Violin Étude at Darmstadt

Darmstadt 2014 is over as of yesterday. I have many, many reflections I intend to post over the next week – some of which I have already drafted while at Darmstadt. But I wanted to start with some quick remarks on a short violin étude I wrote while at the festival.

Graeme Jennings put out an open call while we were there for composers to write short one-page etudes for solo violin and submit them for workshop. I managed to find a morning to sit and compose a short something. It’s one page and lasts for maybe 30”.

There were two ideas behind it. Firstly, from the perspective of my development of a contrapuntal approach to music, I wanted to focus on a single line that has quite a small ‘compass’ (i.e. a small range within which the melody is woven) since in previous pieces I felt that much of my writing was too wide and mean that lines lost their self-identity a little too much. Additionally, I wanted to try to write a melody that clearly outlines the 2- and 3-groupings of a complex (and constantly changing meter), for reasons of ensemble cohesion and facilitating polyphonic textures without a conductor (see my post on rehearsing QEM2). Secondly, and linked to this, I wanted to create a melody that integrated elements of ‘folk complexity’ as I currently see it: out of tune-ness, particularly out of tune octaves and fifths, ‘missed’ fingerings that result in harmonics, over pressure to (almost) create subtones, etc. This was to help give a sense of complexity to the line but one didn’t feel ornamental, but substantial, and to draw upon some of the affirmative and anti-commodity power of folk.

Here it is!

Darmstadt violin etude

Graeme practically sight-read the thing during the workshop yesterday (the last day of D-Stadt), and it came across quite well. I’ll try to chase up the recording of it for my own purposes. The fact that I managed to write a fairly successful 30” solo in 4-5 hours is really quite encouraging. Here are some thoughts I jotted down yesterday on the train back to Brussels:

  • The melody line within a small compass is totally doable and effective
  • The ‘pesante’ quality comes through nicely and makes the line feel more impactful and less ornamental
  • The over-pressure aspects didn’t really produce subtones but did add nice colourations – perhaps more workshopping is necessary or performance notes to make it clear exactly the desired effect
  • The harmonic worked very well with the scord, but probably need more development and more adventurous exploration
  • The rhythm felt generally quite fluid and didn’t feel too much like a strong ‘metre’ – perhaps because of a lack of practice time, but in general it’s possible that writing in this way may not sound as rigid as I worried it might. Certainly as a ‘meter-giving’ line in a polyphonic texture, this kind of writing could work well. The introduction of tuplets was good in how it was quite regulated, but of course much more could be done to get more expression, etc, out of this.
  • The scordatura was nice, but it turns out it’s better to tune strings down rather than up. If you tune them up, they tend to slip back down. Tuning down is less risky. Down might be more resonant too. In general the quarter-tone scord is effective.
  • Ferneyhough said in a lesson that my music is quite ‘constricted by the beat’ and I think he’s correct. It might be true that this etude is still a little too based on gestures that stay within the beat. This undermines the unity of the line, although the fact that the compass of the line is small pushes it back in the direction of unification. Probably worth exploring how to think across beats, by way of phrasing, dynamics, etc. Tying across beats would also help, but in a contrapuntal context, I want to try to keep the ‘meter-giving’ line quite clearly outline the stresses…
  • The approach to ordering the presentation of different techniques, etc, was quite successful, if a bit rudimentary. The basic point was that different techniques would be more dense in one section and less elsewhere (e.g. appearing every 2-3 notes or appearing every 6-7 notes or not appearing at all) and this would transition in and out. Multiple techniques could appear in the one area but it is quite regulated and avoids the clutter of QEM2. There must be a more logical and consistent way of doing this, which I suppose I should work out. But I wonder whether I shouldn’t just keep it a bit looser so I can be a bit intuitive in its employment.
  • In a longer line I should try to play with the lengths of phrases some more. It works quite well in this etude, but I wonder if it’s a bit to ‘classical’ and needs to be problematised a bit by trying radically longer and shorter phrases.
  • I wonder how many more general techniques and ideas I would have to come up with for the quartet. Do I need totally different characters? I guess I do, but perhaps that’s just a matter of identifying other parameters and developing them – for instance, note spacing: at a certain point I could start making the width of the violin line wider and wider until it gets to the ‘expressionistic’ style of my previous writing and the integrity of the line collapses to a degree (at least within that parameter).

For now, those are the reflections. It will be interesting to write a lot more for the violin to see what else I can come up with, and extend and explore certain aspects and parameters of the material, and then situate it in a contrapuntal context!