Academic journal article Music Theory Online

A Transformational Space Structuring the Counterpoint in Adès's "Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen"

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

A Transformational Space Structuring the Counterpoint in Adès's "Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen"

Article excerpt

[1.1] Like many contemporary composers, Thomas Adès draws upon a wide range of historical and contemporary musical styles. His eclecticism manifests itself not only in the diversity of genres in which he writes (his catalog includes symphonies, operas, string quartets, choral works, songs, concerti, and solo piano pieces as well as less traditional ventures, such as hybrid video-musical works and transcriptions of popular music), but also in the musical materials and processes he employs, and in the many allusions they make to the Western art-music repertoire. He often exploits extremes of timbre and register in polyphonic and polymetrical textures that, while partaking of the highest musical modernism, are shaped into coherent, accessible phrase structures with discernible short- and long-range goals. In any given passage of his music one may find intermingled hexatonic, octatonic, and diatonic collections, interpenetrated with triad-like structures connected in stepwise voice leading. His music is an intriguing but analytically challenging post-tonal counterpoint.(1)

[1.2] A concise example of his techniques and the challenges they pose is the beginning of the third movement, "Auf dem Wasser zu singen", of his string quartet, Arcadiana, Op. 12 (1994). Its title alludes to the eponymous Schubert song, which sets an elegiac text to an obsessively repeating, descending figure. (The connotations of death and transcendence contribute to the overall program of the quartet, which treats "ideas of the idyll, vanishing, vanished or imaginary" (Adès 2005, title page). Example 1 presents measures 1-9, in wide format, as an analytical transcription that clarifies their content. The movement begins strikingly by transmuting Schubert's monophonic, regular accompanimental motive into a temporally and texturally varying polyphony of overlapping, pizzicato-glissando gestures. In the transcription they appear on the lower two staves. Each gesture presents an accelerating descent through a series of regularly expanding pitch intervals, usually realized as <-1, -2, -3, -4, -5, -6, -7>. The first few descents begin on G4, but later statements begin on other pitches as well; also the gestures sometimes omit intervals or otherwise vary the series, as is evident in measures 4-5. Two other streams soon join the texture. One, shown on the top staff, is a sustained, bowed, monophonic melodic line that descends gradually by semitone, with some elaboration, then quickly arpeggiates upwards, only to glide slowly down again from C6. The other stream, notated on the second staff, consists of overlapping, sustained, bowed, ic5 double-stops, most of which are highlighted with boxes and alphabetical labels.

[1.3] To some degree, the diverse materials and differently paced continuities of these streams convey a postmodern sense of multiple temporalities (Kramer 1996; Roeder 2006). Yet, one would hope that an analysis could say more than that about how this passage works. After all, Adès has notated timing and content quite precisely, and so one might want to describe and explain the counterpoint. Specifically, do the contents of the different streams cohere? Are they coordinated from moment to moment in order to shape this segment into a phrase and, if so, how does their combination produce a sense of direction and closure?

Example 1.

(click to enlarge and see the rest)

[1.4] At first glance, transformational theory would not appear to be a promising medium for such an account. It has usually been employed as a sophisticated means of motivic analysis, not as a description of counterpoint. Such analyses identify small families of equal-sized objects (sets, series) defined by a coherent system of relationships, but the surface features of the streams in Example 1, as described above, appear quite diverse in size and nature. Recent efforts to adapt transformational theory to analyze objects of different types are still too constraining to deal with the many different sizes and types of structures that seem to be salient here (Hook 2007). …

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