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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

33. The Completion of My Piano Trio, Op. 18, and Some Thoughts on Referential Music

With Richard Rose in May 2018

September and October have been incredibly busy but also very rewarding months for me. Abendmusik Alexandria has gotten off to a great start, with packed houses at both of our first two concerts, and I have also had the chance to speak to Fine Arts classes and make media appearances for the series. These renewed musical activities have given me the determination over the last two weeks since “Folk-Tale and Fauré” to go back and finish the final movement of my Piano Trio, Op. 18 which had laid dormant since April 2012 when my composition lessons with Richard Rose ended. Mr. Rose had not only introduced me to Classical forms, but also encouraged me to use twentieth-century devices, like twelve-tone serialism, bitonality, and quartal harmonies. The First Movement of the Op. 18 Trio, composed as the final project of my fall 2011 lessons, applies all of these elements, if rigidly and mechanically. This rigidity, however, was reinterpreted purposefully as of the Second Movement, composed in the spring, where there is a gradual freeing-up of musical material. With the exception of the theme introduced at its outset, the first half of the Second Movement is just as mechanical as the First and becomes even more so. It incorporates all potential row permutations before the release in its second half where the music becomes more fluid, less-organized, and also quite aggressive. In the Third Movement, sketched in April 2012 but not completed until this evening, I resolved that I would take this process of release a step further by effectively “tonalizing” the row and its permutations.

I had originally left this final movement after writing only five measures, but even at that time I had already decided what the plan would be for the rest of the movement. The cello would run-through the rhythms of Contrapunctus I, Op. 11, for three cellos, although the pitches would now be chosen according to the serial matrix developed for the Piano Trio. I had also already decided that I would begin and end each row with the pitch class A regardless of which pitch class actually began the row permutation. This was in imitation of Contrapunctus where each measure begins and ends on A, but it would also ensure that A would be established as a tonal center by the end of the movement. Meanwhile, the piano and violin would gradually allude more and more to the original melody lines of Contrapunctus while maintaining their overall atonality, although sometimes they would throw-in tonal references to A minor too. I now decided that, whereas the original Contrapunctus runs through three repetitions of forty measures, I would take only the first forty measures for the new movement and divide it into four sets of ten with every ten measures becoming more revealing of its origins in Contrapunctus. The piano in section three even plays through the corresponding section of Contrapunctus note-for-note, although I added enough extra notes so that this reference is still only minimally perceptible. By the last ten-measure section, the allusions have been fully-stated and the cello starts playing the Contrapunctus material note-for-note unconcealed. I still conceal somewhat the revealing opening motif, replacing it with its serialized counterpart until the last few measures of the piece where all is finally revealed.

Movement Three of the Piano Trio with its quotation from Contrapunctus was also where the so-called referential phase in my compositions began. I am still in this phase, so it was important that I get back to finish this critical predecessor to my current compositions. By “referential,” I mean that I apply some outside element to organize and essentially tonalize the otherwise atonal idiom of this music. Here that outside element is the Contrapunctus quotation, but in Jazz Cats, Op. 20, for example, it is the body of jazz elements that I reference. The total reference in a composition, however, can also be understated and abstract such as what I call an “organic prime row.” By “organic,” I mean that I do not create a full serial matrix—something which I find limiting, not liberating—and instead the prime row is treated more freely as a malleable sequence of the twelve pitch classes. The organic row concept emerged in the work which followed the Piano Trio: the first of the Studies in Concert, Op. 19, namely the Study for cello and player piano composed in August 2012. There the row is used throughout as a structural element, but never in predetermined permutations, so that its strict usage can be likened to “diatonic” pitches in a given key and material that does not adhere to that sequence resembles “chromatic” pitches in the same key. In other words, the order of pitches brings centeredness and any extraneous usage or material correspondingly diverts from this centeredness. This had become my characteristic usage of tone rows as of Jazz Cats, and it felt odd to use a full matrix again here in Opus 18 Movement Three. Aside from structural implications, however, referential music more generally represents a personalization of serial practice and a way of bringing lay audiences into this difficult idiom through a guiding outside element or elements.

Cellists Paul Christopher, Christina Lake, and Milovan Paz gave the premiere of Contrapunctus I in April 2011

Although it had been more than two years since beginning Movement Three (and nearly three since starting the Piano Trio), I think I succeeded in finishing the existing piece, rather than rambling into one of my more recent compositions. This was a good thing, as I see the Piano Trio as essentially the only bridge between my introduction to conventional twelve-tone serialism by Mr. Rose and the referential music I am writing now. My concept of referential music has developed further in that time, and certainly my thesis research on Alfred Schnittke, his polystylism, and his own characteristic treatment of tone rows has helped in that growth. I also see the Piano Trio as a companion of sorts to Jazz Cats; the older Trio in Phrygian, Op. 10; Contrapunctus; and another Baroque-inspired trio still in need of completion. These five together make up a sort of “Trio Project” where, with the exception of Contrapunctus, all are multi-movement works for mixed three-part ensembles. As fate would have it, I ran into Mr. Rose at a concert in Natchitoches on Thursday and told him I was back at work on the Trio I had started while taking lessons from him two years earlier.

JSH 14.10.18

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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