Guest Blog: David Braid on Reconstructing Harmony
New article published on the Music Haven website:
Why writing fugues today is a way of moving forward
Fugue (‘Chase’) is not a form. For example, look at Bach’s 48 – each one has a totally different form.
Fugue is a process and is not traditional in any sense. Fugue is akin to a mathematical equation – it is culturally neutral.
Buxtehude, John Williams, Bach, Shostakovich, Ligeti, Busoni, Sweelinck, Britten – composers from different cultures and periods, have all used fugue brilliantly and differently.
After graduating from the Royal College of Music back in 1994 I felt that I still hadn’t covered fugue in real depth and so I did an advanced course of it for a year with the excellent composer and teacher Zbigniew Bujarski in Cracow.
We did it all: ‘chromatic’, ‘doubles’, ‘crabs’, etc. This changed how I hear and write music forever – it showed me that all music (all styles, from all cultures, including popular, primitive, etc.) is essentially a product of the vertical (harmony, timbre, dynamics, articulation) and the horizontal (line, melody, theme, harmonic rhythm, form); this is – of course – a result of a given culture and period also.
Fugue is nothing less than the distillation of this principle. Fugue is the ‘quantum mechanics’ of composition, in that it deals directly with the play between our perception of time and the impression of a horizontal flow of music at the linear, harmonic and rhythmic levels simultaneously.
These two aspects in some senses contradict each other – while yet also relying on each other for their existence and context – a paradox stemming from the imperfect and – perhaps ‘inaccurate’ – way that the brain processes music.
It can be argued that other compositional systems or processes do the same thing; this may be true to some limited extent; but I have yet to come across any that universally encompasses all aspects of music in such detail and depth, while having a track record of literally hundreds of masterworks from various periods.
For example this cannot be said to be the case with serialism, which is highly arbitrary and is little more than a ‘sofa to lie on’ so that the music writes itself, releasing the composer from the difficult job of true compositional choices.
Also, serialism – while being used to some extent within works that are considered masterpieces by some – it is clearly not the reason for the quality in these works, but is a secondary factor.
The question now when composing fugues in 2015 is this:
Can the fugue process be developed further to encompass an accurate reflection of the time and culture in which we live – for example far beyond Bartok’s stretching of it – while it still remaining a fugue?
My answer is the many fugues I’ve written (see worklist/audio tabs)
I leave it to the listener to decide if the answer is satisfactory or not.
Why I write for, and play the archtop guitar
In the last two years or so I have written a lot of music for, and including, the electric archtop guitar – for those not familiar with an archtop – it looks like this: http://bit.ly/1zjEHyA
The archtop guitar is often called the ‘jazz guitar’ and is also referred to as a ‘round top’. There is no classical music for this instrument (that I’m aware of) as it has enjoyed most of its c.100 year history playing jazz (plus blues, country, rockabilly, etc.)
I find this a shame as it is such an amazing and versatile guitar – my aim is to remedy this and produce, perform and record an entire repertoire for it – both solo and in combination with other instruments; chamber, vocal, and possibly even orchestral – a concerto could be very exciting!
So far I have written some 20+ works written for the archtop guitar.
One may ask – ‘why not write for the classical guitar?’ (considering that that is the instrument I studied at music college). Here are my reasons below (hopefully validated by the music: see the Other musical activities tab above).
The archtop guitar – often believed to have been invented by Gibson employee Loar in the early C.20th (though the truth goes some 60+ years further back into the mid C.19th: Rob MacKillop’s history of it here – combines the arched front as found on a mandolin, cello or violin with the normal guitar shape. This enhances the mid-range and also resulted in higher volumes (the ‘f’ holes shorten the sustain allowing this energy to be diverted into volume).
However, with the arrival of the electric guitar, volume was no longer an issue, but the tone of the archtop: the warm sound, rich in harmonic colour remained, even when electrified, and so continued in use.
The archtop has considerably more sustain than a classical guitar (but not the endless ‘kerrang’ of the solid body electric) and the steel strings (especially the light gauge I use: 0.09, 0.12, 0.15 etc.) allow for a very high sensitivity to movement after the note has been struck: many kinds/speeds of vibrato, slight pitch changes (bending, etc.), audible (lasting) glissandi, etc.
This makes for a highly expressive, singing and lasting tone, ideal for melodic or linear-based music. All my compositions – for any instrument – have always been based on line and the harmony implied from it, this is, quite simply, how I perceive music in my mind. Perhaps this may not be true for other composers, but for me it certainly is.
However, without harmony – whether implied or actual (plus all the other factors such as rhythm, timbre, etc. of course) music can be very one-dimensional. The guitar here has no problems, any guitar or other chordophone in fact, not just the archtop, owing to its nature as a harmonic instrument.
One caveat I’d like to strongly state – the classical guitar is an amazing instrument and I see it in no way whatsoever as inferior to the guitar I use. It is perfect for its repertoire and for so so many new works (and even for lute works also).
I simply find that for the music I write the electric archtop works best.
Neither of my favourite guitarists – in joint first position: Julian Bream and Django Reinhardt –are archtop players (though Django did use one late in his life for a few years and Bream did play some jazz guitar in his teens).
The right hand technique I use is a mixture of that used for the Renaissance lute (my second instrument) and gipsy-jazz style plectrum. The former is ideal for when the music is contrapuntal, the latter for high speed runs and rich singing tones.
The plectrum I use is a very heavy 3 mm Dunlop ‘big stubby’ – I bought about 200 of these in case they stop making them! This makes a full thick sound and to some extent rounds off the attack of the note.
Swapping between these two techniques within a moment (as is required by my pieces) took some time to develop at first but allows for all kind of endless possibilities.
So – what can an electric archtop do really well?
- It blends with practically anything amazingly well – not only because volume is of no concern as it’s plugged in, but also because of its rich mid-range. Particularly good blends are – clarinet, voice, vibraphone, viola and double bass.
- Implication of harmony through occasional passing chords and secondary lines cause a positive-feedback loop for certain types of composition and all kinds of harmony are, of course, possible – from C.12th heterophony to all-out, atonal squeak are equally viable (not that I write either of the above!).
- Linear-based music – where a melodic or thematic part dominates and leads – as can be seen in the great jazz players, this instrument (especially when using plectrum technique) excels wonderfully, whether it’s in high speed mandolin-style tremolos, or ornament-heavy rococo improvisatory lines. The latter, for example: Bach’s unaccompanied violin and ‘cello works (the G minor Adagio from BWV 1001 sits perfectly on the archtop – this repertoire has the added bonus of annoying purists by playing Bach on an electrically-charged instrument!)
- Countrapuntal music – either using the lute technique or the plectrum technique; the latter has been criticised as it apparently appears impossible to play two notes at the same time using a plectrum – this is not true owing to the simple fact that the hand can move considerably faster than the ear can hear; in fact if this were not true all music would sound like a series of isolated noises! Also one can combine the two techniques – using both plectrum and fingerstyle at the same time for certain passages.
There are many other things this instrument does and can do – many of which I’m certain I have not thought of yet (I’m sure others have and will do in the future).
Lastly – why have I made it my main performing instrument? I learnt guitar from a singing/accordion playing nun when I was 9 years old – strumming Elvis Presley and Beatles songs. This led to rock, jazz, etc. with my only learning the classical guitar in my late teens in order to get into the RCM.
Although the classical was my primary instrument study at college and for around some 10 years after – the plectrum/combination technique is my roots and allows me to really ‘fly’.
Having said this I am incredibly grateful for the huge input I gained from my intense and lengthy classical guitar training, plus the (later) input from playing the lute.
Let’s face it – chordophones rock!! – whether its guitars, mandolins, lutes, or the very trendy ukuleles!
You cannot beat the sound of a plucked string – as the great lutenist Jacob Lindberg said on the radio last year – “the lute speaks (not sings) as the short notes are akin to words” – we don’t walk around singing like violins!
A plucked string speaks to your soul directly – Orpheus knew this!
Interesting article here about archtop development also: