Melancolia: multi-tempo music in large form

Prior to the brief studies heard in the blog posts immediately below this one, I pursued a large-form work in multiple tempi, Melancolia (2015-2016). The earliest spark for Melancolia came from a detail within Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514), its magnificent magic square.magic-square

I wanted to respond musically in some way to this mystical and mystifying square, or more specifically its numbers and their arrangement. After much consideration as to what and how, I settled on this form: 20 minutes of total length, subdivided into 20 1-minute subsections, each subsection controlled by four different, simultaneous tempi, those tempi derived from various rows, columns, diagonals, and other combinations from Dürer’s square (all of which add up to 34). Each minute/section is further subdivided into six 10-second measures: it is this unit that defines the departures and returns of the four tempi. Audibly, every ten seconds you will hear a rhythmic unison somewhere in the texture, and every minute you will hear a new “orchestration” and new array of four tempi.

When we fit the largest number, 16, into a ten-second unit, we derive the fastest tempo: mm=96. We subtract 6 clicks for each descending number, so 15 brings us mm=90. 10 will bring us mm=60, 1 brings us mm=6. (You can fill in the rest.) The opening 1-minute section takes the four numbers of the top row of the magic square: 16:3:2:13 (or mm 96:18:12:78 beats per minute). The bass plays at 96 beats per minute, the prepared piano at 78 bpm, the strums of the piano strings twice per measure (12 per minute), and the white noise “explosions” are three times per measure (18 per minute).

Now you have an anchor, if one be sought, for listening to Melancolia. I do not feel I have given too much away. That was just the beginning of a long journey of discovery for me in the composing, and hopefully for you in the listening. Enjoy!

ADDENDUM: (4/28/18) I have posted the reference score here.

Extended notes, contemporaneous to the above:

I feel my blog is the appropriate place to discuss some of the technical aspects of my work, as there are two truths: 1) technical aspects are important to me, and 2) technical aspects do not always need to be divulged, and often never need to be divulged in advance of hearing a composition for the first time. If you discovered this blog before hearing Melancolia then you might just be very curious and organized, or happened here by accident. You can choose to go listen first at this point. I do recommend it.

One very important architectural feature about how Melancolia was constructed is the underlying tempo scheme. There are always four different tempi at any given time. In fact, Melancolia‘s compositional raison d’etre stems from my interest in taking multi-tempo composition personally farther than I ever have: in a long-form composition not bound by live performance considerations. In the blog posts just beneath this one you will encounter a series of studies in multi-tempo. These came after Melancolia; they play with tempo relationships that are more complex than those in Melancolia, which draws from quaternal combinations of 16:15:14:13:12:11:10:9:8:7:6:5:4:3:2:1, namely as found in the magic square of Dürer’s magic square in Melencolia 1.

Once I entered into a world of performance-impractical “make-believe,” if you will, a vast sonic palette opened to me, reachable only via recording. Once that world opened up, I could return to certain principles of traditional composition and performance, but transcend the limitations of time and place – in other words, I could ask highly-skilled musicians to play and record brief passages I had written (for instruments I don’t play) and email them to me for inclusion in a larger score.

The walls were brought down. I then craved instruments that I rarely get to indulge in (the pipe organ), as well as pitches and sounds that do not exist on traditional instruments. Enter the prepared piano and various other components of a “scratch orchestra.” The pitch quality of some of these sounds was unpredictable, and this led me back to improvisation in places. (In fact, the first time I prepared the piano and recorded the first two (composed) minutes of Melancolia, I liked the tuning so much that I improvised a 5-movement Suite for Prepared for Piano. Hear it here.)

It was only “natural” after these excursions to want to bring in the birds and the bees and the fishies and the trees and the streams and the stones; even a few manmade wonders, such as cathedral bells in Italy, machinery, and a few sounds I gathered from the field.

Finally there were the elements of practicality and the possible, yes, even within the impossible. BY circumstance I could never find an improvising flute player who would play, so after discussing this with a great classical guitar player (David Nadal) he suggested that he perform something on the Moog(!). So I composed a Moog passage, inspired by a (hyper-)flute improvisation I heard in my head, and he recorded it beautifully.

How could I have such latitude? How dare I? Where is the organization? This goes back to my tempo- and sectional-based lattice work that I worked out over a long period of time. I actually had given myself a warehouse of very properly organized and designed buckets to go fill with things. It was in the mindful filling of these buckets where I was able to touch the indefinable, do the thing that we do when we say we are making art. In a sense, everything here is spontaneous and intuitive, even the things that are slow-cooked. That is the place for me: spontaneity over years, or time compressed into a dense stone of activity. This is an abiding quality of art. In the end, the technical aspects really do not matter. They are to keep me interested, perhaps a bit grounded, during the process of seeking.

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