Refining a single line: Diabolus for solo violin (part 2)

Back in February I wrote a post called Approaching a single line from three directions on the beginnings of my short piece for unaccompanied violin, Diabolus. In it I described how I began this work by condensing three separate lines into one. Today I want to talk about how I took it from where it was then to its completed form.

You might want to download the completed score (free with email signup) and have a look at the final piece first. Or just listen here:

When we left Diabolus back in February, I had condensed my three lines down into one unplayable line.

Example: Adding the amalgamated line

My first task after this point was to fix up the chugging chords so that they would actually be playable while retaining the feel I was after. The tritone was obviously the most important element in the chord – the B-flat to E – and the F dissonance was just icing on the cake so I ditched it and focused on the tritone.

I’ll not go blow-by-blow through the whole process because I was tweaking for about three weeks and it would bore you to tears (if you’re truly fascinated I can send you something like 6 or 8 drafts and you can work it out for yourself), but as I worked through it, a few key things became clear:

  1. While the tritone was the sound I wanted, the continual return to such a raw, unstable interval always in the same place in the instrument’s range became very grating after only a small amount of repetition and really sucked the life out of the piece as a whole
  2. The rhythmic chordal figure (probably in combination with the registral/timbral problem in 1) felt very restrictive and oppressive
  3. Once I’d worked out an ending, it felt very bald and rough and I felt I needed to find ways to gentle both the tritone focus throughout and the ending.

So I worked on these issues, on my own, then in consultation with a violinist friend and my composition teacher and ended up with the following solutions/adjustments.

  • Expanding the tritone chords – flipping the notes, adding a third note, dropping back to a single tone – really helped create both a varied texture and a lighter feel overall. The arpeggiation needed to perform the triple stops helped to free up the oppressive rhythm, giving more of a gypsy-like feel and setting up for the performer to stretch and compress the music and take a few liberties.
  • My friend suggested that I use open strings for some of the Es, and my composition teacher then suggested simultaneous open and stopped Es where extra emphasis was wanted. The earthiness of the open string sound quite changes the character of the note and seems to have more life to it than the stopped sound – must be the unfettered overtones!
  • Expanding the tritone chords encouraged me to push the register of other parts of the music too. The difference octave shifts made was immense! Really brought light and colour into the piece and far from my initial concerns that octave displacements might cut the music’s momentum, they actually seemed to drive it forward. I think I probably wouldn’t have discovered this if I’d just tried to write it as a single line to start with. Because my initial approach required a certain fragmenting of materials as I patched the three lines together, I think this made me think about that material in a different way – each element was still clearly associated in my mind with the line it had initially occupied and this made it easier to throw these bits around and not be too precious about breaking up the perceived line that was starting to form.
  • Exhilarating as I found playing with the octave shifts to be, there still wasn’t that much timbral variety in the piece. My teacher suggested I make use of harmonics for some of the still, held notes to emphasise the change in character.
  • After several experiments with triple stops and various flourishes for the ending, I pulled back a bit, broke up the tritone just before the end and added in a glissando from the last of the tritone notes to the final D. I think this works quite well – it’s a nod to the gypsy idea  and a chance for the performer to stretch things how he wants them, and it ends on a single pure note rather than the harmonic wobbliness of the tritone.

The whole piece was a bit of an experiment, and it was fantastic to play about with some approaches to material and techniques that weren’t things I’d usually have thought of. I think the shortness of the work also encouraged a certain amount of daring – if you need to make a mark in only 60 seconds, then trying something a little extravagant is a good way to achieve it.

In particular, now that I’ve started on a new piece – a work for chamber orchestra – I’m seeing where those experiments have paid off – I’m being freer in my use of a bigger part of the range of the instruments and glissandi have crept into the string parts too! I’m also finding I’m very aware of when I’m being conservative and just following my same old path and when I should maybe be pushing myself more to try something a bit experimental.

After the piece was submitted to 15 Minutes of Fame, my teacher made some additional suggestions which I haven’t explored yet, but would like to, including:

  • Using left-hand pizzicato to allow bowed and plucked notes at the same time for a greater variety of texture and separation of lines
  • Tremolando sul ponticello for the ‘ethereal’ passage in bars 13-14

He also suggested I gather up a few friendly violinists and send each a slightly different version of the piece to play through and record, so as to get a real feel for how these techniques would sound on a real instrument. I love this idea! If you’re a friendly violinist and would like to be involved, please let me know in the comments or email me!