Three or four methods

Having practically completed the first of my three Mirror Motets (for flute, clarinet and violin) and in the process of writing the next two (all the basic planning done), it might be interesting to write up a few thoughts about the process and how it is all going and what I think about these pieces at this stage. This post I’ll just focus on the basic logic of each different motet, the next ones will deal with other more concrete issues.

Three (or four) methods. 

The first thing to say is that each of the three takes a different approach to the construction of the counterpoint, to test what this means for the listening (and the performing) experience. The initial inspiration was the motets of the late 13th century (‘Petronian’ motets) and those of the Ars Nova and ‘Ars Subtilior’ period, and in particular the double-texted motets (with three texts). I have not really taken any direct models, but tried to find inspiration from these earlier styles to help me define different approaches in my own pieces.

Motet 1.

The first motet is the most basically ‘cantus firmus’ in style of the three. The phrase structure of the flute gives the basic bar structure and tempi to the full ensemble texture. In general its also the slowest moving, as in medieval motets. The other two lines have their own autonomously conceived phrase structures (derived from the texts on which they are based) but these are mediated by (or made to agree with) the flute line. So while the work doesn’t start with a precomposed solo-line to which I add extra parts (as was the basic approach in the 14th century, though not always), nonetheless the basic logic of a hierarchy is there. (The plan remains to write a solo flute piece and then add an ensemble composition around it… but that’s for later). The hierarchy includes a basic tempo ratio between the lines (flute: slow; violin: faster; clarinet: fastest). As in the Ars Nova period, localised imitative procedures cut across this hierarchy…

Somebody who might have been Petrus de Cruce (famous for his 'Petronian' motets)

Somebody who might have been Petrus de Cruce (famous for his ‘Petronian’ motets)

Motet 3.

The third motet is something of the reverse, and perhaps resembles the polyphonic practices of the 15-16th century more closely. While there is still a basic tempo hierarchy, the structure of the work is founded on ‘points of imitation’. Rhythmic imitation is the main player here although other parameters will no doubt come in. At each major section a different line takes up the principle position, giving the metre and the tempo for the rest of the ensemble, and the other voices unfold as a tempo canon.

Motet 2.

The second is the combination of two methods. Firstly, most of the work has no common score. While I have worked out so that the three lines should technically take the same amount of time, they each proceed with a distinct tempo and a distinct metric structure and since the discourse is (well, will be…) quite complex and challenging, it’s unlikely that the performers will have the capacity or the desire to make sure they are ‘in sync’. My attempt will be to compose with as little memory of what I’ve written for each other line, to see what effect this may have (if any!) on the listening experience and the sense of ‘counterpoint’. I have already undertaken this experiment before but that was when I was writing in a much more intuitive and short-range manner. At that time I found that, because of this short-range thinking, the overall result was that things fit together very nicely as though I composed them all with reference to each other. My hypothesis is that there will be a different result this time, since I will have much more long-range planning in each line, and therefore perhaps far more palpable divergences between lines.

My point of reference for this non-synchronised approach is Finnissy’s great piece Nobody’s Jig for string quartet. However, against this, there are two sections during the piece where there will be a score. The logic for these sections will be the exact opposite: all the lines will clearly articulate the same metric structure, in fact it is a kind angry-chorale. Basically to make this work whichever performer reaches this section first sits on a fermata note until the others catch up (or jump immediately ahead as need be). They all hold the fermata chord and cue the next section together. The inspiration for this is the wild opening to ‘First take’ of the album Twins by Ornette Coleman’s Double Quartet.

So there’s kind of 4 basic logics of counterpoint here: 1) fixed hierarchy, 2) shifting hierarchy, 3) complete freedom, and 4) complete interdependency. In my view none are necessarily any less or more ‘contrapuntal’ than any others, since counterpoint is more a perspective and a manner of working than any particular techniques. But what will be interesting will be to see the differences in musical results generated by these different approaches.

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