Approaching a single line from three directions

For some time now I’ve had in the back of my mind the idea to write a piece for unaccompanied cello. None of my attempts yet have been at all successful, mostly because of the unexpected complexity of approaching a ‘single-line’ piece of music. So when the 15 Minutes of Fame call came up for a one-minute piece for unaccompanied violin, I barged in on the chance to experiment a bit.

Contemplating solo instrument pieces – for example, the Bach cello suites, Bartók’s violin sonata, CPE Bach’s flute sonata – one of the key features of these works is that they zip all over the place, making wide use of both ends of the instrument’s range and often leaping from one extreme to another. It makes for a nice little virtuosic display for the performer, but more importantly these fast-moving registral changes give the impression that there are more parts than just the one. They provide variety of tonal colour and imply harmony. But this stuff can be an absolute bugger to just sit down and write.

So I didn’t. I thought about what I wanted to do in this one-minute piece. As with many of my pieces, the starting point for my thinking (although it’s unlikely you’ll detect any connection whatsoever in the final work) was a work of art. Natalia Goncharova’s watercolour sketch for one of the Firebird backdrops which was on display at the V&A recently. This image is harmonious yet vibrant colours, a consistency of linear direction (upwards) – movement and almost tangible form, but an integrated whole.

Natalia Goncharova: Sketch for backdrop for Stravinsky's Firebird

In musical terms, I wanted to start with a chugging sort of chordal ostinato to provide a solid ground for the piece, work in a higher held-note figure for lightness and also pull in some sort of brief melodic fragment as well to give a bit of momentum.

The first step to pulling this off, I figured was to approach the piece from a different angle – to not try to work on it as it would appear when finished. Instead, I worked it as a trio. I dropped things in where they sounded like they wanted to go, without the need to consider how polished it sounded – the idea was to pull together a structure for the piece, so that when I had low bits and high bits intersecting, or accompaniment and melody bits vying for attention, there would be a framework for them to do so in. What I came up with looked like this:

Example - first three-line draft version

There’s considerable overlap between parts – the held notes in the first line overlap the melody in the second and everything overlaps all over the third line. This helped me to build the sound of a ‘real’ piece as a starting point.

Next I condensed everything down into a single line, underneath the original three lines so I could continue to keep an eye on what had been there in the first place:

Example: Adding the amalgamated line

From this point, once I was happy with the balance of elements, I ditched the temporary upper parts and began work refining the piece, starting with the obvious element that the notes of the chord used in the rhythmic pattern won’t work as a triple-stop on the violin because they’re just too close together and low down – there aren’t enough strings.

Currently I am following through an extended process of trimming and refining. It’s taking a lot of tweaking and gentle adjustments to get it to where I want it to go and I’m finding the process almost mesmerising – how something so rough is gradually having its edges gentled and become a coherent whole. I’ll do a follow-up post on this process once I’m happy with where it’s ended up.

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