The structuring of a semi-structured piece

When I told my marimba player (the person for whom this piece is written) about the nature of Summer Rain, she said “Ah, that’s what we call composers being lazy!”. Thinking about it, I both agree and disagree with that statement. After all, the semi structured nature of this solo work for marimba emerged for two reasons – one of which was the fact that I couldn’t decide which order I wanted various elements of the piece to appear in! The second reason, which I’ve discussed in previous posts, was to give the performer more creative freedom. Contemporary performers are much more than people who just read notes off of pages – contemporary composition is requiring them to involve themselves in the works to a higher degree. After giving freedom with tempi and dynamics in previous pieces, structure seemed an interesting way to progress.

The first draft will be delivered to the marimba player next Friday, so I thought I’d discuss how I’m approaching the various sections of this piece!

Structure
When I said I both agree and disagree with the ‘lazy composer’ concept, it’s because the idea of a non- or semi-structured piece could be approached in a number of ways. One of these is just to chuck lots of musical fragments on a piece and say “Here, play these!”. This isn’t the approach I’ve taken. The work has four main themes – and it doesn’t make sense to present a developed version of the theme (in my opinion) before the initial version has appeared. Therefore, material has to be carefully organised into a hierarchical structure.

The beginning
The beginning of the piece is still in development. There will be a few different ‘options’ to start with, which will lead into the main body of the piece (starting in the second zone).

Middle
The main body of the piece is divided into three ‘zones’. The first zone contains a main theme, the second zone, the developments of that theme, and the third any further developments.

The performer cannot just play these samples in any order at all. A sample can only be performed if it has been ‘reached’ through travelling down the branch, and therefore unlocked. E.g. Until fragment 111 has been played once (through reaching it through fragment 11), it cannot be played. Once it has been played once, it can then be played again at any point – and for any number of repetitions. For example, if all fragments from pathway 1 in zone 3 have been played, these can then be played at any point within the piece – preceding and following fragments from different zones if the performer should wish.

Fragments should flow into one another, except in two instances: Where there are pauses specified, and where sticking changes are required (this should only apply for the ‘chords’ path, if the player chooses to perform these with six sticks instead of the standard two).

Not all fragments need to be performed. Before the piece can be considered complete, three of the four pathways must have at least one fragment performed from zone 4. This means that, in effect, one pathway could be ignored entirely – or not explored to the end. It also means that there are various branches which can remain unexplored within a performance.

The end?
As long as the performer has satisfied all the other conditions of the structure, and is abiding by the rules, the piece can be ended whenever and wherever they want. The piece will therefore have to be a few minutes in length in order to satisfactorily adhere to the above conditions, but this means they can make it as long or short as they want.

Dynamics and tempi
As of yet I haven’t added any dynamics or tempi to the piece. There are certain thematic paths that, I feel, should be performed at a slightly lower tempo than others, so this will probably be specified somewhere.

Pathway 4: Chords
Pathway 4 (bottom of the score, below) consists of six note chords. In order to allow the performer even more freedom, they may pick how they perform these (if they choose to perform them at all!). They can play them as block chords, spread them, and hold them for any duration, including any lengths of pauses in between. They can also be transposed into any octave, and so-called ‘extended techniques’ employed – such as the bowing of the lowest or highest note in the chord using a cello bow.

image

Above you can see a screenshot of the piece in progress. Zones 2 and 3 are complete, zones 1 and 4 are still lacking in material. No dynamics or tempi markings as of yet. In fact, the score is nothing more than dots and arrows at the moment – definitely in need of some work!

A few other notes
I have endeavoured to adhere to good practice with regard to using fragments, as one would when inserting excerpts into academic work. I have ensured that the clef and time signature are always present – time signature being especially relevant as this piece alternates between 7/8, 6/8, 5/8 and 4/4. I haven’t used key signatures (although I could I suppose – but would take up more room ultimately!), and bar numbers are obviously irrelevant – although bar references may be a useful edition, for example if a performer wanted to write down their ‘route’ through the piece. I will need to work out precisely how to address them!

There aren’t many extended techniques on the above score. Dead sticking (hitting the key with the mallet, leaving the head in contact, thus deadening the sound) will be used in places – but I forgot to apply the appropriate note heads before creating the above draft. Bowing will also be an option (see ‘chords’), but not compulsory, as this rules out performers who are unable to obtain a cello bow!

I’ll be working on completing the final draft of this score –and most importantly, the performance notes – over the coming week, so I’ll be sure to update as the piece develops further.

One Reply to “The structuring of a semi-structured piece”

  1. Pingback: Summer Rain (2011) | Jenni Pinnock

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