compositional process

Compositional Process: Emerge

"Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency."

"Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth."

-Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

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These two quotes come from different chapters of Rebecca Solnit's masterpiece, Hope in the Dark. First published in 2004, Hope in the Dark is a retelling of the history of the radical left, from an equally radical position: the position of hope. Solnit argues that movements can easily fall into pessimistic traps -- that because the idea of a movement is inherently oppositional, the idealism of movements can easily be engulfed by their opposing forces.

Solnit tells stories of resistance and success -- large successes like the WTO protests in Seattle in the late 90's, and small successes like the process of how a farmer's market came to exist in a San Francisco town square which features racist statues. All in all, her book is an argument for the idea of keeping hope alive.

Video from the premiere of Emerge.

Commissioned by the Detroit Composers' Project Premiered at the Detroit Institute of Arts Riviera Court on September 9, 2018 Eliot Heaton, Yuri Popowycz - violins Jasper Zientek - viola Kellen Degnan - cello

This is a beautiful book to read in 2018. Incidentally, this summer I read this book and another book from the pre-Trump era -- Grace Lee Boggs' The Next American Revolution, published in 2011. I found that these two books offered a rare insight into today's combative political climate. I feel a little like it's impossible to create a truly cogent analysis of what's happening right now, because it's all happening so fast and we're all observing it in real time. These two authors, Solnit and Boggs, write with such urgency, and their ideas transcend their time.


When I began writing this piece, I knew that I wanted to write something that had some relationship to our current times. But I also knew that that could get unpleasant, fast. Nobody wants to go to a concert where we all sit around and talk about how shitty everything is. I know I don't want to go to that show. Solnit offered a way though for me. I took the word "Emerge" from the above quotes and coded it into the piece in various ways; most notably pitch collection, interval structure, and form. I'll go through and show how that process worked.

E M E R G E

If we can equate each letter to its place in the alphabet, E = 5, M = 13, R = 18 and G = 7. E M E R G E = 5+13+5+18+7+5, which = 53. 5+3 = 8. So I used as I starting point, I used the numbers:

5, 13, 18, 7, and 8.

I experimented with the numbers in various ways to try to extract pitches from them. The methodology I settled on hinges on the idea of the "digital root," which I've been using a lot lately. The idea is simple: any two digit number can be reduced to one digit by adding up the two digits. So to find the digital root of 13, add 1 and 3. 1+3 = 4. So my next step was to take Emerge and find a digital root for the entire word. 5 + 1 + 3 + 5 + 1 + 8 + 5 = 28. 2+8 = 10. So the digital root of Emerge was 10.

You might notice that 7, the "G" was conspicuously absent from that calculation. To be completely honest, this was a mistake in my process, and by the time I found it I was already down this road and didn't want to turn back. But I got lucky. As the structure for the pitch collection emerged, 7 became an important structural number. I'll speak on that further down.

I now had these numbers as my primary numbers: 5, 13, 18, and 10. I put everything into mod12 (%12), meaning each number that was greater than 12 was reduced to a number less than 12. So 5 stayed as 5, 13 became 1, 18 became 6, 7 stayed as 7, and 10 stayed as 10. And when I put 1, 5, 6, and 8 into prime form, what I got was this: [0158]. This 0158 is the cell that everything follows from in the piece.

Pitch Collection

I started with "D" as my generating tone, and projected [0158] in both ascending and descending directions, resulting in a row of F#, A, C#, D, Eb, G, and Bb. I then decided to see what would happen if I projected that same numerical pattern of 0158 into the overtone and undertone series, using each tone in the row as a generative tone. The results were fascinating, and are detailed on the chart below:

 The precompositional map that determined the entire pitch set of this piece. The pitches in the box titled "Generative Row" are the original pitches: starting with D as 0, they're [0158]'s in either direction. The pitches in the boxes above and below that box are pitches that follow from overtones 1, 5, and 8, and undertones 1, 5, and 8, from each tone in the Generative Row.

The precompositional map that determined the entire pitch set of this piece. The pitches in the box titled "Generative Row" are the original pitches: starting with D as 0, they're [0158]'s in either direction. The pitches in the boxes above and below that box are pitches that follow from overtones 1, 5, and 8, and undertones 1, 5, and 8, from each tone in the Generative Row.

As you can see, I fixed the generative row to specific pitches: F#3 to Bb5, with D4 in the middle. When I projected upward and downward into the overtone and undertone series, I now had a pitch set that spanned the full range of the string quartet -- actually, beyond that range -- and that was sufficiently chromatic but also with quirky and idiosyncratic limitations. I decided that my goal with this piece would be to use this pitch set, and only this pitch set. The only exception I made was to transpose various tones in the extreme upper and lower registers, to put the tones within the playing range of the instruments I was writing for.

I also decided that I would try to treat this material in as many different ways as possible -- both extracting vertical harmonies from each generative tone's overtone and undertone sets and creating horizontal melodies that jumped between generative tones' pitches.

 Harmonies 1, 2, and 3, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

Harmonies 1, 2, and 3, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

 Harmonies 4, 5, 6, and 7, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

Harmonies 4, 5, 6, and 7, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

 The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (1/2)

The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (1/2)

 The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (2/2)

The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (2/2)

Form

I decided that the 7 primary harmonies derived from the above scheme would determine the form of this piece. This, incidentally, is how the chords got their order; not through any process of divination. I simply played through them all in various orders and settled on an order that I liked. Treating the 7 harmonies as a structural element had another benefit: I could reclaim the 7 that I had forgotten in the earlier precompositional stage. 7 was now buried deeper into the structure of the piece. Intuitively, that made sense to me. My birthday is July 7 (7/7) and 7 has always been an important number to me. Baking 7 deeply into the structure of a piece called Emerge just felt right. I decided that my earlier mishap of forgetting to use 7 was actually a happy accident.

In terms of how the music would progress through the 7 harmonies, the structure I settled on was this: various instruments progress through the harmonies as different rates, meeting up at various structural moments.

Each instrument follows a preset cycle of alternating between completely "free" playing -- i.e., the ability to play the complete set -- and simply holding their tones within any given primary harmonies. Furthermore, while each player follows the same cycle, different players progress through that cycle at different rates. This has the effect of creating moments where more than one player at once are playing subsets of different primary harmonies at once, and also has the effect of creating moments where all members of the ensemble are playing "free" simultaneously.

As a clarifying element, I decided that all players would coalesce on primary harmonies after one complete cycle, then start again on a new cycle.

The cycle that the players moved through is this: 5-13-5-18-5. Players alternated each beat unit between playing "free" and holding their subset of a given primary harmony. So, for example, violins 1 and 2 start the piece starts like this: after an initial statement of harmony 1 by the entire ensemble, violin 1 plays free for 5 beats, holds harmony 1 for 13 beats, plays free for 5 beats, holds harmony 1 for 18 beats, and plays free for 5 beats. This is one complete cycle. It then continues by playing harmony 2 for 5 beats, playing free for 13 beats, playing harmony 2 for 5 beats, playing free for 18 beats, and playing harmony 2 for 5 beats.

Meanwhile, the viola and cello are completing the same cycle, but at a rate that is twice as slow. They play free for 5 beats, hold harmony 1 for 13 beats, play free for 5 beats, hold harmony 1 for 18 beats, and play free for 5 beats. But in the space of their one cycle, the violins complete their first two cycles.

All instruments coalesce at this moment on primary chord 2.

Some version of this pattern continues for seven revolutions. This is long enough for the viola and cello to cycle through all of the primary harmonies once, and for the violins to cycle through all of the primary harmonies twice. This makes up the bulk of the piece. The precompositional map that I expresses this entire form is reproduced here:

 Precompositional map for the form of  Emerge . All instruments progress through a pattern of 5-13-5-18-5, alternating between free playing (within the strict pitch set) and holding subsets of primary chords. But the two violins move through that pattern twice as fast as the viola and cello, creating the framework for overlapping harmonies and wild contrapuntal motion. This map was adapted as the piece was actually composed. For example, note that this map expresses a third layer of speed -- see the violin 1 part in the 2nd system, the viola part in the 4th system, the violin 2 part in the 5th system, and the cello part in the 7th system. This "fast lane" was abandoned throughout the course of composition.

Precompositional map for the form of Emerge. All instruments progress through a pattern of 5-13-5-18-5, alternating between free playing (within the strict pitch set) and holding subsets of primary chords. But the two violins move through that pattern twice as fast as the viola and cello, creating the framework for overlapping harmonies and wild contrapuntal motion. This map was adapted as the piece was actually composed. For example, note that this map expresses a third layer of speed -- see the violin 1 part in the 2nd system, the viola part in the 4th system, the violin 2 part in the 5th system, and the cello part in the 7th system. This "fast lane" was abandoned throughout the course of composition.

In order to make sure these formic values were being expressed, I started composing with the idea of different instruments in different time signatures. The original version of the first draft of the score looked like this:

 First version of the first draft of  Emerge

First version of the first draft of Emerge

Of course, I cleaned that up and gave everybody unified time signatures for the final draft. The players had enough on their hands without having to deal with different time signatures. Here's the same stretch in the final draft:

 The opening of  Emerge  with unified bar lines and time signatures between the players. (Notice too that I ended up taking the violins down an octave for their held "primary harmony" notes. This decision was made after the first reading session, where the violinists' valliant efforts were still not enough to overcome the unwise decision of writing so high so consistently. Taking these 5ths down an octave throughout the piece was the best decision I could have made for the piece.)

The opening of Emerge with unified bar lines and time signatures between the players. (Notice too that I ended up taking the violins down an octave for their held "primary harmony" notes. This decision was made after the first reading session, where the violinists' valliant efforts were still not enough to overcome the unwise decision of writing so high so consistently. Taking these 5ths down an octave throughout the piece was the best decision I could have made for the piece.)

After these seven cycles are completed, the piece ends with an extended Coda in which all players loop through all seven chords together. This happens four times in total, with the 1st violinist playing a virtuosic obbligato line over the progression. This ending is supposed to be a big payoff for the listener and for the player -- something tangible has finally emerged. I had a hard time finding an ending, and I settled on this ending, again, sort of through intuition. It really just felt right.

Conclusion

There were a few other aspects of this piece that I didn't get into -- most notably, the interval structure that manifests in the surface of the piece, and also the particular properties of the harmonies that resulted from the mixing of two or more primary harmonies. Nonetheless, I hope this writing offers a window into the process that I've been developing over the last year, and how that process manifested itself in the composition of this piece. If you have any questions, I'd be thrilled to talk; get in touch with me via the Contact page on this website.

Thank you for your interest, and thank you for reading! I'm also endlessly grateful to the quartet who premiered this piece -- Eliot Heaton and Yuri Popowycz on violins, Jasper Zientek on viola, and Kellen Degnan on cello. Lastly, thank you to the Detroit Composer's Project for asking me to write this piece in the first place.