Attempts At Making Peace With The Past - "Alkan"

Back in 2013, I was through-composing all my music at the piano, and although conceptualism and process-based composition methods have intrigued me, I have not had enough bravery to construct a piece entirely by process. And so, when my friend Matthew Lee Knowles commissioned me to write a little string quartet based on a short fragment by Charles-Valentin Alkan, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to finally attempt this method of composition – and I have never looked back! 

Matthew’s own work, with its uncompromising conceptualism, have certainly played a major part in my decision. The fact that the fragment in question and Alkan’s music in general was not known to me was also important. I felt that my piece needs to somehow comment on the arbitrary nature of this commission and distance myself from the source material.

I began by thinking about the ways I could approach the fragment. I felt that there were two ways to do this – as a musical fragment or as a fragment of the score.

Every composed piece of music is burdened by its history and context. Every melodic and harmonic gesture in the fragment is infused with dramatic narrative. The questions of context and composer's intentions should be addressed by a conscious composer. Given that I had not been familiar with Alkan’s work and had no intention to research his output, I did not want to make any statement on Alkan's significance or his dramatic considerations in this particular piece. Therefore, in an attempt to distance myself from the contexts surrounding the fragment, I have decided to treat the Alkan source as a fragment of the score. 

I have analysed the score – by-product of musical composition, in a superficial, almost topographical way, and many intended musical factors became arbitrary. I no longer thought in terms of phrases or intended harmony, I thought in terms of bars and coinciding verticals at set points. The questions of context and the composer's intentions became irrelevant. The language of the original lost its meaning – the "words" (gestures, motifs) no longer represent anything, now they are combinations of sounds that can be perceived as is, without the burden of context.

The Process

I began with creating harmony. To do this, I have selected the first vertical in every bar (marked I-VI), ending up with a six-chord row.

The last two chords are identical, which gave me an idea to make another chord row – same as the original one, but without the final, repeated chord. Then I have looped the chord rows and pasted them on top of each other, resulting in a 30 (5x6) chord row which starts with identical chords in both 5- and 6-chord rows.

I used the retrograde of the resulting row as I wanted more complex chords in the beginning and simpler chords in the end of the piece.

I have assigned two numbers to every chord in the row – the number of pitches (total number of notes) and the number of pitch-classes (unique note names). I have used the number of pitches to determine the length of each chord (where 1 = crochet) and the dynamic of every chord (where 2 = ff and 8 = pppp – as quiet as possible).

Finally, I've arranged the chords for the string quartet, transposing the row down a semitone to allow for a greater number of open strings. 
I felt the resulting material was too short and lacking a clear connection to the original fragment, and so I have decided to add some melodic material.

I chose to treat every bar in each instrumental part as a single melodic cell. Therefore, I have 24 melodic cells (6 bars x 4 instruments). They are not transposed and therefore there is a more obvious contrast between them and the chords. The chords frame these melodic cells – the difference in texture and tonality further isolates every melodic cell from its original context.

I needed a process to align these melodic cells against the chords. I wasn't so keen on doing it intuitively, as there are too many combinations to consider and I wouldn't be satisfied unless I knew that the combination I have chosen is the best one. Doing it through a process could offer me an adequate and consistent solution and therefore, I've decided to play with the numbers assigned to each chord trying to make them add up to 24. 

Eventually, I have managed to get number 24 as a sum of differences between the maximum number of pitch-classes in the chords (4) and the current number of pitch-classes. Each difference indicates how many melodic cells will appear after every chord – this number ranges from 0 to 3.

When copying the melodic cells into my score, I have decided to stick to the left-to-right, top-to-bottom order – from bar 1 in violin I to bar 6 in cello. This allowed for the rhythmic and repetitive cello material in the end, which I felt would make a good conclusion for the piece.

Attempts At Making Peace With The Past - "Alkan" was premiered at the Stoke Newington Contemporary Music Festival on Saturday 2nd November 2013 by the Rumore Quartet.


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