Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Journey Through Counterpoint IX

Imitative Counterpoint
I saved the best for last (a purely subjective analysis, of course)!  I can just imagine you've been wondering, "But what about a round?  A canon?  A fugue?"  These, as well as the stretto, passacaglia, chaconne, fantasia and the ricarcar, are all rooted in imitative counterpoint.  They are probably the most well-known types of counterpoint.

In imitative counterpoint, the melodies do not begin all at once but enter at staggered times.  When they enter they usually begin with a repeated version of the first melody.  They may imitate precisely (such as in a round) or they may start by imitating and veer off into original melodies, or a combination of the two.  Imitative counterpoint is a fun game between the melodies in which they playfully copy each other, run away from each other and then try to catch each other.  The possibilities are endless.

I had all these wonderful ideas to share with you about imitative counterpoint and its many forms.  I may yet do that in future posts, but I'd like to first share a very personal narrative with you:

This is my son, Benjamin (who graciously gave me permission to share his story).  Ben is missing about 20% of his brain.  Ben's neurologist said that most kids with his same MRI scans are non-verbal and non-ambulatory. Yet Ben not only walks and talks, he received academic colours at school this year.

The interesting thing about Ben is that he learns through imitation.  He doesn't seem to be capable of original or creative thought.  He repeats everything until he's memorised and contextualised it.  There are days when it's incredibly hard to be patient with him; his repetition drives me crazy.  I have to remind myself that this is how he learns.  And he does learn.

So what does this have to do with counterpoint?  Perhaps through imitative counterpoint we learn...  We learn melodies.  We learn how to navigate tricky rhythms.  We learn how to relate to one another.  We learn how to live in community. We repeat these until we've mastered them and then we veer off to experiment and try things based upon our own original ideas.  We grow up.  But maybe, to some extent, we still learn by imitating.

I'll let you come up with your own application for this one... I'm still formulating my own, which involves a 10-year-old boy with gorgeous brown eyes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Journey Through Counterpoint VIII

Dissonant counterpoint
This is what I like to refer to as the "Let's be different for the sake of being different" counterpoint.  Dissonant counterpoint, which originated in the 1920's,  takes the confines of species counterpoint and reverses them so that dissonance rather than consonance becomes the rule.   Charles Seeger, former chairman of the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley is largely credited as being its main proponent.

Dissonant counterpoint sought to create a new musical point of view by avoiding musical conventions and the "norm."  Perfect octaves (consonant) are generally shunned in favour of major sevenths (dissonant).  Where species counterpoint "steps," dissonant counterpoint "skips" and "leaps."  In general, dissonant counterpoint does the complete opposite of traditional counterpoints.

So let's take a closer look at this curmudgeon in our cast of counterpoint characters (I couldn't resist the alliteration... sorry!):
 Dissonant Counterpoint is contrary and negative. He is revolutionary and would like to stage a coup de grĂ¢ce to put an end to consonance.  If he can't accomplish that, he can at least banish consonance to her room and only let her out for mealtimes and bathroom breaks.  He sees his melody as a New World Order - a "pure" melody of strength, power and victory. 

Eighth application:  Why bother?  I do not mean to say this in a facetious manner.  I am absolutely serious: why bother with dissonant counterpoint?  Is there any value to it?  Can we, in fact, learn something from it?  Our first inclination might be to throw it out the window; who needs such negativity?  But upon closer examination, is there perhaps a benefit to it?  [Here's a thought to get your philosophical juices flowing - can light exist apart from darkness?]

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Journey Through Counterpoint VII

Linear Counterpoint
Like its name suggests, linear counterpoint focuses more on the horizontal lines of the individual melodies rather than the vertical lines of harmonic connection.  The individual melodic lines are, shall we say, a bit inconsiderate of one another.  Linear counterpoint made its debut in the early 20th century (Stravinsky was quite fond of it).

Linear Counterpoint moves freely and sings his melody without much regard to the effects he may have on the melodies around him.  At best he is seen as a "free spirit" - spontaneous and living with careless abandon.  There are times when his haphazard and carefree nature contribute to some playful, memorable and brilliantly creative experiences.  He can be a LOT of fun.

Linear Counterpoint is a fair-weathered friend, however.  At the first sign of conflict - if you should cross his path or have a differing view - beware! He can be quite the megalomaniac, self-centred and rigid in demanding his "rights."  He has to do things his way and if that means walking all over you, so be it.

Seventh application: The case for linear counterpoint is conflicting; there are strong points both for it and against it.  How do you sustain a melody against such high levels of dissonance?

A Journey Through Counterpoint VI

And now we come to the big "So what?"  These are nice little ideas - you're a melody, I'm a melody, and together we make a cute couple, right?  Not entirely...  It turns out you're full of stylistic assumptions, contour, motives, accent, neutral lines, voice leading and ornamentation (and you thought your life was boring!)

This is where counterpoint really starts to get fun.  There are different types of counterpoint:  species counterpoint, linear counterpoint, dissonant counterpoint and imitative counterpoint (which includes melodic inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion, augmentation and diminution).  It sounds scary, but I hope to have you laughing by the end.  I'll try to explain each one but be thinking about the stories they tell and see if you can find parallels to human relationships.

Species Counterpoint
Species counterpoint is the oldest and "strictest" form of counterpoint (originating in the 16th century).  It was actually developed as a pedagogical tool to teach students how to write counterpoint by taking them through different "species" that increased in complexity.  It doesn't allow for much freedom because it always consists of a Cantus Firmus (Latin for "fixed melody").
Our protagonist, Cantus Firmus, doesn't change.  Se doesn't like change, refuses to change, and doesn't even see the purpose of change.  She is fine just the way she is.  In fact, if anyone needs to change it's YOU.  And so you do.

You sing a melody in an effort to engage Cantus, but she doesn't move.  You try another melody, but still, she won't budge.  After a third and fourth melody, you pause for a moment and reconsider.  Maybe if you try the first melody again, she'll respond differently this time?  You try all of the melodies you know but Cantus Firmus is a solid wall of immutability.

Sixth application: You can pull and stretch against the constraints, resist and even complain, but that will probably just add more dissonance. So what must you do?  Must you find a way to be content with the melody as it is, look for those harmonic pillars and accept the confines?  Or must you walk away to find a melody that's more homologous and reciprocal? 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Journey Through Counterpoint V

3) The Move Towards Connection/Resolution
If dissonance were the end of the story, I'd be pretty depressed.  It may add emotion and life to the song, but it can also be pretty overwhelming! The beautiful thing about dissonance in music, however, is that it leads to resolution. The tension has to resolve. Dissonance need not be feared but rather embraced because we know a point of connection - resolution - is coming. 

These points of connection in counterpoint are almost sacred moments where the two melodies touch each other and connect in a beautiful collision of harmonies. These connecting points act as pillars of stability. In between the pillars there is freedom of movement between the two melodies. It is as if the two melodies are engaged in a conversation: they communicate with each other, stimulate each other, challenge each other, and yet they do not overpower one another. There is a coherence and continuity as both melodies move together in a forward momentum. They stretch and pull against each other, yet they regularly connect at these points of resolution. 

 Fifth application: Is it possible to sit back, relax, and enjoy the tension and dissonance in relationships?  Can we let the connection and resolution come rather than try to force it?  Can we see dissonance in the context of the whole song - the whole relationship - rather than as an isolated event?  Would that change our perspective? 

A Journey Through Counterpoint IV

2) The Importance of Dissonance
In life, we tend to avoid tension or dissonanc (I do, at least, but I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one out there who does the same). We see it as harsh, undesirable and to be avoided at all cost. In music, however, tension and dissonance are not only accepted, they are welcomed and embraced. Why?

A song without tension is a happy song – it’s true – but it’s also an incredibly boring song! If you are telling a story and you start with “Once upon a time” and move directly to “...and they lived happily ever after” you have nothing. You have no story!  The story is everything that happens in between the anchors of "Once upon a time" and "...and they lived happily ever after," and what is in the story?  Drama!  Comedy!  Adventure! 

Tension and dissonance add emotion to a song: excitement, mystery, suspense, passion, intrigue, fury, heartache and life. It is in the dissonance of a song that the melody truly comes alive.

Fourth application:  By avoiding tension and dissonance, are we missing out on a large portion of life?  Are we avoiding the necessary emotions that tell our story?  Are we "happy but boring"?  Why are we so afraid of dissonance? 

A Journey Through Counterpoint III

So... I would like to share three things about counterpoint that absolutely fascinate me.  The first one is: 

 1) The Beauty of the Dance
It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is even harder to write two songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound more beautiful as a whole. In other words, the sum of the two melodies is greater than the individual lines. 1+1 does not equal 2 but rather 4 or 5. It is exponential. What is amazing about counterpoint is that while the two melodies work together to contribute to the counterpoint as a whole, the counterpoint is reinforcing and affirming the individual melodies.  Each melody must in some way sacrifice itself to work toward the common good of the whole, and yet what it gains is more than it could ever create on its own as a single melody. There is an ebb and flow as the direction moves in multiple ways and creates a beautiful dance that not only enhances the song as a whole, but each individual melody participating.

Third application:  What if, in losing ourselves, we actually found ourselves?  I'm not suggesting anything new here, for Jesus said the same thing nearly two thousand years ago (only He was much more eloquent than I am!)... "Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it.  What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" - Matthew 16:24-26

A Journey Through Counterpoint II

Counterpoint, by contrast, is polyphonic.  That means there is more than one melody playing simultaneously (you can actually have up to six melodies). Each melody can stand alone; that is to say, they are both legitimate melodies in and of themselves, but when you put them together they perform a sort of dance. There are points where the two melodies intersect and cross each other, and points where they move away from each other, creating a tension or dissonance.

Counterpoint is hundreds of years old.  It was established in the Renaissance Period and reached its peak in the Baroque Period of music. In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, counterpoint has largely disappeared from music in the Western world.

 At first glance this looks a bit chaotic. It seems like it might just be a lot of noise. It looks messy.  So... why is counterpoint important? In other words, what’s the point of counterpoint? Why should we care about something that is hundreds of years old and not really used today? 

Second application:  Does the fact that counterpoint has all but disappeared mirror an individualistic, Western society?  Have we lost a sense of community, a sense of interdependence? 

A Journey Through Counterpoint I

Counterpoint, n. The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.
 I have a confession to make:  I love studying and learning about counterpoint; I think there are so many parallels to life and practical applications beyond the musical beauty of counterpoint itself, but I don’t like this definition.  Most definitions of counterpoint have reduced the art to a clinical and sterile "science" in describing it. They use a lot of big words that doesn’t really explain much.  I understand, to some extent, but I also believe that music should be fun and inspiring; it is a way of telling stories.  There is nothing clinical or sterile about it. 

I am telling you this because I want to share what I've been learning about counterpoint and how it applies to human relationships.  I have been so challenged and inspired of late.  And the good news is, you don't have to be musical or have a prior knowledge of music to understand counterpoint and how it applies to every day life.  So let's dive in!

Modern music – most of what we hear today – is largely homophonic. That means it has only one melody which is supported by chord structures and rhythms. If more than one singer is singing, you will perhaps hear some harmony.

Harmony can be sung above or below the melody, but it must follow and conform to the melody. It cannot stand alone.  It is only there to support and enhance the melody.

First application:  Do we see others as legitimate melodies, or do we force them to sing "harmony" to our own melody?  Do we respect other peoples' songs or do we see them only in terms of how they support and enhance our own song?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Slogging Away...

I keep waiting for some earth-shattering revelation to occur to me so I can blog about it and inspire you.  This is a bit delusional, I realise, but one of my greatest joys in life is to encourage people, and I really do wish I had something inspiring to share.

Unfortunately, most of life is lived in the "uninspiring" times - the times when we slog through the day and hope we have enough energy to finish it.  Most of our time is spent in the valleys where our (drumroll, please) character is developed.  And yes, it sucks.

Every now and then, however, we catch a glimpse of the triumphant, a glimmer of something beautiful that inspires us to keep going and persevere despite the odds, despite what the naggers and naysayers would tell us, and despite the protests of our tired muscles. Every now and then a spark of courage kindles the fire within us that begs us to dig deeper and find new reserves of strength and resolve. 

So put on your red cape (perfect for saving the world), put on your wellies (perfect for slogging), and keep at it!  Eventually, you're bound to move some mountains.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thoughts on Glamourisation

 My husband is fundraising in the States for two months (the joys of working for a mission organisation...).  I miss him terribly.  To look on the bright side I thought, hey - it will be an adventure living in Africa for two months by myself, raising the three kids and surviving without my man.  I had visions of a female David Livingstone at best, and at worst I thought this will at least make a good story someday.  And then reality settled in...

I have to mow the lawn every week.  I have to figure out how to change halogen globes and gas tanks and fix towel racks that have fallen off the wall and still manage to cook, clean, do laundry, iron, parent the kids - oh, and do my regular job as well!

Today my daughter was on a school trip and on the way home the bus was involved in an accident.  It was minor, but it reminded me that tomorrow is not promised (nor is the remainder of today, for that matter).  I attended a meeting in which everyone decided to pick on Americans, for some reason.  They mocked my accent, asked me if I ate fast food every day "like a good little American" and even dared to suggest that Americans don't know what a stove is or how to cook.  For the rest of the meeting I was "The American."  I felt angry.  I felt humiliated.  I felt hurt.  I wanted to scream, "I have a name and it is not 'The American'; it's Annie!"  On the way home the car started to make funny and scary noises.  Sigh...

I came home, needing a shoulder to cry on, but the house was empty.  My husband is 17,000km away, and there are still five weeks before he comes home.   So much for adventure.  What I need is a hug.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thoughts on the Joy of Discovery

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time."
- T.S. Eliot, in his poem Little Gidding

I love this quote because it's about seeing things from a different angle - a different perspective - and rediscovering it in a whole new light. The joy of discovery shouldn't cease with the onset of adulthood... but it often does, doesn't it? 

I wonder sometimes if we bought into a false idea that "growing up" and "maturity" don't allow for dreaming, imagining or creating, which all lead to discovery. Somehow the "What do you want to be when you grow up?" question stops getting asked around age 23. We replace the dreams and creativity with convention, the burden of expectations and pressure to conform to some sort of societal norm because to dream at this point would be considered foolish.  But why?

I am not suggesting that we shirk our responsibilities, but I am suggesting that maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe we should care less what other people think and listen more to the passion within that's begging to be let loose.  Maybe we should pursue the things we're actually good at and not the things that bring in better salaries.  Maybe we should listen to those childhood dreams and invite them in as old friends.

I'm 39 and I there are still things I want to be "when I grow up", and I hope I still feel that way at 89 because the truth is, I hope I never stop learning.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thoughts on Perseverance

"So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
 For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." 

-T.S. Eliot, East Coker (No. 2 of The Four Quartets)