Music Performance 361, Fall 2005: Introduction to Composition
Assignment 5: due Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Compositional challenge: compose a short piece for viola solo (approximately one page in length) in which the primary direction is provided through changes of timbre and playing technique. To emphasize the role of timbre in your work, use only a single pitch (though you may present that pitch in more than one octave if you choose). Make your work as directional and goal-oriented as possible.
There are at least two strategies for pursuing this idea: you might examine a particular type of playing technique very closely, and then gradually transition to a second type of technique, looking for intermediate sound qualities between the two types to help you create the transition. (This is an important strategy in Lachenmann's Pression.) Alternately, you might establish a group of different techniques that you can combine into phrases, and then gradually add and subtract elements from this group in order to move towards a different variety of sounds; this is Berio's approach in both Sequenza III and VII, and relates to Webern's technique in his klangfarbenmelodie arrangment of Bach's Ricercar.
As always, think about the ways in which other parameters of music can help to support your use of timbre. Are there specific types of rhythms associated with certain kinds of playing techniques? What kinds of rhythms define the beginnings, middles, and endings of phrases? How do loud and soft dynamics alter the sound of the instrument? Can dynamics be used to help distinguish different kinds of timbres, or to help create transitions from one playing technique to another? Do the lengths of your phrases evolve as the timbres do?
Some basic information about the viola:
- - viola music is notated in the alto clef; middle C is the third line of the staff
- only use treble clef if you are writing a lengthy passage of particularly high-register music
- - the instrument has four strings (in ascending order): C (an octave below middle C), G, D, A
- each string has a unique sound; you can change timbre simply by changing string (and fingering) while producing the same pitch
- the highest (A) string is notated with a roman numeral I; the lowest (C) with a roman numeral IV
- - the lowest pitch is the open C string: C below middle C
- - the approximate highest pitch (on the A string) is the A two and two-thirds octaves above middle C
- - violas 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
- with carefully chosen pitches/fingerings the same pitch can be played on two strings at once, which again changes the sound quality
- - there are two main modes of sound production: arco (with the bow), and pizzicato (plucked)
- - bow position is one useful mode of timbral shaping
- bowing sul ponticello (with the bow particularly close to the bridge): creates a glassy, thin tone (can be abbreviated sul pont. or s.p.
- bowing sul tasto (with the bow particularly close to the fingerboard): produces a "fuzzy" tone (sometimes also called flautando or "flutelike"; can be abbreviated s.t.)
- ordinario (abbreviated ord.) is the conventional bowing position, in between ponticello and tasto
- you can also write molto sul ponticello and molto sul tasto to get particularly extreme versions of these effects
- - bow pressure is another useful mode of timbral shaping
- increasing overpressure results in a range of grinding, noisy tones, and eventually to the bow "sticking" against the string irregularly
- - vibrato also effects timbre considerably
- remember that open strings cannot be played with vibrato (the left hand isn't stopping the string)
- you can also request non vibrato, poco vibrato, ord. vibrato, and molto vibrato to get varying degrees of vibrato width and depth
- vibrato can effect pizzicato as well as arco sounds
- - in addition to regular pizzicato, you can also ask for 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
- - 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
- any other technique you encounter in a score is fair game!
More information is available in Alfred Blatter's Instrumentation/Orchestration (and similar texts about orchestration); most of the techniques in Allen and Patricia Strange's The Contemporary Violin also apply to the viola. Interesting viola repertoire includes Berio's Sequenza VI (you might also listen to his Sequenza VIII for solo violin), Ligeti's Sonata for viola solo, Penderecki's Viola Concerto, and Hindemith's Trauermusik. You might also consider string quartets by just about any composer on the syllabus! Good luck and enjoy --