Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Benedict" Break-Down: A Closer Look at My Egg-Inspired Invention

"Benedict" is the third movement of my Egg Suite for solo piano.

Here's the piece's description from the Egg Suite music book's preface:
'III. We’re skipping past sunny-side-up and plunging into poached territory. A difficult dish [Eggs Benedict], requiring patience and precision, brought to my mind the poise, regality, and even snobbishness of royalty. Let’s call him King Benedict. A quasi-invention, built off of a subject which begins with “E, G#, G#,” seems to capture the stately nature of the king.'
As mentioned (well, alluded to) in that blurb, "Benedict" is a Bach-like, baroque style invention of sorts. Basically, that means it features a main musical idea (subject), a complementary idea (countersubject), and imitative counterpoint to develop those subject and countersubject motives.

And that's what you can find in this piece! Furthermore, in terms of form, I structured it basically as an A-B-A' form: It contains an Exposition (Section A), Development (Section B), and a Recapitulation (A'). More on that later.

So, let's take a look at the piece, in excruciating detail. (Brace yourselves... ) Here we go!

Note: For all images, click them to enlarge.

The Exposition (Section A)

To kick off the thing, I (for obvious reasons) had to begin with the E-G-G motif (technically E-G#-G#). This first chunk of the subject (a) has a straightforward rhythm: three pairs of slur-staccato eighth notes. To break up that pattern, I injected some syncopation into the melody, as seen in (b).

Figure 1: The Subject (a + b)

This second chunk adds rhythmic interest in a couple ways: it includes smaller (i.e. quicker) note values—sixteenth notes, and each of its smaller rhythmic cells (1/16th, 1/16th, 1/8th, 1/8th) adds up to 1 and 1/2 beats. Since this is the case, a succession of these rhythmic cells effectively alternates which part of the beat gets the sixteenth notes. Yay, syncopation!

Side-by-side, I really liked how these two chunks (a) and (b) played off of each other. So, that meant I had a Subject (Figure 1) which I was happy with! Happy enough to write a whole invention... which brings us to the Countersubject:

The Countersubject, shown below with blue labels, enters while the subject is repeated in the lower voice.

Figure 2: The Countersubject (c + d)

As I did with the subject, I will break the countersubject into two chunks, for analysis' sake: (c) and (d).

(c) spans a wide interval (a nice contrast to the small thirds and seconds happening in the subject), and contains a longer note value—the dotted quarter note (a nice rhythmic contrast to the shorter eighth-note rhythms in the subject)

(d) includes some sixteenth notes, which I liked because that allowed for the subject and countersubject to connect on some sixteenth-note rhythms from time to time. For example, on the fourth beat of Figure 2's first measure.

As you can see, coming up with an effective countersubject often has to do with contrast, playing off of what is happening in the subject. In general, when there are quicker, shorter rhythms happening in the subject, I tried to use slower, longer rhythms in the countersubject. That way, when the two happen simultaneously, the two voices are distinct from each other, and each can be clearly picked out, aurally-speaking, by the listener.

Now that the subject and countersubject have been stated, we continue by expanding on the motives to build on the exposition. Again, I'm keeping in mind the contrasts we established earlier—so I'm sure to pair subject material with countersubject material. In this exposition section, you can see that the motivic material isn't always perfectly imitated. For example, the leap of (c') is sometimes a 5th, other times a 6th. What is usually maintained is the overall shape and rhythm of the motives.

Figure 3: Exposition continues with imitation.

From there, let's skip ahead a little bit, to measure 13.

By this point in the piece, I have modulated to B major (hence the A#'s). This is a 5th higher than the original E major. Also happening here, labeled in green in Figure 4, is the addition of a third voice. Since there's already so much going on with the subject and countersubject, I made sure to keep (e) comparatively simple (i.e. less busy): quarter notes and half notes.

Figure 4: Subject and Countersubject transposed up a fifth (Key of B Major), with new, third voice (e)

You'll notice in these examples that the subject doesn't always occur in the higher voice (right hand), and the countersubject doesn't always occur in the lower voice (bass clef)—and vice versa. That's characteristic of this compositional style: each voice imitates the other, so the melodic ideas are frequently passed between voices (and voices may even cross, occasionally, like in measure 14).

Are you still with me? Good! Let's develop these ideas...

The Development (Section B)

In the Exposition, I stated the main musical ideas: the Subject and the Countersubject. In terms of key centers, we had the 'home' key of E major, and then modulated up a fifth to the key of B major—a closely-related key. In this next section, the development, we...well, develop those ideas and take them to more distantly-related keys.

Figure 5.
In Figure 5, notice the upper voice's rhythm—borrowed from (b), but with a different, more chromatic melody. The lower voice plays with (a) and uses a couple counterpoint techniques to change it: inversion and augmentation.

The inversion isn't perfect, though: Instead of going up a 3rd then going down a 2nd, I went down a 6th then up a 2nd. That is to say, I flipped (inverted) the direction of the intervals, but the intervals themselves were not maintained.

Also at work is augmentation, lengthening the original rhythm. Where the subject's original rhythm contained eighth notes, this augmented (i.e. elongated) left hand line instead uses quarter notes, providing a solid foundation on top of which the more active right hand can take place.

Figure 6.
 Figure 6 shows how one simple idea can be sequenced to create a longer, more exciting passage. Here, the fragment used is the G# - F# - G# sixteenth note idea, which appears first in (b). A fourth sixteenth note is tacked on to those three, then this four-note idea is repeated three more times, each time a step lower than before. This constitutes a sequence.

Figure 7: One bar from the dominant prolongation section.
Skipping ahead a bit more, we arrive at measure 30 (Figure 7). Typically at the tail end of a development section, a device known as dominant prolongation is often employed, in which the dominant (the V chord) is prolonged for several measures, preparing for a return to the tonic (I).

And that's precisely what I did! Since I would be returning to the key of E major, the chord I prolonged was a B7sus. The lower voice adds rhythmic interest by playing the syncopated (b) material, which also foreshadows the imminent return of that motif...

The Recapitulation (Section A')

After all that harmonic turmoil, fragmentation/manipulation of the motives, and overall tomfoolery, we're ready to return to the original subject and countersubject, and in the original key, to boot.
Figure 8: Re-united and it feels so good.

That means we get to hear the E-G#-G# motif as it was originally stated in the subject at the very beginning of the piece, as well as the countersubject. Additionally, I included the newer, third voice. Doing this helped create a real sense of development for the piece: it didn't have this third voice at the beginning, but along the way it went through a transformation, and now it contains this third voice.

(By the way, Bach might have called this a sinfonia now that it has three voices instead of the typical invention's two voices.)

Conclusion (Codetta)

In terms of this piece, the conclusion is comprised of a tiny codetta, which jams as many E-G#-G# statements as I could fit in a small space. I'll refrain from sharing a Figure 9 to show that, because I think we have had enough images for this post.

In terms of this blog post, the conclusion is perhaps best accomplished by showing the sum of all these parts. Enjoy watching and listening to "Benedict," the third movement of the Egg Suite:

The scores of all five movements of "The Egg Suite" are available in a 23-page, illustrated music book, complete with a preface/appendix and more behind-the-scenes-music-theory nerdiness, not unlike the stuff contained within this blog post.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Things I'm Struggling With As A Musician/Human Being

Hello, world.

I wanted to address my audience (all three of you) in a more personal manner this time around. Most of the time I stick with informational, black-and-white objective material on this blog, or I share music that I've created - and let the art speak for itself.

Rarely do I write about beliefs/philosophies/questions/concerns/qualms (but occasionally I do). This post will be some combination of those categories.

I've been thinking a lot about being an artist / creator / human in this modern age. An age in which we're constantly inundated with media, and consumers can hardly keep up with consuming. What does that mean for creators?

And, for an additional layer of context, I'm in that insufferable early-20's age group that's trying to figure out their place in the world. That perspective is certainly at play in the remainder of this post, too. (Bear with me.)

So, without further ado, I've accumulated (a small selection of) my own set of anxieties, questions, and concerns when it comes to being an artist/musician. Here are some of them, along with my own self-prescribed responses (as if I'm having a conversation with myself, which as it turns out, seems to be the primary use of a blog).


MY QUESTIONS/CONCERNS (not all of them, just a handful)

  1. Do people have time for art anymore? With all the world's very real problems - poverty, sickness, genocide, war, global warming, political divisiveness, etc. - what is art's place? Is it relevant?
  2. I feel uneasy about self-promotion. To the outsider looking in, I must look like one helluva self-absorbed guy. 
  3. Sometimes I catch myself falling into the trap of equating my level of musical performance with my self-worth. I realize it when it happens, and I recognize the idea's invalidity, but that doesn't keep the idea away all the time.
  4. Is music my true 'calling'?
  5. I feel stuck, musically. I feel like I'm playing the same things again and again.

MY RESPONSES (this is me, talking as myself, in response to myself...)

1) Do people have time for art anymore? ...  Is it relevant? 

Do people have time for art? Most of the time, no. Is it relevant? I really do think so. I'll keep this response short, because I really want to avoid sounding pretentious and artsy-fartsy (but I'm bound to, if I haven't already, with a post including this subject matter...), BUT: Creating art is uniquely human*. Kurt Vonnegut has a great quote on this matter, and there's also this one. I'll leave it at that, for now.

*Okay, okay. Elephants do it too.

2) I feel uneasy about self-promotion.  To the outsider looking in, I must look like one helluva self-absorbed guy. 

Yeah, sorry about that, world. I really don't mean to spam your Facebook timelines with links of my face and URL's including my name. (When I see those posts myself, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach, but I buck up and continue with the day.)

That said, I think it's a necessary thing to do. How else am I going to get my art out in the world? As much as the internet can be an overwhelming, information-inundated place, I do feel it's also an awesomely powerful tool for spreading ideas. The trick is to spread the GOOD ideas. And from time to time, I think my music falls into that category (not all the time, granted).

So, for those times that I'm proud of my work, or when I think others may get something out of it, or it may improve their day, or it may make them look at the world in a different way, I don't hesitate to share it anymore.

I'm getting better at standing behind my work and 'putting myself out there.' I'll assure you, though, it is definitely NOT in my nature to do so, despite what my social media presence may suggest...

3) Sometimes I catch myself falling into the trap of equating my level of musical performance with my self-worth.

This one is so dangerous. I know it must be a universal problem for *some other* people, too—whether you're a musician, a teacher, a plumber, a world leader, whatever. EDIT: I'm reminded by readers that the tie between career and self is not as strong in other countries as it is in the U.S. So this is coming from a rather U.S.-centric perspective.

Doing something you love as your job is a great joy, and an incredible privilege. But it doesn't come without its downsides. One of which is this: Since your passion is your source of income, your performance level is, to a large degree, tied to that monetary measure of success.

And—ooh, that word: success. That's where it gets dicey. The danger that I mentioned in my #3 worry has to do with your definition of success.

If you consider yourself successful only if you...
  • make a lot of money, or... only if you
  • change the world (and all its problems!), or even only if you
  • perform your job at a proficient level...
...then you're going to run in to some problems! What you need to remember, and which I constantly need to remind myself, is this: your self-worth should not depend on any of those things.

Change your definition of success to include growth-centered ideas, rather than unrealistic, perfectionistic goals. Be proud of yourself for being better than you were yesterday, rather than berating yourself for making a mistake, even though it was one less mistake than you made the last time you tried.

The LARGER point that I want to make is this: we are all HUMANS. Above all, we are humans. As my friend Sarah says, "We are more than what we do." I heartily agree. It's easy to get carried away with labels and titles and calling ourselves "musician" or "CEO" or "head chef."

It's a relief to remember that at the end of the day, we are all the same. We have the same universal tendencies, instincts, hopes, desires. We all want to belong. We all want to love and be loved in return. We're all striving to be better. We all make mistakes. It's refreshing to drop the identities we wear day-to-day, and remember that we are all just people, here on Earth for a relatively short time.

4) Is music my true 'calling'?

Maybe, maybe not.

I think about this one a lot because, for the most part, I haven't really explored many alternatives to the 'musical path' (whatever that path actually is—if anyone knows, let me know). Unless you count that semester of A.P. biology I took in high school as an earnest, full-fledged consideration of a career in biology (which I don't).

The thing that brings me back to my 'center,' though, after asking myself this question of vocation, is that I really do experience joy while making music. Granted, maybe not all the time. I'm not in a constant state of bliss. But I can, every once in a while, lose myself in the music—be that composing or performing.

(But who's to say I can't also fall into a blissful flow-state while eating an entire sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies... Wait, is 'Cookie Quality Assurance Tester' a viable career option? Oy, now I'm having career questions again...)

5) I feel stuck, musically. I feel like I'm playing the same things again and again.

You're playing the same things? Well, that's not all bad. For one, that means you have mastered something, and it is a part of your artistic voice. You're developing your musical vocabulary! That's good.

But, I understand what you're saying, self. The solution? Stop playing the same things. Force yourself to play something new. If you feel your habits kicking in, acknowledge it, and then counteract it. It will feel uncomfortable and foreign, but it will lead to new ideas.

For example: Have the urge to play that Oscar Peterson lick you always play? Don't do it. That lick uses ascending notes, and uses lots of enclosures. Don't do that. Instead, use descending notes, and don't enclose those notes. Boom: there, you've done it. Something new.

Granted, you will want to do most of this exploration in the practice room (not on the bandstand), because it's not going to sound very good at first. After all, that's what practice rooms are for: to sound bad in. (Right?)

CONCLUSION (inconclusive)

I better wrap this up. As you've read, you can see that I don't have it all figured out. None of us do. If I want anything to come of this post, it's to show you that having doubts / questions / problems is normal, and okay (right?). It means you're on the way toward growth.

Maybe this resonated with some of you musicians out there. Or even with non-musician, fellow humans out there. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the questions I brought up in #1-5, or any of your own questions/struggles that you've confronted in your own lives. Comment below, and feel free to share this post with other humans.

- - - 

P.S. After re-reading this, I thought of a #3.5: Comparing myself to others.

Don't make the mistake of looking up piano prodigies on YouTube, and then wallowing in despair because you'll never be as technically proficient as them. The solution? Applaud their talent, enjoy their artistic offering, and let it inspire you.

Musically yours,

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