Note: Before you take a look at my assignment piece, you can read my blog post about the genre of fantasy. Also, you can read my old research from part 2 of the course regarding the clarinet, and a new research regarding the marimba. Along with the listening log posts (here and here), these really helped me getting acquainted with the instruments and their special qualities. Finally, Project 11 and Project 12, where I experimented with the free counterpoint and the inventions, as well as the earlier projects and assignment from Part 3 of the course, ameliorated my techniques of contrapuntal textures.
The penultimate assignment is about drawing the work from Part 3 and Part 4 of the course, in order to create a three-minute, two-part piece of imitative counterpoint. Listening to the 20th century preludes and fugues, such as Shostakovich and Hindemith’s, my initial idea was to write a monothematic contrapuntal piece in the impressionist style, portraying Monet’s Nympheas i.e. The Water Lilies, which I was lucky to see recently in Paris. These large paintings are meditative and abstract, yet at the same time not so abstract as to have no realism, which I thought would be interesting to represent musically. I had a specific theme in mind, however, the timbre of the woodwinds and definite-pitched percussion instruments somehow didn’t result in the type of sound I wanted to create. For example, the flute sounded very pastoral and mountain-like, perhaps airy would be the word, while the xylophone and marimba were too playful, and similarly the other instruments didn’t provide the watery, gentle feeling I wanted. I realized this would require a kind of sustaining sound. The vibraphone does offer that mysterious flowing feeling, but I couldn’t find an instrument to combine it with, especially not in the slow, meditative tempo I wanted. Vibraphone’s higher tones are also more bell-like, which again couldn’t materialize my ideas. However, I will save the sketches and hopefully be able to develop the ideas, at least into a piece for piano.
For the reasons above, I had to completely change my concept. What I kept though is the idea of water, only this time to paint a nocturnal sea fantasy. It is once again based on a narrative – which I actually tried to avoid because of my tutor’s feedback about assignment 3. It is another fairy tale – Andersen’s Little Mermaid, except this time it is only an excerpt which is a lot smaller, so that musically I could represent it with three themes. Unlike the previous assignment, I feel the passage served more as inspiration, rather than being a complete framework of the composition. I did try one melodic idea only, as the last feedback recommended. However, I felt that there should be contrasting sections, because the initial theme became quite dull, despite that I’ve tried developing it in different ways. Contrasting my 3rd assignment, I do think the themes are better connected and developed, and I do go back and forth between them with some variations.
Here is the full score of the assignment piece.
The audio version is below:
The choice of instruments
The brief of the assignment mentions to use any two instruments from the woodwind and definite-pitched percussion families that the course offered us to explore. Firstly, I chose the clarinet because its timbre evoked the ocean to me. I even used it for a musical portrait of the creature of the water element similar to the sirens – Undine, one of the short pieces in a series I wrote for project 7 examples (Esquisses for four elemental beings). I used the marimba for similar reasons. Interestingly, I think the piece may be played on xylophone as well. I might even prefer it like that because of its high timbre, although I assume the xylophone would need to be the one with the extended range. Besides that, xylophone and marimba have long in Japan been associated with boats, probably because of kabuki. I wrote about this in my listening log.
I took special care with the two instruments. For example, I chose to have different sections explore the different register regions of clarinet and also the effect of niente attack, looking out for the Bb (A#) B break in the instrument. I also tried to use the dynamic possibilities of clarinet to my leverage. Marimba has a weaker projection in its lower register, but I think I worked around that. The brief also mentions that we can add thee indefinite-pitched percussion, something I wrongly did for assignment 3. I added indefinite-pitched percussion instruments because I felt the piece lacked movement in certain parts. Although there are four in total, I tried to use them sparingly and usually there is one playing, or at most two at the same time to create duets, appearing and disappearing throughout the piece. They represent different things. While I mostly use them for coloring, there are many places where I tried to produce a contrapuntal effect, by having the rhythmic imitation in their parts. So instead of taking away from the counterpoint, I believe in certain parts they add to it. I think this produces a nice effect, especially in the ending.
For the ease to the performers, I’ve added the instrument list – something my tutor suggested for the first assignment. Although she didn’t mention that in the feedback for this assignment, I felt it was needed for better clarity. More about the feedback, you can read my reflections here.
The choice of tempo and tonality
I used only adagio, without any changes in tempo, and there is no riterdando or accelerando, mostly because I felt that the different time signatures already provided enough sense of temporal changes. For the tonal plan, there are many mediant relations. I only planed that the first theme and the ending should be the same key, the rest I let myself drift a bit. Both the time signatures and the keys are listed below in the outline.
Since the assignment goal was to create a piece of imitative counterpoint, I tried to use imitation with/or without inversion, mostly non-strict and free, as much as possible. In certain parts though, I used other contrapuntal techniques. My main concern though is that I added the introduction which includes only three bars of “empty” long notes in the clarinet with announcing rhythmical coloring in the bass drum. There was no way to add counterpoint in this part, since the piece to me starts with the first theme in bar 4. The reason why I added the introduction was to round out the composition and also showcase the niente attack of the clarinet. The same slower motivic long notes appear again several times, but here I used the percussive nature of marimba to create a kind of counterpoint with the indefinite-pitched percussion. The imitation may also not be so outright in the first theme, starting around its second bar with no previous pause to make it sound clear. As a matter of fact, its subject is always accompanied by the same countersubject. This is what we call continual or permanent countersubject in Serbia, although I find no comparable term in the musical literature in English. It occurs in nine of Bach’s invention, such as Eb major, f minor, g minor and other. I also didn’t use all the techniques in one place, though I tried to include them all in different parts
From the previous feedback, I remembered to make the staves smaller and play with the layout, to write the dynamics in bold and check for the unnecessary accidentals. I think generally, the score is much clearer this time around. When indefinite-pitched percussion aren’t used I made sure to hide them. I couldn’t find any way to write down the cresendo and decresendo niente attack in Sibelius. I attempted to add the word in the dictionary with some instructions I’ve found on the Sibelius forum, but the software still doesn’t produce the effect I wanted. Either way, clarinet players should find no problem performing that.
I think I could have used the time signatures differently – for example to use 2/4 instead of 4/4. Besides that, I find notating the clarinet being quite difficult because of transposition. To practice this, I purposefully chose to do it myself and not let the software do this automatically.
The structure outline of the Nocturnal Sea Fantasy
Introduction (bar 1-3) – 4/4
Fireworks (bars 4-13)
a – theme 1 – subject + countersubject in natural E minor (bars 4-5)
b – transition/modulating development of a (bars 6-8)
a1 – theme 1 – subject + countersubject in C# minor (bars 10-11)
transition to the next section (bars 12-13)
Heart’s Dance (bars 14-18) – 6/8
theme 2 with imitation in E Phrygian, modulating to A minor (same as above)
Little Mermaid’s Aria (bars 19-25)
a – theme 3 with non-strict augmentation in C# major (bars 19-22)
b – transition/modulating development of theme 3 with mini diminution in F# major (bars 23-27)
Storm (bars 28-42)
a – Fireworks theme – inversion of subject + normal countersubject in G# minor (bars 28-31) – 4/4 + 7/8
b – modulating Little mermaid’s aria theme starting in E major with inversion in the non-strict augmentation (bars 32-37) – 6/8 + 5/8 + 3/8
c – Heart’s Dance theme with imitation in A Phrygian, modulating to E natural minor (38-42) – 6/8
transition to codetta (bars 43-44)
Codetta (bars 45-51) – 4/4
ostinato created from theme 1 – varied subject + countersubject in the original key
fading out effect – imitation of the ostinato in the indefinite-pitched percussion
I added the following passage from the Little Mermaid as the type of contextual prelude to the piece:
“…more than a hundred rockets rose in the air, making it as bright as day. The little mermaid was so startled that she dived under water; and when she again stretched out her head, it appeared as if all the stars of heaven were falling around her, she had never seen such fireworks before. Great suns spurted fire about, splendid fireflies flew into the blue air, and everything was reflected in the clear, calm sea beneath.”
The introduction of the piece, with the niente attack, long half E notes of clarinet’s deep and rich Chalumeau register represents the underwater of the sea, together with the rhythmic notes in the bass drum that paints the turmoil of the firework sounds above. These rhythmic 16th notes also announce the figure of the countersubject in the fireworks theme.
With the fireworks theme, we leave the deep Chalumeau register of the clarinet, as the little mermaid stretches her head above water. The high, playful countersubject in the marimba livens up the atmosphere, mimicking the beauty of the fireworks that seem as stars of heaven falling all around her. While I’ve listed E natural minor as the key, with the appearance of G# and natural F. Generally, in this part, to me it seems as if the colors have appeared after the monotone beginning. As for counterpoint, the motive in bar 4 – D E F# B A is imitated in marimba, while at the same time, in bar 5, in the first two beats clarinet introduces a kind of short free imitation of marimba’s countersubject. Thus, in this bar, it’s as if we have two parallel imitations at the same time.
The bass drum is sounded once again in bar 6 with two 16th notes, perhaps representing again how intimidating all this sight is to the little mermaid. The short imitation in the second beat produces a kind of stretto effect. Another imitation, this time fuller occurs at the third beat of bar 7. It is once again a parallel imitation – marimba diatonically imitates the countersubject clarinet figures from bar 6, while above, clarinet imitates the E B A# F staccato figure of the previous two beats found in marimba. I know about clarinet’s A# – B break, but I think this figure is possible to be played, especially since the tempo is slower. Note that in the second two beats of bar 8, I try to rhythmically imitate this 4-quaver note figure in the bass drum.
Bar 9 is the musical pause, with the Chalumeau register and the rhythmical bass drum notes appearing again briefly. This time though, I used the percussive nature of the marimba, to create the rhythmical imitation – the low indefinite-pitched 16th notes are imitated as the low G# percussive 16th notes of marimba.
By bar 10 we have modulated to C# minor. As I’ve mentioned above, I used the mediant relationships throughout the piece, and this is one of the examples. This time the voices are inversed, so that the subject is in marimba, while countersubject is in clarinet. Note that I repeat the E – C# motive from bar nine in marimba’s first beat of bar 10 with diminution.
In the transition to the next section, in bar 11, there is the imitation of marimba’s B – A – B – A sixteenth-note motive in the next beat of clarinet as C# – B – C# – B. Here, I blurred the tonality with the whole-tone scale, thus being able to reach the E Phrygian tonality of the following section.
The next section is titled Heart’s Dance in 6/8. If you read Andersen’s passage, it says that on board of the ship, which little mermaid was observing, there was a celebration, with sailor’s dancing. The prince was also present, to whom the protagonist felt attracted to. This is why I used the dance rhythm. I used the Phrygian mode, which makes this part sound very Oriental, but this is more to show how foreign the new feelings towards the prince were, and everything else that must have seemed so to the siren. Almost as if she’s overwhelmed.
Here I’ve used the percussive nature of the marimba with single-note tremolo, which I think suits the instrument quite well, joined by the triangle and bass drum. The imitation of the B C D E is very percussive in the marimba, which is why I repeated its rhythm again in triangle – almost like an imitation, while the bass drum rhythmically repeats a motive from clarinet. Again, instead of being just background instruments, I tried to let the indefinite-percussion actively participate in the development of the musical material.
In Little Mermaid’s Aria, I modulate to C# major, with F enharmonically becoming E#. Just like in the previous part, the imitation is quite clear comparing to the fireworks theme. Here though, I use the augmentation, but not strictly. Instead, I freely extend the length of the notes. When the theme is repeated in clarinet in F# major, there diminution in the first bar.
I think this whole part is very expressive, which is why I named it aria. It portrays the following sentence:
“It was very late; yet the little mermaid could not take her eyes from the ship, or from the beautiful prince. The colored lanterns had been extinguished, no more rockets rose in the air, and the cannon had ceased firing.”
As mermaids have beautiful voices, I could simply imagine the little mermaid humming slowly as she watched over the ship. The throat-tone register, as Adler called it, may seem quite pale. But here it is quite calm. In fact, it is the calmness before the storm.
My tutor mentioned that the theme has a nice sense of simplicity, but wonders if there could be more contrast achieved, especially comparing to the previous sections. I have experimented with this, following the suggestions to try a key change or play with different time signatures. However, that same charm of simplicity would disappear every time, which is why I decided to keep the theme as it is, letting the storm section be the main carrier of the contrast. Again, more about the feedback, read my reflections here.
Before the Storm section, which is the development and culmination of the previous material, there is once again a musical pause in bar 26. The long high notes again repeat in the clarinet, while the percussive D# 16th notes are presented by the marimba. The suspended cymbals imitate these rhythmical figures, and come off as a kind of surprise. I think it’s quite suddenly introduced. It’s timbre of course represents the upcoming waves and wind. The sixteenth-note G# A G# A motive in the clarinet is augmented as quaver notes and inversed as E D# E D#.
The storm starts in G# minor with the repetition of the first, fireworks theme – but this time there is inversion in the countersubject, while the subject repeats as it normally does. I think the changing time signature, together with the snare drum and cymbals, the trills and glissandos in the marimba and the high shrill notes of clarinet, provide a really nice effect. Note that black-note glissandos are harder to perform on marimba, but I think it’s not impossible. After the first theme, mermaid’s aria appears in E major. This time the augmentation of the theme is joined with the inversion in the clarinet. There are two instances where I go over clarinet’s break, but I think it is playable, since the notes are once again slower. The trills all provide the effect of calm. However this is to portray the situation after the prince sank underwater:
“she had seen him sink into the deep waves, and she was glad, for she thought he would now be with her; and then she remembered that human beings could not live in the water, so that when he got down to her father’s palace he would be quite dead.”
This is why the theme soon leads into the Heart’s Dance again, as the little mermaid tries to save the prince. This time it is transposed in A Phrygian, leading back to the original tonality of the first theme through the transition. In bar 26, the imitation of marimba’s sixteenth-note B-A-B-A occurs in the next beat as clarinet’s G-A-G-A. This whole part is quite reminiscent of the first transition (bars 12-13)
Finally, there is the Codetta. It repeats the firework theme, however in an interesting ostinato. This allowed me to introduce a fading out effect which I’ve seen in Scriabin’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (or Concerto – it is the version of the same composition with some changes and added orchestra). At the end of the whole piece, all the instruments fade, leaving only the snare drum and cymbals to conclude the piece. Since this is not a proper conclusion, the piece seems as if it’s continuing on into infinity. I found this to be amazing, which is why I wanted to try it here. The snare drum imitates the first low quaver of the countersubject, while the higher notes are imitated by the triangle, then in the last two bars, the snare drum overtakes these rhythmic figure and continues the fading out. While this is going on, the deep Chalumeau E note fades back to the niente. This goes quite well with the story – as the little mermaid saves the prince, she let the waves carry them.
I felt quite insecure about this piece, especially after listening to Emma Arandjelovic’s composition for the same assignment. The way she developed the material and used all the contrapuntal techniques was amazing, so much so, that I felt that mine underperformed. My tutor though really encouraged me in the feedback.
I also really tried to learn from the previous feedback and develop a monothematic piece, but that simply didn’t work out. However, what I think improved is my treatment of the instruments. I think I was able to utilize their characteristics well. Although there are once again more themes, I think this time around, the parts were better connected. Besides that, I believe it is stylistically more coherent then the previous assignment.
Generally, I didn’t think the combination of the definite-pitched percussion and the woodwinds would be able to produce great counterpoint pieces, so this whole part of the course was an amazing surprise. Despite struggling with this piece, I learned a lot – which is the most important thing. Also, I believe this assignment displays my new-found creativity in utilizing contrapuntal techniques – this is something that my previous studies, with rigorous rules in applying these elements, didn’t encourage. With this new freedom in composing, I enter the final stage of the course. Before that, you can read my reflections about this assignment here, which includes my tutor’s feedback and my evaluation of how much I succeeded in carrying out the assessment guidelines.