Rotational Games

So I'm currently in the middle of writing a bassoon sonata. It's the first entirely new concert piece I've written since finishing my musical, the first such piece, in fact, since finishing my clarinet sonata in the fall of 2013. (I've done a couple of concert arrangements of selections from Window for various forces, and while all of them have new material spliced in, those additions are really just connective tissue to make the music work without the words; they lack the depth of compositional intensity that building a new structure from the ground up calls for.) It's going well: I have solid drafts of the first two movements and the third is off to a promising start.

I've written before about how I sometimes feel like my compositional work inhabits two different styles, and that feeling is back with a vengeance now. It's like all the dissonance and metrical complexity that I didn't put into Window was just biding its time in the wings, suddenly to leap out and pounce now that I don't have to worry about how on earth a singer is going to pick their note out of the chaos and hold their own as barlines are falling to pieces around them. Triads aren't out the window, of course — there are still plenty of patches of beautiful, consonant music lounging around — but they're once again being pretty fiercely contested. Working on this new sonata feels like picking up the pieces right where I left off in my effort for clarinet and continuing to refine and develop my abstract compositional chops.

Well, not right where I left off. I didn't just fall asleep for a year and a half, after all. I wrote a musical. I took several advanced theory courses. I read the entirety of Elements of Sonata Theory. I am, more than ever before, attuned to the ways that form can articulate musical meaning. If I'm coming back to where I was when I wrote the clarinet sonata, I'm doing so with a new and expanded toolkit.

That's more than just an idle conception. In starting this piece, I didn't consciously set out to re-work the ground of my previous attempt in the genre, but references to it keep sneaking in to my writing. Some of them are flat-out quotes — there's a short passage in the theme of the first movement of the bassoon sonata that mimics part of a theme from the first movement of the clarinet sonata astonishingly closely — and others are more abstracted similarities — both last movements are rondos, and the first interlude for each takes A as the tonic pitch. I haven't written the interlude in question in the bassoon sonata yet, but the ideas I'm currently throwing around for it share the same obsessive, repetitive, small-cell-based nature as the equivalent passage in the clarinet sonata — but they've tended to be quite insistent in both cases; trying to write them out resulted in versions that sounded flat, contrived, and unconvincing. For whatever reason, these allusions need to be there.

In a way, I suppose it's fitting. The bassoon sonata is titled Rotational Games, and it's built around the idea of returning to a starting point only to find that the ground has shifted under your feet. (Or trying to return, at least. In some ways, the entire sonata is a desperate, failed attempt to re-gain the tender, rich, lyrical opening sonority of F major. There are local returns that are more successful — the second movement is essentially a fantasy land where it really is possible to start all over again with no added baggage — but in the larger design, this goal remains devastatingly out of reach.) So on some meta, life-imitates-art level, it makes sense that the entire piece would itself be, in some ways, be a return to and re-working of earlier music I've written.

But it's not a flat-out return, it's also an extension. The clarinet sonata was an attempt to get nonfunctional, modal harmonies to generate the same propulsive tension and release that functional harmonies do in standard tonal forms. A large part of the work in Window carried this forward — theatrical songs all but require directed harmony to be effective, and the options for those harmonies are often tightly constrained — but it also brought in a much stronger focus on key centers as sources of meaning, a focus that was only amplified by studying Benjamin Britten in an opera seminar and subsequently reading Hepokoski and Darcy. Now, in Rotational Games, I'm finding ways to bring these together, to make these abstract key centers carry real weight while expanding the harmonic palette back out to bring a wider array of possibilities to bear on shaping the arc of the piece.

And it's also an experiment. For all that the clarinet sonata definitely broke new ground in terms of my compositional technique, it still relied pretty heavily on strongly demarcated compositional chunks — here's an A theme, then we transition to a B theme, return to the A theme, and so on. With the exception of the rondo, the forms were closed forms: There are a certain number of generically expected sections to hit, and then the movement is over. (For example, the opening movement follows the sonata-allegro outline of introduction, exposition, development, and recapitulation. After passing thru these zones, the movement is done, there's nothing left for it to do. Contrast this with something like a theme and variations, which can theoretically go on indefinitely.) In Rotational Games, as you might expect from the title and premise, the forms are looser, less rigid, and totally open. I can't rely on a list of checkboxes to tell me when I'm done, I have to feel the scope of the music and make a conscious determination to break things off at this juncture and not some other.

I don't know if it's going to work. As I said, it's an experiment. And that's exciting. I'm still figuring out this whole composing thing, and I would be deeply suspicious if I felt like had every issue of style and technique down pat. I'm building on things I already know I can do in this piece, but I'm using them to push into new territory, and that's stimulating and invigorating. This piece might fall flat, but if it does, at least I'll have learned something from it. And if succeeds, it'll be fantastic. Those are odds I'm willing to take.