Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Joy of Canons

In its simplest form, a canon is a composition that utilizes one single melody.  The melody is sung against itself after a period of time elapses.  (In other words, someone sings the same melody a few beats later, causing the melody to overlap with itself.)  The process continues as more singers join to weave an ornate, harmonic tapestry.  Think of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, and you’ve got the idea.  

A more detailed type of canon is a Puzzle canon.  Puzzle canons notate one melody, then provide riddles performers must solve to determine how the music unfolds.  Riddles for Puzzle canons often contain musical-spiritual wisdom.  For one Puzzle canon pertaining to Christ, the hint is: He who follows me shall not walk in darkness.  Spiritually, this “hint” points to the truth of John 8:12.  Musically, it instructs the singers who enter after the original melody to alter their notes to avoid certain accidentals (black keys.)  A more cosmic hint for another puzzle canon is: My end is my beginning and my beginning is my end.  The solution is that while half the performers sing the melody as written, the other half sing the melody backwards! 
Canons are cyclical in nature, echoing God’s handiwork expressed in the serial nature of the changing seasons, lunar cycles, and earth years.  Canons draw our attention to the wonder of time by allowing a melody to coexist with itself by virtue of temporal displacement.  They are metaphors for coexistence, as well as natural diversity dictated by time and registral space.  Because a melody can be superimposed over itself at different times, composers must be aware of each melody’s myriad vertical implications so harmonic chaos does not ensue.  In this way, composing a canon requires rigorous discipline.  It is a human attempt to mirror divine craftsmanship.  Given their circular and imbricating nature, canons make a mortal guess as to what timeless totality--all events past, present, and future occurring simultaneously--sounds like to the ears of God.