1 May 2015

Work-in-Progress Sketches - Blog Two

Work during April saw me continuing with my installation piece: a commission for the house which explores the interaction of three composers - Handel, Bach and Scarlatti - whose 330th anniversaries are all celebrated this year. You can read more about the beginnings of this project in Part I of this series (posted directly below this blog).

This month’s entry follows directly on and discusses one strand of my material: that based upon the music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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When planning each of the layers, my criteria were simple: I wanted the music – while avoiding pastiche, or stylistic impersonation – to somehow embody the essence of each composer and to set out a logic derived from their music; but also to allow myself the opportunity to develop material freely and in my own voice.

In the case of Scarlatti, I selected as my starting point a passage from a work I knew well (the K175  sonata – often played quite idiomatically on guitar). There were a few bars, shown here, which I’d always been fond of, featuring some typically Scarlattian scrunches and discords. As is often pointed out, many of the dissonances and modal inferences in his music seem to derive from guitar open string figuration – and I think that could be said of these bars.

I started wondering whether I could pick apart this small section of music a little more and use it as the basis for the entire layer – not through a simple use of variation, or motivic development, but through its treatment as a complete sound source that is magnified, prolonged and extended, enabling Scarlatti to resonate in his own harmonic world.

One way to achieve such prolongation was simply through time-stretching. Taking a recording of these few bars of K175 (played by guitar, where the open-string figuration mentioned previously allows particular pitches to resonate with clarity, in an almost bell-like way), I slowed the extract down by a considerable amount – almost twenty times its original length.
Although the effect was striking, particularly in bringing to the foreground frequencies and inner lines previously obscured, the outcome was quite a coarse one, and the ear drawn more to be process (of time-stretching) than to the new sounds it had revealed.

So, my next step was to reverse (play backwards) the extract, which went some way to rectifying this problem. The open string sonorities – my cornerstone reference to Scarlatti’s style – were still clear, and the modal and harmonic language still present, albeit in a fractured form. Yet now, the functions and harmonic role of each chord were much less laboured and self-conscious (an adverse effect, I felt, of its slow-motion treatment). As a result, the listener may perhaps be more inclined to listen to each sound on its own terms, rather than as part of an overt process of time manipulation.

Excerpt: Reversal of Scarlatti 

Having settled upon this segment of musical material (now around 1 minute, 20 seconds long), I started the next step of the compositional process.

Importantly, I wanted this to be an an acoustic, not an electronic, piece; in this way I could interact with and sculpt material in a much more tangible and visceral way as I 'orchestrated', allowing me to start making compositional choices that reflect my own language, whilst still staying true to the concept and original material.

Spectrogram of Scarlatti reversal
My first step was to analyse the Scarlatti recording spectrally (some of these results are shown on the left). [Nb Spectrograms show visually each frequency present in material, as it passes through time – and the strength/amplitude of these pitches.]

My intention was that this would be a warts-and-all representation of the time-stretched material. Not only do layers of the Scarlatti become apparent that were previously hidden, but glitches and imperfections in the time-stretching process bring about other sonorities and distortions, adding a certain amount of grit and bite to the music: something which appealed to me.

The next step, guided by the spectrograms, was to painstakingly (see below) notate each of these strands: each frequency, its duration and its amplitude.
Moving from spectrogram to instrumental realisation...
Composer Vs Spectrogram

Working in 15 second segments, I set about 'orchestrating' the music (a painstaking process I’m currently still battling with!). And with specific players in mind – an ensemble of six instruments – I’m having to be as creative as possible in order to accommodate as many layers and as much detail as I can. (So awkward double stops, and spread chords galore…)

Here’s a little glimpse of the first thirty seconds for my chosen ensemble (Flute, Accordion, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass)
Click here to enlarge

Click here to enlarge

Once this process is finished, and all 80 seconds or so fully transcribed for the instruments, the next step will be to finalise how this material is developed and expanded. (And this will be my subject next time…!)

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You can hear Edwin talk more about his music - and principal commission for the Museum - on Sunday 24th May, 2-3pm at Handel House.