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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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Hi Jörfi,

First off let me say that I enjoyed your piece very much - there is beautiful choral writing here and it has a very solemn, almost mystical quality that I find very appealing. Do you know Vagn Holmboe's Requiem for Nietzsche? It reminded me of some of the more meditative parts of that work, though not too closely.

As to the tonality - just as in the Holmboe (and even my own quartet), even though there is no clearly defined tonal center, I do not consider this a truly atonal work because it invites the ear to listen from a tonal, or maybe better, modal perspective. It uses a clear scale that sounds related to the whole-tone scale, and so is neither major nor minor, but still organizes the pitches in a way that is very different from that of the serialists. Maybe one way of saying it is that the pitches matter in a functional way, whereas in serialism they only unify by always occurring in a particular order.

One of my teachers at Michigan, George Wilson, once told me that I shouldn't worry about the pitches because they don't really matter. That's true of some music, and I really only use the term "atonal" to refer to them. Your work doesn't fall into that category at all, for me. Does that make sense?

Liz

Hi Liz,

Thanks for taking the time to listen and comment; it means a lot to me!

I haven't heard the Holmboe but I shall have a listen at your behest. Thanks for the tip!

As I'm sure you've figured out, I'm musically self-educated (one might even argue "uneducated"), so I tend to reduce everything to its logical conclusion. I appreciate your pointing out the semantics of atonalism vs. serialism. In my head, I took atonal to mean "lacking a conventional tonal center," but I see now that it applies to any tonal center. Viewing it in terms of pitch organization helps me understand it better. Perhaps this piece is better described as post-tonal?

Again, thanks for your time and feedback—very much appreciated!

Jörfi

Liz Atems said:

Hi Jörfi,

First off let me say that I enjoyed your piece very much - there is beautiful choral writing here and it has a very solemn, almost mystical quality that I find very appealing. Do you know Vagn Holmboe's Requiem for Nietzsche? It reminded me of some of the more meditative parts of that work, though not too closely.

As to the tonality - just as in the Holmboe (and even my own quartet), even though there is no clearly defined tonal center, I do not consider this a truly atonal work because it invites the ear to listen from a tonal, or maybe better, modal perspective. It uses a clear scale that sounds related to the whole-tone scale, and so is neither major nor minor, but still organizes the pitches in a way that is very different from that of the serialists. Maybe one way of saying it is that the pitches matter in a functional way, whereas in serialism they only unify by always occurring in a particular order.

One of my teachers at Michigan, George Wilson, once told me that I shouldn't worry about the pitches because they don't really matter. That's true of some music, and I really only use the term "atonal" to refer to them. Your work doesn't fall into that category at all, for me. Does that make sense?

Liz

Hi Jörfi,

It really depends on your definition of atonal. I was just speaking from my own frame of reference. It's no more (or less) valid, I think, than anyone else's. These terms have been used very loosely for the last century or so and I don't think there is one universally agreed-on definition. Is Bartok's 3rd string quartet atonal? I've never seen it described in that way, but it certainly lacks a conventional tonal center. It uses modal scales, more than one I think, and seems to require listening from that perspective. The Holmboe is similar in that respect, though the idiom is quite different. I think your definition of atonal is as good as any other, and maybe it is the one that is more commonly used today.

By contrast, a lot of the recent work by a neighbor of mine, is I think atonal by any definition. Listening to these pieces I get the feeling that the exact pitches are generally not crucial, that any note could be replaced by a nearby note (in the same register of the instrument) and the musical meaning would be unchanged. That's the kind of music that I call atonal... it isn't based on any scale that I can discern, doesn't stick to any particular area of tonal space, and doesn't use functional tonality as a dynamic force, even to frustrate the listener's expectations.

But I agree that there are other definitions, and that using them, both your piece and mine could reasonably be called atonal.

Liz


Jörfi Terríson said:

Hi Liz,

Thanks for taking the time to listen and comment; it means a lot to me!

I haven't heard the Holmboe but I shall have a listen at your behest. Thanks for the tip!

As I'm sure you've figured out, I'm musically self-educated (one might even argue "uneducated"), so I tend to reduce everything to its logical conclusion. I appreciate your pointing out the semantics of atonalism vs. serialism. In my head, I took atonal to mean "lacking a conventional tonal center," but I see now that it applies to any tonal center. Viewing it in terms of pitch organization helps me understand it better. Perhaps this piece is better described as post-tonal?

Again, thanks for your time and feedback—very much appreciated!

Jörfi

Simply a very nice piece...kind of surreal (though the words were meaningless - not that I worry about that). 

To me, it was atonal. It did not fit the definition of tonal "Music written using conventional keys and harmony". It may have latched on to a particular combination of pitches but that didn't make it tonal. It had no tonic. 

I'm interested because I claim to write atonally. I've forgotten what a key signature is. (I can write tonally but that's beside the point!). Coincidentally one may pass through tonal centres but unless dwelling on one for a while, the piece is still atonal. Of course, one can define tonal or modal anyway one likes but whether listeners/impresarios/conductors will relate to a composer's definition is another matter.

You claim to have done all the voices yourself....remarkable! You either have a huge tessitura or an outboard "voice prism". The recording is perfectly acceptable although a little touch on the levels might help.

I was self-educated as a composer. I do not believe ANYONE can be taught to be creative/compose. I went to college to study composition, ditched it, had plenty of private lessons - and now compose IN SPITE of them! At least they taught me what not to do. But I did get certificated by the Royal Academy.

One of the aspects about spoken language is that it is most often melodic, even though the "melodies" most often do not adhere to a more typical definition of melody. I find this work to offer an interesting exploration of vocal motifs.

Hi Jörfi,

While it may be atonal, the "feel" is more of a tonal work. I found this work enjoyable and evocative. As a tonal composer, I don't understand how choices are made when composing atonal music (if the music is not based on a tone row), perhaps you can provide a little illumination on one small example: the piano part in m3, could you explain how you came up with that? It seems to me to be based on a Db chord, but is it?

Thank you for the kind words (and your viewpoint on atonality), Dane.

I tend to agree that this work is best classified as atonal, although most listeners may balk at that since it lacks the "random" feel one commonly associates with atonality. I've only recently fallen in love with unconventional harmonies and altered scales, but finding works that use them—and that still follow the prosody and patterns of human speech—has been a very difficult task. It's become a sort of personal mission of mine to create works of atonality that hybridize with aspects seen in conventional music: strong melody, rhythm, a sense of repetition, and so forth.

As far as the recording, yes, the voices are all mine. I'm a natural baritone, so I simply sang all the parts in a range comfortable for me and used a pitch alterer to get those high female voices. With my limited mixing abilities (and DAW), they still sound robotic in places. Ideally, a semi-professional choir would produce this, though. ;)

And I'm glad I'm not the only self-taught composer on here. It can sometimes be intimidating to wade through all the musical jargon and realize how much I don't know!

Dane Aubrun said:

Simply a very nice piece...kind of surreal (though the words were meaningless - not that I worry about that). 

To me, it was atonal. It did not fit the definition of tonal "Music written using conventional keys and harmony". It may have latched on to a particular combination of pitches but that didn't make it tonal. It had no tonic. 

I'm interested because I claim to write atonally. I've forgotten what a key signature is. (I can write tonally but that's beside the point!). Coincidentally one may pass through tonal centres but unless dwelling on one for a while, the piece is still atonal. Of course, one can define tonal or modal anyway one likes but whether listeners/impresarios/conductors will relate to a composer's definition is another matter.

You claim to have done all the voices yourself....remarkable! You either have a huge tessitura or an outboard "voice prism". The recording is perfectly acceptable although a little touch on the levels might help.

I was self-educated as a composer. I do not believe ANYONE can be taught to be creative/compose. I went to college to study composition, ditched it, had plenty of private lessons - and now compose IN SPITE of them! At least they taught me what not to do. But I did get certificated by the Royal Academy.

Thank you!

I love languages of every kind, so it's probably no surprise that my music imitates the cadence of normal human speech. I have to confess that I'm not a native speaker of Icelandic, so some of the vocal patterns may not match up with the spoken language. Nuances and such. 

In any case, I'm glad you found this work interesting!

William J. Joel said:

One of the aspects about spoken language is that it is most often melodic, even though the "melodies" most often do not adhere to a more typical definition of melody. I find this work to offer an interesting exploration of vocal motifs.

Great question, Gav!

I really just consider myself a tonal composer who uses altered scales and harmonies. The particular scale used in this work is Messiaen's so-called 4th Mode of Limited Transposition (see image below).

Determining chords is truly not much different from what I would have done for a tonal work: I played around with the notes in the scale until I settled on a chord progression that I liked. In the 4th mode, 1st transposition (first bar below), the major triads are D-flat and G; thus, many of the chords, at least until the next transposition about halfway through the work, will lean towards D-flat and G. However, I base a lot of my harmonies on fourths, rather than thirds and fifths, so there are "borrowed" notes in the chords that produce some edgy dissonance. By staying with just those eight notes in each transposition, the ear perceives a cluster of notes and intervals that become the new "key," and gives the work a tonal feel.

Truly, though, I think the reason this work sounds tonal is because it rises and falls like normal patterns of human speech. There are clear themes, clear melodic passages, and clear rhythms that, despite the fact that there's no true tonal center, allow the brain to establish recognizeable patterns. It doesn't have the unpredictability of a "traditional" atonal work.

To be sure, the scale's note intervals used in this work are set, and certain intervals are visited many times throughout. One could easily argue that it's not truly atonal because of this established relationship between the notes, even though these relationships are not those found in conventional Western scales and key signatures.

To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to. :)

Glad you enjoyed it! Please let me know if you have any other questions, Gav!

Gav Brown said:

Hi Jörfi,

While it may be atonal, the "feel" is more of a tonal work. I found this work enjoyable and evocative. As a tonal composer, I don't understand how choices are made when composing atonal music (if the music is not based on a tone row), perhaps you can provide a little illumination on one small example: the piano part in m3, could you explain how you came up with that? It seems to me to be based on a Db chord, but is it?

Hi Jörfi,

Beautiful piece.  Congratulations.

I am surprised to hear how soft dissonances sound in the voice parts.

It sounded closer to MODAL rather than ATONAL to me.

Repetition of the base MODE via arpeggios (although transformed) reminds

the base MODE.  Of course when the mode is MAKAM it is also important

where the chant moves around and returns back to the tonic of the MAKAM.

Your piece is definitely not MAKAM based.  But still keeps the strong sense of

a reference point, base MODE as a reference.

Your manipulations of the base MODE are interesting and enjoyable.

Any other works to hear?

All the best.

Ali

Ali, I found various other works of Jörfi Terríson on Soundcloud - you can seen them suggested when you listen to this one.

A lot of really good stuff, amazing, that he is "just" an enthusiastic, self-taught "amateur" composer. To me a lot would pass as a "pro"...!

Not so sure we should equate "amateur" with "beginner". It happens all too often. To me it means someone who does things for the love of it rather than to pay the mortgage. There's only a tiny number of truly professional composers....even the word professional is abused - a professional is someone who's practice and code of conduct is regulated by a professorial body - i.e. a doctor; a lawyer; a teacher.

I recollect over time that some of the composers I've met including those who tried to "teach" me were professional teachers who also made a bit of money here and there from composing. When I was raging about becoming a professional the advice was always don't!...........And I conclude that much was about losing artistic control, something the professionals don't have particularly in film. If someone else is calling the tune, you write what they want. In the very few instances I've made some money it's been just that. "You want the money, you compose what we want." There's little pride in being a hack. Besides, until you're a name on a separate panel of the credits you'll never make enough to actually live on. The son of the lead violinist in a beginner quartet in which I used to play, Chris Willis, was invited to work with Hans Zimmer in Hollywood. He returned thoroughly disenchanted, ruefully smiling to say "Luckily I could play piano."

So I happily listen to those who write (nominally) from the heart whether they're remunerated or not - the amateur - than one of those for whom composing is their day job....and probably nights as well!

Tillerich said:

Ali, I found various other works of Jörfi Terríson on Soundcloud - you can seen them suggested when you listen to this one.

A lot of really good stuff, amazing, that he is "just" an enthusiastic, self-taught "amateur" composer. To me a lot would pass as a "pro"...!

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