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Hi all!

I've recently been exploring composing with altered scales. This particular choral work is based on an eight-note symmetrical scale. The text is by a 19th century Icelandic poet, Jónas Hallgrímsson, from a poem called Strit, which means "toil." It highlights the futility of all that we labor for here on earth.

The harmonies are constructed largely from 4ths and the work is technically atonal, although some tonal centers are visited throughout. I'm curious to know how others perceive the tonality in this piece. Please let me know what works and doesn't work for you. I especially would like advice about the enharmonics, since I'm not used to writing without a key signature.

(I had to do all the voices myself, so I apologize for the grainyness and thick-sounding recording.)

I've attached the score for your reference. Thanks in advance for your input!

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I appreciate that you both understood that I am not in any way being negative toward the music. Simply attempting to understand it better. 

I have studied some into the different music structures often associated with a certain cultures. I have to wonder if those who heard this alternate music from childhood really gain any deep feeling from some of it. In my thinking some of it is more done from culture and tradition. That probably opens up a much deeper subject we don't have the time to go into here. Many who come from a certain culture don't adopt that music as their own at a heart felt level. Many also probably do. It's hard to pin down with any certainty.

It doesn't seem to me that some of the experimental music I hear really falls into line with those cultural norms either. I mean no offense when discussing how common or uncommon any genre or type of music might be. I don't see people lining up to hear atonal music. On the whole I think it is uncommon, but maybe not as uncommon here from my brief exposure. Lots of people from Asian countries have adopted western music and play it which leads me to the next thought...

When I think back on how these systems were developed and why I have to give some serious credibility to western music because I think it was developed with a solid foundation in mind.Probably with a keen eye toward the future and a structure that includes lots of expansion possibilities. I worked briefly with an Indian vocalist who had a penchant for Jazz music.We made a Christmas song together. I guess my only point here is that music is always cross pollinating all over the world. If you remember the Beatles era then you remember they borrowed a lot from Indian music in their work.

I believe you infer that my ears have been western trained. This is true. I have also made sure to expose myself to alternate music ideas or at least have attempted to do so. I still end up picking western music most of the time. Some might say that's conditioning. I just know what I like :)  Everyone is different. I'm not attempting to set a standard for anyone else just trying to understand and gain a better perspective.

Yes, I think you've been very professional in your handling of this subject!

I should be the first to say that I don't consider myself an atonal composer. I rely heavily on tone/pitch to convey my musical messages, whereas your bread-and-butter atonal composer conveys meaning using other musical devices: tone rows, pitch classes, and so forth. If I had heard this piece without reading anything about it, I doubt I would have guessed it was atonal. (And the jury's still out whether it truly is or not.)

In terms of gaining perspective and why I composed this, there were clear limitations I set for myself. This piece was anything but random. The particular set of scales I used, Messiaen's 4th mode of limited transposition, contain 8 notes per scale with intervals of 1, 1, 1, 1.5, 1, 1, 1, 1.5 (C, C#, D, D#, F#, G, G#, A plus 5 transpositions). This symmetrical scale is, by definition, atonal; the intervals repeat rotationally ad infinitum and the human ear can't distinguish a tonal center. (A more well-known example of a scale of symmetry is the whole tone scale, made famous by Debussy and others, although with only 6 notes, I don't find it quite as functional.) A perhaps interesting read of Messiaen's modes can be found here: http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/hhowe/music347/Messiaen_Modes_of_limited...

I'm only explaining all of this so you don't think this piece was composed by choosing notes at random, or from a row of 12 tones, or any other post-tonal method of composing. Except for having to abandon conventional chord progressions, I composed this from a completely tonal standpoint, in essence substituting the diatonic scale with this one. I maintained a strong sense of melody, and even an established set of chords—unconventional though they are—are repeated throughout the piece to establish a sense of familiarity and pattern.

Yes, my Western ears also find these musical constructs strange. However, their newness and slight off-ness sound weirdly beautiful to me, almost other-wordly. I'm really just trying to take familiar forms, reduce them to their basic elements, and tinker with them to produce something new and beautiful. Nothing I create is meant to be bracing, edgy or radical—although I'm still working out the kinks, it would seem.

I hope this helps broaden your perspective, at least from one "atonal" composer's viewpoint. :) 

Timothy Smith said:

I appreciate that you both understood that I am not in any way being negative toward the music. Simply attempting to understand it better. 

I have studied some into the different music structures often associated with a certain cultures. I have to wonder if those who heard this alternate music from childhood really gain any deep feeling from some of it. In my thinking some of it is more done from culture and tradition. That probably opens up a much deeper subject we don't have the time to go into here. Many who come from a certain culture don't adopt that music as their own at a heart felt level. Many also probably do. It's hard to pin down with any certainty.

It doesn't seem to me that some of the experimental music I hear really falls into line with those cultural norms either. I mean no offense when discussing how common or uncommon any genre or type of music might be. I don't see people lining up to hear atonal music. On the whole I think it is uncommon, but maybe not as uncommon here from my brief exposure. Lots of people from Asian countries have adopted western music and play it which leads me to the next thought...

When I think back on how these systems were developed and why I have to give some serious credibility to western music because I think it was developed with a solid foundation in mind.Probably with a keen eye toward the future and a structure that includes lots of expansion possibilities. I worked briefly with an Indian vocalist who had a penchant for Jazz music.We made a Christmas song together. I guess my only point here is that music is always cross pollinating all over the world. If you remember the Beatles era then you remember they borrowed a lot from Indian music in their work.

I believe you infer that my ears have been western trained. This is true. I have also made sure to expose myself to alternate music ideas or at least have attempted to do so. I still end up picking western music most of the time. Some might say that's conditioning. I just know what I like :)  Everyone is different. I'm not attempting to set a standard for anyone else just trying to understand and gain a better perspective.

I think I understand much better now. I will look more closely at that link. I believe I felt some of that excitement in your writing something oddly different and beautiful at the same time. Thanks!

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