I was pleased to be welcomed back to Birmingham Conservatoire at the start of this month to present some of my composition work since leaving the conservatoire in 2009. I decided to take the approach of talking about the way my compositional thinking has evolved over the last few years. I realised retrospectively that a lot of the compositional approaches i am interested in and have been exploring focus on creating substantial amounts of material from very little. This is true of fugue as well as other generative principles such as the ‘Developing Variation’ principle developed by Schoenberg (and later adopted by his pupil Alban Berg) i have been working with.
The economy of this way of working appeals to me as a composer and also as an improviser. Manipulation and variations of small cells through transposition and translation (i hope to expand upon this at a later date) can generate variation and development of initial material in a way that has an inner cohesion as all content is fundamentally related. (As we will see at a later stage, the content of these cells could be quite prescribed..specific interval sets for example, as would be the case in Schoenberg/Berg’s music..)
A lot of the music i have written over the last few years may have a particular harmonic/ intervallaic premise (often an overlap of the two) that is expanded from an initial cell using a generative principle of this sort to explore and expand upon this premise. After writing using principles such as fugue or developing variation for some time i have found that conceiving of larger structures and forms from small cells becomes more of an intuitive process and something you start to hear (in much the same way a jazz improvisers start to hear ideas over time that build on scales/harmony/sonority they have been exploring.) What starts as quite a restrictive method ultimately becomes quite liberating; these processes, once internalised, can be used as strictly or as loosely as the composer wishes (much like a contemporary jazz musician is free to interpret a chord sequence on a standard say..)
These are some of the areas we started looking at in my recent talk along with analysis of some examples (opening of Bartok’s 1st string quartet- uses elements of fugal writing within largely intervallaicly focused writing) and Berg op. 1, the Piano Sonata (all musical material is expansions of the initial 2-bar phrase- written in accordance with Schoenbergs principle of Developing Variation.)
I hope to build on this at some stage and go into more depth with some examples from my compositions and those of others to bring this theory to life! 🙂