C.94 - "A Day in the Life of a Mode (Thursday)"

Composed: 28th February to 26th April 2016

    A continuation of “C.89” and “C.90” – a 7-movement suite for two pianos entitled “A Day in the Life of a Mode” – this is my musical interpretation of a “Thursday”, which I combined with the Phrygian mode and assigned a theme of ‘Funeral Rites’. This was one of my portfolio submissions to the semester 2 module, 'Composition 2B'. The commentary explains it well:

Portfolio Commentary

     For this portfolio, there are two compositions; the first, ‘Thursday – Funeral Rites’, and the second, ‘Common Sense’. I will deal with each piece separately here and in order, talking about their context, influences, an analysis, reflection and very briefly discussing how the recordings were created.

1) Thursday – Funeral Rites

Context

     This piece relates heavily to my final works from Composition 2A; for that previous module, our final task had us engage with musical modes in some shape or form. I did this by assigning the seven common modes to the seven days of the week, and I then labelled an activity I personally associate with each day and started working on seven pieces from there. For Composition 2A, this involved two of the seven days – Monday (Locrian: Commuting Chaos) and Sunday (Ionian: Tolling of the Bells) – and one of the pieces for this Composition 2B portfolio is a continuation of this idea; Thursday (Phrygian: Funeral Rites). I have nothing personal against Thursdays, but I simply felt an inexplicable obligation that Thursday was a funeral day – thus this piece is largely centred on the cheerful topic of death, mourning and parting.

 

Influences

     Influentially, there were several other pieces that I took note of: foremost was my already mentioned ‘Sunday’ composition, which revolved around religious themes and general peace. As funerals are traditionally held at churches, it seemed fitting to make some stylistic and thematic connection to ‘Sunday’. This was mainly linked through large chordal movements (fig.1a), the excessive melodies per hand (fig.1b), and the abrupt climactic modulations (fig.1c), all of which are present for both pieces.

Figure 1a: Chordal Movements

Figure 1b: Excessive Melodies

Figure 1c: Abrupt Modulations

     Another influence came from Tchaikovsky in his ‘Nutcracker Suite (Arabian Dance)’. The recurring ‘2 - 1’ rhythm (fig.2a) always struck me as being sorrowful and desolate – almost depressing – and so I adopted this rhythmic fragment for the first section of ‘Thursday’ (fig.2b).

Figure 2a: 'Arabian Dance' (Reduction)

Figure 2b: 'Thursday' (rhythmically augmented 'Arabian Dance')

     This first section similarly has a references to two further compositions – the classic Chopin 'Piano Sonata No.2 (Funeral March)’ (how could I not?), and Holst’sSaturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ – in their use of the dotted rhythm (respectively figs. 3a and 3b). I employed this dotted rhythm periodically within ‘Thursday’ (an example can be seen in fig.3c).

Figure 3a: 'Funeral March'

Figure 3b: 'Saturn'

Figure 3c: 'Thursday'

     Outside of other pieces, there was an entirely different world of music that influenced me here – Javanese Gamelan. This influence was not so much in relation to the themes, but more so in relation to how I could further explore the concept of ‘Morse rhythms’ which were heavily involved in this piece as a simple method of translating text into rhythms. The Gamelan characteristics I used were the concepts of ‘irama levels’ and rhythmic ‘fractalling’ – where faster and faster rhythmic layers are progressively placed on top of the main melody – which I used for the third section of ‘Thursday’ in order to allow a plethora of texts to be communicated at once (more of all of this in the analysis later).

     Of course then, Morse code was a significant influence by adapting its rhythmic language into musical language (fig.4a) that can simultaneously convey music and text. I did this by simply transforming each short ‘dot’ into a quaver, and the longer ‘dash’ into a crotchet. In Morse code, there is a short pause in between each letter, a longer pause in between each word, and an even longer pause between each sentence, thus I adopted this same hierarchy into different durations of rests in between the letters, words and phrases (fig.4b). Of course, all of these ratios can be rhythmically augmented and diminished for further variation. Fundamentally, this is nothing new, but I required methods of translating text into music and this was as concise as it could get.

Figure 4a: Morse Code into Morse Rhythms

Figure 4b: Rhythmic Hierarchy Example

     Another method of translating text into music was the French cryptographic system (fig.5) allowing me to easily translate letters into musical notes in a consistent manner that could be analysed should some people have too much time on their hands. Again, this will be explained in detail later.

Figure 5: French Cryptographic System

     Finally, and perhaps most crucially of all, is the use of the text from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. This renowned phrase is what created the entire structure of the piece, and so it has inarguably been of great influence during scoring.

     There were likely other sources that have played a passive influence over this composition, but the ones listed here are all those that I can remember.

     Nevertheless, how the Book of Common Prayer phrase has been of such importance is as follows:

Analysis

     The piece is divided into four sections and a coda (fig.6). The length of each of section is determined by a statement of the above Book of Common Prayer phrase and additional phrases translated into Morse rhythms.

Figure 6: Structural Overview

     For example, the first section delivers the entire phrase, juggling between each performer (fig.7). And you will find that each other section is structured similarly, with the first three sections each containing their own little motivic characteristic (fig.8a) and the fourth section combining all three motifs with its own (fig.8b).

Figure 7: Section #1

Figure 8a: Motifs of the first three sections

Figure 8b: Final section combining motifs

     I suppose this third section needs the most explanation. (*Breathe in*) This is where I experimented the most with the concept of Morse rhythms and general cryptography in music. I combined both Morse rhythms (fig.4a) and the French cryptographic system (fig.5) to portray two texts simultaneously in one voice (with Morse rhythms providing the rhythm, and the French cryptographic system providing the note names). To offer more variation on this, I also adapted the Gamelan irama levels system, rhythmically augmenting these ideas as they were introduced at lower pitches, and rhythmically diminishing the ideas as they were introduced at higher pitches, creating a fractalling effect, all while the underlying phrase (as seen in fig.7) is also being played. To make it more confusing, I also synchronised some of the texts from both cryptography systems to conclude just before a new irama level was added. The pitching was decided entirely upon playability, trying to avoid jumps larger than an octave per hand. Similarly, the reason the highest melody starting at bar 71 in ‘Piano 1’ is not rhythmically diminished further is because the rhythms would have been too excessive to perform otherwise. (*Breathe out*)

     I was simply curious what it would sound like to deliver numerous messages at once in different forms, and this third section was the result of that. Thus, here is a full (and terribly messy) translation of this third section (fig.9), although if you have time, I encourage you to have a go at translating some of it yourself! The Morse rhythm text is indicated in blue (similarly to how it was in fig.7) and the French cryptographic system for each non-pedal note indicated in red. The phrases are separated with a ‘|’:

Figure 9: Full translation of the 3rd section

    Another prominent element of the piece was metaphors – this piece is scattered with them. There is a large emphasis on contrary motion – metaphorically ‘parting’ – which can be best demonstrated in the second section with a sequence in contrary motion that could seemingly continue forever (fig.10a), concluding with the lowest and highest pitch of the piano being played (fig.10b), not only metaphorical in the music, but also with its visual placement on the score.

Figure 10a: Endless contrary motion

Figure 10b: More, more metaphors

    There is also generally a simultaneous downwards direction – a metaphor for burying – but also upwards – a metaphor for ascension – which again is alluded to by the contrary motion. The persistence of downward arpeggiation demonstrates the ‘burying’ metaphor (fig.11a). The ‘ascension’ metaphor arrives later, in the fourth section’s sequence and continuous upward modulations (fig.11b).

Figure 11a: 'Burying' metaphors

Figure 11b: 'Ascension' metaphors

     Also, how could I not spell out the classic ‘D-E-A-D’ through the notes! This occurs twice; once you might have picked up on in fig.6, but the other I won’t spoil here. Similarly on this topic, the typical ‘Dies Irae’ appears in the first section, blended into a chordal texture to make it less obvious (fig.12).

Figure 12: 'Dies Irae'

     Additionally, I purposefully made the score overwhelming towards the end – though of course, still playable – particularly the third and fourth sections. Funerals are overwhelming events are they not? – and so by making the score increasingly busy, the performers, in the rare event that these pieces might actually merit a performance, can become just as overwhelmed, albeit not emotionally.

     A final point I will note is with the transitions and the mallet striking. Originally, I was going to use a rapidly descending glissando plucked with the performer’s nail, but I decided to save that for ‘Wednesday’. Instead, single notes are struck with a mallet, here to provoke imagery of a clock chime – a metaphor for ‘running out of time’ – and these transition segments are generally meant to be depressing: as if someone glimpsed their recently departed waving in the distance – but for an instant! – and harrowingly chased after them in the hopes of seeing them once more. Of course, this is but their imagination.

     There are many more points I could make, but I am out of words.

Reflection

     In retrospect, I might take a second look at the end of this third section and try to solve the synchronisation puzzle by ending all voices at once instead of slowly fading them out. Matching up the Morse rhythms, French cryptograms and irama levels to conclude all at once was slightly beyond the scope I had available for now. There was also some trouble by using these systems in this composition because the piece is supposed to be in the ‘Phrygian’ mode. While the phrases I translated did often emphasise the notes ‘E’ and ‘F’ (two very characteristic notes of E Phrygian), it did also stress the note ‘A’, perhaps unfortunately making the section sound closer to ‘A’ Aeolian than ‘E’ Phrygian. It was a translation error I made early on that created this mistake in that regard, resulting in more emphasis on the note ‘A’ than I originally intended, which was an unfortunate consequence of that translation error.

     Additionally, I’m not entirely positive that the Morse rhythms were successful. As a concept, yes, but with the way I implemented them here – combined with a pedal – it effectively makes them irrelevant.

     Further, it was quite the challenge to produce a score that wasn’t entirely convoluted with all of these Morse Rhythms. Whilst I created the score from an analyses viewpoint, I might review it and make a version better suited for performance.

 

Recording

 

     The recording was created digitally using Cubase and the EastWest sample libraries. I recorded the mallet striking the strings myself and added these sounds to the audio afterwards.

 

Other Information

  • The final word count for this commentary is 2,491.

    • This excludes the main title, header, all text in the appendix and this ‘Other Information’, and all text within a graphic/figure.

    • This includes all other text within the essay, including subtitles and figure headings.

  • The combined length of the two compositions averages around 12 minutes.

Bibliography

  • Cummings, B. (2011) The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, Oxford: Oxford University Press

 

Discography

Works by known composers:

  • Holst, G. (1874 – 1934): ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ (1915), The Planets Suite

  • Reich, S. (b.1936): ‘Piano Phase’ (1967)

  • Tchaikovsky, P. I. (1840 – 1893) ‘Arabian Dance’ (1892), The Nutcracker Suite

Traditional works:

  • Gregorian Chant (Traditional), ‘Dies Irae’

  • Javanese Gamelan (Traditional Gendhing), ‘Kembang Pacar’

     So, quite a mouthful of analysis! The coursework this time required us to experiment, in some way, with self-generated music – music that could be constructed using a system – and so I used Morse code to self-generate some music, as you just read.

     A personal hilarity I have recently discovered on reflecting can be found in my diary during the last days I spent working on this piece: on the 24th April 2016 I noted, "Worked a little on 'Thursday' - I hate it! This piece is not pleasing one bit!", after which I quickly added, "Oh, never mind then ..." - I had remembered that this piece was intended to be a depressing funeral work; why would one find it pleasing?

     Further, on the 26th April 2016 - the day the work was completed - I concluded, "This piece isn't me; I detest it greatly". Now three years on from finishing this work, I find it to be one of my most poignant and emotional works - certainly not one that I detest at all! But of course, my University years were my transitioning period into contemporary music, before which I was well-influenced by all things Baroque. So, all of these contemporary dissonances and systematic approaches were alien to me.

     What is rather ironic with this piece is that I started falling ill after finishing it. And what followed was a year of uncertainty for my health – quite cruelly poetic! But anyway, this piece was not the sole composition I wrote for this coursework portfolio; the other follows in “C.96 – Common Cents”.

Reminiscence written on 22nd July 2016

Last updated: 19th September 2019

© 2020 Jonathan Shaw