Between the Octaves
Seven Pieces for Two Pianos
A commentary on the music for the
Brunel University MMus composition portfolio.
This final project for the MMus started out with consideration of which instrumentation to use. I wanted to make sure that the music was presentable as a high quality audio recording, as well as a score, without needing to employ musicians, or to work with, somewhat unsatisfactory audio samples – for example string samples would probably not do justice to the presentation of the music in a good quality audio file. Piano felt like the best place to start. The samples I have of pianos on Logic Pro 9 are very high quality, certainly compared to strings. I sensed I wanted the wide pitch range of a piano as well. I knew I didn’t want to compose for the voice as I have done a lot of vocal writing and I wanted to challenge myself with the task of writing instrumental music. This helped to narrow down the field of choices.
I wanted to offer a well-rounded project that enabled a number of different ‘voices’ to emerge. The notion of several short pieces as opposed to one long piece, was also a clear starting point. Peter Wiegold suggested eight pieces as a fairly arbitrary, but substantial number. The series ended up as seven pieces, but the notion of eight took on significant meaning during the early stages. The title emerged from this as I kept wondering – why eight? Eight took on additional meaning and became more than a random point. 8 became 2×4, 4×2 – and the various additions 1+7 etc, but why? Eight then shifted into a musically pertinent idea. Eight as octave established itself. This soon became the core idea around which the piece was based. The meanings and uses of the octave were something I began to reflect on.
I was aware of the feeling of openness the octaves offered and the palette of wide resonance they could offer. Space was the first of the seven pieces I wrote (which ended up in second place in the series) and this demonstrated that feeling of openness and wide resonance that first caught my attention. Working with the octave as the central pivot of the tempered system on the piano, both as fundamental and, in mathematical terms 1:2, lead my thinking towards the idea of using two pianos. Both the ringing of octaves across two pianos and the use of one piano as the ‘octave part’ became increasingly exciting as time went by.
I was listening to the Penguin Café Orchestra and there was a moment in one piece with a repeated piano note that gave the slow melody above a breadth and sustainability that broadened the music immeasurably. The harmonics were also quite clear in the recording of this one note. The one note seemed so much more. The overall impact of this fairly slow repeated note was to relax the listener and create a greater capacity for absorption. I noticed this in myself as I was listening and was interested in this experience as a listener. Of course it is a very common technique, but as a device it remains stable and timeless, because it is so useful. I felt I could work with this.
During this reflective time I read the following:
The whole philosophy of dharma art is that you don’t try to be artistic, but you just approach objects as they are and the message comes through automatically. 
The ‘objects as they are’ became the octaves, the “octaves as they are”. As the pieces were composed the octaves had a centering and clarifying role that allowed other material to circulate around, or play against them. They acted as anchor points, pivots, repetitions, drones, ostinati, pointillist nodes, pedals, melodic features, struts, harmonic turnpikes, breathing spaces, bass lines and above all musical imperatives – rhythmically, lyrically and harmonically. The octaves called the musical shots, most of the time, and yet they remained unchanged and unchanging, as octaves. When the music pulled a semitone up or down and away from the octaves (as it did quite often) it was especially telling in the context of the ringing spaces the octaves were creating.
The music is not very difficult and could be arranged for one player on one piano with a few tessitura and doubling adjustments, but I became interested in the subtle dislocation that two pianos could provide. By dislocation I mean a degree of tension between the natural acoustics of the two instruments in the room and also the players idiosyncrasies as musicians. Bach’s Double Concerto for violin might be an example of acoustic tension between doubled instruments. The Labèque sisters – the world famous piano duo, are much loved for their idiosyncrasies as players – Katia is always recognized as the bubbly one and Marielle her calmer, romantic counterpart. However accomplished and distinctive the players and however matched the instruments the tension of a doubled instrument and players would be in the air and become an aspect of the drama as well as part of a musical entwining of the matched duo.
I also liked the possibility that the pieces could be played with two pianos that were not matched (e.g. a grand and an upright). It would be interesting to try them with one piano and one electronic keyboard as well, or even two electronic keyboards. I was keen to hear the surprises that would emerge from the differences between the two instruments – matching the notion of something going on “between the Instruments” as well as “between the octaves”.
The musical roles given to each player would, I hoped, highlight the dislocations described above and add to the artistic impact of the feeling of ‘between’ in many exciting and unpredictable acoustic and live-nuanced, ways.
In order to give these ideas room to breath the second piano ‘octave part’ became central to the writing, but nearly always remained simpler than the first part. The voicing possibilities were exciting, especially having both pianos in the same tessitura – or widely opposing tessituras. The piece had found its natural home as a duo.
A nice spin off from the instrumentation was that a less accomplished pianist (pupil) could play Part Two alongside a player (teacher) on the more difficult Part One. Hopefully it might give incentive for the Part Two player to practice enough to play Part One. I note as a performer that playing simple music can be just as demanding, in terms of inflection, as playing difficult music. On this basis I think the score could also be of interest to two professional players. They could alternate between the pieces so each was given a chance to play the main piano part.
I had considered other titles, for example Octal Resonances, but I felt this was a bit pretentious. Between the Octaves gave the piece a curiosity of its own. What actually goes on … between the octaves?? The title was rhetorical and teasing at the same time. The question in my mind presented a kind of aural space that diverted from thinking in concepts, or pictures, to actually thinking in sound. If I said to another composer: ‘the piece is called ‘Between the Octaves’’ I imagined they would almost hear the piece they would write. That was the kind of subliminal intention I wanted to evoke behind the title.
There was also the tautology that anything and everything goes on between the octaves. At the same time there was the opposite implication; between the octaves things are constrained. Thirdly the notion of the octave as ‘banned’ from music for nearly half a century during the serial and post-serial years was still echoing on in the 1980’s where octaves were banned from my improvisation class at the Guildhall. Banning the octave was part of the aesthetic rooted in the Second Viennese School of serialism and was concerned with breaking down the mathematical ratios between intervals which generate the natural hierarchy of the diatonic scale in favour of relegating the value of each interval to a semi-tone, creating a more equalized musical currency.
Having gone through the 1980’s post-serial experiments of the Guildhall training (including composing post-serial pieces) I was never convinced the currency of serial equalization was how one actually perceived music or that it was a mainstream direction for music in the long term. Octave censorship was almost like denying gravity.
In the context of Twenty-First century musical thinking we are now in a pluralistic and niche-centered artistic age. The octave represented a useful and interesting boundary for me – and one that I felt I needed – to help find a workable starting point I could relate to. It brought a valid, and at the same time open perspective, it seemed to me. Playing with the octave set up a sounding space that felt enough of a landmark for me to starting ‘filling in some of the gaps’, so to speak.
There was one further implication to the title – you may never actually hear octaves in the piece – only that which is between. Of course that turns out to be not the case, but it set up an interesting possibility in the listener’s mind, before the piece began, I hoped.
Coming across this title also represented a small milestone in my musical language. The whole point of this final project for the Masters degree was to examine the nature of my syntax, grammar and compositional thinking. The title demanded one thing above all: – what notes am I going to use? My choice of notes was derived in most instances from the tempo, pitch and rhythm of the initial octaves at the beginning of each piece – alongside the individual word titles I set out to explore musically. Here are the word titles:
I went through a number of different words before I settled on the final words above as the titles. Initiation was oscillation, rotate was arpeggios, layer was fugue, line was lyrical, space was spacious, pronounce was cabaret and then burlesque and pulsation was riffing. The final words I chose are less loaded with association than the working-title words I found initially. I also dropped the words monolithic and hieratic which were two words suggested by Peter – though there are monolithic and hieratic moments that appear at various points in some of the pieces.
The exercise was to set out to discover my essential modus operandi. What are the key components of my music? What excites me musically? What liberates my imagination? The titles themselves do answer those questions to some extent as they encapsulate seven of my musical fingerprints, summarizing the modus operandi in one- word terms. This has been a useful exercise in that way alone.
One of the top priorities was to use my natural ear for harmony and chord sequences as judiciously as possible. I have had a recent tendency to roll onward with my harmony not letting up, as new chords continuously appear, in a long ride of 12/8 rhythmically repetitious pieces of the last few years. Part of the investigation here was aimed at judicious proportion while looking at one basic musical enquiry or concern per piece. Thus, as the titles suggest, the music commits to a main state reflecting the word of the title, but leaves plenty of room for contrasting material and development as needed. I will point this out when we examine each piece below.
The main thing I decided while approaching this project was that despite having an objective strategy of enquiry I would hold that in the back of my mind. In other words I would not let thinking inhibit feeling, which for me is a deeper musical motivator.
I had several tutorials with Peter Wiegold and his input helped to clarify some potential that I had not fully seen in the way I write music. We discussed musical syntax at some length, including multiple layering, shadow and light in the musical argument, or on ‘the canvas’, or indeed in the ‘film sequence’.
I will now make some comments on each individual piece.
I wrote this first piece last. I went back to first principles and remembered the title of the series and what an audience might expect to hear at the opening of the performance, given the word octaves in the title! In several of the pieces there was an exploration of the tension between the octave and its adjacent semitone and this piece introduces that tension. The form sets out to play with a contrast between the punctuating stabs and lyrical phrases in Piano One, alongside repeated F octaves in Piano Two.
Piano One expands both its motivic materials in contrasting ways as the piece develops, while Piano Two asserts itself with unpredictable shifts sideways as the repeated F octaves slide chromatically downwards or adjust themselves to the neighbouring E natural. The full expression of the punctuating stabs of the opening climaxes, with the arresting hammer chords – finally stopping the repetitive octaves in bar 167, while the softer lyrical opening phrase of Piano One sees its natural flowering in the joyful octave melody starting at bar 32 and recurring three times during the piece, creating a series of tuneful outbursts.
The material at 61 fragments the previous pitch and gestural music by questioning the predominating repeated octaves on F and E with tentative and sporadic appearances. Chromatic steps down no longer lead to new harmonic security, but hang, going nowhere. Piano One steels the repeated F and E octaves from Piano Two but no longer with a confident forward motion. Glimpses of once certain materials appear in uncertainty. The soft lyrical phrase of the opening now appears (at 76) in both parts, subsuming all for a few moments in its presence, suggesting despite insistent octaves and rhythmic urgency there is a calm space at the centre of the music – possibly hinting at other pieces in the series to come (notably I suggest piece 3: line) before the neutralizing scales of both pianos whisk the music off towards reclamation of previous certainty in the joyful melody.
These dynamics play themselves out three times before the piece commits itself to an ending with the appearance of reconfirmed surety in the Piano Two repeated octaves – this time on G, and with a little surprise – at double speed, semiquavers. Piano One answers with its own new thought: triplets appear for the first time, alongside those neutralizing gatekeepers – rising and falling scales. The piece ends with the freshly intoning double speed octaves while the original punctuating stabs accumulate into a series of slower, grander chords over the almost tremolo Piano Two. The piece ends with a double-image of F and G octaves playing happily together on both pianos.
I wrote this piece first out of the seven. The notion of space could be interpreted as musical stillness. I was looking for a simple way to start listening to the notes I wanted to write. I knew I had the octaves to create containing, and at the same time, opening spaces and I knew the piece was going to be very slow, but apart from that I was feeling my way. I discovered as I worked on this that going slow gave me a good way into a slower type of listening. This was very interesting because I realized, once again, that ‘less is often more’. Given my tendency to have too many ideas and to bunch things up this was a chance to pair things down so the musical through-line was preserved, but it was as thin as possible. How little could I write and still make musical points?
Rooted around a B Flat Major tonality the main harmonic pulls fold around the subdominant E Flat Major and the mediant D Minor. There are also two main ‘rogue’ tones – E Natural and B Natural. The relationship between the pianos was much more unified here than in Initiation, and both players were given rogue notes as well as notes from the prevailing chord. Both pianos concede to the harmonic imperatives of the mediant and the subdominant as the piece develops. Both alternative pitch areas gain attention in spite of the all-present power of the B Flat soundscape.
The ‘rogue’ notes mentioned above seemed to create an unexpected level of power in the context of the B Flat dominance. I think this must have been because the lack of speed made every note speak very loudly even though the piece remained dynamically very quiet most of the time. The repeated notes at the end at bar 89, signalling closure, created the feeling of ‘tolling bells’ and stood out in an otherwise spacious and almost pointillist movement.
The one note that was perhaps conspicuously absent from the B Flat sections was A natural, the leading note. Replaced by its flattened version, this created a sense of forever potentially floating downward towards a resolution on the subdominant E Flat Major. However because it was so slow the flattened seventh became a suspended state in its own right, asserting its teasing, perhaps questioning presence from the very start. The rogue E Natural undermined and cajoled the tonality while the rogue B Natural seemed to stick out like a sore thumb in the warm bath of the pervading pitch field. The ‘sore thumb’ quality however acted as a steely reminder that the question of ‘which notes shall I use?’ was never far from the surface.
It was a challenge to compose this movement as the slowness of the music demanded a kind of judicious patience in working out on the pacing. The use of the computer here was helpful as the overall length was judged initially through improvising in Logic. Returning to the piece once it had been composed, to look at editorial points in detail, required a considerable gearshift in thinking back to that stillness.
The piece is a series of chord changes beneath a foregrounded melody, both of which amble somewhat furtively around C Major. As the piece progressed the chords shifted ever further from C Major climaxing at the most distant section from C major, bars 47-62. Bar 47 arrived at the relative minor with a major seventh (A Natural and G Sharp – in the score it reads A Natural and A Flat which perhaps implies further distance). The downward falling thirds of the right hand Piano One at the climax repeat three times in the melody at this point, each time landing in more remote harmonic areas as we move towards D Minor (the supertonic) and finally end with a C Flat (furthest point) in bar 60 with an implied subdominant/supertonic blend beneath.
I wanted to write the simplest melodic line I could that had narrative content and was supported by harmonic movement. I began to think almost like a painter as C Major became the ‘white’ notes and every note that was not white was a specific colour away from white. C Major was clean, almost transparent and all notes not in C major were of a different visual hue and density. For example the left hand chords shifting from E flat, G Flat, C – to E G C in Piano One sounded (indeed looked) like dark blue-grey-green hues shifting to white-yellow-silver hues. Much the same can be said of the melodic line in the right hand Piano One. Bars 6 and 7 opened the melody in a dark mustard yellow hue and moving in bar 8 to a white-grey-blue B Flat.
Piano Two used a total of six pitches during the course of the whole piece – C, D Flat, C Flat, B Flat, a passing note G and a passing note A Flat. The function was to add ambient resonance and octave based support to the music while commenting discretely on the prevailing harmony.
By this point in the process I wanted to work with several lines simultaneously like a fugue. The composition started out as a very compressed eight bars with all the material I wanted to use present in the eight bars. I then spent the rest of the composition time unravelling those condensed eight bars into a full piece. The pauses in the lines created an unexpected perspective. A regular fugue was of less interest to me than a somewhat asymmetrical layering of lines. The pauses added to this. There was an ongoing tension between F Sharp, G Natural and F Natural. This tension seemed to direct my decision making to a large extent. Along with this the pauses asked the listener, it seemed to me, to draw back from the musical conversation and wait. If a fugue was a conversation then, rather than an exchange in regular 4 bar phrases, as one might in a well-rounded conversation, I liked the idea of a conversation that included pauses for absorption. One statement could, I hoped generate enough interest for it to exist on its own, for a while.
The climax at bar 77 emerged from a different part of my thinking. By this point I felt the original eight bars had exhausted themselves and the constrictions I had set myself were frustrating me. In a moment of spontaneity at the piano I cut through the restraint of single-line writing and asserted the need for a bigger declamation at the end. The harmony confirms this shift by unwinding itself several degrees to a new area of tonality: C Sharp, Flat Seven, the dominant of F Sharp. This is confirmed when the opening material returns at 99. Again the F Natural plays against the F Sharp, but this time C Natural is superimposed in the bass and is against a C Sharp – simultaneously referring to the opening C Sharp octaves yet undermining the resolution of the F Sharp with a triton C Natural pulling against the prevailing F Sharp tonality. A rogue F Natural in the melody however affirms a plagal reference to the perfect fourth, thus sitting, and not sitting at the same time, within the world of a traditional fugue.
Written relatively early on in the process this piece worked with a rotating melodic line and a rotating/arpeggio accompaniment. It also made clear use of a harmonic progression. I was looking mainly at the pacing of my chord changes and how long was right to stay put on one chord. In the light of recent pieces I had written for the piano (2006 – 2008) I had recognized that my use of harmony was running away with itself and, while I enjoyed this facility with harmony, I wanted to restrain my use of chords so that I could get more impact out of fewer chord changes, over longer periods. Perhaps the most (for me) striking moment of the piece was the arrival of the F Sharp Minor chord at bar 63. I think I may have achieved a small success with this moment partly because I challenged myself to sit within each chord leading up to bar 63 for as long as the chord could possibly take it. I was fascinated by this moment at bar 63, not only from the point of view of the degree of harmonic surprise it created, but also in as much as the moment seemed to need almost no motivic material. Simple triads and octaves made plenty of impact on their own and, in fact, I shaved away several triads and octaves from this section before I felt I had just the right amount of gestural movement necessary to hold the drama without doing anything more than the minimum necessary. At bar 97 the solo in the left hand of Piano One emerges from the previously constrained melodic material. In a similar fashion to the declamatory chords that ended the previous piece Layer (mentioned above) I felt at this point in this piece I needed to jump away from the ‘rotating’ paradigm of short melodic phrases that I had set up at the opening. By this point I felt they had played themselves out and the impulse to allow a spontaneous idea to take hold was irresistible. The solo line demonstrated a different kind of rotation – one in which the melody could move more freely, and still rotate within itself. A nice twist to end on.
This piece took about three times as long to write as any of the other pieces. It was, of all seven, the most ambitious in its harmonic journey and musical statements. I went into more detail in terms of syntax, looking at how I could turn the musical narrative in different directions to create perspective, close ups and long shots, detailed nuance and grand sweep, while at the same time maintaining a sense of overall conviction that the piece was moving inexorably chromatically down towards its end.
The harmonic sweep, from beginning to end, held one single imperative throughout: – move downward. The chords I sketched on the piano at the beginning showed this clearly as the progressions sank semitone by semitone ever southward. Originally named cabaret, this word conjured for me something brash and rebellious. While the harmonic movement pulled ever downward the overarching melodic line consistently pulled away from this and upward, as if trying to escape its fate. Running parallel to this were the ‘aside-moments’ as one would call them in theatre. Glimpses of another perspective, often more intimate, even more honest, perhaps, than the struggle of the main narrative.
The climax builds in three stages – first the attaca chords are condensed into single- stabs (160 onward) in octaves with fourths that both clap sharply against the main motivic material of Piano One. Then they move onwards, competing with the quaver scales (196) that have worked like binding chains throughout the piece – linking together the unruly motives of Piano One, while sending the ear, momentarily, away from the downward chromatic harmony of Piano Two. Finally the two pianos coalesce and work together as two mirrored images (bar 196-233), against, and for, each other at the same time, I suggest. Here the climax reaches its zenith.
At the climax (208-233) the two pianos achieve a direct meeting, or even marriage, between the grandiosity of the main materials now condensed in single short chords, and the pensive yet undaunted single-note quirky ‘aside’ lines (211, 218, 227) that stand their ground next to the attaca chords of octaves with fourths that continue to pulse out in defiant oblivion.
From the point of view of voicing Piano One took on the treble role and Piano Two took on the bass. This was the most clearly separated of roles of the seven pieces in terms of the tessituras. There was a deliberate distance between the two pianos that suggested a, pronounced, if you will, gap.
The essence of cabaret is about edginess and a feeling of displacement for me. Here, with this voicing, it was obvious in the way the pianos were divided musically. However the whole piece seemed to be working towards overcoming this separateness. As the climax builds the pianos began their sharp convergence towards each other.
There seemed to be two codas in the piece. First a short preparatory one (bar 234) followed by a much longer one. The second coda surprised me in its duration. It needed considerable time to work itself through to completion and while I had momentary doubts that I could sustain a coda of this length I became more convinced as time went by that is was working.
The ‘first coda’ (bars 234 – 247) took the understated ‘aside’ material (first heard at bar 109) and finally gave it the breathing space it needed to make its point uninterrupted. This was followed by the ‘second coda’ that presented the opposite side of the coin to the very opening material. The rebellious material of Piano One has succumbed to the force of the Piano Two harmony and aligned itself not only to downward movement, in tune with the harmony beneath, but also to steady and step-wise rhythmic triplets, very much contrasted with the gestural leaps of the opening material in Piano One. The triplets here also rang well with the first coda material that had originally interrupted Piano One (at 109) but now seemed to enhance Piano One with a preparatory first coda leading to the, now perhaps more accepting, musical fate of Piano One.
The conciliation shown by Piano One to Piano Two in the final coda, through steady triplets and concordant harmony, suggested, perhaps, the notion that a force of protest implied by the word cabaret (through a willingness to pronounce an idea in a direct and forthright way), now no longer convinced the composer of their sustainability in the longer term. Protest (brash rebellion) thus adjusted its nuance to Pronounce – still maintaining a willingness to speak out – but now no longer willing, so much, to fight on and on. A need to resolve – in some form, the struggle, seemed inevitable by the end of the movement.
The harmonies in the last two pages do find a moment of complete resolution at bar 275 on D Flat Minor – but this will not be the final thought as the tonality continues, even at this late stage, to drop further down the keyboard landing and finally resting on the ambiguous superimposition of two perfect fifths a major third apart.
Originally written towards the beginning of the process (third) this piece wrote itself to a large extent once I had set up the tempo and the repeating octaves. I left it standing as was, right up until the last few days at which point I curtailed its length and developed the Piano Two octaves line with more pitch movement.
Originally Piano Two had remained very static on repeated F’s throughout. However after living with the piece for a few weeks in this format, and once all the other pieces were written, I went back to the score and got more of a sense of how this piece should ‘fly’ at the end of the series and not overstay its welcome! Thus I cut out about one minute and ten seconds of the music and also added the Piano Two development that starts at bat 15.
The power of the pulsation on Piano Two very much took on an urgency of its own and this allowed me to shift easily into new harmonic areas and textures as the piece went on: ie E Flat/A Flat at bar 42 and then on to D Minor following that. The double octaves at bar 51 seemed like the right thing to round off the whole series (and make a final point that octaves rule in this series!) and the quirky solo that appeared in Piano Two (structurally echoing the solo at the end of Rotate and the shift to declamatory chords in Layer to some extent) also gave a further twist, as this turns out to be the only time Piano Two really leads, from the front, on its own, with its own unique material, – a kind of poetic justice of some sort, at the eleventh hour!
Standing at forty minutes duration the series perhaps need not be performed only as a set but, for the sake of potential exposure, could be separated into seven individual pieces from which the players could pick and mix as they liked. Maybe smaller sub sets will emerge if players pick up on it. It will be interesting to follow. I’m not precious about the need for it all to be heard as one series though I would treasure the chance to hear the whole series on two Steinway grand pianos played by the Labèque sisters in Kings Place, Hall One. That is what I imagined as I was composing it!