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.


Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

I am currently including the method of coming up with non-traditional chords as a textural and color effect for my current composition. Thank you for listing your compositional process. The different treatments you used on ONE idea generated a lot of captivating material. Which in turn can help develop sections of a composition and make it have more of an organic flow.

-Robert Humber said...

Very cool piece Dr. Ross. The set of three articles complimented each other really well.

Color based compositions are really uniquely amazing. I don't really know what else to say about the post other than it's super helpful to beginners. What I will do is write a list of the most COLORFUL compositions that I can think of!

-Everything Takemitsu has ever written, particularly Green, Requiem for Strings and From Me Flows What You Call Time.

-Everything Messiaen has ever written, particularly.... I don't know, honestly just everything. Eclairs sur l'au-dela is possibly the most mysterious, mystical, colorful piece I have ever heard.

-Ravel, particularly Daphnis et Chloe and Gaspard de la Nuit.

-Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion, Celeste. Also Bluebeard's Castle!!!

-Berg "Wozzeck" and Violin Concerto

-Silvestrov Fifth Symphony (also possibly the best example of a colossal, slow moving work which balances tonality and post tonality perfectly).

Mahler Symphony 2, 8 and 9

Strauss Salome

All incredible pieces in their own right and you will be seeing abstract colors and shapes in your brain while listening probably..


my top five non classical "colorful" records
NOTE: In popular music I would say that the color comes less from the Harmony and more from the textures and timbres of the instruments.

The Beatles - Sgt Peppers
Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise
Radiohead - Kid A
Sufjan Stevens - Age of Adz (completely different than the other one)
Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream

Emery van de Wiel said...

The Sound of this piece is certainly different than the "steriotypical post tonality" that we often see in new music. The sounds are much more easy to listen to. Some of the anticipation elements that I personally would typically like to hear in music is lacking but it definitely fits the mood of the piece. (aswell as the title)

Jack Etchegary said...

Very cool sounding piece. As others have mentioned, these sonorities and harmonies are definitely unlike other post-tonal sonorities commonly heard in contemporary music. The idea of superimposing a chord on top of another unrelated chord in some contexts sounds almost jazz-like to me. I have a particular memory of seeing a piano score for a jazz standard which had a Bb chord over a C chord, which sounded rather tonal within context, but definitely had a specific characteristic to its sound. I've experimented with the idea of what I call a 12-tone chord progression (which other people most likely refer to and compose with) in which four 3- note chords with no common tones are played one after the other (F Gm C#m B for example). However, I've found that it is hard to maintain a sense of continuity or flow with this idea. I am certainly interested in exploring this idea of overlapping chords and creating new sonorities.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting how using tonal chords and concepts can create such a fluid sounding a-tonal piece. Having since tried this in my own compositions for class, I find myself often falling back into a tonal setting. As I superimpose chords at the piano, I find myself stringing together 'jazz' sounding sororities, rather than a-tonal progressions. Your approach of changing one note at a time as proved helpful. I find this approach breaks up the tonality we 'want to hear' in our heads, and makes it easier to proceed outside of that realm of tonality.

I very much like the piece as well. The sororities are indeed captivating and I love the idea of letting them sit and resonant in your ear.

Stephen Eckert said...

As a pianist I can attest that this idea is certainly effective when writing piano music! My hands do natural tend toward triad and dominant shapes and to use these superimposed makes playing post-tonal music significantly easier to read, learn and eventually perform. I also enjoyed the idea of chords as colour rather than just melody with accompanying sonority but rather the sonority as the main idea and focus of the piece. The use of colour-chords has many possibilities on the piano only but combined with different instrumental timbres, there is certainly much more to investigate. I am curious with this technique would work as well within the context of a string quartet or other type of chamber group. This includes the added consideration of timbre and blending of instruments which could lead to interestingly coloured sororities!

Josh McCarthy said...

Post tonal harmony has always been a concept hat I couldn't quite wrap my head around in the fullest. I have certainly tried, but I always end up writing a more post tonal section then getting carried away in my writing, and start to compose without a structured idea, and then I start writing whatever comes to my head which often happens to lean more towards the tonal side of harmony.When I do plan things out, I tend to use a lot more chromaticism in my writing, and I have superimposed chords in some of my works. For example I have used the C/F# concoction once, and I have used a F/F# as well to create some funky piano gestures.

Naomi Pinno said...

I find the role of context (how the listener will hear the chord or pitch with respect to the other material they have heard in the piece) fascinating. Often the context determines the perceived sound, not the sound itself. I had not thought about how a great chord may not be just a great chord, but often requires a great build up or follow up. Keeping the importance of context in mind opens up the opportunity for tonal chords with non tonal resolutions. With out the resolution these tonal chords have new functions.
Also, I agree with Stephen, using tonal chords in non-tonal contexts makes learning the music much more natural for the pianist.

Hannah Wadman-Scanlan said...

I really enjoyed this post because I’m in the middle of writing a piece in which I often employ to technique of combining two tonal chords to create a non-tonal chord.
As you mentioned, I also find the easiest and most efficient way to create these chord combinations is by sitting at a piano and moving your hands around, even changing just a single notes, until you find what you’re looking for. Sometimes one note can change the quality and “colour” of the chord complete, so I believe the process of sitting at the pianos and making small adjustments is important.
I also found it interesting to state that this method will most likely make it easier for the pianist since their hands naturally fall into the typically chord shapes of to al harmony. I agreed 100%, but that was never really something I considered.

Zachary Greer said...

I love this technique for coming up with new harmonies. Most of the things I've written for class recently have all come by way of simply sitting at the piano and combining different chords with one another. It can be so powerful in generating ideas or inspirations for what kind of piece you want to write. I also very much enjoyed the short piece "Mystery and Wonder." It definitely evokes a sense of mystery, or uncovering some clues to a mystery. Perhaps following someone who has just stumbled upon an important clue to an investigation, or a piece to an ancient puzzle.

For performance practice it's definitely essential to be sure that the chords are playable by the pianist. But, that should not stop you from finding crazy/whacky combinations. There's always a place for harmonies, and though they may not fit comfortable in the hand on the piano, the voicing may sound marvellous in a string section, or a combination of other instruments. That leads me to address another interesting thing I notice when writing/orchestrating. Some harmonies or sounds may be great on one instrument, but absolute trash in another. Sure that may all be subjective in the end, but I really find that the timbre and colour of the instrument sound itself will influence what harmonies I use. Sometimes chords also don't sound good in a blocked form, but sound great as a broken chord. These are the things that fascinate me about music. Never ceases to amaze me.