Sunday, June 28, 2009

Three Scenes From Suburbia, Mvt. II - Analysis

Commissioned by Richard Gill with the support of Ars Musica Australis, the orchestral work, Three Scenes From Suburbia, was premiered by Sydney Sinfonia, as part of the Sydney Symphony’s 2008 Discovery Series (Angel Place; II. - 6th May, I. in part - 10th Jun, III. - 28th Oct). The second part was subsequently broadcast on Jan 3rd of this year on ABC Radio National.


Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Consequently, we are all intimately familiar with the concept, if not the reality of suburbia. Whether we live in one, grew up in one or daily consume a televisual representation of one, the suburb is an indisputable part of our cultural lexicon.

Sadly, however, familiarity seems to have bred contempt. Suburbia is often portrayed as mind-numbing and soulless, populated by serial conformists frustrated by their own conformity, and powerless because of it. Three Scenes from Suburbia seeks to challenge that perspective by embracing, through vignettes from the suburban everyday, the wonder and excitement an outsider might have when observing without prejudice our way of life. These sentiments arise from a process of mythologisation, whereby ostensibly mundane scenes are given both literary and metaphysical significance, by way of the Western cultural canon which so underpins our understanding of the world.

Part 1 is prefaced by this quote from the poem, ‘The Daisy’, by William Wordsworth:

…A little Cyclops, with one eye
Staring to threaten and defy…

The music, nevertheless, makes no attempt to represent a daisy, or indeed any other flower. Rather, it draws upon Wordsworth’s depiction of an object generally considered unassuming as pointedly sinister and confrontational. This device is recast here with the lowly traffic light as protagonist, its cycloptic tyranny pitted against the larrikin tendencies of a joy-rider.

The second movement concerns itself with the characteristic ‘greenness’ of our avenues and gardens, by way of these lines from Abraham Cowley’s ‘The Spring’:

…Where ere you walk’d trees were as reverend made,
As when of old Gods dwelt in every shade…

This fragment from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Fears in Solitude’ precedes Part III.

…O divine
And beauteous island! thou hast been my sole
And most magnificent temple, in the which
I walk with awe, and sing my stately songs…

Its religious overtones are employed here to celebrate the colours, shapes and sounds of the ubiquitous suburban shopping centre. The movement culminates in a “consumer siren song” (one of the stately songs of the text), which melds together several different markers of prestige, notably Elizabethan court dances and indie pop music.


1. The Ground Bass

This work is modelled on the Baroque forms of passacaglia and chaconne, where a ground bass (a defined bass line that is repeated over and over again) and/or a continuously cycling harmonic progression serves as the foundation for a set of continuous variations. This may seem to be an anachronistic, out-of-date approach to writing music today, however, it should be noted that these forms have a compositional pedigree well beyond their original cultural context: take, for example, the final movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony or the passacaglia from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Furthermore, passacaglia- and chaconne-like ideas are employed in alot of popular music, though of course in ways which are less likely to be historically informed.

The ground bass/ harmonic progression I have constructed here is somewhat more elaborate than most previous incarnations. A six-chord sequence with some internal repetition is the basic unit; it initially undergoes three symmetrically spaced transpositions (moving down in minor thirds), which though equivalent in relative pitch content, often differ in inversion. The immediate continuation of this transpositional track finds the unit back with its original pitches but in a different inversion. If this process is allowed to play out to a point just before exact replication begins to occur, the following can be observed: a unit is repeated only once at the same pitch in a particular inversion, four times at equivalent transposed pitch in a particular inversion, three times at absolute pitch regardless of inversion, and twelve times irrespective of transposition or inversion. The piece ends with the completion of the cycle and the second iteration of the first chord of the first unit: the ground bass as a whole thus only occurs once, though the properties described above inform its macro-character in such a way as to give the impression of multiple repetitions. All of this information is summarised in Figure 1.

Rhythmically, this cycle is divided into five sections of roughly equivalent duration but of differing harmonic tempo. The first is based on a 5:4 ratio (that is, each chordal articulation lasts either four or five crotchets), the second on a 4:3 ratio, the third on 3:2, the fourth again on 5:4, and the fifth on lengthy, broadening fluctuations (see Figure 1.). The consequence of this is that each section has a different number of repetitions of the basic unit of the ground bass: the first has two, the second three, the third four, the fourth two and the fifth one.

The harmonic and rhythmic character of the ground bass is one of slow, incremental change and the way it is set reflects this. It’s consistently orchestrated for muted strings and vibraphone, and only ornamented by glissandi, which act as appoggiaturas to each chordal change and are occasionally reinforced by the trombones. Furthermore, when there are notes in common between one chord and the next, they are not newly articulated, but rather held on, thus contributing greatly to the glacial effect. It’s worth pointing out that the term ‘bass’ is used here in its formal rather than literal sense, as it is not always the lowest sounding element (see The Musical Narrative).

2. The Variations

The ground bass has in counterpoint to it two other textures, which are essentially two separate sets of variations (referred to here as set 1 and set 2), with their own musical and dramatic characteristics, running in parallel. These variations have harmonic cycles whose pitch content is independent, but whose pacing is nevertheless entirely contingent on the other textural components (see Figure 1. for further elucidation). They are not really variations in the traditional sense- that is, based on a particular theme- but rather constant and varied development of a discreet group of gestures, which forms an ever-fluctuating yet consistently integrated fabric around the thematically static ground bass.

Set 1 consists of two parts whose interaction is part contrapuntal and part heterophonic. The pitches employed at any given point have some commonality with the diatonicism of the corresponding bass harmony (see Figure 1. once again). Only one semitone can be formed harmonically from each sonority in the cycle; it acts as a springboard for each phrase, while the adjacent minor or major third to it serves as a cadential device. The set’s general profile is one of long, drawn-out, lyrical lines with expansive registral leaps and alternations between gradual crescendi and sudden quietness (see Figure 2a. and 2b. for an outline of rhythmic development). Set 1 is articulated exclusively by non-muted strings and two solo horns.

The pitch material of set 2 is remote from both the diatonic implications and the actual notes of the bass, but is relatively closely related to that of set 1. These pitches occur either in close, two-part harmony- rhythmic unisons ranging from a minor second to a major third- or in isolation. Set 2 is thus essentially homophonic, though some heterophonic decoration occurs in the third and fourth sections of the piece. Its rhythmic character is typified by staccato outbursts, whose density periodically waxes and wanes (see Figure 3a. and 3b.). These run very much against the metric grain of the ground bass, and to a lesser extent, of set 1, giving rise on occasion to the feeling of two metres occurring simultaneously. Similarly, fluctuations in dynamic range occur more often and more suddenly here than in the other textures. All of the brass and woodwind- along with the timpani and xylophone- are involved in the realisation of set 2, though the flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and muted trumpets carry much of the thematic weight (they are assigned the tuplet material seen in Figure 3a.)

3. The Musical Narrative

As evident from Figure 1., the overall trajectory of the ground bass is a slow but inevitable climb upwards. This structural attribute, by its very nature, gives the piece a sense of direction, a feeling of purpose. A perhaps overly generic narrative structure, it is made more nuanced and idiosyncratic by causing the rate of change, which is represented in the theoretical model of Figure 1. as entirely even, to be quite irregular. Given that the five sections of the work have roughly the same duration, a marked acceleration in the speed at which chords are outlaid can be witnessed through the first three: twelve sonorities are sounded in the first, eighteen in the second and twenty-four in the third. With the beginning of the fourth, however, we see a return to a rate of twelve per section, which is reduced in the fifth to six. The end of broad structural acceleration, which also happens to be the beginning of deceleration, is marked by the major climax of the work, which crosses the seam between the third and fourth sections. Before this point, there is a feeling of eager anticipation; after, a sense of gradual settling into peaceful contemplation. Thus the underlying psychology of the work can be articulated through purely musical parameters.

The two sets of variations are to a large extent at the mercy of the ground bass and its behavioural patterns. The way in which set 1 and set 2 intensify and dilute, which can be seen in Figure 2. and 3. respectively, are directly analogous to, and synchronous with the acceleration and deceleration of the bass. That is to say, a change of section indicates immediate and interconnected development in all three textures. The only exception to this trend is the periodic eruption in section four from both sets of variations of material characteristic of earlier temporal spaces. These anomalous occurrences are even reflected on the surface of the ground bass, however the steady march of its harmony remains unaffected by such bursts of activity, making this challenge to the slow drift into stasis a vain one. The overall narrative is nevertheless clearly enriched by these moments of dissent.

The manner in which this piece is orchestrated serves to accentuate the unfolding of events through time as described in the above paragraphs. The instrumentation of the ground bass is constant, apart from the odd highlighting of harmonic change in section three and four by the trombones. This approach reinforces the inevitability of the bass’s broad agenda. The two sets of variations, on the other hand, are somewhat more malleable. Set 1 has the following designation of instruments:

Similarly, Set 2 has this configuration:

The orchestration of the bass emphasises the backbone of the narrative, while the colouration of the variations is much more concerned with its internal thematic and harmonic flux, as a conflation of Figure 4. and 5. will show. Acceleration and growing density are seen in the increasing registral and timbral range from section 1 through 3; deceleration and dilution are traced by their decreasing in section 4 through 5, with the incidental throw-backs of four shown in its continued instrumental voluminousness. A closer reading of the score will confirm what these tables further imply, that the two sets of variations switch registral territory though the pivot of section 3.

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