Seven pieces I’m working on this summer:

Still Point
Entrance
Exit
The Alchemist
Untitled nonet
Two as-yet untitled orchestra pieces

All of these works are in various stages of completion, and four of them are slated for fall premieres, but the one that I’m really in the thick of hashing through is Still Point, a chamber setting of a sonnet. The text is lovely, but for this post I want to focus on the form, because I’m always fascinated by the differences between clock and musical time.

This particular sonnet has an English, or Shakespearian, rhyme pattern:

abab
cdcd
efef
gg

but more importantly, each quatrain contains, in fine iambic pentameter, 40 syllables, and the final couplet contains 20 syllables. All other things being equal, the music for each quatrain should be of equal length, and twice as long as the music for the couplet. But in my first draft, here is how long each section lasted:

first quatrain – 1:00
second quatrain – 0:44
third quatrain – 0:42
couplet – 0:38

These unequal proportions quickly make perfect sense: the first quatrain is expository, and the final couplet contains the volta, or change of direction, and so requires a bit more time to unfold than a straight setting of half the syllables would imply. Looking at the first draft indicates to me that I am responding not just to the number of notes required to get through the text, but the relative weight of the words’ meanings which, again, makes perfect sense. The result, in any case, is four sections of music, with the first section taking about one-and-a-half times as much musical time as the other three.

But the piece isn’t all singing: there is also an extended instrumental introduction and interludes between each verse. Here is the pattern of the entire piece, in first draft:

Intro – 1:02, first quatrain – 1:00
first interlude – 0:20, second quatrain – 0:44
second interlude – 0:34, third quatrain – 0:42
third interlude – 0:38, couplet – 0:38
coda – 0:10

The longest section of the piece is the introduction, while the coda is the shortest. The three interludes grow progressively longer, until the third is twice as long as the first – and equal in length to the couplet that follows.

I should hasten to add that I didn’t plan out these proportions, and I’m not sure that they won’t change in the final version. My interest in this exercise is in finding the patterns that arise when I compose intuitively, and maximizing their implications. I also look for patterns that will tell me something about how I might proceed in a similar situation in the future – either following something of the same approach, or deliberately setting up a contrary pattern.

At this point, I’m on the fourth draft, and the relative proportions are roughly the same, give or take a couple seconds here and there. I find the telescoped pacing of the vocal line attractive, and the coda, at 1/6th the length of the introduction, seems to balance beautifully. Again, musical time and clock time have an interesting relationship – they aren’t completely oblivious to one another, but they don’t follow anything close to the same rules.

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