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C.96 - "Common Cents"

Composed: 24th May 2016
C.96 - Common CentsJonathan Shaw
00:00 / 03:49

    For this work, it is very important that you listen to it before reading about it. Thus, I have attached a recording here at the top of the page - do please have a listen before reading on, for this is a work you can only experience once.


    I will now attach the relevant part of the commentary which was a part of the commentary to “C.94 - Thursday”:

2) Common Sense

     If you haven’t listened to the piece yet, I encourage you to do so and see if you can figure out what is happening – which I’m certain you will!

Context and Influences

     Originally, this piece wasn’t going to exist. Instead, I was working on a movement for a so-called ‘Systems Suite’ for string ensemble which would explore Neo-Riemannian theory and more cryptography through the use of a passacaglia. Ultimately, this piece fell apart and I was not satisfied with it – the explanation and remnants of it can be found in Appendix A below.

     Instead, I looked back through the lecture notes for some inspiration and came across Reich’sPiano Phase’ once more. The slow micro-rhythmic shifts were astonishingly effective. Thus I wondered if it were possible to use a similar concept but for micro-tonal shifts instead. This piece is my experimentation with this concept.

     The aesthetic is obviously influenced from the typical classical era string quartet, particularly the works of Mozart and Haydn. But this classical aesthetic is merely a pleasant distraction from what is really important in this piece.



     In short, it is a minimalist piece – my first attempt at one – which has the performers repeating a short 24-bar phrase over and over. Throughout the 24 bars, the performers slowly sharpen their notes so that by the end of the phrase, the piece is now a semitone higher. And then they repeat the phrase in this new key and repeat the process over again until either the perfect 5th or an octave above the original note is reached. The performers achieve this through a number of different ways depending on how precise they can be with the tuning; adding approximately five cents every bar, or ten cents every two bars, so on and so forth – whatever the performers are best at.

     Of course, this is where the title comes from; a whimsical play on the word ‘cents’ and the phrase ‘common sense’, as I am curious to see how long it takes for a new listener to pick up on what is happening without being given any information beforehand. Effectively, it is hearing test.

     This is why I used a string quartet – string instruments are the easiest to achieve micro-tonal shifts due to the lack of frets or keys – and fewer performers makes it a little easier to stay in tune. Of course, this is also the biggest issue with the piece – I’m quite confident it is nearly impossible to be performed by a real quartet as the micro-tonal shifts are far too precise to perform adequately. As the recording was produced using sampled instruments, I managed to achieve this by simply adding an extra 10 cents to each instrument every couple of bars – in a real performance, it isn’t that simple.



     Looking back, I probably should have made the piece slower and pulseless – perhaps slowly flowing through different Neo-Riemannian key relations – so that the micro-tonal shifts were easier to accomplish and not as noticeable. On another note, I would have made the recording modulate up the full octave, but instead I was limited to ending it on the perfect 5th above the original note as I had reached the limit of the sample libraries.



     Likewise to ‘Thursday’, the recording was created digitally in Cubase using the EastWest sample libraries. As already mentioned, to simulate the micro-tonal shifts I increased each instrument by 10 cents every couple of bars (fig.13).

Figure 13: Cubase Project

C.96 - Cubase Pic 2.jpg

     An intriguing little piece! This was to be the first of a few pieces that explored the notion of “recognition”; at what point does a listener realize what is happening in the music? To treat music as a game for the audience to participate in became quite intriguing to me. There isn’t really much else to say about this piece except it was very cheap and took very little time to create – as much as I played it up in the commentary.

     The portfolio ultimately received 80% - the highest mark I was to receive from my composition portfolios throughout my time University.

Reminiscence written on 22nd July 2016

Last updated: 18th August 2019

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