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Thirteen Ways of Looking at "Dark Dream": An Analysis

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Title : Thirteen Ways of Looking at "Dark Dream": An Analysis
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Thirteen Ways of Looking at "Dark Dream": An Analysis

A couple of years ago I was writing a piece for violin and guitar that I ultimately titled Dark Dream. This piece went through several stages and ended up being the longest single piece of music I have written. We recorded it in Toronto a little over a year ago and it ended up being fourteen minutes in length. The process of composition involved writing the piece and then taking it apart and rewriting it several times. I could check, but I think it took about two years before it assumed its final shape.

As the piece seemed to me to be a significant breakthrough I have recently decided to do an analysis of it akin to what Schoenberg did with some of his pieces in the transition from tonal to serial composition. He would write a piece in free atonal style and afterwards try to discern how it was put together.

There are so many different ways of approaching an analysis that I am going to take a cue from Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and try and find thirteen ways of looking at Dark Dream. Also because I am pretty sure that it will not fit within any of the usual analytical methods.
I was of three minds, 
Like a tree 
In which there are three blackbirds.
--Wallace Stevens
1. The piece is for violin and guitar, a favorite ensemble of mine. One of my most satisfying musical relationships was with violinist Paul Kling with whom I gave quite a few chamber concerts of music by Giuliani, Paganini and others. He was a violinist of outstanding abilities. But my relationship with the violin is complex as my mother was a violinist, a "fiddler" in her words. The violin always represented to me a hemisphere of music to which I, as a guitarist, did not have access. In my mother's hands it was a folk instrument. In the hands of Paul Kling it was, along with the piano, another instrument that I did not have access to, the supreme instrument of Western Music. In one concert Paul played the Bach Chaconne in D minor as a solo offering. All I could come up with in response was a Tombeau originally for Baroque lute by Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a friend of Bach's. In Dark Dream there is an interesting fusion and then separation of the two instruments. The piece begins with a unison possible because the violin and guitar share one open string in common: the 4th string of the violin is the same pitch as the 3rd string of the guitar. The opening uses these strings, plus some octave displacements, to unfold a G nexus. 

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The guitar sounds an octave lower than written as you can see from the clef, so what look like octaves here are actually unisons. This idea of the two instruments fusing together and then separating is also realized in the speeding up and slowing down motif, one of the basic themes. Later on each instrument has a cadenza:

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The violin's is extended into a more lyric melodic idea that returns at the end of the piece:

It also appears, for both instruments, in the "moment form" section. Here is how it appears at the end:

I suppose that what I was doing, in part, was to place the guitar and violin as equals, but at the end, the guitar returns to a sonority unique to itself, as does the violin. Separate but equal? The violin certainly wins out melodically. But the guitar, with its mysterious sonority at the end, preserves its identity. By "preparing" the guitar by putting a paperclip on the 6th string, you get a complex mixture of pitches, vaguely bell-like. The violin, with its col legno on the 4th string open, contributes its own uniqueness to the composite. So one aspect of the structure of Dark Dream is my personal relationships with both the guitar and the violin.

2. A composer that I became interested in, in recent years, was Sofia Gubaidulina, a Russian/Tatar woman who never quite fit into any of the niches available in the Soviet Union and eventually emigrated to Germany. One thing I learned from her music is that a "theme" does not have to be melodic or motivic but can be a texture or a timbre. This is why I use a number of different coloristic ideas in the piece as building blocks. These include:
  • pizzicato for both instruments
  • harmonics for both instruments
  • col legno and sul pont mainly for violin
  • "prepared" guitar using a paper clip
  • glissandi for both instruments
  • trills for both instruments used as a texture more than a harmonic or melodic device
  • unmeasured tremolandi on two strings for both instruments similarly
  • "snare drum" effect on the guitar which is achieved by crossing the 5th and 6th strings over one another for a rustling metallic effect
3. The ineffable influence of Zeno of Elea. I have always been fascinated by the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea who seems to show that, for example, Achilles can never catch the tortoise. This paradox seems to point to the question of whether or not space divides into infinitely small points. Or so I understand it! For my purposes I want to see the temporal flow of music as being of two kinds: with an underlying pulse or with no pulse and extended sounds. Pop music always has a rigid beat while Gregorian chant has floating sonorities. Is time more like a march or more like a river? A big part of the structure of Dark Dream is based on contrasting these two concepts of time. For example, in the very beginning we have a single note, fermata, with no fixed duration. This is followed by a simple rhythmic counterpoint. This in turn leads to the speeding up and slowing down motif which the two instruments play against one another. The contrasts are throughout the piece. Other similar contrasts are between fixed individual pitches and glissandi. On a higher structural level the two outer sections of the piece use a traditional score layout. In the middle there is a contrasting section in "moment form" in which each instrument is given a collection of musical moments that they play in any order. This is repeated so there is another ordering. The effect of this kind of texture is that not only is there no narrative direction, but there is of course no shared pulse between the instruments. The music floats.

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4. There are four basic motifs in the piece:


Two are with pulse, A and D, and two, B and C, are without pulse. Only D resembles a traditional motif. These ideas are developed in various ways.

5. In order to avoid traditional tonal implications, I use different forms of the octatonic scale in the piece.

6. The piece really avoids a structure with "directed motion." When I started to do a Schenkerian analysis what seemed to be coming into view was a movement from G up to D flat! Rather upside down. I am going to go back and go into that more carefully later on.

7. Silence has a significant role in the piece. This is on analogy with the layout of traditional Chinese art which tends to have a blank or "negative space" in the centre where Western art would have a focus or climax. In Dark Dream, the climactic moment really comes at the end of the moment form section which is a silence followed by a kind of recapitulation.

Well, there are seven ways of looking at Dark Dream. Rather sketchy, I know! Here is the original post with the clip of the recording:

Comments are welcome, of course.

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