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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

56. Beyond Referential Music? Modality, Contrast, and Combat in My Recent Compositions

Composition 1916. The painter Piet Mondrian was someone who was deeply concerned with structure.

The past year has seen the composition or completion of several pieces, including Jazz Cats, Op. 20 (May 2014); Piano Trio, Op. 18 (October 2014); Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21 (January 2015); and the Kyrie of the Organ Symphony, Op. 22 (March 2015). Earlier this month, from May 18 to 25, I also began my next work, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 23. Yet, since the essentially tonal Guitar Suite, I have questioned the continued vitality of referential music, a guiding concept in my compositions since beginning the Third Movement of the Piano Trio in April 2012. This post shall explore the evolution of referential music and question if my recent works of this spring can still come under that heading. It is an important question as I prepare for performances of Op. 21 this fall; as I bring Opp. 22 and 23 to completion; and as I look forward to future works, for the appeal to referential music is how I have brought structure to every composition for three years now.

Referential music began when I structured the Third Movement of the Piano Trio around the familiar melody of Contrapunctus, Op. 11 for three cellos; it was a way of centering atonality and personalizing the serial system. The next phase in referential music was the development of the “organic prime row” as of the Study, Op. 19 No. 1 for cello and player piano of August 2012. The organic prime row, a non-permutated ordering of the twelve pitch classes, provided centeredness and structure through its very ordering, even though not quoted from existing music. This much of the story was told in my post last October. From there though the organic row concept developed in a few ways. My solo harpsichord work Tremblement de terre composed in November 2012 substitutes a twelve pitch-class series for a smaller set derived from the letters of the French title; it then uses this smaller set organically. The Offering, my incomplete Baroque trio begun in January 2013, utilizes the Royal Theme from Bach’s Musical Offering as if it was an organic row. And, the Study, Op. 19 No. 5 for trombone and player piano of December 2013 develops its chromatic row gradually and also fashions a tonal melody from it. Each of these compositions also pushes into the third phase of referential music: the larger reference. We know this concept from Jazz Cats, the Suite for Solo Guitar, and Organ Symphony. Rather than a single musical motif (i.e. a pre-existing theme or organic prime row) as the structural reference, the larger reference can be several stylistic traits or another program: jazz; music of the Middle Ages, Baroque, or Classical eras; the preferred repertoire of guitarist John De Chiaro; or the imagined sounds of an earthquake as in Tremblement de terre.

The Red Gaze. Arnold Schoenberg went into silence for nearly a decade as he refined the serial method.

The fourth phase is the problematic one—the point at which an entire work becomes tonal or modal due to its larger reference. This is the perceived dilemma in the Suite for Solo Guitar and the Kyrie of the Organ Symphony. From the beginning, referential music was meant to bring tonal centeredness to the composition, thus the emphasis on the pitch class of A in the Third Movement of the Piano Trio; the metaphorical diatonicism of a strictly-applied organic row; and the aural familiarity of the larger reference. It was never meant to fully tonalize, however. I write of the problematic tonality of both the Guitar Suite and Kyrie in earlier posts, but what happens when the music has become mostly tonal or modal (thanks to the larger reference) and then the specific motivic references are developed as a tonal or modal composer might have? Isn’t it just tonal or modal music at that point? I think the case for the Kyrie as referential music is stronger than the Guitar Suite, and that is because its references are specific structural devices rather than one larger, less-specific idea.

That said, a fifth phase begins in the Kyrie and continues in the String Quartet No. 2 in the form of multiple, specific motivic references and how they are employed. Their contrast and later combat distinguishes this phase from Jazz Cats, for example, where there are admittedly also multiple motives in play. In the Kyrie these musical motives are the “Kyrie,” “Christe,” and various melismatic materials which are quoted from the chant and brought into my composition. They coexist peacefully and their contrast brings structure to the movement. Problematically, in the String Quartet, however, the motivic references are placed at odds with each other and threaten to tear the composition apart—what I have termed “combative references.” Does their combat itself ultimately bring structure as good references should, or do these references diminish internal structure while I impose a neat three-movement plan upon the work? And, again, couldn’t we simply take away the referential framework and describe these “references” as themes in a tenser, more chromatic idiom than the Kyrie? Nor is there a larger reference (jazz, Baroque, or otherwise) to situate the String Quartet in an external context, so that we’re back in a twentieth century-style fully-chromatic, if not serialized, idiom.

Now might be a good time to describe the structure of the String Quartet No. 2 in more detail as this is the first MusicCentral post to discuss this work. So far, and the Sting Quartet is only halfway complete, there are four conflicting ideas matched with four interrelated tone rows which inhabit the three-movement structure of the String Quartet. The First Movement introduces a four-note theme D-Eb-D-Db which is expanded and contracted in the First Movement until it is heard as violent half-step slashes throughout the Second Movement. The Second Movement has its own theme—a melody even—introduced right away by the cello and carried further by triple-time jaunts. The catchy theme of the Third Movement is meant to relieve the tension of the relentless Second Movement when it is finally and fully revealed at its outset after having been alluded to throughout the Second. There are also four tone rows associated with various permutations of the Third Movement theme, and these are employed throughout the Second Movement, before the big reveal.

The idée fixe, or persistent theme, was first used by Hector Berlioz in his Symphonie fantastique.

In the Second and Third Movements, there is also what I have termed “idée fixe chords” which are heard prominently for the first time at the end of the Second Movement. These are D-A-Ab-Eb, Gb-B-Bb-F, and G-Db-C-E which, you might have noticed, involve all twelve chromatic pitch classes in vertical stackings where their voicing is also critical to their usage. A great amount of tension exists between these different ideas in the Second Movement—the core of the piece—and here it seems these different ideas will undermine the cohesion of the movement. The tension is temporarily relieved with the appearance of the Third Movement theme, but then reinstated as the idée fixe chords begin to take over. These idée fixe chords ultimately terminate the piece before a quick retreat to an almost out-of-place D-minor chord closes the piece. Overall the trajectory is one of increasing tension in the First and Second Movements and until the arrival of the Third Movement theme; at this point tension diminishes before quickly re-escalating and a final collapse.

Getting back to the questions I posed earlier… Wouldn’t it be a good thing if I could develop and contrast themes as tonal-era composers did? And, wouldn’t it also be a good thing if I could do this in a fresh chromatic and intellectually-driven idiom which could simultaneously maintain the interest of a non-specialist listener? These would be good things, I think, but the impending sublimation or dissipation of referential music leaves me wondering how to proceed. My structural foundation is quickly unraveling, and I worry I have gone as far as I can with the referential concept even though I am quite excited about my prospects for the Organ Symphony and String Quartet No. 2. As productive as May has been, I have two commitments that will soon pull me away from my compositions—Spamalot and our family vacation to Yellowstone. Perhaps when I return, I will have navigated my way through these structural concerns as I know the works themselves are full of potential.

JSH 15.05.28

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar and composer. He is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ College—Louisiana’s designated honors college—where he completed an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” He has followed classical music around the world, attending the BachFest Leipzig in Germany, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and many concerts across Louisiana and Texas. Resident in Alexandria, Jackson works with the Arts Council of Central Louisiana as Series Director of the Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series. He also writes the program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra. As his day job, Jackson serves as Operations Manager of TicketCentral.


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