Friday, March 21, 2014

Cathedral Shadows (2014) for organ -- Music from a Dream

I used to have vivid dreams, though most of them stopped after the arrival of my daughter. Most likely this was because of her variable sleep schedule. Now that she has settled into more regular sleeping habits, the lucidity of my dreams has returned in full force. Recently, I had a dream that I was in a cathedral at twilight filled with quiet music. The music started very simply, similar to block-like organum, above a pedal G drone. As the sun set, and stained glass windows began to cast colored "shadows," the chords began to blend together, contrapuntally, as if a freshly-written musical score were left out in the rain, the wet ink "bleeding" the chords into one another. Following this delicate, hazy texture, the original block chords returned, and I woke up. Captivated by its haunting nature and simplicity, I tried to write down as much of the music as I could remember. This acted as the basic material for my organ piece, Cathedral Shadows. I dedicated the work to Harvard organist and composer Carson Cooman, whose organ performances I was listening to shortly before I fell asleep. Carson has since recorded the work, and you can listen to his performance on the YouTube link, below.

Enjoy! And if you're interested in writing for organ, yourself, you can find a few of my tips, here.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Easy Harmonizing with Primary Triads

In tonal music, a triad is a group of three notes formed by stacking two thirds above a "root".  A triad can be formed above every note in a major or minor scale.  

For our purposes, the thirds stacked above each scale degree consist of notes that are within the same key as the scale.  The resulting chords are labeled according to the scale degree upon which they are built.  Roman numerals are used for this.  In major keys, the chords are labeled I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii˚.  Uppercase Roman numerals represent major chords, while lowercase Roman numerals indicate minor chords.  (The chord with the degree symbol is neither major, nor minor. It is a diminished chord.)

Just about every diatonic melody--a melody made up of notes that belong to a single key--can be harmonized using the three "primary" triads which are: I, IV, and V.  These chords are called "primary" chords because they express their functions clearly; hearing them quickly establishes what key a piece of music is in.  The chord built on the first scale degree is called the tonic.  The chord built on the fourth scale degree is called the subdominant, and the chord built on the fifth scale degree is called the dominant.

Every note of a diatonic scale can be found in one or two of these fundamental chords.  For example, in the key of C major, the C triad contains the notes C, E, and G.  All of these notes are found in the I chord of that key, so if we want to harmonize a C melody note, it can be harmonized with a C (or I) chord.  The IV chord contains notes F, A, and C, so a C melody note can also be harmonized with an F chord.  The V chord, G major--G, A, B--does not contain a C; therefore, a C melody note cannot be harmonized with a G chord.  So, we have two chord choices when harmonizing a C melody note: I and IV--C major and F major.  The chart below shows the primary chords available when harmonizing a given melody note in a C major melody.

C: I, IV
D: V  
E: I
G: I, V
B: V

Notice how easy harmonization is if we limit ourselves to these three chords.  Only C and G melody notes have two chord options. All other notes are harmonized by one chord, only!  

Let's practice!  Try harmonizing the first part of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (in C major) using only I, IV, and V chords (C, F, and G).  Here's the tune: C C G G A A G F F E E D D C

How did you do?  Now that you're getting the hang of this, try harmonizing other popular tunes with the three primary triads.  Happy harmonizing!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Holy Toledo! It’s Flor Peeters!

...That’s what your congregation will say after you improvise a tranquil piece in his style.
Flor Peeters (1903-1986)
Who is Flor Peeters?  Flor Peeters (1903-1986) was a Belgian organist, composer, and teacher.  His compositions (most of which are for organ or accompanied choir) are influenced by Gregorian chant and modal harmony.  As an organist, he toured the world.  As a teacher, he educated hundreds of organists in his country, as well as in the U.S. during yearly master classes.  He wrote a three-volume organ method, in addition to the well-known Little Organ Book of 1957.  He's even featured on a Belgian postage stamp!  

So, how can you improvise a timeless organ interlude in the style of Flor Peeters? Here are a few tricks!  

1. Play a series of parallel 5ths with your right hand.  Make the melody diatonic.

2. With your left hand, “fill in” the empty 5ths with 3rds to make major chords, but transpose the 3rds down an octave so your hands do not overlap.         
3. Add a slow-moving, modal pedal line.  The notes can act as “tonal centers” (the chords in your hands gravitate around them), or they can be more independent.

Once this becomes routine, you can thicken up the texture using this trick:  

1. Keep playing a slow-moving pedal line.  
2. Play a series of parallel 5ths in both hands.  Instead of simply doubling the notes, the right hand will play its perfect 5ths beginning a 6th above the left hand’s highest note. Keep the notes in both parts primarily diatonic, but do alter any notes that would create diminished 5ths in the hands.  You are essentially creating a series of parallel, non-dominant seventh chords in the hands.    


The technique, often called “planing,” is nothing more than projecting a series of parallel tonal (diatonic), “real” (fixed), or freely-chromatic harmonic blocks.  It’s often used in music with monolinear textures, and you’ll find it abundantly in the compositions of impressionistic composers like Claude Debussy.  (Debussy also has a postage stamp.)    

Of course Flor Peeters uses more than just this technique, but improvising in this manner will help you evoke soundscapes similar to his meditative style.  Happy planing!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Custom Wedding Music: Original Compositions for Your Wedding

I’m very excited to announce the launch of my new website,  I began this service to provide soon-to-be-married couples with original music to make that “special day” even more personalized and meaningful.  Looking for something new and creative?  Commission a custom composition for your wedding!  Whether it's for walking down the aisle, or for that first dance, made-for-you music is a beautiful addition to your wedding.  All compositions are in the “pleasing” classical style you’re sure to love.  Interested?  Know a friend who will soon be tying the knot?  Pass this info along: This composer is at your service.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Stravinsky Verticals

In his 12-tone and serial works from 1960 onward, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) often employed a method of material transformation that utilized rotational arrays.  Known by several names, including what Milton Babbitt called “hexachordal transposition-rotation,” Stravinsky’s method of generating pitch-class (note) successions was actually developed almost two decades earlier by composer Ernst Krenek (1900-1991);  in 1941, it makes an appearance in Krenek’s choral work Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae.  The procedure is simple, and can be used for numerous compositional purposes in both 12 and non 12-tone worlds.  While Stravinsky and Krenek used sets consisting of 6 differing pitch classes (hexachords), there’s no reason why sets with more or fewer members can’t be used.  Here are the four simple steps to create your own transposed rotational arrays:

Create a series of pitch classes.

Rotate it, making the first element become the last.

Transpose the new set so that its starting pitch class is the same as that of the original set.

Repeat  the process for the remaining sets.
The total number of sets
will equal the “length” of a given set.

Compositionally, sets can be used one after the other in an ordered or unordered fashion.

Used in this manner, the frequency of a repeated pitch class (and, potentially, more that repeat), is ideal for situations requiring pitch centricity.  Choral works, for example, and more “melodic” passages easily benefit. 

Sets can be assigned to various instruments to create multiple parts.

Sets may even be deduced from already-present melodic fragments, or created with pitch-class repetitions.

Often dubbed “Stravinsky verticals” when applied as follows, sets can be used harmonically, too.  Instead of reading the sets left to right, read them one by one from the top down or bottom up.  They can be expressed this way as chords.  Because resulting octaves have a real intervallic function, they are permissible in such situations, even in 12-tone music.
Form chords by reading top to
bottom, or bottom to top. 
Single tone representation of pitch class E

Although Stravinsky liked to represent the duplicated “notes” of the first pitch class of a set by a single tone, it is also possible to compose a multi-octave representation.

Multi-octave representation of pitch class E
With a little creative thought, the possibilities are endless, no matter the idiom in which you compose.  By writing out several such transformations, and playing them over on an instrument for sonic reinforcement, you’ll soon be able to mentally “hear” all such transformational possibilities inherent in any pitch succession.  With practice, you’ll be able to fluently maneuver between sets at your disgression without relying on charts, which greatly speeds up the process of composition.  Because the ear is king, it is my conviction that the results of any musical procedure should only be used if they satisfy its dictates.  Use these techniques to best fulfill your own musical vision.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best, Little-Known Harmony Books

In his preface to Traditional Harmony, Paul Hindemith wrote, “No one is really satisfied with what he learned long ago in his harmony study, which in general has so pitifully little influence on the practical musical accomplishments that have to be learned in the early years.  So one buys the latest harmony book, as one has bought others before it, in order finally to make up for what one has missed[.]”  In my own teaching experience, I tend to agree with Hindemith’s observation.  I have witnessed competent student performers, including pianists who play thousands of chord progressions from the classical canon daily, experience puzzling difficulty when asked to harmonize chorales, or improvise classical chord progressions.  Though there are many reasons for harmonic deficiencies--I need not name them--harmonic perception is essential for supreme musicianship.  The books I’m about to recommend are clear, concise guides to “tradtional” harmony.  Most of them are not used in classroom settings today; however, they are written by experts, and actual composers, who made use of the same harmonic materials and principles discussed within their pages throughout their lives.  Because of the age of these texts, Roman numerals used to label chords are all capitalized, but this should not confuse students with adequate knowledge of major and minor scales.  Without further ado, here are some of the best, little-known harmony books:

1. Applied Harmony by George A. Wedge
American organist George A. Wedge provides a clear, methodical guide to harmony, beginning with the basics.  Exercises are progressive in nature, and even give students the opportunity to practice instrumental harmonization in more than four parts.  (Many basic harmony books limit writing to four parts, rarely discussing scoring for polyphonic instruments like the piano.)  Wedge’s second volume, Applied Harmony Book II: Chromatic Harmony, continues beyond diatonicism, offering insightful and immediately useful techniques for writing in a chromatic, tonal idiom.

2. Harmonic Practice by Roger Sessions
This text consists mostly of exercises composed to introduce students to harmonic principles one step at a time.  Sessions’ own commentary, words from a capable composer, is amusing and encouraging from the start.  No matter what a student’s level of experince with harmony, this book will fill in any theoretical gaps.  I am convinced that any student who works through this book entirely will gain a profound, intimate knowledge of harmony.   

3. Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony 
     by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
Written by a master composer and harmonist, this book is a gem.  Well-organized with abundant examples, the text begins with the basics, progressing to more advanced techniques.  Sequences, modulation, free voice-leading, melodic harmonization, “free” prelude writing, and harmonic deviations are covered in this informative, historic find.  

4. Practical Manual of Harmony by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Another book by a master composer, the text is abundant with harmonic examples and useful tips.  Topics of the last few chapters introduce chorale harmonization, enharmonic modulation, and sudden modulation.  The back also contains exercises for use with material in corresponding chapters.  With the curious mentioning of the “harmonic major mode” on pages 5 and 6, this book is another invaluable find for  music theory and history lovers.

5. Figured Harmony at the Keyboard by Reginald Owen Morris
While it is often assumed that the focus of figured harmony courses is on learning to realize figured bass at a keyboard instrument, such knowledge of figured bass, acquired by the hands in conjunction with the head, enables students to digest harmonic concepts more rapidly.  Realizing figured bass is, essentially, harmonization in action, and this book by composer R. O. Morris introduces key harmonic concepts and techniques immediately applicable to composition, improvisation, and completing harmony exercises in other books.  While I am convinced great benefit is derived from playing through this book, it can also be worked through, with staff paper in hand, like a traditional harmony text.  

6. Continuo Playing According to Handel: His Figured Bass Exercises 
     edited by David Ledbetter
The great composer’s figured bass exercises introduce students to harmonic concepts Handel, himself, deemed exceptionally important.  The exercises, including those in fugue, aim to instruct students about composition, too.  Filled with musical wisdom, and immediately applicable, this book is a “must-have” harmonic resource for all serious composers and performers.  Mentioning that it is a text with great historic value, too, is obvious.

With the abundance of harmony books available today, give the six above some serious atention.  If there is a gap in your harmonic training, one of them is sure to uncover and remedy it!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

So, You Want to Write for Organ?

As an organist, I’m asked questions about how to effectively write for the instrument.  Many times, competent composers have shown me finalized movements, or long excerpts of compositions, hoping there will be little that requires change.  Though these pieces may be extremely effective, were they intended for the piano, they often require major revision to be as effective on the organ.  Even a composer as experienced as Arnold Schoenberg needed the help of Carl Weinrich, a professional organist, to create a playable edition of his Variations on a Recitative for Organ.  (Schoenberg’s original version, literally unplayable as written, is still available from Belmont Music Publishers for organists daring enough to create their own editions!)

But what makes writing for the organ so difficult?  

The organ is not a piano.  This is something many musicians, because they’ve never sat at an organ console, tend to overlook.  That said, most of the problems that arise in organ writing are purely technical.  There’s no sustain pedal, so a passage like the following, dependent upon the harmonic accumulation of notes, is not possible:

If the pedals are not allowed to assist, or are absent or occupied, only select notes from the above passage will be able to be sustained.  This compromises the intended effect of the gradually-acquired, full harmony, and gives the passage an entirely different character.  The selection below is one of many possible realizations:  

Passages involving seamless legato leaps, very well executed by use of the piano’s sustain pedal, will sound choppy on the organ, no matter how quickly the organist hops from chord to chord.  The same is true of extensive octave passages in either hand.  To make this apparent, all a composer needs to do is attempt to play a Beethoven piano sonata on the organ; the differences between the two instruments, including the number of keys per keyboard, will be made embarrassingly clear.

Unlike the piano, dynamics on the organ cannot be achieved by altering one’s touch.  Unless the registration of a manual (keyboard) is changed in real time, intended loud and soft passages played on it will sound at the same dynamic level.  For this reason, dynamic contrasts are frequently achieved by switching manuals.     

Unlike a piano, where sustained notes naturally decrescendo according to the order in and velocity with which they are struck, notes on the organ do not.  Therefore, dissonant chords derived from the accumulation of notes will sound more fearsome on the organ than on the piano.   Though organ literature is ripe with dissonances, it is worth understanding that a passage like the following will sound much less dissonant on the piano:

While it is true that some organs have expression pedals designed to adjust the instrument’s volume, these pedals impact all held notes on a particular manual.  It is also worth noting that the availability and use of such expression pedals varies from organ to organ.  Some players, because of instrumental limitations, cannot even execute the mildest crescendi and decrescendi, let alone excessive dynamic swells.  If such expression is desired, it is worth remembering that these pedals are operated by the feet.  Therefore, assigning a pedal note to each foot while notating an expressive crescendo is not wise.  Though there are instances in contemporary scores where this can be done with great awkwardness, many composers today seem to be fixated on “extended techniques” for their own sake, thus making pieces more difficult than necessary.  With a complex instrument like the organ, one that has so many timbral possibilities at hand, it is advised that such exploration be commenced only after thorough knowledge of what the instrument can achieve is gained.

My friend, the late Daniel Pinkham, once remarked that composers don’t realize that the majority of performance mishaps occur because of pedal writing.  I heartily agree.  Examining the organ works of masters like Bach and Buxtehude, notice how the manual parts become easier as the pedals become more difficult.  Also, note how frequently the pedals rest during a given work.  Too many composers think that, because the pedal is given its own staff, a continuously-active pedal part is necessary; it is not, and simplifying the demands of the pedal will often improve the performance of many new works.

Take your body’s balance into consideration, too.  Attempt to play some of your own passages with both hands and feet.  See if you can easily balance on the organ bench.  Whatever is awkward, sending you jolting forward or backward, is not ideal.  Charles Ives, an organist keenly aware of such issues, wrote below a difficult pedal passage in his fifth variation from Variations on America, “This passage was often played by the pedals while the left hand hung on to the bench.”  

While this blog post did not cover registration, the organ equivalent of orchestration, registral matters are often of secondary concern when technical difficulties stemming from unidiomatic writing are paramount.  Taking the time to sit at an organ and attempting to play with hands and feet together is the best education for any composer who wishes to write for it.  And while you’re at the console, refer to Sandra Soderlund’s A Guide to the Pipe Organ for Composers and Others.  (Daniel Pinkham used to refer this guide to composers.)  Inside this comprehensive, little book, you’ll find all the basics a composer needs to know to start writing effectively for the instrument.  When in doubt, ask an organist.  Better yet, let an organist direct you to an empty organ bench!  Happy pedaling!