PBS 8: Counterpoint

At the moment I am considering applying for a PhD in composition in my hometown of Brisbane. If this also includes a scholarship (!), it will enable me to devote the bulk of my (non-political) time over the next 3-4 years to a ‘formation project’, and hopefully include a fair bit of overseas time. This means a concerted study of the totality of Western music history from a technical, analytical, theoretical, and social perspective, the development of my own compositional practice, and the development of my own theoretical system. Sounds ambitious, but I largely just mean it to be a foundational study, getting me up to speed.

The question is of course, how do I do this in the framework of a PhD? Evidently not all of this can be formally part of the doctorate (‘scope’, ‘original research’, etc etc), so I have to choose something that is 1) a significant element of this formation project, 2) a consistent element of it (i.e. it is not particular to a specific era or theoretical construction), 3) has a sharp enough focus, 4) has firm interconnections with the bulk of the formation project, and 5) is important to my practice at the moment (and into the conceivable future).

At this stage I’m thinking that the best fit is the counterpoint question, or “What could be a 21st century counterpoint, and how can I compose it?” This engages the harmony question, the question of how to create long-range forms that work with local contrapuntal procedures, encompasses an entire history of polyphony in the West, and many others. I would have to go back to pre-Baroque, spend a crapload of time on Bach, and then progress to the innovations of the 20th century… Sounds fun.


A couple of thoughts on counterpoint arising from the Paris trip:

Counterpoint can be seen as a contradiction between the logic of development of each line and logical ‘integrity’ of the whole. Two lines of force that mutually influence and limit each other and are irresolvable except through their mutual negation.

It can also be seen as a contradiction between this procedure and the vertical-horizontal logic of harmonic development (or perhaps this is the same idea as above, expressed differently). François takes this to mean that there is no counterpoint without harmony.

There’s also the simple dialectic of coincidence and non-coincidence that has to do with the rhythmic plane – 1st species, 2nd species, etc – of which Carter (or in a sense Nancarrow) represents the most developed modern form to my knowledge. I’m interested in developing a way of relating voices across long-range patterns of coincidence and non-coincidence, in being able to vary the length of time before coincidence, and relating this to global formal structures.


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