ASSIGNMENT 5, Uncategorized

Sonatina Rondo on the Flying Dutchman

This three-minute piece for oboe and keyboard was written to satisfy the requirement for Assignment 5 of Module 1 of the OCA Music Composition module 1.

The requirement was to use at least three times a cycle of chords involving chords I, II,IV or VI, V and then I or use of a deceptive cadence.  With this quite conventional brief I have stuck to a diatonic idiom initially in ‘baroque’ style with use of a few passing chromatic notes, and then a more romantic figuration in the central section.

I have left in the score some of the harmonic workings.  Essentially, the main theme, starting in Bb major, fits the required template but then modulates to the relative G minor, and then via mode mixture a perfect cadence into C major, where the main ‘rondo’ theme repeats.  This modulation, upwards by a tone over ten bars, provides a key to structure: the sonatina form  has a recapitulation at bar 73 which needed to start in Ab major, modulating back to Bb at the close.  This means there are four statements overall of the ‘rondo’ each in a different key.

Bars 21 and 22 provide some variation of the rondo with the first explicit statement, in E major, of a theme from Wagner’s ‘Flying Dutchman’.

As this is a sonatina not a sonata allegro, the Development section is unconventional providing contrast within an overall AABBAA form.  Linking exposition and recapitulation requires continuing modulation up through the cycle of keys during the development.

By bars 30/31 we are in F# major and after augmentation in bars 32-24 of part of the rondo theme, we enter a contrasting middle passage.  This keeps the same tempo in terms of bar duration but introduces a gentler compound time movement, six crotchets to the bar with enharmonic change to Gb then Cb major for statements of Senta’s ‘redemption’ theme from Flying Dutchman.

I have provided my own harmonisations around this and explored the possibilities of piano figuration in the solo passage bars 52-64.  Bars 65-72 mark a transition with more ominous trills and a reveille’ distant ‘posthorn’ sound from the oboe, announcing first the main Dutchman theme and then linking back to my own Rondo theme, ending confidently and then with a throw-away chromatic C sharp in the final cadence, hinting at the possibility of D minor.

This is the first time I have written for piano and the score provides some possible execution but the piece could be played in many different ways.  The full range of the modern oboe is used with an optional ossia and octave down for the highest passage.

Audio file generated by Sibelius


Oboe part:

Flying dutchman oboe sonata complete – Oboe


Score and piano part:

Flying dutchman oboe sonata complete – Full Score

ASSIGNMENT 4, Uncategorized

Continental Divides 3’0”

This is assignment 4 of the OCA Composing Music module 1: free counterpoint for two instruments and optional untuned percussion

I took the liberty of the untuned percussion being a single bell tuned to G

The whole piece is founded on mirrors about this note G, both strict inversion about this note and the use of scales in the octave above and below this note that are symmetrical (e.g. double harmonic minor in homage to Bartok and Hungary, but also whole tone scales a la Francais, and increasingly explicit references to Beethoven Op 133).  The piece can be seen as referencing ‘continental drift’ through this fissure about G, or more sadly, the increasing fissures about and within Europe.

I used the alto flute liking its tone which I think will better balance the marimba than would a normal flute.  This transposes down a perfect fourth.  A pdf of a score follows and also some separate transposing parts, not at this point optimally laid out:

Continental divide g – Score and parts

The Sibelius audio file is not perfect as it cannot represent the full practical range of the alto flute nor is it honouring all damping of the bell:

Some analysis:


1-3      Inversion and statement of main subject simultaneously (double harmonic minor)

4-5       Restatement in alto flute alone with added octave displacement and alternation of theme across the two pitch levels

7-9       Countersubject (whole tone scales converging on the centre of the octave above G).  Marimba extracts second bar of subject in augmentation

10-12   Chromatic inversion of subject about G in flute; marimba starts free counterpoint at bar 11.

12-19  Diminution, augmentation and inversion of the motif stated in flute at bar 16 which is drawn from the inverted countersubject centre of first beat  bar 11, omitting lowest note

20-21 Third statement of countersubject, this time centred on and converging on G

22-23 Start of B section introduces the ‘Grosse Fuge’ countersubject and its inversion around G

24-25 Combination of this theme with chromatic permutation of the motif from bar 12

26-32 Episode with ‘stretto’ treatment

33-36 Combination of material from this episode with permuted version of the Grosse Fugue (countersubject) theme diminished or augmented

37-38 Compressed variant of call to attention as repeat of A section, but this time inverted

39-56 Chromatic inversion of section A in the alto flute part only ; marimba part strictly repeated (bars 3-21).  Since bars 7,8 and 10,11 were themselves inversions these phrases now appear in reversed order and bar 20 inverted in bar 55 converges on the same note G, decorated with a ‘flourish’ in the flute leading into section C:

57-61.  A free treatment of the ‘Grosse Fugue’ motif from bar 22, with triplet accompaniment in marimba also inspired by the Beethoven but much more chromatic.  The various inverted forms die away, with alto flute using flutter tonguing.

63-73  Progressive intensification of chromatic triplet material

74   Final statement of the Beethoven motif in the flute, fff

75-77 Coda, flute picking from the two mirror forms of the main subject to state a final major cadence












ASSIGNMENT 3, Uncategorized

Little trio for clarinets


This is Assignment 3 for module 1 of Composing Music in the Open College of the Arts correspondence course.

Here is the finished result in the form of a playable .wav file generated by Sibelius (with most but not all of the tempo changes as intended)


… followed by the score and three parts for transposing instruments, all as PDF files:

Little trio for clarients 00 2016-05-30

Little trio for clarinets – Clarinet in Bb – Clarinet in Bb

Little trio for clarinets – Basset Horn – Basset Horn

Little trio for clarinets – Bass Clarinet in Bb with lowest note C concert – Bass Clarinet in Bb with lowest note C concert

The task was to link three or at the most four chords to make a two-minute piece in free counterpoint for woodwind trio.  My feeling was that this was going to be far too slow a harmonic rhythm.  So first I wrote a chord sequence VI II V I with various passing notes and chord extensions.  This needed to be in nine- or ten-part harmony to allow each part freedom within the written notes.  At one point I was thinking of providing a repeating rhythmic pattern in the form of ‘minimalism’, but the eventual work only has one section, on the extended V chord, with such repeats to try and counter the static harmony.

This recording is much compressed in time relative to the two minutes as thirty seconds per chord on average is just boring.

Little trio harmonic framework partly expanded

As completed, the full expansion of each chord has its own mood, from quite jaunty in the VI II section (over four bars of 12/8), to frenzied in the V chord and then relaxing, slowing in the rate of melodic movement and finishing with a rather sparse section.

The added notes (e.g. minor 9th against major third on a rootless V7 chord) and ‘frozen’ passing notes allowed some quite jazzy melodies e.g. bar 19 where the ninth note G rather than the root F starts the tune, and D is a submediant, effectively an added sixth as the basic chord is already the tonic.  The development of the initial motives (the ‘turn’ and ‘arpeggio’) does I trust come across quite clearly to the ear in the final version at the top.

Any harmonic change at intervals less than about two bars is therefore implied – and vitally necessary.  This is not the introduction to Siegfried, and I do not have all the resources of an orchestra to vary tone colour against static harmony.

I felt that this exercise was poorly placed in the sequence of challenges in the course.  It is in section 3 while section 4 actually teaches a limited set of counterpoint skills, and in section 4 assignment 4 the 3-minute piece for two instruments (with optional added fixed-pitch percussion) is less restrictive than a two minute work with such restricted harmonic change.

ASSIGNMENT 2, Uncategorized

OCA Assignment 2: Elegy for Solo flute

One-page score:

Elegy for solo flute – Score

WAV file from Sibelius samples:

This is nearly two minutes long in performance.

Reflections on learning about melody scale and application to the ‘Elegy for Solo Flute’

This note forms part of the Assignment 2 coursework for module 1 of the OCA course ‘Composing Music’. This is written after the best part of a year away from the formal course, but during which I have been studying and reading on my own initiative.

I cover here three points:

  1. Some material read and the most important points I have learnt from it
  2. Current opinions I have formed on what style of writing I most value – tonal vs atonal
  3. Approach taken to the flute Elegy and its possible technical challenges.

1 Background reading

Amongst other works the most substantial have been:

  • Reginald Smith Brindle ‘Musical Composition’ (OUP 1986)
  • Aaron Copland ‘What to Listen for in Music’ (1944; first edn publ Doubleday)
  • Imogen Holst ‘Tune’ (Faber, 1962)
  • Edward Bairstow ‘Counterpoint and Harmony’ (MacMillan 1945)
  • Biographies and analysis of works by Zemlinsky notably the book by Antony Beaumont (‘Zemlinsky’ Faber and Faber, 2000)
  • ‘Bela Bartok: A Celebration’, by Benjamin Suchoff (The Scarecrow Press, 2004)
  • A number of reviews of renaissance counterpoint e.g. ‘The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance’, Knud Jeppesen (Dover 1970) – rather harder going!
  • Works on machine composition and its current limitations, by Cope and Rowe.

From Bairstow and Brindle in particular I have picked up the idea of melodic line (‘voice leading’) being more important than, but never independent of, implied harmony. In works of both Bartok and Copland, folk song is incorporated either directly or to create the framework of harmony or rhythm. This reading prompted some reflection in ideas of absolute music, creativity and where music ideas come from. To what extent is the composer following a culturally or self-imposed set of rules, where a machine could ultimately take over; to what extent are they recycling previously used musical material, and how important are, or should be, extra-musical influences?

On the last point – extramusical nuclei as a starting point for development – I have been surprised by the number of autobiographical, romantic and even cabalistic and numerological allusions in works that I had first got to know as ‘absolute’ music – e.g. the FAE sonata (frei aber einsam); Brahms songs with ciphers for AGATHE; and in the Zemlinsky second string quartet, use of the ‘magical’ series of semitone levels 2,3,5 and references to his sister MATHILDE who married Arnold Schoenberg.

2 My values on harmonic style

In Berg’s violin concerto (written as a Requiem for Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler who as Alma Schindler was also the inspiration for much of Zemlinsky’s early music), the 12-tonal formal tone row ends with the same row of four whole tones as the start of Bach’s chorale ‘Es ist Genug’. This seems to me to combine three things of value:

  • A formal scheme as source of discipline
  • Allusion to conventional harmony, which for 99.9% of likely listeners will be how they perceive any new pitched work
  • An emotional content; here also enhanced for those ‘in the know’ but where the extra knowledge is not essential to an appreciation.

The conflict in twentieth century music has been between the search for the new and the possibility for new music to be appreciated. The collective ‘ear’ has the power of adjustment to works that seemed at first to shock – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring being a notorious example. But my feeling is that the rate of abstraction and the flight to complexity and academism, for example in much of Webern’s work, has left behind too much of the likely audience. ‘What is music for?’ after all: this blog gives a very wide range of possible and mostly plausible answers:

Though I enjoy playing and sometimes listening to the ‘nationalist’ music of what was then Bohemia and Slovakia, trying to write in a national style seems outdated and false. Nevertheless there is one ‘nationalistic’ composer I rate very highly, who still has quite a select audience. This is Bela Bartok.

Bartok, and arguably JS Bach espoused all three of my proposed ‘values’ above:

In terms of the assignment, Bartok’s use of ‘cells’ is relevant. Scholars have identified in his music frequent use of the ‘X cell’ (successive semitones, relative pitch classes 0,1,2,…), ‘Y cell’ (successive tones, pitch classes 0,2,4…) and ‘Z cells’ comprising a fourth, semitone, fourth, semitone (pitch classes 0,5,6,11,12 – NB the octave is class 12 counting from zero).

I have based this assignment on two such cells or relative pitch sets (0,1,3,4) and (0,2,4,6), the second being the Bach/Berg series above. These are both part of the ‘unfamiliar scales’ listed in the current module and yet also part of the minor scale (leading note to mediant) and both the major and melodic minor upwards scale (mediant to leading note). Hence the two together could form a complete scale starting on the leading note in the minor. This is quite close to, but not identical with, the ‘Locrian’ church mode. This full scale is one I have not sought to use in Assignment 2.

3 Composition of the Elegy for Solo Flute and its possible technical challenges

The framework of the piece is, I trust, quite transparent:

  • ternary form with slow start and end
  • the use of two four-note scalic motifs, each sampled from the unconventional scales covered in this assignment the first ‘compressed’ C (semitone, tone, tone, semitone) and the second ‘expanded’ E four notes of a whole-tone scale. The role of these motifs is reversed during the work; initially C is slow and gentle with E as a a rude interruption. In the central section the two become integrated in longer melodies such as at bars 7 to 10. At bar 26 the slow theme C becomes the fast interruption. In the recapitulation the whole-tone version E is completely assimilated into the slow music.
  • Both motifs appear, each iterated into the full ‘Middle Eastern’ (octatonic, or ‘diminished’) and ‘Whole tone’ scales over the range of an octave, at bars 31-32 and 40, respectively.

There is no fixed key: an apparent start in E minor but brief excursions into D sharp minor (bars 2,3), D (harmonic) minor (bars 5,6), F minor (bars 8-12), and then more pervasively F sharp minor (bar 26 and explicitly during bars 35-36) but also D minor in the ‘interruption’ from bars 26-27. A repeat of the whole movement would allow some kind of ‘closure’ after the final F sharp, seen as a leading note in the relative major key of G. So the total effect is perhaps an imperfect cadence.

Though the short piece is built in short phrases (to allow catching of the breath), the leading note trailing from one phrase may connect with the start of the next phrase e.g. at bars 7, 15; or there is a semitone descent e.g. into bars 17/18, 26, 31.

Selected notes from within the first of my two motifs, are well established in famous minor-key works such as Cesar Franck Symphony in D minor (arranged as 1,0,4) and Wagner’s ‘Fate motif’ from the Ring Cycle (1,0,3).

Bars 11 and 12 have a first ‘accidental’ and then when repeated, deliberate, reference to the (Dmitri) Shostakovich motto DSCH, transposed here. I also included a motivic self-reference but leave detection of this to the reader! The bar where it appears is a prime factor of my current age, 62. This is a coincidence and perhaps salutory that just by chance, if one tries enough combinations some apparent numerological sources can be found in music, as in the Bible or other religious texts.

Hence, in summary, though set as an exercise on alternatives to the conventional eight-note scale, there are frequent tonal implications in the piece, arrived at mostly subconsciously by ear

To help to understand better the acoustics and practical fingering issues of woodwind instruments I have been learning to play the cornetto at a basic level. This brought home a important practical point covered also by the orchestration manuals: the need to leave time in the musical line for the wind player to breathe…

Some concern I had about about the practicality of tremolos across the C sharp to D ‘break’ on a flute, used in bar 5, was allayed by reading about alternate fingerings and use of right hand ‘trill’ keys, for example pp18 and 19 of this source: Matt Luoma MA thesis Ohio State University (1946). According to my reading material, renaissance players would deliberately choose trills and fingerings lying ‘across the break’ in order to make a greater effect.

In fact, I have started to form the concept of this piece as possible ‘study’ material exposing some of the intermediate and more advanced and ‘extended’ possible techniques in learning the flute e.g. flutter tonguing at bar 30, whisper tones in the final two bars. I tried not to make the mistake of using these ‘for the sake of it’ without regard to the musical concept and the listener; this short musical flight should be a journey not an aerobatic show.

The last four notes require ‘whisper tones’ (sometimes described as ‘whistle tones’), played very quietly and with a more puckered embouchure, and it may well be that for practicality the emerging sound will be one or even two octaves higher. These are the basic fingered notes. After advice from a real flautist, I may add more text notes to clarify this point.

At the end of the day new music has, in my view, to pass two tests:

  1. After a first hearing, would you wish to listen to it again?
  2. Is the performance satisfactory by the player(s) – not necessarily easy, but leaving them with the feeling they have spent their playing time well and the composer has a sympathetic feeling for their instrument, keeping them somewhat challenged but not too challenged.

It will be good to get feedback on both these points in due course.




ASSIGNMENT 1, ASSIGNMENTS, Notes, Research & Reflection

Post-mortem/ reflections on Assignment 1

Here are my views on my Assignment 1 attempt, a day after closing and sending off the Sibelius file to OCA.   I took the invitation implied in earlier projects to choose a piece freely rather than following the much more narrow (updated?) instructions to continue an existing start of a work.  Mainly, I wanted to explore some ideas from the minimalist movement about phasing, and to write something that was loosely constrained by a natural process, the timing and amplitude of the tides.


The idea is so far as I know original.

I did, as suggested, pick an unconventional time signature.  25/16 seems to be a Bulgarian dance  rhythm ‘sedi donka’ as 7 + 7 +11.  My usual pattern of six crotchets plus a ‘skip’ semiquaver instead tries to set up the idea more clearly of phasing.  I believe, with the help of Sibelius, that I have notated this as clearly and practically as I can, for example showing the beats in the bar immediately before one of the periodic gong entries.

The overall shape of loud/excited and soft/contemplative followed quite strictly the design in my earlier blog:

The ending is exciting

The shifting of the claves ‘high tide’ against the triangle ‘lunar 25 hour day’ is audible and quite hypnotic in the quieter music.

The design, to bring the two back into sync on the last note, was technically followed through.

I experimented with a very wide range of cross-rhythms.

I believe the percussion parts would be technically playable, though conducting this would be tough.  The triangle semiquaver at the end of every bar does at least act as a flag or anchor for the players to know when to start the next bar.  Having two side drummers is a practical decision to reduce fatigue, and add interest since very often one imitates the other, though often at a different dynamic


For an unpitched percussion piece with no change in speed or time signature, or completely contrasting section of different instruments, this first serious attempt, at getting on for 10 minutes is too long to easily sustain attention if you are listening to it as a pure performance piece without also following the concept.  That’s a problem with a lot of twentieth century music though e.g. Boulez ‘Le Marteau sans Maitre’ or Stockhausen ‘Cosmic Pulses’, I think around 40 minutes each.  However Varese ‘Ionisation’ on 7 minutes is more interesting as  a pure untuned percussion piece, if you forgive the tuning of the sirens!  Oh and I think I hear the bongos playing a triad at one point….

There are too many bars in my piece with side drum semiquavers, at least when I have listened to this multiple times.  Perhaps with the anticipation of fresh listening they could be said to create suspense.  But really they reflect me running out of time.

Fundamentally this is over-ambitious for a first attempt.  However I now know more about what it takes to score something on this scale, and the need for more than one basic concept to create variety.


Useful learning experience.  I know more about some of the less classical untuned percussion; I particularly like the sound of temple blocks but used this in an earlier project so wanted to try out something different.  In fact I am still curious to hear again what this ‘Welcome to Ceredigion’ sounds like.  With a lot more time, I am sure I could improve the piece.  So an Opus zero then not an Opus 1 !

Looking forwards to being allowed to use PITCH and all the things that brings with intervals, harmony and melody.

Other notes

One influence in making so prominent a side drum part was perhaps the side drum solo ‘against the orchestra’ in the first movement of Neilsen’s fifth symphony.

Reich really pioneered ‘Phasing’ but when you analyse  a number of his works, the basic rhythm within which the phasing takes place is a regular one.  So for example in ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’, the only one I know apart from Clapping without tuned pitch, the repeating cell is either 6 beats, 4 or 3 beats right at at the end.  I had to see that rather than hear it, so my initial idea of hearing a 25 versus 24 cross-rhythm is clearly just too demanding on the aural short term memory.  The following nice visualisation of Reich’s own phasing for claves (at different pitches) makes clear to the eye, and then to the ear what is going on.  I will think about that joint appreciation through both eyes and ears for some future work e.g. using stereo or even binaural synthesis.

A footnote on the ‘gong ageng’: this is the largest of the Javanese gamelan instruments and traditionally used to start and end a sequence

If not available, I imagine a tam tam would substitute, but its resonance may continue for rather long unless stopped, which can seem abrupt.


Assignment 1 wav file and pdf

This is my assignment on untuned percussion.  It’s based on the ideas of phasing and tide tables.  The title ‘Welcome to Ceredigion’ was on the tide table for summer 2014 which I drew on for the timing and dynamics.  More commentary on the composition process tomorrow.  It’s something of an experiment:

Welcome to Ceredigion sync and dyn 2015_5 – Full Score


The time signature 25/16 relates to 12 and half hours as a close approximation to the time between high tides or between low tides.  A half hour is a semiquaver and the shortest unit in the music is a demisemiquaver so that the tides are rounded to the nearest quarter hour.  The actual tides follow a more complex rhythm and advance slowly on this period.  The turn of the tide is marked by a strike of the claves, and normal ‘clock’ (or earth) time is marked by a wood block every two hours, which corresponds to four semiquavers in the score.  This is on the main beat (6×4 + 1)/16 only once every four bars.  The perception of the beat shifts accordingly; sometimes I use accents to reinforce the written bar and sometimes to undermine it, for example using a 5 x 5 division of the bar in the bass drum.  A whip crash marks the point of the highest ‘spring’ tide about once every 14 days, typically near full moon and new moon when the moon pulls the tides along the same axis as the sun.  Over the composition as a whole, there are six such high points when the music is loud and busy.  In between these the steady pulse of half hours on the two side drums decays and at the time of greatest slack, disappears altogether.  A triangle strike, however, regularly marks the 25th semiquaver.


Back in action – natural cycle as basis for percussion assignment


It’s been a while but I’ve now sorted times and amplitudes for three months’ tides at Aberystwyth. If I use the height of the low tide, the lower curve, as a guide to excitement/volume then the piece will start at modest volume, end on a crescendo and have three main peaks:


Aberystwyth tide wave form

Next step is to work out the exact ‘phasing’ of these low tides – further apart as they get lower, I believe.

The graph below is the result of alignment to a 25-beat norm of 12 and a half hours between low tides, selecting start (3 tides skipped) and end to complete at zero but with a phase advancement of a single 25-beat bar through the piece as a whole.  The blue bars are the beat phasing and the red bars which will be interpreted as ‘excitement’/volume are 25 minus ten times low tide height in metres.  This a proxy for high tide height and has the result that amplitude is greatest where the tides are accelerating – i.e. the phase is advancing (getting earlier faster)

An additional 24-beat rhythm within the 25-pulse metre will correspond to half-hours on the sidereal clock and starts with a change in the same direction as the tides, but then diverges.  At the end, 175 half-days, this rhythm will also return to the bar line.

Phasing of low tides relative to 12 and a half hour norm


The original file with tide tables is attached here for reference as an Excel 2007 set of pages:

Aberystwyth low tides quantised inverted V3