Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quality of tools and standards of success

I was assigned about a dozen exercises from Fux as a Sophomore at St. John's. I remember them going very quickly, maybe ten minutes each, and so thought I could tear through the sixty two-voice exercises in a week. It's actually taken me about six weeks. Why?

I think there's an interesting interplay between my workflow and my standards of success. When I did these as a 19-year-old, I worked on paper in a dorm room. I'd usually show up for class a little early so I could play my exercises on the piano. (I've never been able really to read music, so the only way I can know what they sound like is to play them.) Every time I played one, I was impressed that some part of it sounded neat. I was following these rules, marking down notes that I couldn't hear, making nice-looking patterns on the page, and when I played them, some part always sounded nice.

Now, as soon as I finish a first pass, I do it up in my score editor and have the computer play it back for me. It's still the case that some parts sound nice, but it's always the case that some parts could be nicer. So I fiddle with it, which is easy to do. I move some notes around on the screen, then hit "play" again, then fiddle some more. So, instead of being happy that some bit of it sounds nice, I keep working on it until I'm basically satisfied with the whole thing. This can take a long time-- I spent three hours on one of the fifth species exercises. Because tweaking my work is much easier now, I'm much less willing to be satisfied with mixed results.

The new way is probably the better way to learn, but it's definitely made the project more daunting than I thought it would be. I hope I have the stamina to make it through all 90 of the three-voice exercises. I'd love to do that. But I don't expect I'll do more than a handful of the four-voice exercises. Unless I somehow get much, much faster, there's no way I'm going to do all 120 of those.

Recap: two voices

Last night I finished the 60 exercises that make up Part I of the Fux book. Musical lessons learned:

1. Occasional skips greater than a third help change the character of a line from an accompaniment to a melody. This is counterintuitive to me-- my instinct is to use steps whenever possible.

2. Parallel motion really does serve to undermine the momentum of the counterpoint and the interest of the harmony. Fux isn't kidding when he says that in florid counterpoint, parallel motion should be generally avoided.

3. However, I find parallel motion can be a nice effect near the end. It's a kind of pre-resolution calming. Like the piece has found its stride before it resolves.

4. Skips in the cantus firmus-- especially skips of more than a third-- introduce the possibility of collapsing the distinction with the counterpoint. This problem is acute when the skip narrows the distance between the two lines. One way to deal with this in florid counterpoint is to "cover" the skip with quarter notes. A run of quarter notes keeps the ear focused on the counterpoint, and helps keep it distinct from the cantus firmus.

5. In florid counterpoint, Fux allows eighth notes on the second and fourth beats. I tried using them in a bunch of exercises and always hated the way they sounded. I didn't end up keeping any eights.

6. I don't yet know if it's the nature of the modes, or the particulars of the cantus firmi Fux supplies for them, but there's no doubt that some modes are easier to write and pleasanter sounding than others. I've found that Dorian, Phrygian, and Ionian modes usually come together pretty easily. Lydian and Mixolydian are tough slogs that often sound bland. Aeloian is sometimes hard to get right, but I usually like sound of the result.

7. A lesson I learned from Wire's "Pink Flag" that is recapitulated by counterpoint exercises: with music, familiarity fosters enjoyment. If I spend two hours getting an exercise into a form I like a lot, then let it sit for a few days, I might dislike it when I listen to it with fresh ears. But if I listen to it four or five times in a row, I start to like it again. This helps explain why so much old classical music is formulaic, and so much popular music is repetitious. When you aren't dealing with a 30-second snippet that can be heard six times in short order, you've got to find some other way to secure the familiarity that fosters enjoyment.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Marking my own work

It's getting harder to be confident in marking my own work. I've adopted a multiple pass technique that seems reliable so far. I'll edit this post if I end up changing my approach.

First pass: check for fifths, eighths, and unisons on the first beat, and make sure they're entered via contrary motion. (I'm especially prone to error when entering the penultimate bar.)

Second pass: scan through for bs and fs. They're always dissonant against each other, so double check any b-f harmonies. Also check for exposed tritones in the counterpoint any time a b or f appears at the peak or trough of a melodic run. If the counterpoint uses any accidentals (for example, in the closing formula) run the same set of tritone leap/exposed tritone checks on the accidental.

Third pass: locate all dissonances, and double check that they are entered and left stepwise, or are part of a cambiata formula.

Fourth pass: scan through the counterpoint and note every jump larger than a fifth. Double check that none of those leaps are forbidden. Also double check that any leap larger than a fifth is "recovered."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

5th Species Dorian

Fifth species combines all the rules of the previous species: whole notes, halves, quarters, and ligatures. Moving from fourth species, in which there's next to no flexibility, to fifth, in which there's a huge amount of flexibility, is a time-consuming relief. With so many possibilities, I can mess around indefinitely with bars I don't like until I find an approach that's better. This first exercise, in Dorian mode, took more than an hour to write 11 bars, but I like the result:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

4th Species, Dorian Mode

This species is also called "ligature," or "syncopation." Two half-notes are set against each whole-note, but the half-note on every downbeat is tied to the half-note that came before it. So, to the ear, we've got whole notes against whole notes, with the counterpoint offset by half a bar.

I've only done the Dorian exercises, so far. My impression is that the rules governing 4th species are much more confining that the previous species. Several times I found myself in a position where I had only one option in three or four consecutive bars. The impression of confinement is supported by the fact that my solutions are identical to Josephus's for big stretches.

I think 4th Species will sound wonderful when it's put together with a third voice, but with only two voices, it's a little bit dull: