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  • Writer's pictureisaacrsmith

The Start of a New Semester

This has been the semester I have been nervous about for the last year or so- the semester in which grad school applications are due. I am very ready for December to be here so the stress of it all is over.

As far as classes go, it is a fairly easy semester. The class I am looking the most forward to is my introduction to electronic music class. Electronic music is something I have wanted to get into, but have never taken the steps to do it. I have heard this class is taught well and am looking forward to getting into it.

I am also looking forward to studying with our new composition professor, Dr. Daniel Swilley. I have had a couple of video calls with him to discuss music and get a bit of a head start on what is sure to be a busy semester, and they were very enjoyable calls. It is always nice to get a fresh opinion on your music, and Dr. Swilley also has a lot of background in electronic music. As mentioned above, this will be helpful to me with my limited background in it.

My most recent project has been a series of 3 etudes for solo piano. During a lesson I had with Michael Daugherty during his residency on campus in April, he suggested that I study the Ligeti piano etudes and emulate the rhythmic concepts Ligeti explored in them. I took his advice and did some score study in April and May, drawing particular interest in Etude 1, "Desordre," and Etude 4, "Fanfares." I started writing my first etude in late April, before "Dichotomy" required my more immediate attention. I resumed work on the etudes in Maine, completing Etude 1 and 2, and starting Etude 3. Returning to Iowa in August, I completed Etude 3, and completely re-worked Etude 2, as I was unhappy with how it turned out. All this is to say that it has been an on-and-off process, but I have concluded work on them, and I am as happy about how they turned out as anything I have ever written.

Etude 1 plays with interaction between the 2 hands as Ligeti did, passing motives back and forth. I also explore polymeters, as if the 2 hands were different instruments, and each plays in a different meter, determined by accents. This creates passages where the RH is in a regular 3/4, while the LH is in an unbalanced 7/8 or 13/16, for instance. I also limited the intervals used in each had, as the RH uses only 2nds and 7ths, while the LH use only 3rds and 6ths. After the climax of the piece in the middle, the intervals in each hand switch.

Etude 2 is based less around emulating Ligeti and more around a concept I wanted to explore. My goal was to create a piece that started in a regular, discernable meter, and moved to an amorphous, unrecognizable metrical feel. I tried to do this using polyrhythms of 7s, 5s, and 3s going over barlines, as well as a few bars of 13/16, 9/16, etc. to eliminate the predictability of passages.

Etude 3 is probably my favorite of the 3, and it represents the most direct blending of my jazz background with my "classical composer" background to date. For this piece, I drew from a transcription I did of a Bill Evans solo on the tune "What is this Thing Called Love?" found on the album "Portrait in Jazz." I blended this with Ligeti's ideas of an ostinato bass built around the "Aksak" rhythms found in Eastern European music (this is seen in much of Bartok's music, as well as Ligeti's "Fanfares"). Thus, I drew an idea from Evans' solo in which he plays an upper pedal point with a chromatically ascending lower line, and turned this into the ostinato for the piece. The main melodic material I drew from Evans' solo break at the start of his solo. Finally, I took the chords found in the tune "What is this Thing Called Love?" and used them as the basis of my etude, forming a "contrafact." Indeed, the entire piece follows an AABA song form, 4 choruses in length (the same length as Evans' solo). For each "chorus," I reharmonized the harmonies to be more dense and more dissonant, as well as transposing down by a Major 3rd, visiting 3 harmonically distant areas before returning to the original tonal center.

This was a fun project to work on and it helped me to explore rhythmic concepts that I have never thought about to this extent before. I began a conversation with a pianist I met at the Atlantic Music Festival about potentially recording these, so I plan to send them to her and see if we can't figure something out. If this doesn't work out, it might be a fun project for me to work up myself in the future.

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