Out– An Exploration of the Theories of Musical Speech
Out is a composition for mixed chorus, setting a poem I created in late 2019. As for the poem, it was created as an act of catharsis during a break between classes. It was the end of my very first semester in the Ph.D. program; I was working through some things; I wanted to shake a little of that off. As for the music, it was created later, during the course of my fall semester at the University of Iowa and for an advanced tonal theory course— Neo-Schoenbergian Theory. This course explored developments on some of the theories of Arnold Schoenberg; a particular stream developed by Dr. Matthew Arndt, which he calls Musical Speech. Out served both as my final project for this course, as well as an opportunity to explore these ideas for myself and see how they might help me to expand my own practice as a composer.
In this essay, I will briefly explore some of the components of Musical Speech as they inform the composition of Out. These components include motives; gestalten (which could be understood as components of complete musical phrases) and the dynamics of the ways they interrelate; sätze (which could be understood as the complete musical phrases themselves); experiences of rest and unrest, and how these are created. Some of these terms conceptually parallel ideas common to the discussion of musical composition, while others could be said to be taken from a vocabulary more commonly used to study spoken language. It is my hope that this essay will offer something of a 10,000 foot survey of my growing understanding of some of these ideas, and that Out is a satisfactory offering for some introductory discussion of them (not to mention a satisfying piece of music).
The germinating motive, visible in Figure 1, opens the very first phrase of this piece. In the context of Musical Speech, the concept of “motive” is similar to that found in common discussions of musical composition: it is a short musical gesture that is used as something of a building block throughout the work. Consider how this motive plays out in the first complete phrase of the piece, shown in figure 2.
Consider the excerpt “among the trees” as sung by the tenor, and that it is merely a slight expansion on the original motive— with the addition of a new note preceding the first, and the minor alteration of the final note by raising it a semi-tone. Consider also the tenor’s “and stand in counterpoint”, which further expands on the motive by adding other notes at the front and transposes it down a step from the original. We can see here that all of the tenor’s material in this passage is derived from this singular motive. The bass’s material would seem to be somewhat nondescript, and that it merely offers a simple rhythmic foundation for the tenor to interact with as well as harmony for color. We will shortly see that the components of the bass’s material here will go on to serve an important role in the development of the piece.
Consider next Figure 3. Here we see this same passage with new annotations, drawing our attention to another component of Musical Speech: gestalten. A gestalt could be said to be a musical component hierarchically one step up from the motive; it is built from motives, and is itself the component that serves to form complete musical phrases, or “sentences” if you will (sätze— we will discuss these properly next). This satz, if I may, contains two gestalten in each voice. The tenor’s first gestalt contains two iterations of the germinating motive. The second could be said to contain one, though I consider this second gestalt to be a composite of features borrowed from the tenor’s as well as the bass’s first gestalt (hence the purple, “buh dum tiss”). The expanded/altered 8th note descent; the transposed motive from the tenor closed by something of an augmented (in length) and retrograded iteration of this same motive.
The gestalten do not merely serve as occupants of musical space; they inform its structure, and how we process them perceptually. It is at this point that some of Musical Speech’s concepts can be seen to resonate with the study of spoken language. A gestalt can be said to have function within a complete musical phrase, in the ways phrase components in a sentence have function. As I’ve already said, in the theories of Musical Speech we refer to a complete musical phrase as a satz (literally, German for “sentence”). Figure 3 offers us a good place to discuss the simplest balance of the functions of gestalten in a satz: the subject and predicate. Our subject gestalt introduces (or later confirms development upon or perhaps deviation from) musical materials which cohere logically by their development from one or more related motives. Our predicate gestalt offers musical comment, reflection, affirmation, or possibly challenge to the subject and serves to punctuate the phrase, giving it a sense of completion; musically speaking, the predicate offers us cadence.
Consider Figure 3 again. With exception of only the final note, the tenor’s opening gestalt seems to offer us motivic materials in a key area of Eb major. That A-natural, however, is a step out of that particular pitch collection. Following this, in the second gestalt the tenor moves downward through a whole-tone tetrachord before leaping up to a chromatic Gg, then leaping back down to a Db and stepping back up to an Eb. The bass’s contrasting materials expand upon this motion from a diatonic collection through a whole-tone collection, and then to more chromatic materials before settling on a low G. The voices would seem to cadence, returning to an Eb key area.
Just as with spoken language, the structure of a satz can become considerably more complicated. Consider Figure 4, in which we find the first satz of the second section of the piece. The soprano’s opening gestalt is familiar, stating the germinating motive with no variation. From there we turn upward and would seem to cadence momentarily on a C! Consider this arrival on C in the soprano with the alto beneath it, who accentuates this motion toward and then arrival on C. We could start by saying that this statement of our germinating motive is the subject, and the materials following are the predicate; we cadence on C, after all, do we not? I would argue that this would-be cadence is a false arrival. Considering in combination the incomplete nature of the text’s phrase, the alto’s immediate departure of a C key area, and tenor’s sudden entrance, this arrival is weakened and serves merely as an incrementally strong point within the larger satz. So then, I would argue that the two somewhat distinct materials leading to this false arrival are actually a single gestalt and together comprise a satz-like part: this is the subject.
Well then, Stephan, what’s all this ballyhoo following it and where the sam hill is our predicate? I’m so glad that you asked. Consider the soprano’s excerpt, “…hues draw back before the sun”— it’s highlighted in purple. The first gesture is clearly derived from our germinating motive. The second could be said to derive from materials previously occurring in the bass, or we could say it is a development on the ascent toward C in the subject— now, we’re descending to cadence on G. The soprano’s arrival on G is emphasized by the basses simultaneous arrival on G. I would like to argue for this purpled material being the predicate. As for the material highlighted in yellow, we can clearly see an iteration of our germinating motive in “spy the place”, with the rest as expansion. This gestalt would seem to be independent from the subject, but repeats and even elaborates on its materials somewhat. The subject, or its materials, have become a model, and the gestalt following it performs an elaborative function called continuation.
Consider next Figure 5, which shows a satz earlier in the piece— indicated by the topmost bracket. This satz would appear to be less complicated that the one above, but a closer look at some of the harmony might reveal some deeper detail. The downbeat of the first measure is the close of the piece’s first satz, which settled on that Eb dyad. The sopranos and altos enter (with gestures clearly derived from our germinating motive), settling at a Db-F dyad, and the tenor enters on a Bb stepping down to Ab. The downbeat of that second measure opens on a Cbsus9-8. The tenor’s leap up and step down transforms this sonority into an Ab-minorsus9-8. The soprano and alto will merge briefly on a Db above the tenor, then split again creating another Absus— this time, a 4-3, and this time to a major chord. That little 8th note, in my opinion, takes us out of the Ab proper for just a moment (perhaps to a Db sonority, maybe major given the brief Db-F dyad earlier), and then back to an Ab— only this time a major chord. So far, then, that progression reads: Eb-maj, Bb-min, Cb-maj, Ab-min, Db, Ab-maj.
The bass enters at the end of this suspension on an Ab, then steps up chromatically to A while the other voices take a breath. They reenter and our sonority is now an F-dominant. This is followed by a Bb-minor, but this would be V-I /cadential motion is weakened not only by its place in the phrase but also the fact the music blows right through it. The bass steps down, Bb-Ab-Gb, and above it the alto’s F-Eb sets up in conjunction with it something of a Phrygian cadence (the sonority itself being a Gb-flat5addmaj6). This is confirmed with the next downbeat, as the voices seem to cadence to either an F sonority weakened by the tenor’s Db or a hybrid F-5/Db-maj. This cadential arrival is stronger by virtue of its voicing, as well as the point of prominence it is given in the flow of time within the satz. However this appears to only be a waypoint as well; from here, nearly each movement of the voices will create a different sonority.
The voice leading takes us through an F-5addmaj7 to the downbeat and a Bb major chord. The tenor’s neighbor-tone— reminiscent of earlier fragments in the tenor— is echoed in the alto. The bass steps down a half-step from D to Db before rising: Db-Eb-Fb. As the bass reaches Fb, the alto and tenor move as well— Cb-Db in the tenor, and Ab-G in the alto. The neighbor tones are meant to be heard merely as neighbor tones, but the second half of the measure reads: Bb-minor, Eb-5add9, Fb+, Fb-dim. The next measure’s motions are similarly complex, but since the voices move homo-rhythmically I can just state the sonorities outright: Gb-5addmaj7, Cb64, F-dim (which with the soprano’s entrance becomes an F-half diminished).
So then, the full harmonic progression of this satz is as follows: Eb-maj, Bb-min, Cb-maj, Ab-min, Db, Ab-maj, Bb-minor, Gb-flat5addmaj6, F-5/Db-maj, F-5addmaj7, Bb-maj, Bb-min, Eb-5add9, Fb+, Fb-dim, Gb-5addmaj7, Cb64, F-dim, F-half diminished. Now you might be wondering, why take you on this elaborate exploration of the harmony? The answer is, to identify the strong points in the progression and how they inform the segmentation of the satz. Figure 5’s uppermost bracket indicates the range of the satz, and the lower brackets indicate its subordinate gestalten. The first gestalt would be our subject material, which settles on the Ab-majsus4-3. The predicate would be the next gestalt, a cadence to the F-5/Db-maj. What follows is something called interpolation. In the context of Musical Speech, interpolation performs some contrasting functions from the phrases around it— first harmonically, and then melodically. This can close a satz like it does here, but it can also interrupt its flow from subject to predicate. Given how complicated the harmony becomes in this section, that makes sense I think. Consider also that the motivic fragments prevalent in this section are not quite as clearly derived from our germinating motive. I would also add that a gestalt with interpolating function can perform some bridging functions between sätze, though it should be noted that there is a type of function unto itself called bridge.
Next I would like to talk with you about the push and pull, the tension and release,; the nature of rest and unrest as it is described by the theories of Musical Speech. This is an even more significantly complicated discussion because of the vast possibilities for creating senses of rest and unrest. Therefore, I will address this concept within the framework of my composition only— and hope that we will be able to see beyond it a broader series of possibilities for creating tension and release, rest and unrest in music.
Figure 6 shows us the tenor’s opening materials again, with different annotations. The notes with black note-heads all seem to belong to an Eb-major key area. The notes with red note-heads would seem to belong to more of an Eb whole-tone collection. The Gb chromatically diverges from both. The blue notes will return us to Eb, and if you recall this phrase cadences (in a way) from A-maj to Eb-maj. This progression of harmony from diatonic, through whole-tone, through chromatic, back to diatonic will govern the sense of restfulness/unrestfulness throughout the piece. There will be times, like in the satz we just explored, where subtle chromatic shifts from one diatonic sonority to another will be favored over the whole-tone coloration— or when these subtle shifts will precede chromatic materials, which then progress through whole-tone materials, and then back into chromatic again.
Consider next Figure 7. Here we see two sätze, the first of which follows the satz shown in figure 4 (the first satz in the second section of the piece). Having proceeded through an Eb-maj key area to swimming diatonic harmonies, and then through some chromatic content, we have cadenced on G. The alto and tenor take this as their entry point and, with exception of the tenor’s Ab, sing in a whole-tone duet that cadences on octave B’s/Cb’s. The soprano and bass pick up from here, and would seem to keep the whole-tone thread going until the soprano reaches Gb— an Eb-Gb dyad. The harmony from here becomes increasingly chromatic as the other voices join in, but beneath this chromaticism something has seemed to solidify: Eb-minor. At this point the graded harmonic progression through levels of crunchiness (as it were) has passed through its spectrum, but upon reaching the diatonic Eb the proliferation of the chromatic coloration as well as the drama of the musical narrative has robbed it of its restful quality. Something that was once restful has become unrestful. This is a significant moment in the scope of the work. Up to this point, Eb has served as something of a restful center if not quite a “tonic”. Now it is fully sublimated by unrestfulness.
Figure 8 shows us the material that immediately follows. Here we see the effect this drama has had on the texture. Prior to this the voices worked in fuller coordination, in duets or trios and at times together as a full chorus. The harmony here also seems to swim more, leaving us unsure of what the balance of thing is at this point. But if I could, I would like to point out the resolution between the alto and bass at “become one”. At the measure prior to the bass’s close of the phrase, we find ourselves sitting with a tritone. Throughout this piece the tritone has appeared as something of a suspension or neighbor-tone leading to a major 3rd, which often opened to a minor 6th. This very motion closes the first satz of the piece, as well as the first section of the piece: A-Db(C#) to G-Eb on both counts. Further, given the significance of Eb as a tone as well as a center throughout the work, we might expect the bass to resolve that F to an Eb. Instead, the bass steps down a semi-tone to E, providing to us an E-B dyad. From there the bass will pick up with materials derived from out germinating motive, starting off in what seems to be an E-major key area. From here on in the piece, any appearance of Eb will serve to disrupt a new diatonic balance and trigger whole-tone or chromatic coloration/dissonance. The texture will resolidify momentarily following the excerpted measures above, but the effects of the climactic moments seem to be linger throughout the remains of the piece— with regards to both the more fragmentary nature of the texture, as well as Eb’s new position as an agent of unrestfulness. The piece closes with a cadence reminiscent of the two-toned cadences appearing throughout the work; in the beginning we find cadences of major 3rds to minor 6ths, a Phrygian cadence, cadences through chromatic or whole time motions to open octaves. The final cadence seems to take its lead from classic contrapuntal cadences: a classic 2-7 to 1-1— although we reach this cadence through swimming chromatic harmony, as if to say yet again, “the effects of the unrestfulness linger on”.
Composing Out gave me the chance to return to vocal music— a place I haven’t been able to spend much time in the past couple years. Voice is actually my primary instrument, and up until about 2018 it was the primary medium of my composition. While it has been challenging as well as disorienting to my self of musical self, I am very glad for the time I’ve spent away (and will continue to spend in other places). It has afforded me a chance to learn other things and make space for new ideas. This course, Neo-Schoenbergian Theory, gave me an opportunity to think about the composition of tonal music in a new way. Musical Speech offers insight into the dynamics within and between musical phrases, helping the student of music to form a wholistic vision of the network of relations among, through, and between the atomic and global levels. I would argue that bringing this level of awareness to the composition of music can only lead to a more satisfying process and product.