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.
What is it?
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.
Composing and playing
Where it gets tricky
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.
First attempt – Canon for Six Voices at the Fourth
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:
- I’ve written it on two staves to facilitate visibility. I hope you can read bass clef.
- To simplify the technical side a little, I designed it so that each voice occupies its own string.
- It’s a canon at the fourth, i.e. each voice enters at an interval of a perfect fourth above the previous entry. This makes use of the guitar’s tuning – the strings are a perfect fourth apart, except the highest two. To maintain musical rigour, the six entries all begin a fourth apart, rather than simply on the first note of each string, which does make it more difficult to play.
- The melody is sombre and very simple, and each voice remains within the range of a major third, i.e. one less than the aforementioned perfect fourth, in order to avoid crossing voices and the technical complications that this entails. The guidelines of counterpoint indicate that melodic lines should span at least a sixth for the sake of interest, so a third could end up being boring. There are, however, two semitones in the melody, which I think gives it an interesting tension.
- The harmony is relatively free, and to my mind sounds like Gesualdo at times. There are things like suspensions, but not resolved according to the traditional rules. I pretty much just went with whatever was available on the fretboard and sounded interesting and acceptable to my ear, which I think has developed into it’s own characteristic sonority.
- There aren’t really many jumps from one difficult chord shape to another, and voices often move by fingers just sliding up and down the strings.
- There are some pretty diabolical stretches in the left hand, specifically bars 5 and 6; perhaps I should warn you that my hands aren’t all that small, but my left hand is really at its limits here. There is the possibility of tuning strings 1 and 2 up a semitone to C and F respectively, but that is not without it’s complications in other places too.
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’s post
Next week I’ll play it for you. Watch this space!
Comments and questions
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.
The state of play
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 need to be more sure that I’m happy with the use of the thematic materials, and there are some that I think could be developed more, either by adding more music, or reworking some bits.
- The notation – the duration of notes could perhaps be more consistent. I might also add some barlines, time signatures and phrase markings to make it easier to see the structure of things. I’d do this when I do a computer version.
- General checking of finer details.
Composing the piece
Starting with the second movement
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:
- Rhythmic, with a strong sense of movement
- Quite fast
- An improvised quality
- Smoother and with more flow than the other movements
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.
Comments and questions…
… 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!