Unsurprisingly, my first exposure to Viet Cuong had nothing to do with nocturnal lepidopterans. Instead, it was in the fall of 2010 when the Yale Concert Band played his Ziggurat, complete with a custom animation projected behind us that, for some reason, involved flying bicycles. At the time, Cuong was finishing up a Master’s of Music degree at the Peabody Conservatory (where he also did his undergraduate studies) and preparing to begin an MFA in Composition at Princeton, where he’s currently pursuing his Doctorate. Despite still being in school, he’s accumulated a truly staggering number of awards and performances — on all six permanently inhabited continents, according to his webpage — and I’m honestly kind of surprised I haven’t encountered more of his works. (The YCB played another of his band pieces, Sound and Smoke, in 2012.) I’m sure that will change going forward; he’s an excellent composer and his fame is only going to continue to grow.Read More
I've written before about how pieces of music written outside of the European-American common practice umbrella (roughly speaking, music written for churches, concert halls, and theatres from around 1600 to about the end of World War One) can seem completely unintelligible to people who aren't familiar with it. Since I'm not only familiar with but actually quite fond of a lot of this music, today I'm going to zoom in and explain how some of it works by giving a breakdown of the construction of a piece that's near and dear to my heart.
One of the big differences between western art music from the 19th Century and that from the 20th is a general decrease in the focus on melody. Now, plenty of 20th-Century composers missed this memo — I could rattle off dozens of composers who never stopped writing evocative, sensuous melodic lines — but plenty of them got it, and there's a lot of art music out there that doesn't have melodies that most people would recognize as such. But these works still have pitch content (well, except for 4'33", I guess), and still need some way of organizing it. Often, the way in question is a tight network of carefully controlled motives.
What is a musical motive? For our purposes, a "motive" is a short musical phrase that is used to generate musical material. This shortness is key: Unlike a melody, which can usually be broken down into phrases and subphrases, motives don't typically have meaningful subunits; if you cut them into pieces, you're working at the level of individual notes. (Many motives are in the three-to-four note range; very few are longer than six.)
The most famous motive, hands-down, is the one that kicks off Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth symphony. (BA NA NA NAAAAAAAAAA!) Careful readers might note that Beethoven was not, in fact, writing music in the 20th Century, and this is an important point. Motives are not something public-scorning modernists invented out of whole cloth; they have a long and rich history in the western art music tradition, running right back to the music of the late Medieval Catholic Church. But there's still a shift in the 20th Century. Whereas before, motives were typically derived from larger melodies, in the 20th Century we increasingly see motives treated as complete entities in and of themselves; they're building blocks instead of fragments*.
Enough with these generalizations. Let's talk about some actual music!
I'm sure I could use any number of pieces for this exercise, but I'm going to go with the one where I first learned to hear this way: Vincent Persichetti's Pageant, a piece for wind ensemble written in 1954. Besides sheer familiarity, Pageant has another great thing going for it as a learn-how-to-hear-motivically piece: It begins with an unadorned statement of the primary three-note motive. You might want to listen to it a few times just to really get it in your ear. (Thruout this analysis, I'm going to be referring to time markers in that specific recording on Spotify. I'm not going to reference the score because a) I don't have a copy of it, b) even if I did, I assume most of the people reading this don't either, and c) if you want to learn a new way of hearing, you're going to have to listen.)
After the little horn solo, there's a long slow lyrical passage (0'08" to 4'19"). (I tend to think of it as an introduction even tho it's more than half the length of the entire work — the precise nature of this chunk of music is irrelevant to this post, so we're just going to call it "the slow bit".) The instruments here are all moving very smoothly and connectedly, but there isn't a strong sense of melody. The lines float and they're beautiful, but they aren't really broken up into discrete, self-contained chunks; they blur and blend into one another, and it's not always clear whether what you're hearing is a new melodic line or a continuation of what you were just listening to — the color shifts dramatically at 0'35" as other instruments enter to join the clarinets, for example, but the clarinets don't stop before that happens; they run right into it.
Instead of melodies and variations on them, what we essentially have here is a long-range spooling out of that opening motive. The first three notes in the clarinets (0'08"-10") are exactly the motive, and little variations start piling up fast. When the highest clarinets hold out a note from 0'18"-19", the lower voices introduce a slightly squished version — the high note in the middle isn't quite as high as when the horn did it, but the shape is still very recognizably the same. The highest clarinets pick up on this and make a similar gesture from 0'23"-25", then again from 0'28"-30" before melting away as other instruments join.
This next passage, the one that begins at 0'35", doesn't start with a statement of the motive, but it isn't far away. As before, when the top voice holds out a note from 0'45"-47", the lower voices swoop in to fit the motive in the gap, and the upper voices echo the move from 0'53"-55".
The first big break happens when the brass chorale begins with three stately chords from 1'03"-09". The top voice here isn't playing the exact motive, but it's very close; the only change is that the third note is a little lower than in the original form. When the woodwinds get their turn again (1'18"-24"), they stretch it out, but the overall shape, three notes low-high-not quite as low, remains clearly recognizable.
After this bout of mimicry, the music ebbs back into flowy-floaty land. (I would put the transition around 1'44", tho I could hear arguments for an earlier demarcation point.) I'm not going to point out all the instances of the motive in this section because this is a blog post, not a Russian novel, but some of you may be starting to hear them on your own by now. The chorale section returns at the two-minute mark, this time including an unaltered statement of the motive in the trumpets at 2'14"-18", and this ushers in a return of the opening clarinet melody, such as it is.
What follows is essentially a spruced-up version of the opening sequence, including a return of the brass chorale at 3'26", this time with more voices playing along. Everybody gets in on the act with a perfect statement of the motive from 3'40"-46", but then things peter out as this big opening chunk (i.e. the slow bit) draws to a close.
Now for the fast part.
At first, we might appear to be safe on more traditional ground. After a brief snare drum tattoo, we get a peppy theme in the upper woodwinds (4'23"-27"). The brass play around with this, and we get a lovely swoopy transitional bit (4'38"-41"), followed by another pretty distinct theme (4'43"-50"). And that's pretty much it. There's very little that happens from 4'50" to the end of the piece that doesn't get laid out in those twenty-seven seconds. So we could switch over and start doing a more traditional thematic analysis of this part, and it'd be pretty smooth sailing from here on out.
But let's take a closer look at the themes we're working with. Remember how the clarinets had a squashed version of the motive near the beginning? The first three notes of the first melody of the fast section are a similarly squashed version . . . but upside-down. So instead of going low-high-medium, these three go high-low-medium. The next four notes are right-side-up, but they dip back down to the low note before going to the medium: low-high-(low)-medium. Digging a little deeper (and getting correspondingly harder to hear): If you take the first note of this melody, the last note of this melody, and the highest note, you get the original motive! (If you take the lowest note instead of the highest one, you get the motive upside-down.) (Don't worry if you can't hear all of these right away, or even after several listenings. Picking out motives by ear is a skill, and like any skill, it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. I've been living with this piece for more than five years, so I've had a lot of time to dig into every nook and corner of its musical fabric.)
The swoopy transitional bit goes even further — it rearranges the motive to be essentially high-middle-low, then muddies the water further by filling in the notes in the middle**. The third theme combines this displacement idea — having the highest note not be in the middle — and combines it with the "adding an extra note" thing from the first fast theme to get low-middle-(low)-high for its first four notes, and elaborated still further for its next five. Once again, if you take the first note, the last note, and the highest note, you get the original motive. (This time, it doesn't work if you take the lowest note, altho there are other ways in which that note is structurally significant.) So when you're listening to these themes bounce around for the rest of the piece, you're hearing variations on variations of the fundamental motive***.
There is, of course, even more than this. Tracking down every single instance of the motive in this gleefully chaotic fast section would take far more space than I have here, but I would be remiss not to draw attention to the glorious passage from 6'27"-33" in which Persichetti piles up statement after statement of the motive, overlapping the ending of one with the beginning of the next to corkscrew his way from one place to another. This suggests a realm that I haven't even touched on — collapsing the motive onto itself and playing all three notes simultaneously as a chord instead of a melodic fragment. This kind of usage is harder to hear, but trust me, it's there.
I don't want to overstate my case here. Pageant is not only comprised of this one motive. There are other motives at work thruout, and as I said, the fast bit can be analyzed very comfortably in terms of traditionally-construed melodies. (Altho remember that melodies are almost always themselves built from motives, and that even way back in the 18th century (and before), composers were playing with these motives to make their music.) But still, I think Pageant makes a lot more sense if you can hear the ways that Persichetti is using the primary motive to generate his musical material, and I hope I've given you a window into how I hear this kind of music.
The motivic games in Pageant are relatively clear and easy to follow, believe it or not. There are other pieces out there where the motivic relations are subtle, buried, and difficult for even an experienced listener to track. I know it may seem hard to believe if you're not used to listening this way, but once you start to wrap your head around a few pieces like this, it really does start to become an automatic, intuitive process. (If you're looking for another piece with a clearly defined motive to practice on, I highly recommend Ralph Vaughan Williams's fourth symphony.) And if you can train yourself to hear this way, a lot of contemporary music (and heck, even a fair bit of music from the 17th to 19th centuries) will suddenly make a whole lot more sense. Who knows, you might even start to genuinely like some of it!
So don't be afraid of music that runs on motives instead of melody. Give it a listen. See what you hear.
*If this sounds like a bit of a hedge, it is. For every crisp, clearly defined stylistic break in the history of western art music, there are things like this: general, loosely adhered-to trends that different composers at different times have engaged with to different degrees. What can I say? Art is messy.
**At this point, some of you may suspect that I'm just making these things up, cherry picking notes and techniques in whatever way I have to to magically procure the motive out of every bit of music in this piece. As with so many things in music, this is a judgement call. If this were the only link to the opening horn solo in the entire piece, I'd be pretty sympathetic to the argument that it's an unrelated coincidence — heck, I'd probably even make it myself. But given that the entire piece is so saturated with the motive, I'm inclined to say this one isn't a spurious coincidence; there's a real motivic link going on. Ultimately, it's not terribly significant — if you think that this particular "instance" of the motive is unconvincing, that's fine. It doesn't take away from the fact that the motive is all over this entire piece, from beginning to end.
***This, incidentally, is one of the reasons it works to have the first and third melodies played simultaneously starting at 6'45". Their important structural tones have the same fundamental relationship, so they live in very similar harmonic worlds. (It's also very possible that he wrote that section first to make sure everything would work — pro tip to any aspiring composers reading this!)