9. A Sketch

UntitledIf you visit the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere, you will find a pencil sketch by the artist Constable, depicting a day of turbulent weather in the Lakes. The artist uses a range of drawing techniques to capture this scene: flurries of short strokes for slanting rain, cross hatching, scribbling to evoke the weight of wet earth and smudges to describe the clouds which build and dissolve. The music attempts to describe the elements of this drawing and the powerful scene to which it refers.

There is a well known quote by artist Paul Klee in which he describes drawing as simply a line going for a walk. Similarly, we can think of a melody as a note going for a walk. If we were to zoom in on this picture, we might see a snail trail on stone or a trickle of water on rock. The opening tunes in this piece describe this sort of movement – seemingly aimless, but with a purpose. The tune traces a path along the D string of the guitar, following the notes of an octatonic scale, which comprises alternating tone/semitone intervals. This is a very old scale whose origins have been traced back to 7th Century Persian music, where it was called “Zar ef Kend”, meaning “string of pearls”, the idea being that the two different sizes of intervals were like two different sizes of pearls. Bartok uses the scale in his 4th string quartet and Messiaen has it as his second mode of limited transposition but I use it in a way which evokes (for me) opening Cor Anglais melody of Debussy’s Nuages. A second tune joins in, playing similar lines. Although there is repetition of patterns, the weaving in and out of layers – a background/foreground interchange prevents the repetition from becoming too predictable.

We often strive in musical composition to carefully make sure that ideas flow seamlessly and smoothly into one another. But nature doesn’t always work like that. The scene here, as depicted by Constable, is one of many contrasting elements: smudgy clouds building and dissolving, flurries of fine rain, the dark wet heavy earth, patches of bracken… But taken together, there is unity and coherence. So these opening meandering melodies come to an abrupt halt as a more rhythmically energetic section comprising harmonised figures in higher registers takes over. From hereon, the piece builds relentlessly with repeated and contrasting blocks of sound where the interest moves away from melodies and rhythms to a consideration of textures and timbres. One of the great advantages of audio editing is being able to work on the sounds post recording. So the bass part is very simple but the carefully shaped tone gives it the interest.

In the final two minutes of the piece, the momentum gives way to more dark sombre sounds. Slowly meandering octatonic melodies with some interesting harmonies and freely canonic weaving.

Posted in Days of Sun, Uncategorized

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