Thursday, 24 March 2016

Processes of transformation


Transformation has been used in one form or another throughout the history of music, but the levels of complexity and design have rapidly increased since the late romantic period, notably in the works of Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. The use of transformation in the 20th century is notable in works by Peter Maxwell Davies. I refer to him in particular as his transformations work on many levels; parody, distortion of dance rhythms, pitch designs and alterations to  plainsong to name a few. The “cantus” melody discussed in a previous blog on "Stone Litany" will keep its melodic and rhythmic outline in certain sections but is treated to “compression” to create proportionally related phrases, it is also subject to retrograde formations to develop complex contrapuntal passages. In alternate sections the material is fragmented.  In later works the process of transformation is refined, for example progressive changes in the phrases may alter a theme into a related version of itself.  In the chart this would come under rearrangement by structure. These techniques will be examined in greater detail in later blogs.

Transformation is at the heart of the music of many British composers. Having discussed Bax at some length with Nurtan and presented several blogs on his symphonic works, the question of narrative music became a major issue for us. Bax makes use of the technique in his symphonies to enable his themes to “develop” the motives which identify his characters (in his case we believe based on real people).  In the later symphonies his treatment of themes is often subtle, incorporating pitch, rhythm and timbre to provide the continuous changes which make the sense of narrative so powerful.

In the table the generation of the related material, A1 or B, is not a musical terminus, it could be continued indefinitely. Maxwell Davies recognised and discussed in his Dartington Summer School composition classes the problem of terminating a process.  Though he didn’t discuss the question with reference to Eastern philosophy it comes down to the Tao again, it is a matter of balancing artistic and technical forces on the musical material.

There is an excellent (free) lecture on Jonathan Harvey's fourth string quartet on iTunes - University of London/ Arditti quartet, where the composer's use of interlocking themes is discussed in some detail and provides food for thought as to how the process of transformation is still developing as a technique.