Music Performance 361, Fall 2005: Introduction to Composition
Assignment 1: due Monday, September 19, 2005

Compositional challenge: write a short violin duet (approximately one page in length) which explores ideas about polyrhythm, polymeter, and/or polytempo. Your composition should change the rhythmic relationship between the instruments or musical lines frequently (at least once per measure). The relationship between the terms polyrhythm, polymeter, and polytempo is vexed; for our purposes let's assume that polyrhythm is the superposition of multiple rhythmic cells (as in Automne á Varsovie, polytempo the impression of multiple simultaneous tempi (as in the second section of The Anvil Chorus, and polymeter the superposition of multiple rhythmic groupings or accentuation patterns (as in Désordre or the third section of The Anvil Chorus).

In order to focus attention (both the listener's and your own) on the rhythmic aspects of the music, you might want to limit the number of elements you use in other parameters: for instance, can you articulate both parts of the duet using only a few pitches (three? four?), dynamics, and timbral types? Think of the way that David Lang gets mileage out of just a few percussion sounds, or György Ligeti out of a single (and simple) melodic gesture (the descending chromatic scales of Automne á Varsovie).

The most direct approach is to let each of the two instruments express its own rhythm/meter/tempo; however, you might also consider differentiating a pair of musical lines through other means, for example contrasting dynamics or timbres. Even if the two voices are assigned to different instruments, additional musical contrasts between them will help to create the polyrhythmic impression you are seeking: think about the way that Lang uses the woodblock against the brake drums, or the way that Ligeti pits white keys against black in Désordre.

Some basic information about the violin (and strings more generally):

- the instrument has four strings (in ascending order): G (below middle C), D, A E
- lowest pitch (on the G string): G below middle C
- approximate highest pitch (on the E string): G three-and-a-half octaves above middle C
- violins can easily play two pitches on adjacent strings ("double-stops")
double-stops are particularly easy to play when one string is "open" (no fingering)
double-stops spanning intervals like fourths, fifths, and sixths typically fit well under the performer's hand
triple-stops are also possible, although they require loud dynamics
- there are two main modes of sound production: arco (with the bow), and pizzicato (plucked)
- a few other modes of timbral alteration and shaping (there are many) include:
bowing sul ponticello (with the bow particularly close to the bridge): creates a glassy, thin tone
bowing sul tasto (with the bow particularly close to the fingerboard): produces a "fuzzy" tone (sometimes also called flautando or "flutelike")
the "Bartok" or "snap" pizzicato (produced by hooking a finger under the string and pulling it away from the bridge): an explosive, loud plucking gesture
- glissandi from one pitch to another are a characteristic violin gesture
- string instruments have effective control of dynamics during the production of a note: crescendi and decrescendi are very idiomatic
- a wide variety of accents, attacks, and staccato or legato textures are possible

Much more information is available in Alfred Blatter's Instrumentation/Orchestration (and similar texts about orchestration), and in Allen and Patricia Strange's The Contemporary Violin.

Finally, don't forget to have fun! Let your imagination run wild....