Monday, October 17, 2016

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

The expression, "ars longa, vita brevis," is a Latin translation of the first two lines of the Aphorismi (Aphorisms) by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who is perhaps most famous for the Hippocratic Oath. It translates as, "art is long, life is short."

Interestingly, the order of those two lines was reversed in the originally-published aphorism (I am using the Latin translation, because I know no Greek, except "papoútsia" which means "shoes;" I had to look this up when my shoes were stolen on an overnight train in Greece 40 years ago… end of digression):

Aphorism 1, Section 1, Hippocrates
Vita brevis,
ars longa,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.
Life is short,
Art is long,
Opportunity is fleeting,
Experimentation is perilous,
(good) Judgement is difficult.

What does it mean?

  1. Well, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, it apparently does not mean what most of us think it means. According to one source, it means that "it takes a long time to acquire and perfect one's expertise (in, say, medicine) and one has but a short time in which to do it". The Wikipedia entry suggests that it "most commonly it refers to how time limits our accomplishments in life."
  2. The meaning that I suspect most people take from this aphorism is, "life is short, art eternal." •Today's post will explore both meanings, as they apply to music.

1. The clock is ticking.

We tend to have sporadic awareness of our impending demise; we know it's going to happen, but we just don't usually know when. The clock is indeed ticking for us all, which can be a little unsettling if you think about it too much. This is presumably why most of us do not think about it very much, even if we have experienced the death of a loved one. The first meaning above is not a suggestion that we obsess over our impending demise; quite the opposite, in fact!

Here is my composer-specific take-away from meaning #1: It takes a long time for a composer to develop a mastery of our craft, and, given that life has a finite time limit, it would be good to put whatever time we have to good use mastering these skills. Compose lots of music! Try to make each piece better than the previous one!

If Schubert (dead at 31) and Mozart (dead at 35) had been more casual about their desire to be great composers, they would not have achieved greatness. Ditto for Bizet (age 37), Gershwin (age 38), Chopin (age 39), and Mussorgsky (age 41).

The clock is ticking… Get busy!

2. Art is eternal. Or is it?

Some art has had impressive lasting power, sustained over hundreds or oven thousands of years. That's very cool!

Then there's music…

Unlike visual art or architecture, which produced works capable of lasting a long time, music was not notated for most of human history. The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving complete, notated musical composition from anywhere in the world. It is thought to date from the first century AD, making it about 2,000 years old. That means there is no record of notated music for the previous 198,000 years of human existence on this planet.

For how many of the roughly 200,000 years of human existence have our ancestors been making music? To borrow a common "click-bait" phrase, the answer may surprise you! Archeologists have discovered ancient flutes from approximately 43,000 years ago, which suggests that (a) music was being made 43,000 years ago, and (b) it was probably being made before that as well, since the first forms of musical expression probably involved the human voice and percussion instruments.

There is no record of the actual music made for most of human history, for at least one very simple reason: Then, as now in most cases, music was ephemeral; it was there when people played it, and not there when they didn't; there appears to have been no desire to make it "eternal" (or at least, "long lasting") by writing it down, until the Seikilos epitaph.

Not only that, but, to my knowledge, the Seikilos epitaph did not signal a vanguard in the new practice of notating music; the following 1,000 years or so produced very little notated music. According to Wikipedia, the founder of what is now considered the standard music stave was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from about 991 until after 1033.

In the centuries following Guido d'Arezzo's life, notation became more commonplace, especially so when music became more complex, because the increasing complexity required a system of notation in order to be performed accurately.

Nowadays, despite the1,000+ year history of notated music, most of the "old" music that is performed or recorded was written since the late renaissance, meaning it comes from the past 500 (or so) years.

So, while it is entirely possible that some of the musical art from the recent past will be long-lasting, the inherently-ephemeral nature of music is such that most music, even in this day of easy digital recording, will only last for as long as we retain its memory in our minds, because most music is not recorded. I play guitar practically every day, but I doubt that I have recorded more than about 100 minutes of guitar music over 45 years of playing guitar.

Despite its essentially-temporary nature, however, it is undeniable that some music has lasted an impressively-long time, possibly because it is thought to represent the pinnacle of musical artistic expression,  or possibly because a lot of people just like it (Vivaldi: 4 Seasons; Pachelbel: Canon in D); that gives all composers something to aspire to, should they wish to do so.

And even if our music does not make it into the pantheon of musical greatness, there is a realistic chance that at least some of it will last longer than we will, provided we unceasingly strive to write better music.

Anyway, tempus fugit! I need to get back to the piece I'm working on…

Postscript: Experimentation is Perilous?

Hippocrates was a doctor, so when he called experimentation "dangerous," he probably meant that experimenting on a patient could harm that patient. If you are an air-traffic controller, experimenting on the job could have disastrous results; ditto for a military strategist, or an operator of a nuclear power plant.

If you are a composer, however, there is no equivalent worst-case scenario that results from a failed musical experiment. Some may not like your experiment, or performers may call it unplayable, but, generally speaking, people are not physically harmed by compositional experimentation. I would suggest that some experimentation, as in trying new things, is essential for an artist.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (3)

I wrote a short piece for today's post, based on the arpeggiated chords presented in section 8 of my Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) post. You may wish to listen to those chords again before listening to today's composition , but it's fine to skip this and just listen to the piece below.

The chords in section 8 of Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) were constructed by superimposing different harmonic structures found in tonal music, such as an F# major triad and C major triad, a combination used by Stravinsky in Petroushka, in order to create post-tonal sonorities.

There are no particular "rules" to follow in combining chords in this way, but I would suggest that the resulting sonority should not sound overtly tonal; if you start with a G chord and superimpose an F chord, for example, it would result in a G11 chord, which is overtly tonal.

That said, however, it is really the context in which such chords are used that determines whether they are tonal or post-tonal. If you play the chord in bar 3 below, for example, and resolve it to an Eb chord, it will sound like an altered V7 resolving to I in Eb major, because bar 3 starts with a Bb7 chord. If you play the same chord (bar 3) but move to a different sonority that in no way suggests an Eb chord, then you've placed it in a post-tonal context.

Another suggestion, if you try this approach, is to use chord combinations in which the two triad-based chords have no notes in common with each other, although that is by no means an essential condition.

The approach I find that works best is to work these out at a piano, exploring the possibilities by playing different chords in each hand until you find combinations you like, and then immediately write them down. Frequently, the experimentation may involve just altering one note at a time until you find a sonority that you'd like to keep.

Once you have a collection of chord combinations that you like, you can use them however you wish in a composition; you can transpose them, add further notes to them or otherwise modify them, invert them, re-use them, etc.

Here is the piece; there is an audio player beneath the score below so you can hear it as well:

More Details on this Composition:
  • I began with the first three arpeggiated post-tonal chords presented in my Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) post (they are in section 8, numbers 1, 2, and 3). 
  • I transposed the second arpeggio, and subsequently re-used and transposed the other arpeggios as well. 
  • In bar 7, I introduced a new chord (i.e., one that wasn't in the original blog post), which consisted of a Db Maj.7th chord plus an Eb Maj.7th with augmented fifth. I also reused transpositions of this chord.
  • One way to vary these chords, aside from changing notes within them, is to add notes on top of them that are not part of the original sonority; I did this a few times in this piece, especially in my choice of flute notes.
  • As you can hear, I took time in the score to move from one sonority to another, because the harmonic complexity of these chords is, to me, inherently captivating, and it takes time for the ear (well, the brain, actually) to absorb them. 
  • Harmonic progressions using these chords can proceed as quickly as you want, however.
  • This is "colour-based" composition; each chord has its own colour. The process is something like an artist creating an abstract painting using only splashes of colour here and there, with the result being pleasing to the eye (well, the brain, actually).
  • "Mystery" and "Wonder" were the names of two of our cats that passed away several years ago.
Final Thought: Practicality
  • One very practical advantage of this approach to composition is that the chords should fit naturally into the pianist's hands, provided you started by experimenting at the piano with chords that fit your hands. A skilled pianist has spent years training their hands to instantly form the correct shape in playing tonal chord structures, like triads and 7th chords, so if you use those same chord shapes, but combine them in untraditional ways, the pianist is likely to find the music easier to play than a lot of contemporary music.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (2)

In Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1), we examined tonality, atonality, and post-tonality, and explored two possibile ways of using tonal chords in a post-tonal context. 

One way is to superimpose triadic structures in order to create sonorities that would not normally be found in tonal music; perhaps the most famous example of this is Stravinsky's "Petroushka" chord: A combination of F# major and C major chords. Another Stravinsky example comes from the Rite of Spring, in the section called "Augurs of Spring/Dances of the Young Girls," which features a strongly-rhythmic repeated chord and irregular accents; the chord is E major in the lower strings (spelled enharmonically as Fb), and Eb7 in the upper strings.

A second way uses triadic-based, tonal chords in progressions that do not follow the chord-flow practices of tonal harmony (e.g., avoiding descending fifth root movements). 

I will explore the first idea (e.g., Petrushka chord, and other combined sonorites) at greater length in my next post, but  the objective today is to expand on the second idea, using the last musical example from Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) as a starting point. 

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  - -  -  -  -

The example below is a very short composition written specifically for today blog post, beginning with the piano chord progression from the end of my previous post. The first five bars are virtually identical (dynamics and octave doublings have been added), but a trumpet enters at the end of m. 5. The piano chord progression is repeated in the second system while the trumpet plays a new melodic line, and the last two systems are an expansion of this chord progression, while the trumpet continues to play its melody.

For the trumpet notes, I picked pitches that, at the point they begin, are not part of the accompanying piano chord, although several subsequent piano chords include the pitch being held by the trumpet. My rationale for doing this was to increase the sense that this was not intended to be heard as an example of tonal harmony.

Have a listen; discussion to follow:

Dreary, isn't it? ;-)

As a reminder, the objective was to (a) create a succession of tonal chords that do not follow the typical chord progression patterns in tonal harmony, and (b) expand this into a short composition.

You might well ask, why would anyone want do such a thing? Isn't this like putting old wine in new bottles (i.e, repackaging something old and calling it new)?


This was an experiment. Whether it produced anything useful or not is up for debate, but there would have been no way of knowing if this approach (and yes, it is rather like putting old wine into new bottles) had any useful compositional possibilities to offer had we not tried it. FWIW, I don't know of any music that actually does this, although I would not be surprised to find that others have explored this approach as well.

Exploring new ways of using old harmonic structures completely violates the spirit and practice of modernism, and I therefore suspect many contemporary composers would reject this approach. We live in what some have called a "post-modern" period, however, within which this sort of exploration is completely appropriate.

Whether it is appropriate or not, the main thing most composers would want to know is this: Is there any situation in which this approach could be compositionally useful to me? I suggest that you ask yourself this question while playing the audio clip above at least three times, and, if you haven't run screaming from the room by the end of the third play-through, please share your thoughts in the "comments" section below. It's fine to decide that you do not find it worth exploring, but, whether you find it potentially useful or useless, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Also, if you would be willing to share a chord progression that you came up with, and that fits this approach (tonal-based sonorities that do not follow the harmonic progressions associated with tonality), please do so in the "comments" section.