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As part of my efforts to develop my writing for the guitar, I’ve begun a new composition project to explore a particular area. It’s nothing new on the guitar or in music, but it’s one of my favourite things, and something that I take great delight, as well as pains, in playing and composing. This is counterpoint.
In this week’s post I’ll tell you about this project. I’ll discuss counterpoint and what it is briefly, the difficulties the guitar has with it, and finally the score of the first composition.
I like counterpoint.
As well as liking it, I want to be able to write contrapuntal music that feels natural on the hands and doesn’t make the left hand look and feel like it’s playing Twister at breakneck speed.
Contrapuntal composition is already something rather complex, since the strict rules in some styles often mean you’re left with very few notes to choose from, and then with the further limitations of the guitar, you can be left with no music at all.
So I’ll begin with a short discussion on what it’s like playing and writing it on the guitar, and then show you the score of first step in this project.
If you don’t know what counterpoint is, it means music with several different melodies played at once, often with strict rules governing how they intertwine with one another. “Contrapuntal” music is also sometimes called “polyphony”, many (i.e. at least two) voices singing together, perceptible independently and as one. As well as voices, contrapuntal music works with several instruments playing together, or with one like the piano that can play several notes at once. It’s also supposed to work on the guitar…
I won’t bore you with any more explanations or with why I like it, because it’s better if you experience it, and I very much hope you get the chance to do so.
The guitar with its six strings – you’d expect it to be quite suitable for counterpoint, wouldn’t you? Well, yes, but we do only use four fingers on each hand. Still, that should be enough, shouldn’t it? Yes, but you generally use one finger from each hand per note, and when one note follows another, you generally want to use a different finger, just like you prefer to use the other foot for your next step when you’re out for a walk, otherwise you’d be out for a hop. So four divided by two leaves us with enough fingers to more or less comfortably manage two melodic lines. Two-voice counterpoint is all well and good, but it never really gets interesting unless there are at least three voices; we’re two fingers short of a fugue. Poor guitar, poor guitarists.
But wait, there’s more to the guitar than that – guitarists can also play on open strings, use all manner of barrés, play several notes with the thumb etc. etc., so maybe there is hope?
Yes, it certainly is possible, but the composer and guitarist are practically handcuffed in the limitations we constantly work under. To illustrate it rather bluntly: the guitar, with its wonderful palette of timbres, has been described as an orchestra in miniature. This is true, but in this orchestra it’s like the entire string section gets their left arms hacked off temporarily whenever there’s a clarinet solo.
The rules of counterpoint are severe enough already, surely any more limitations will just be suicide? Well, it seems we end up having to find a way to use just the string players’ right hands, or carefully and musically craft the amputation so audience doesn’t notice.
Apologies for the graphic analogy, but hopefully you might know what I mean. They do get their arms back in the end.
One of the projects I’ve been thinking about that I mentioned last week is a series of canons. The other piece from the last few weeks will make a return at some point (along with the other movements), but once it’s more polished and I can play it all for you.
To begin with, I’ve decided to write a series of canons for the guitar that I can actually play. I’m going to write different canons for different numbers of voices. Just for some numerical fun and to force me to be creative with my solutions to problems, I’m planning to write 2 canons for 2 voices, 3 for 3 voices and so on up to 6 canons for 6 voices – the number of strings on the guitar. The 6 are probably borderline impossible, but the challenge will be interesting.
With six voices on six strings, I jumped in at the deep end, but it was the most interesting-sounding challenge. I used a few tricks to keep things as simple as possible.
Some points about how I wrote it:
There. A first short and almost simple canon. I did want and try to make it go up in fourths continually so that it goes round the circle of fifths and all twelve tones and then starts again at the first E, but that turned out a bit too tricky for me right now. Maybe next time.
Next week I’ll play it for you. Watch this space!
I’d be very interested to hear about any of your thoughts about composing or playing contrapuntal music on the guitar, and of course any comments or questions you might have on the subject.
Let me know if you have a go at playing the canon too!
This blog is LIVE, that means you see what I’m writing as I’m writing it. So far I’ve done a first draft of the second movement. You can see it, warts and all, here. It’s not the finalised thing, so you can see bits of annotations about plans, corrections or uncertainties around the notes.
I’m showing it for general interest, and if anyone has any questions or comments (see below), it would be great to hear from you.
I imagine some of you would rather hear it first, but usually nature dictates that learning to play a piece comes after it has been composed, especially if the piece ain’t that easy. You can hear a tiny bit of me messing around with the basic material below, but I’ll do my best to try and play some for you properly next time.
As I mentioned, this is a first draft, and it’s as far I’ve got on paper. A few things need to be sorted:
I’ve started on the second movement, basically because I intended the first and last to be related to the other movements in some way and carry a fair amount of semantic weight, so I began with a different movement to see how things grow from there.
The musical idea of the beginning came to me first, and I felt from its character that it wanted some kind of prelude before it.
As I began to mention last time, here are some of the ideas I have in mind about the character of this movement:
I intended to write a very “guitaristic” piece, which for me means one that is natural and comfortable to play on the guitar and minimises the awkwardness that can arise from technical difficulties of a musical idea played on an instrument that it is not necessarily made for.
This essentially means messing around with the instrument and using ways of playing that I like the sound of. Of course, an instrumental technique is not music, but there is no reason why you can’t make a good piece of one.
I was basically just doing something along the lines of this:
and decided to make a piece out of it.
With the left hand, there are ligados (“hammering-on” or “pulling-off” without plucking with the right hand).
With the right hand, there is the use of notes mostly played with the thumb interspersed with open strings, in much the same way as the famous “Asturias” by Albéniz, or Leo Brouwer’s Estudio Sencillo No. 1.
Putting these together, I was able to design an interesting line using just two notes, but varying between ordinary plucking with the thumb, ligado, and an open string. I like how the articulation can be used to vary the accents to rhythmic effect. If you are a guitarist, you’ll know that with a ligado you usually hammer-on or pull-off with the left hand straight after you’ve played a note with the right hand. Here, however, I’ve put other notes played with the right hand between the ligado notes to facilitate the flow of the articulation.
The resonance of the open strings in the melodic line also edges towards the campanella effect, in which notes are played on different strings to allow them to continue to resonate, as bells might. Church bells obviously aren’t as fast as this piece – here I’ve used it for the articulation and the atmosphere it creates.
To be honest, it’s actually a bit confusing, because often the pitch of notes is not in the order of the pitch of the strings. I’m hoping I (and whoever might do me the honour of trying to play this piece) will get over with time, and that it will help to increase mastery of where the notes are on the fretboard.
Next time I’ll play some of it for you, and talk a little bit about how I’m going about learning to play the piece.
… are very welcome, so help yourself to the box below, or send me a message with one of the icons below.
If you’re a guitarist, you could have a go at playing it yourself… do be sure to let me know how you get on!