages through an expanding context. There are harmonic, rhythmic and stylistic correspondences between tableaux, but these are atavistic and not connected via conventional musical development. Sphèrós is a segregated narrative. Each tableau is autonomous and self-referencing, qualifying the music that preceded it, while presenting a distinctive shift in musical context.
In the formal organization of Sphèrós, an attempt has been made to impose a defined structure of assimilation onto the listener. The tableaux are all contrived to last a specific duration between 60 and 120 seconds; they each present one unified and contained musical idea. As they pass into one another, a moment of transition is created, the aural perspective shifts and the listener is able to place an aesthetic value on the tableau that has passed. These thoughts colour the listener’s impression of next tableau, before it in turn is integrated and understood in the following transition. With each transition, the experiential context of Sphèrós grows. The reprise of Tableau A at the end of the piece is intended to allow the listener an opportunity to assimilate and consider the entire piece as a gestalt.
There are subtle changes of tempo that occur between the tableaux in Sphèrós. Three closely related tempos have been chosen with sensitivity to discovering the most natural possible execution of the vocal parts in each. They are: 112, 104 and 108 bpm respectively. In performance, changes of tempo are strictly dictated by the pulse of the accompanying soundtrack, to which the choirs are bound. These tempos play a defining role in the formal organization of the piece. By controlling the tempo and the number of quarter-notes in each tableau, it is possible to determine its exact duration. For Sphèrós, the temporal relationship between tableaux is a key aspect of its formal design. When considered as a whole, their proportions generate a sequence of strict durational ratios accurate to the quarter-note. By dividing the piece into 15-second units of time, a sequence of ratios, based on the duration of each formal section, is created. This can then be reduced to a series of single digit integers, which takes the form of a palindrome. This palindrome is a numeric expression of the compositional form of Sphèrós, and may be understood as a formal temporal reduction of the piece: 7 – 5 – 4 – 8 – 4 – 5 – 7.
Diagram 5: Sphèrós - Temporal Reduction of Form
Illustration of Recurrence at the Formal Level
Sphèrós may be understood as being circular in form; it begins and ends with the same formal material. The reprise at the end of the piece is instilled with new subjective significance, through alterations in its structure and through changes in narrative context. New complexity is introduced in the accompanying soundtrack through rhythmic embellishments in the percussion and the addition of a bass motif. The bass motif is particularly significant as it transforms the static harmonic field of the opening section by introducing a cadential harmonic progression: (I-bVII)-(bVII-vi)-(V-IV-I). This progression encourages a sensation of forward movement by recycling the harmonic rhythm of the reprise. The following excerpt displays the last four measures of the bass motif where the cadential gesture is made.
Excerpt 12: Sphèrós - Tableau G, page 59, measure 185 (ambient soundtrack)
A change in the spatialization of the vocal material is also introduced in the reprise. The individual parts are nearly identical to the opening section, but they occur as a mirror image, Choir 1 and 2 exchanging roles. Although the actual vocal material is altered very little, the perspective of the audience is altered dramatically through the physical relocation of sounds in the performance space, thus allowing new details of the vocal texture to be revealed to them. The audience’s syntactic relationship to material has also changed, and so, perhaps, has its designated significance. The relative repose in the harmonic rhythm of the reprise compared to the formal section that precedes it has an easing effect on the listener. There is an awareness of a return to earlier material, followed by an anticipation of the vocal expansion. The gesture is no longer a drive towards uncertainty, but a drive towards resolution. This resolution is fulfilled in the final cadence at the end of the piece.
Illustration of Recurrence at the Structural Level
Although the tableaux are considered as a succession of autonomous episodes, recurring local structures or ‘echoes’ can be identified between them. The opening soprano statement and principal melodic gesture of Tableau B is echoed in a contrapuntal melody introduced in the soprano voices in Tableau D. The motivic symmetry of the two passages is clear. Even their initial vertical implications on the pervading harmony are similar: a chord tone that raises a step to become an extension that resolves again. Their roles in the musical narrative are quite different, however.
Excerpt 13: Sphèrós - Tableau B, page 10, measure 36 (soprano voice)
The melodic passage from Tableau B (Excerpt 9) dominates the upper tessitura. In a sparse rhythmic context, it commands the strong beat of the measure, and carries the role of principal melody, or 1st person narrative. The held ‘d’ represents a compound major 9th of a pervading C7/F; its resolution to C major in the third measure is disrupted in the final measure, where ‘c’ becomes the major 9th of Bb(#11)/D. The heightened vertical tension of its relationship to the core harmony in the final measure, places the motif firmly in the foreground of the musical narrative, and instils it with a sense of uncertainty.
Excerpt 14: Sphèrós - Tableau D, page 27, measure 85 (soprano voice)
In contrast, a closely related melodic passage from Tableau D (Excerpt 10) carries a passive or supportive role, ceding the foreground to a more active descending melody in the altos, which is doubled at the octave by the sopranos in measure 96. The held ‘e’ represents a compound major 7th of a pervading F(sus4). This resolves relatively to a compound 9th of C7/G upon descending back to ‘d’, where it enters a consonant vertical relationship with the bass voices. This shared movement between soprano and bass voices is repeated in the following measure with its decent to ‘c’. The motif’s rhythmic and harmonic conformity with the bass voices diminishes its impact on the narrative. This, combined with the relative ease of its melodic contour, and the octave re-enforcement of the more active descending alto melody introduced in measure 96, displaces the motif to the middle ground of the vocal texture, where it performs a supporting role.
Sinsearach Cainteoir (Ancient Voices): A Study of Form
Sinsearach Cainteoir, composed for uilleann pipe, spatialized voices and chamber ensemble is a large-scale multi-movement work, and the largest piece in the portfolio, at 27 minutes in length. It is a meditation on the fundamental human emotions of love and loss, and attempts, through a synthesis of lyrical and musical poetics to portray the ‘five stages of grief’ as related by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death And Dying. According to the Kübler-Ross model, when presented with reality of our impending death, or with the sudden loss of a loved one, human beings experience (in varying forms and degrees) five stages of grief, through which they come to terms with tragedy. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventual acceptance. These philosophical states are visited through various stages of the piece, and their conductivity explored through compositional the language.
The underlying formal design of Sinsearach Cainteoir is much freer than that of Sphèrós, but the inter-relationships of its discrete formal sections are much more intricate, making it a good case-study for the dramatic narrative potential of ‘expanded song-forms’. As with Sphèrós, the rationale for its design is derived from the autonomous setting of text fragments, but these are punctuated by extended passages of instrumental music. At times, instrumental passages function as ‘introductions’; at times they act as musical ‘interludes’ and at times they perform the role of instrumental ‘expositions’ of the narrative. The piece is highly programmatic, and its form is so intrinsically linked with the content of its libretto that aspects of text will be discussed here in relation to their influence on form.
The libretto for Sinsearach Cainteoir is made up of poetic fragments taken from the Irish and Scots Gaelic vocal tradition of Sean Nós or ‘Old Song’. The fragments have been assembled from various ‘songs of lament’. Collectively, they tell the story of a young woman torn apart by the death of her lover due to drowning. Texts have been chosen for their expressive narrative power and for their capacity to portray the conflicting range of emotions arising from the loss of a loved one as related in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s ‘five stages of grief’.
Sinsearach Cainteoir is made up of four continuous movements, whose prevailing atmospheres resonate with the poetic overtones of their specific texts. The piece flows out in a sinuous musical line through an internal landscape of irrational and contradictory emotions, which reflect the volatility of human experience in the face of tragedy. There is a formal symmetry of scale that operates between the movements, but a separate symmetry of scale that operates between the sub-sections of each movement, whose internal organization differs greatly from one another. The following paragraph discusses the key narratives features of each movement; this is followed by a two-page diagram of the entire composition, outlining its formal structure and indicating the compositional devices employed in its organisation.
Movement 1 explores the stages of ‘anger’ and ‘bargaining’, which I understand as a longing to change that, which is unchangeable. From the shadowed textures of its prelude, Movement 1 proceeds in one smooth dramatic arc, building steadily in harmonic and rhythmic intensity, as the torment of the libretto is revealed. This protracted period of crescendo leads to the emphatic refrain of the chorus, in which the protagonist espouses a wish to follow her lover in death, ‘Oh he, I would go with thee; shoheen shoho you are mine’.
In contrast to the through composition of the first movement, Movement 2 is composed of many smaller recurring sub-sections, and behaves largely in the way conventional song-forms behave, using formal contrast, and varied repetition to relate the confliction of two opposing emotions arising contemporaneously from an acute experience of loss. The verses portray ‘denial’ through the adoption of romantic nostalgia, ‘My dearest love, the day I spotted you, my eye was fascinated’. The intimate confessions of the verses are bound by choruses portraying ‘depression’; these are marked by the continued re-iteration of the phrase, ‘Ochon, ochon sochono’. Adopted from the Sean Nós keening tradition, the phrase is a cry of sorrow, and is meant to convey a deeply felt sadness at the loss of a departed.
The form of Movement 3 differs again; it is built on two self-contained extended instrumental passages, described in Diagram 2 as a plateau and a vamp. The harmonic stasis of the plateau is intended to evoke a suspension of time, the limbo experienced by one in mourning. It reflects the paradoxical nature of its chosen text, which contains some of the most visceral and yet detached imagery of the entire libretto, ‘Great is my love of your curly hair, which I see far off floating on the sea. You are lying in the seaweed, where the high tide has cast you’. The vamp portrays a kind of ritualised dream sequence, in which the two lovers are temporarily reunited. The music here comes out of Irish dance forms; it is expressive and vital. But the sanctity of the illusion is subverted in the following lift, as the principal modal melody of the vamp (in a duple metre) is injected into a driving, and highly chromatic polyphonic texture in triple metre. The irrational rhythms, modulating harmonic sequence and colliding melodic gestures of this section reveal the stark intrusion of reality.
Movement 4 opens with a passage played by uilleann pipe. Its mood is subdued and plaintive. This point in the piece may be understood in theatrical terms as the anagnorisis, the moment in which the grief stricken faces the immutable truth of her lover’s death and accepts it. At this stage, the music becomes more abstract, as it attempts to explore the nature of ‘acceptance’. There is a varied return of the initial thematic material, marking the passage of time. The exposition of the text is sombre, but reverential, ‘May the Sun and Moon bless you, from East and West my beloved.’ The balanced rhythms and solemn tone of the verse and choruses allude to an act of ritualized mourning. The piece ends in a postlude, containing closing melodic statements in tenor whistle and flutes. Its atmosphere is less severe, suggesting a return of hope.
The following diagram is a detailed outline of the formal arrangement of Sinsearach Cainteoir. Each formal setting of the libretto is qualified by one of the emotional states found in the Kübler-Ross model. Instrumental passages are qualified by prominent compositional features. Movement between formal sections of the material is often achieved through various transitional devices. These include: retard, metric modulation, metric shift, rhythmic modulation, change of texture or spatialization and/or contrast of harmonic language. Two of these terms in particular may warrant further qualification.
1. Metric Shift: A shift in the position of accented beats in a measure of compound
metre: e.g. 7/8 [(2+2) + 3] becomes [3 + (2+2)]
2. Rhythmic Modulation: A change in the subdivision of accented beats in a measure,
through the introduction of tuplets: e.g. 4/4 [1+1+1+1+] becomes [1++1++1++1++]
The challenge of analysing this kind of compositional form comes out of the need to indentify formal sections through their narrative function. To accomplish this, I have adopted several terms from diverse pedagogies. Some are widely known and their identity will be clear to nearly everyone. Others are more idiosyncratic, and these have been defined earlier in this chapter. Some of these terms may appear anachronistic, but they have been chosen because they most accurately describe the nature of the material contained in the section, and its function in relation to the material of other sections, and to the broader compositional arc.
Diagram 6: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Analysis of Form
Illustration of Recurrence at the Formal Level
The influence of the libretto, and the adoption of expanded song-form in the construction of Sinsearach Cainteoir result in a great deal of interrupted formal recurrence in the piece. With each re-statement of formal material, changes are made to its structural components to alter or enhance its generative atmosphere. Changes in orchestration between recurring sections can be easily identified by navigating through the piece using the chart above.
At times, the musical setting is altered in order to modify the character of a section. This is true of Verse 2 in the second movement. The orchestration of Verse 1a and 1b is quite stark. The vocal line is underpinned by an intermittent figure of three rising sixteenth-notes played in octaves by the electric basses, harp and pizzicato strings. A counter melody to the vocals is performed on tenor whistle, but the resulting texture is dry and percussive. (Please refer to the score.) For the restatement of this material in Verse 2, only the harp part remains unchanged. The vocal melody is raised a fifth, and its melodic content altered. The pizzicato strings are replaced with a supporting bowed legato line in the violas. The original counter-melody of the tenor whistle has disappeared. The whistle now plays its first two notes in rhythmic unison with the harp, and then harmonizes the melody of the viola with sustained tones. A new counter-melody appears in the electric-bass, replacing the more static figure found in the 1st verse. This repeating motif is far more active and harmonically leading. The overall momentum of the section is greatly enhanced. The stark atmosphere of the 1st verse has been replaced by a more fluid and evolving passage of music.
Excerpt 15: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 2, page 47, measure 226 (accompaniment)
At other times in Sinsearach Cainteoir changes to the musical setting serve to reinforce the character a passage, heightening its intended emotional communication. This is true of the extended second chorus in Movement 2. (see Excerpt 12a and 12b) Much of the core instrumentation in Chorus 2 remains unchanged, but many new compositional elements are added. At measure 261, a rhythmically deconstructed counter-melody is introduced in the flutes. This is accomplished, by abstracting specific notes of the melody and redistributing them between the two instruments, so that the original melody becomes the shared domain of flute 1 and 2. The practical advantage of this deconstructive technique is that extended passages of uninterrupted melody can be played with relative ease, and without taxing the individual performers. The aesthetic advantage is that the introduced space, or silences significantly alter the effect of the melody, reducing its emphasis and placing it into the background of the overall compositional texture. It becomes more ambient. This result is enhanced further by the spatial dislocation of the players, who stand at opposite ends of the concert space.
Excerpt 16a: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 2, page 67, measure 267 (voices & winds)
A second counter-melody appears in the clarinets at measure 267. This is also treated spatially. Its metric placement, rhythmic regularity and relative conformity with the existing vertical harmony also place it inside the overall musical texture. Its appearance is accompanied by a third counter-melody in the tenor voices, which uses the areas of melodic repose in principle melody to introduce of a kind of ‘call and response’ relationship between male and female voices. Its impact on the music is more emphatic, raising the emotional level of the repeating chorus gesture.
Concurrently with the entrance of the flutes in measure 261, a transposing sequence of quarter-note octaves, rising in stepwise motion, is introduced in the vibraphones. (see Excerpt 12b) It is also shared spatially, but the periodicity of the exchange is much more relaxed occurring every two measures. It begins in a very consonant relationship with the bass progression, accenting the tonic and sixth at the beginning of each measure. This relationship becomes more complex with the entrance of the clarinets and tenor voices at measure 267, where it begins to transpose against the descending cliché line of the bass, starting the measure on the 9th, 4th, 5th and 7th before modulating down a fifth to start on the 4th of A. It returns to tonic in measure 277, with the cessation of activity in the clarinets and voices and a general easing of the overall musical texture. The predictive nature of the harmonic progression in this section is balanced, I think, by the richness of the musical texture.
Excerpt 16b: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 2, page 55, m. 267 (cello, bass & vibes)
The duration of the 2nd Chorus is noticeably expanded. Its descending bass progression, in cellos and basses, is allowed to travel from [a - g# - g - f#] and further through [f - e - d - c# - c - b] where it begins again at ‘a’ eventually descending to a resolution in ‘d’. The instrumentation here is stripped down to its essential components in preparation of a metric modulation into the next formal section. The expansion of the chorus through varied repetition and the introduction of the textural embellishments we have discussed are intended solely to increase the urgency of the chorus gesture and thus amplify the plaintive cry of the libretto. The function of the chorus, to ground the contrasting musical imagery of the section into one emphatic statement, is never altered.
A lot of care has been taken in the composition of Sinsearach Cainteoir in choosing which aspect of the orchestration will undergo change and to what effect. Each paired instrument in the ensemble is manipulated according to its idiomatic features and intrinsic timbral qualities. I have tried to utilize the unconventional collection of instruments found in this piece, in the service of the libretto, to create interesting timbral amalgams. In addition to the compositional devices at work in the piece, (primarily rhythmic, harmonic and stylistic modulation) it is within the orchestration of Sinsearach Cainteoir that the contrasts between formal sections are executed.
In considering the global formal organization of this work, I believe the success of the piece in this regard hinges largely on the variety that occurs in the duration and proximity of formal transformation. In each of the four movements, the functionality and organization of the inner sections is treated differently. In Movement 1, the adaption of the song-form principle is used to create one long dramatic arc that culminates in the final chorus. There is no interrupted repetition here. The entire passage moves episodically, through a changing musical architecture, towards its point of climax. In contrast, Movement 2 includes many areas of varied and interrupted repetition. Its material recycled often. It is a complex song-form nested within the larger context of the piece. Movement 3 exploits an entirely different range of organizational devices, drawn from diverse song-form traditions, as a means of sustaining interest. In this movement, the piece reverts back to an episodic (or non repetitive) event sequence. The intensity of harmonic change relaxes and a heightened rhythmic vitality enters into the music. In Movement 4, the form turns once more towards varied and interrupted repetition. The vocalists perform a kind of choral chant, (Chorus 1 and 2) which is transposed and the voice parts embellished and rearranged in the restatement. To further blur the lines of formal distinction between movements, material from the Movement 1 is reintroduced here, (Reprise 1 and 2) and employed as extended instrumental passages between the more harmonically dense vocal materials. During the reprise of Theme 1 and 2 harmonic and melodic embellishments are introduced in the woodwinds and strings, and a counter-melody is introduced in the uilleann pipe, but the most substantive change occurs in the rhythm section, which performs a driving triplet rhythm in a varying duple and triple metre. Again this alters the original moods of Theme 1 and 2 greatly. By grounding them in a strong rhythmic pulse, they are infused with a more forceful and directed manner. The surrounding context also encourages this interpretation.
The sheer variety of song-form devices at work in this piece, with their inherent or associated narrative properties, means that musical phenomena like: harmonic rhythm, textural density, dynamics are in continuous flux. By exploiting the organizational properties of conventional song-forms, and utilizing them in an unconventional way, I believe, in Sinsearach Cainteoir that I have discovered an approach to the creation of large-scale works that is in direct correspondence with my compositional method.
Illustration of Recurrence at the Structural Level
The cross-pollination of local structures between autonomous formal sections of the music is evident in the score of Sinsearach Cainteoir. Within the piece, the role of the uilleann pipe/whistle player is of considerable interest in relation to the construction of multiple musical narratives. It is conceived as an individual thread or interior monologue, which progresses in parallel with, but independent of the ‘omniscient’ or general narrative of the composition. It behaves like a stream of consciousness voice, reacting to and commenting on the more coordinating writing of the instrumental ensembles. The resurgence of atavistic traits in the composition of the uilleann pipe is employed to encourage the surfacing of a coherent and ‘individual’ voice. This next motivic gesture is so ubiquitous, it may almost be described as an idée fixe, except that it undergoes a great deal of contextual alteration throughout the piece and is not intended to signify a symbolic association or underlying theme, but simply an alternative or interior perspective. The emotive qualities of the echoes are altered by their infusion into a variety of dramatic contexts. The following excerpts are taken from the uilleann pipe staff of three different formal sections of Sinsearach Cainteoir. They highlight a shared motivic gesture: a syncopated rising stepwise melody articulated by leaps of a 4th or 5th. Though the ‘identity’ of the passage is clearly discernible in each example, its character is altered by the surrounding musical context.
Excerpt 17: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 1, page 51, measure 148 (soprano whistle)
In excerpt 13, the surrounding musical texture is dense and very active. The underlying harmonic rhythm is also highly unstable, with the key centre modulating every measure. The first three notes of the melody are played in rhythmic unison with flutes and clarinets. The melody of the second measure travels in oblique motion against their sustained tones. This passage is performed on a soprano whistle and should sound like a cry for help in the midst of a howling wind.
The atmosphere of the music in the following excerpt is much more ambiguous. The underlying harmonic field of the section is much more stable, underpinned by a highly rhythmic motif in the low register of the clarinets and a legato passage of shifting modal references in the cellos. This passage is performed on the uilleann pipe, and is clearly placed in the foreground of the music. It has shed its undertone of desperation. The melody is distinguished by its heightened expression, as compared with the surrounding musical texture, which betrays mechanistic or ‘automated’ tendencies.
Excerpt 18: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 3, page 63, measure 305 (uilleann pipe)
The passage in excerpt 15 is also performed on uilleann pipe, but the pervading harmony and surrounding melodic voices are much more active. The pipe now performs a counter-melody to a continuous melodic line played in octaves by clarinet and viola. There is greater implied exertion in the part, as the instrumentalist works to make their place in a highly charged musical texture.
Excerpt 19: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 4, page 103, measure 525 (uilleann pipe)
I have described the use of musical echoes in specific reference to the role of the uilleann pipe in the development of multiple musical narratives. Examples of a more general cross-pollination of local structures can also be found throughout the score of Sinsearach Cainteoir. The following motivic gesture is particularly significant, as it recurs often and variations of it are performed by nearly every instrument in the score. It consists of three notes ascending swiftly by leap of a 5th to a sustained 9th. Its character can change radically, depending on changes in its physical attributes, (e.g. timbre, tempo, register) and of course changes in the attributes of its surrounding context, (e.g. harmonic field, rhythmic activity and textural density). Three statements of the motif are discussed below, in relation to these aspects and their narrative role. These examples are followed by two more abstract permutations of the motif that have arisen intuitively through a prolonged exposure to the material.
Excerpt 20: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 1, page 26, measure 134 (flute 1 & 2)
This is the first definitive statement of the ascending motif, followed directly by a rhythmic and melodic variation. The staggered melody is performed at double forte by 1st and 2ndflutes and is later harmonised in rhythmic unison by 1st and 2nd clarinets, and soprano whistle, which embellishes the sustained tones through oblique motion. The motif and its varied re-statements firmly occupy the foreground of the texture. The flutes and clarinets are metrically offset to take advantage of their spatialization. The pervading harmony is highly unstable; the sustained ‘f sharp’ begins as the dominant 7th of G#(11)/B in measure 134 and becomes the 11th of C#(7,b5)/E in measure 135. The tempo of the music is high, and accelerates through the section from dotted quarter-note equals 70 bpm to dotted quarter-note equals 80 bpm. This advance in tempo, combined with the loud dynamic level of the music, the syncopated attack of the accompanying rhythms and the dislocation of the modulatory sequence results in a highly unsettling passage of music.
The atmosphere for the second statement of the ascending motif lies in marked contrast to the first. (see Excerpt 17) The motif is performed by concert harp; this is doubled at the octave below by violas and cellos playing in pizzicato and at two octaves below by electric bass. The timbral amalgam of plucked strings is percussive, but carries a softened formant. The tessitura and quick decay of this instrumentation helps to place the motif into the middle ground of the music, where it serves to harmonically underpin the spatialized canonic statements of the voices. Although the ensuing harmonic progression incorporates chromatic modulations, it develops in a more cohesive manner than the previous section. The harmonic texture is transparent and homophonic, there is a clear distinction between voices and accompaniment. The dynamic level of the performance is much quieter. The tempo of the music has relaxed to quarter-note equals 60 bpm and remains steady throughout. These conditions result in a much more intimate and effortless portrayal of the motif.
Excerpt 21: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 2, page 40, measure 191 (harp)
The third statement of the ascending motif appears in the following excerpt in 2nd Cello, interspersed with melodic and rhythmic variations in 1st Cello. These passages are doubled at the octave above by violas and harmonised in compound intervals by alto flutes. The resulting timbral amalgam is softened yet again. Its tempo is moderate at quarter-note equals 90 bpm, and the rhythm of the motif has been altered to sound in sympathy with the accompanying percussion. The motif no longer functions as a lead line; instead, it is submerged into a much denser texture, underpinned by a modulating sequence of sustained tones in the lowest register of the electric-bass. Through alterations in context, it now plays a supporting role. Its sustained tones fill out the vertical harmony, while the ascending three-note figure acts as an acquiescent counter-melody to the principle melody in the voices. The prevailing mood of the music is more shrouded than in the previous sections, a kind of ritualised sorrow.
Excerpt 22: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 4, page 97, measure 504 (cellos)
The final two excerpts contain further abstractions of the original ascending motif, which have entered into the compositional language intuitively through extended exposure to the piece. In Excerpt 19, a related gesture, a three-point division of the octave appears as a melodic embellishment of Theme 1 in the flutes. It is a very transparent sound, and serves to heighten the rhythmic activity of the melody, without threatening its austerity by the importation of added melodic information.
Excerpt 23: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 1, page 6, measure 21 (flute)
Excerpt 20 may be understood as a superimposition of the motif upon itself resulting in a four-note gesture of ascending perfect 5ths. It is a melodic embellishment of the bass accompaniment. Although the melodic motion is disjunct, its ascent in 5ths again encourages a transparent quality. It is a means of intensifying the rhythm and register of the part without detracting harmonically from other aspects of the texture. The sonority of stacked 5ths is a central feature in the orchestration of Sinsearach Cainteoir and can be found in various permutations throughout the piece. The motivic examples discussed herein may be understood as surface features of a deeper underlying harmonic sensibility.
Excerpt 24: Sinsearach Cainteoir - Movement 4, page 67, measure 329 (e. bass)
In this chapter, I have attempted to explain some of the idiosyncrasies of my approach to the formal realisation of large-scale compositions. I have compared aspects of my formal design in relation to the influence of traditional song-forms, and in relation to the practices of other artist working within the broader context of non-developmental composition. I have described the use recurrence at the formal and structural levels of the music, and analysed the forms of two of my compositions in regards to these concepts. In the process, I have made allusions to other creative concepts, e.g. modulation, transition, compositional texture. In the following chapter, we will explore these concepts more thoroughly, as a means of introducing more detailed analysis of my compositional language.