Line and melody

Finnissy says in the interview in the opening chapter of Uncommon Ground: “A melody is a line you can remember” (or something like that, I don’t have the book on hand).

It makes me think about the human dimension of my counterpoint. Earlier I asked why counterpoint could not just be immediately conceived of as abstract dialectics – a vast, kind of cosmic, play of similarity and difference. Why did I insist on the ‘line’ as traditionally conceived? I said it’s because my idea of counterpoint is a materialist one and the materials of music are social relations as embodied in the performers.

This raises some interesting questions. Beyond the rules for voice-leading, dissonance treatment, etc, historical counterpoint was founded on a couple of principles with regard to the creation of lines. These are: the memorability/recognisability, pliability, and transferability. Lines could be unthematic – could be mere ‘figuration’ with a general directionality – but a thoroughgoing counterpoint would have it that the lines in general should have these three qualities (this is part of the logic of thematism).

The line should be memorable and recognisable throughout the work. Another way of putting this is that the line should be singable. This is something of a truism in the teaching of counterpoint, right?

This also means that the lines, functioning as a theme, should be pliable and open to variations. This is kind of like memorability, since if the theme is memorable enough it should be able to be substantially modified and still recognised as itself.

The line should be transferable. That is to say that it is sufficiently abstract enough that it can be transported from instrument to instrument without losing its essential nature. It cannot be based fundamentally on the idiomatic nature of one instrument if the ensemble is heterogeneous, or it can be idiomatic so long as the group is homogeneous. Either way, it has to be transferable otherwise the theme cannot be taken up by any and all voices in the texture. (This also relates to the ‘singability’, since if a line is founded on the human voice, most instruments will be able to take it up, if displaced by octaves).

I’m writing another blog post at the moment where I’ll talk about how thematism strengthens the counterpoint since each line as an instantiation of the memorable and singable theme is therefore itself memorable and singable and invested with much more meaning: it is not neutral ‘filler’. This non-neutrality of the line means that, quite apart from the harmonic question, the relations and tensions between lines and the effort that goes into trying to perceive the various realisations of a theme at any one point, are that much more stimulating for the listener.

What does a contemporary counterpoint do now that there are no culturally assumed norms for the production of memorability, that thematism is no longer viable, that far more complex resources available, and that idiomatic instrumental writing has become necessary to a greater degree (since this is part of the materialist injunction)?

I don’t intend to answer these questions here. But some to return to Finnissy briefly:

Finnissy seems to use pre-modern materials (mostly global folk and classical musics) in order to resolve this issue, both to create zones of recognisability (where quoted materials are presented more or less straightforwardly) and through thematic treatment of these melodies to strengthen the polyphony.

This latter is particularly interesting to me, Finnissy often puts forward a folk melody, inverted and in retrograde, with other rhythmic and pitch modifications, so that it is unrecognisable as a copy of the original. Yet while it isn’t really singable either, it is in a way on the verge of singability (and memorability, and transferability). This endows the line with a meaning and a strength that it may not have had if composed abstractly, and set against other lines, it strengthens the overall counterpoint.

Something to keep thinking about…

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