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I have created this site in order to provide performers, listeners and composers with a description of a composer's experiences with the creative process. The posts will provide discussions of the inspirations, challenges, and successes of a composer from the inception of the piece to the culmination in performance. I will provide a link to where you can see and hear the works in progress. Comments and questions are always welcomed. They will not posted unless you grant me permission.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Learning from Other Composers

Throughout music history, composers have always studied the works of other composers that came before them.  It is a great learning tool for further enhancing one's own style.

During the fall, I took a class in Poetry from Ann Metlay through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of Yavapai College. Ann gave us an assignment where she developed a questionnaire on how to analyze a poem that we liked and then take what we liked to create a poem of our own. I found this assignment very helpful and decided that it would work very well to help composers learn from other composers. Ann gave gave me permission to translate her questions for music composition.

I recently had an opportunity to try this assignment with my composition student Joshua Torok-Bachar. Josh has been studying with me for about three years and is a very talented eighteen year old composer. This semester, I am having him analyze a work by Stravinsky, a work by Copland, and a work by Bartok. He has completed the analysis of the Devil's Dance from Histoire Du Soldat of Stravinsky and then wrote is own composition, The Flight of the Wulzak based on what he learned. I was extremely pleased with the results and thought I would share them here (with Josh's permission). First is his analysis of the Stravinsky along with the questions he had to answer, followed by a youtube of a performance of the Devil's Dance.

Composition Analysis - Stravinsky Histoire du Soldat

1. What attracts me to the composition?
The frenetic energy. On a composition level, the harmonies seem to lie just on the borderline of unrecognizable, but stay enough within conventional harmony that I, as a listener, have a hard time labeling this piece as avant-garde or atonal. Most of the interest comes from the interplay of the rhythms and motivic material. Stravinsky expertly weaves these two musical components in ways that are unexpected and exciting, but still within ‘reason’ to keep the listener’s attention.  The contrasting mini-sections of the piece area good example of the way Stravinsky switches between his motivic ideas extremely quickly and abruptly, at points. However, he does usually include some sort of echo of the previous section early on in a new section to tie them together. 

2. What sections are most attractive?
The sections with the most note space between instruments. These sections also seem to hold much of the contrapuntal melodic lines and are extremely exciting and invigorating! The contrasting quiet sections are also very effective.

3. Tone and message of the music and how is that conveyed.
Frenzied and with a feeling of insanity, but with a good dose of humor. Stravinsky uses the humorous side of the music (conveyed with scattering of emphasized comical intervals, like seconds in a random place, by staying mostly in a major-sounding tonality, and through chromatic melodic runs over major tonalities) to avoid having the listener take the music too seriously. I believe he wanted the listener to feel as though all was lost but ‘you can’t help laughing about it.’ The ‘crazy’ nature of the music is conveyed through abrupt changes in thematic motives and abrupt/extreme register changes in instruments. The fast tempo of the music also adds to this frenzied feeling, along with the long strings of notes in motives, which gives a maniac, never-ending feel to the music.

4. Dominant harmonic language used.
Stravinsky combines the major and minor instances of the tone center/key (which changes often, but seems to resemble a combo of “G” major and minor with “A” major, along with chromatic notes). The tritone is quite prominent in one of the main themes and is often combined with notes that would form a diminished chord. Stravinsky also uses the natural and flat third of the tonal center “G” close together either together in harmony or very close in melodic sequences. This brings out the natural dissonance of a minor chord, accentuating the minor second dissonance of the overtone series.

5. Analyze the form of each movement or section.
The form as I perceive it: A, B, B’, A’, B’’, Fine
A opens with the characteristic accented 8ths and 16th patterns. The piece transitions quickly into B which introduces the quieter chromatic melody section. B also includes a quick interjection of the 16th motive of A. B continues with the staccato/legato chromatic melody and lets evolve before slipping into B’. B’ transforms the B motives and adds harmony. Harmony and melody line are both played by the violin. The section is much softer as well. A’ brings back a sparser version of A and expands the running 16th lines somewhat. A’ then crescendos into a neat transition to B’’, which is soft and uses transformed material from B and B’. B’’ is followed by the finale.

6. Instrumentation and how it contributes.
Piano, violin, clarinet.
-The piano plays a multitude of roles in this piece; melodic, supportive, rhythmic, and as a powerful ‘hit’ behind notes/chords that are heavily accented.
-The violin is often playing double stops and its single lines are often complimentary or contrapuntal to the clarinet’s. It also has some rhythmic functions. The violin really shines in the quiet sections where Stravinsky uses the naturally expressive and coloristic quality of strings to enhance the alternate color and contrast of the soft sections.
-The clarinet is the poignant, sarcastic, and insistent voice of the piece. Disregarding other instruments, it soars through extreme register changes at fortissimo. It does also play a supportive role, but most often its lines are the melodic lead in the ensemble.

7. Rhythmic devices used.
The most common devices I see used in the piece are fragmentation and combinations of rhythmic motives. Stravinsky also uses a technique in which he will place a part (usually syncopated) of a rhythmic motive in the context of a different meter. For example, in a 4/4 measure, 2 16ths, 8th tied to 8th, 8th tied to 8th, 8th. Stravinsky takes 3 quarters of this sequence and places in (8th to 8th, 8 to 8th, 8th) and places it in a 5/8 measure. The result is quarter note, quarter note, 8th.  At the top of page 3 Stravinsky also uses what could be considered a diminution of half of the main opening rhythmic motive.

8. Any extra-musical ideas used?
Well, the story behind this movement is that the soldier steals the violin from the devil and begins to play music that the devil MUST dance to. The movement seems to reflect the torment and teasing that the soldier inflicts on the devil. For example, the movement starts out very fast and insistent. It slows at some points, but never for long, and it always comes back with more force than ever. I think this symbolizes the soldier teasing the devil, making the devil think that he is going to stop playing, but then keeps on. The end also seems like both a release and the end of the devil’s energy. However, the music ends with a bang showing that the soldier ends the music with the upper hand.

9. What specific compositional devices are utilized?
It is quite difficult to keep track of everything going on in this piece! I see a lot of theme fragmentation and transposition. Stravinsky enjoys blending this with contrapuntal techniques to form a hail storm of music, so to speak. For example, the two major motives (accented 8ths ostinato, and arpeggiated 16ths followed by syncopated 8ths) are transposed and juxtaposed in contrapuntal styles. Stravinsky also likes to play with the roles of each instrument through these motives. In one instant the clarinet is playing the rolling 16th line up the scale, but then falls quickly to the background accented 8ths as the piano picks up the 16th sequence. In the quieter 8th note melody passages it would be reasonable to consider the sequences a melodic expansion of the accented 8th note ostinato.

10. Additional comments.
I think one of the most fascinating aspects of this work is its ability to seem both completely out of control and completely planned out at the same time. This seems to bepresent in much of Stravinsky’s music. He uses such a brilliant blend of harmonies, rhythms, and motivic development, while being ultra-conscious of how close he is getting to the edge of atonality. This ambiguity -- between tonal and non-tonal, standard rhythms and rhythmic surprises and oddities – is what keeps Stravinsky’s work fresh and utterly fascinating throughout.

Here is Josh's composition that uses flip pdf technology http://www.cooppress.net/flight_of_the_wulzak/flight_of_the_wulzak.html. You will be hearing an mp3 of sampled sounds playing the music and you will see the score at the same time. It uses Flash Player that most browsers come with and I have a mobile version that uses an embedded mp3 file. You will need to turn the pages by clicking on the arrows at the appropriate time.

If you would like to hear more of Josh's music, his web site is http://joshuabachar.com/.

As always, your comments are appreciated.

Dr. B