Author Archives: Jenni Pinnock

A composite man – a composite piece?

“A conversation between two people who aren’t really listening to each other”

To find out the background to this piece, read Graham’s post about writing this poem –  Not knowing… (part 2). I pick up straight up where Graham stops – with the finished poem winging its way over to me.

When Graham sent me his first version of this poem, it was clear the two conversations needed to be two separate entities,  yet presented as one overall picture of the scene. I could already tell that the two characters- the (dead) coprolite digger and his wife – needed separate musical identities and songs, and had the idea that their singing should be entwined for the final stanza of the piece. Graham’s final presentation of the two monologues  – a modern composite of two conversations- furthered my original thoughts.

If the two characters are ignoring each other, they must therefore be talking about separate things – having two conversation which occasionally collide. As a result, I decided to write a separate song for each character which would begin as separate entities, but overlap more as the piece progressed, eventually being presented almost simultaneously.

The first voice is that of a dead coprolite digger- which Graham has based around the skeleton of a folk song. Wanting to work along similar lines, my setting of this is centred around a folk or work song.  It’s quite a simple melody, in three, catchy with a strong down beat. In contrast, the wife’s song is more lyrical, in a completely different tonality and has four beats in the bar.  Choosing the tonalities for the two different songs was tricky. I deliberately picked tonalities that suited each, but was mindful of making sure they’d have elements of both dissonance and harmony. The three in a bar folk song is in C minor, while the soprano’s melody drifts between E flat minor and E flat locrian. This combination creates plenty of room for dissonance, but yet space for moments of harmony too. Think of it as one vocalist singing Twinkle Twinkle (major) while the other sings Teddy Bear’s Picnic (minor) a few notes lower – and adds in some colourful extra accidentals!

Below is a rough diagram of how the voices are sliding over each other (and combining!) at the moment – at the stage where I’m tidying up the first draft of the piece. As you can see, for the first stanza the voices only momentarily overlap at the end of each phrase. The moments of overlap (or alternating phrases) increase in the second stanza, bar one line. They increase further as the piece progresses, until they’re almost completely entwined in stanza four – save for the last line, where each can be heard independently again – each saying their piece to end the conversation.

Of course, this method of creating a piece brings further questions with it. How do you ensure each part is heard fully (or do you abandon that entirely?). What time signature(s) and key signatures(s) do you use, and how do you ensure the vocalists maintain the original feel of their songs when they’re being pushed and pulled around a bit time and tempo wise? All good questions – all of which I need to answer as I finish drafting A composite man !

Scales and arpeggios – not just for exams!

Scales are a staple of musical life. If you learn a musical instrument, you end up playing them (sometimes seemingly endlessly!) and learning how they work is an important chunk of musical theory.

Not all scales are created equal. Western music relies on equal temperament, where the octave is divided into 12 equal parts, or semitones. However, our perception of the musical world as a whole is based on just intonation and the harmonic series. As a result, rather than all sounding the same, scales in equal temperament each have a different feeling. I once did a survey to try and find out composer’s favourite scales, but ultimately it depends on the piece in question. For example, I find E major a bit too ‘major’, but E flat major more rounded, with D flat major being a favourite. Minor wise, I’m not a huge fan of A minor, but E minor or C minor I do like, and D minor feels very traditionally ‘minor’.

As a result, finding the tonal centres and scales to use in a piece are a fundamental point for me. They have to work with the piece, its feeling, and with the performers in question too, as transposing to another key often feels rather wrong.

Major and minor scales are those focused on most in traditional music exams. Chromatic scales (using all 12 semitones in an octave, white and black notes) are practiced too, and some exams include pentatonic (five note- think Javanese gamelan!) and whole tone (dream sequence) scales too. For this piece I wanted something slightly more unusual than any of the above.

The blessing of the road-born child is a mother’s song to her child, born on the road. The tonality needed to be something not too major or minor, and with a bit of a twist. Instead of looking at the traditional majors and minors I headed to the modes – seven scales which all have different combinations of intervals, giving them distinct sounds (for more on modes, see here). Although I studied them extensively at university (we had to identify them by sound in pieces!) and I know they’re focused on in jazz exams, they’re a scale that’s less well known today outside of the jazz community – maybe due to their lack of inclusion in standard classical exams.

Playing with different modes, the instant solution was the phrygian mode. The minor second interval at the beginning means it’s not used as much as some of the other modes, but it felt just right for this. However, I wanted to have the major 7th at the top of the scale alongside the minor one. This left me with two scales to work with: The phrygian  dominant, and the double harmonic major.

The next task was to find where they fit best on the piano, if at all. This involved playing around with them on the piano, sketching out some ideas and seeing what felt right.  Graham and I had already discussed instrumentation for this piece and we knew we wanted to go with a clarinet and soprano duet, ignoring the piano completely. A bit of singing and improvising on both instruments playing with the scales cemented E being the tonic to begin with, rising to F towards the end.

It was a little later that I discovered the alternative names of the scales I’ve picked to centre the piece around. Both are  often referred to as gypsy or gipsy scales – phrygian dominant the Spanish gypsy scale, and the double harmonic major scale as gypsy major. Clearly they were meant to be!

Memory boxes – workshopped!

Educational workshops form a central part of the Cracked Voices project. We want to show what a fabulous and accessible medium art songs are, and what better way to do it than to support students in writing them?

On a hot Thursday morning, the Cracked Voices team descended upon Meridian School, Royston for an introductory workshop. The aim was simple: to come up with an entire song in one morning! We had a helping hand in that Graham had written a chorus-type text out, but other than that the material was to be created entirely on the day.

The session began with a quick discussion on Cracked Voices: the song cycle, what we’re doing, and how we wanted the students to be involved. Then the writers got to work on creating their own verses to include in the song – pairs of 10 syllable lines about the items they wanted to go into the memory box. In the meantime, the musicians had a brief theory blitz on art songs, text setting and analysis with Jenni before jumping into the composing!

Having decided on rough rhythms for the text, the musicians separated out to improvise ideas, before coming back together to piece the chorus together a line at a time.They then worked out some chords for each bar or phrase, and hey presto – a chorus was born! They also blitzed a quick melody line that might work with the verses.

After a quick break the writers joined the musician to share their work. They had created four stanzas of four lines each – finding the right ideas and fitting them into 10 syllable lines had proved a challenge, but one they had risen to. They had also made the decision to rejiggle the order of the choruses, meaning some last minute changes on the music side, alongside some quick improvisation on the rhythms of the verses. After rehearsing the song a few times through, making changes and edits as we went (suggested by musicians and writers alike) we recorded the final song.

 Overall, a highly successful morning, giving everyone a taster as to what the main project will entail, alongside a few fundamental techniques they could use. For the workshops in the autumn, the writers will work on their own (with plenty of support from Graham!) to create their own texts. It’ll then be down to the composers to set them to music, with the results either to be performed by the Cracked Voices performers alongside the main song cycle (in April 2018), or to be performed by themselves or maybe even the school choir!

Thanks to Jenny Warburton, Nick Smith and Meridian School for letting us run the workshop – we’re looking forward to the next one in October! Thanks also to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts for funding the workshops. Pictures used from the @MeridianPAD Twitter feed with permission.

Musical riddles

The second song in the cycle is Three Riddles – effectively three art songs in one. As each section has its own riddle attached, I felt it necessary to consider a separate musical riddle to attach to each section too.

As it happens, my musical past happens to include a few oddities that don’t crop up in your standard composer’s biography. One of those is that from 2010 to 2014 I did quite a bit of church bell ringing. This all came about because my husband is a ringer (and a good one at that!), and his tower needed learners for their trainee teachers to practice on. I was never particularly good, especially as I couldn’t attend practices regularly after my daughter was born, but I’ve always found method books fascinating. For those who are unaware of these, they are books full of lots of numbers and squiggly lines, such as this: 

A while ago while perusing ringing methods (as you do!) I stumbled across Royston Delight Major. Ringing methods have quite strict nomenclature РRoyston is the name of the method, while Delight specifies the way the method is called and Major means eight bells are used. Eight bells you say? In a major scale? That seems like a perfect opportunity…

Keep your ears peeled for this appearing in a clarinet part sometime in March 2018! There’ll also be another bizarre reference in the third of the Three Riddles..

From ringing methods to some music theory (less odd). I’m a fan of theory, and I love going a bit mad over it with my students (though they don’t often share my enthusiasm!). To be brief: A fifth is the interval between a C and a G on the piano, and is the most consonant and pure interval other than an octave. The most common modulation (key change) is that of a fifth. If you move around the scale through fifths, it creates a closed circle and you arrive back where you started:

D – A – E  – B  – F# – C# – G#(Ab) – Eb – Bb – F – C – G – D

Often a piece will use a section of the circle of fifths, or modulate one way or the other. In my organ piece Circular Musings I modulated through the whole circle in one piece, in four/eight bar chunks. For the riddle, I wanted some accompaniment to juxtapose a section of text talking about footing being sound, trembling foundations and rebuilding. When you only take one or two steps along the circle of fifths, it can sound very strong, but to continue moving round it continuously can feel a little unsettling until the music pauses and grows some roots.

Here’s the bass line of the piano for this section of the piece, which starts on D and cycles round the fifths (well, in this case, inverted fifths!) until it arrives back at D:

As to what the right hand and baritone are up to at the time.. you’ll have to wait and see!