Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mu3100 Project 1 (Atonal Theme + Variations)


Begin by creating an original harmonic structure on which the variations will be based. Follow the guidelines below. Be able to play this in class.
  1. Write a progression of 12 to 16 chords of your own invention for piano, using only whole notes and solid (non-broken) chords.

  2. No octave doublings.

  3. None of the chords should sound like an obvious sonority in functional harmony. Read these blogs to understand why:

  4. Any chord that sounds like it might have some distant relationship to tonal music (like Vb9 with an added 13th in an unusual inversion) should not function as it would in tonal music (i.e. the chord above should not “resolve” to anything resembling a I or vi chord).

  5. The chords should sound connected in some sense; avoid giving the impression of a random series of unrelated sonorities. On the other hand, the sense of connection need not be obvious.

  6. There should be a gradual increase in harmonic tension to a specific point, roughly 61.8% of the way through the progression(!), followed by a corresponding decrease in tension to the end. This proportion (61.8 : 31.2, which is the same as 1.618 : 1.0 or 1.0 : 0.618) is called the golden mean, or golden ratio, or phi, and is related to the Fibonaci Series (click links to read more about these).

  7. No chords can be re-used, although they may be re-voiced. Note that the same collection of notes can have greater or lesser tension depending on the voicing.

  8. Vary the number of notes in each chord to suit the desired tension level; avoid using four-voice chorale-style texture exclusively.

  9. Explore the possibility of using different registers on the piano, either simultaneously in the same chord (hands widely spaced apart), or as a means of contrast from one sonority to the next, or as a means of contrast for subsequent variations.

  10. Use a very slow tempo, in order to allow the listener’s ears to take in the uniqueness of each sonority before moving on to the next one.

  11. Do not introduce dynamics yet; the increase in tension should be principally effected through harmonic means, not through dynamic control. Perform your chord progression without dynamic inflections.

  12. Your primary composition tools should be your ears and instincts; when comparing chords x and y, which one feels like it has greater tension? However, if you study each chord you write to determine its intervallic content (do a Best Normal Order analysis and a Vector analysis, if you like), this information may be used when constructing new chords, or when altering existing chords for future variations. Each chord should sound “right” to your ears. Atonal music does not have to sound unpleasant, but almost all music is based on principles of tension and resolution, and your challenge is to do this within an atonal idiom.
When you play your chord progression for the class, we will each assign a "perceived tension level" score to each chord, notated on a sheet of paper, where 0 = no tension, and 10 = highest possible tension. This will be followed by a short discussion in which class members will be asked to identify the chords of greatest and least tension, and discuss any general trends with regards to tension in the chord progression (for example, you may find that the tension level increased substantially from chords 1 to 4, then took a dip for chord 5, then stayed the same for chord 6, then spiked (increased substantially) in chord 7, etc.).

  • Week 1 will be spent creating the chord progression.
  • Week 2 will be spent fine tuning it (based on feedback received in class), introducing rhythmic values to each chord (not all whole notes; try to create a sense of “timelessness” or unpredictability through notated rubato), considering the possibility of repeating a chord for rhythmic purposes or of re-using a chord, adding dynamics and articulations, marking in phrasing, and creating a melody.
  • Weeks 3, and 4, will be spent creating a new variation each week.
  • Week 5 will be spent creating the final copy of the score to be handed in, as well as a recording. The recording is normally made during the class recital, date TBA.
  • Note that the work you do each week does not have to be handed in (until the composition is complete), but it does have to be played in class.
Read "Project 1; More Details" when you have completed your chord progression.

→ Curious about what is required in order to create a "well-prepared score"?
Read the following to find out:

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