May 18, 2006

Winding Down

Here I am, another blogger reemerging after the end-of-semester wrap-up. Diehard readers will be glad to know that I managed to sneak in a little extracurricular musical analysis between finals. I'd been listening on and off to William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes for a little while now, but only recently got a chance to check out the score. In case you're not familiar with the music, they're tightly written piano pieces that rarely cross over the three minute mark. On the surface they sound minimalist, but they do not dramatize process in the same way early works by Reich and Glass do. Duckworth's music is usually classified as "postminimalist."

As the Wiki entry indicates, one of the major differences between minimalism and postminimalism is how they interface with other styles. Echoes of popular music are all over Reich and Glass, but their personal styles dominate the texture. No one's going to mistake any of Duckworth's preludes for a genuine bluegrass piece or a snippet of North Indian classical, but when other styles poke their heads out, they're allowed to stick out. The reason he can do this is because of another major difference between minimalism and postminimalism: how the structure relates to the materials.

Think about the iconic riff of Piano Phase. As it slides again itself, new harmonies and melodies emerge. Reich didn't choose any old motive. He wrote one that would react well to the phase process. The structure and materials are "codependent" in a way. Throw any old diatonic motive into the same format and the results won't be nearly as good.

Duckworth's structures are (to a degree) indifferent to the musical material. They can be seen as processes, but they operate more on durations and phrase lengths than harmony and melody (the latter two being strong indicators of style). For a moment, let's say we're not talking about music, we're talking about a special kind of poetry written using a process. Our "pre-compositional material" will be a sentence, which we'll write down on a piece of scratch paper (so we mangle it readily along the way). We then follow these steps:
  1. Copy out what's on the scratch paper
  2. Cross off the first word on the scratch paper
  3. Repeat steps 1 & 2 until all the words on the scratch paper are crossed off
So if our germinal sentence is "My dog has fleas," our "poem" is "My dog has fleas dog has fleas has fleas fleas." Replace words with measures of music, and you've got the basic backbone for some of the Time Curve Preludes. The "sentence" for Prelude II looks like this:

The Time Curve Preludes - II

The barlines break it down cleanly into four parts, with two of the parts being slight variations of the other two. The process for the prelude cuts down the material one beat at a time, allowing it to stretch out over a couple minutes. The poem we wrote doesn't obscure the process that created it, but the repetitions embedded in this musical material do. While one bar is getting chopped up, you hear it seemingly intact just a few seconds later. Only at the very end, when the last bar is getting taken apart, does the process become more apparent.

While the right hand works on this modal figure, the left hand plays a tala-ish accompaniment: a 20-beat pattern on Cs (similarly divided into two equal halves that are only slightly different from each other). This pattern is constant throughout the piece, lending interesting rhythmic counterpoint to the right hand's gradually diminishing phrases. The two hands finish together at only two points: after the first statement of both 20-beat figures and at the end of the prelude.

No comments: