Tuesday, March 13, 2007


"The sweetest sounds I've ever heard are still inside my head"
Richard Rogers

"We discussed the widespread contempt in which ukulele players are held - traceable, we concluded, to the uke's all-but-exclusive employment as a producer of chords - single, timeless events apprehended all at once instead of serially. Notes of a linear melody, up and down a staff, being a record of pitch versus time, to play a melody is to introduce the element of time, and hence of mortality. Our perceived reluctance to leave the timelessness of the struck chord has earned ukulele players our reputation as feckless, clownlike children who will not grow up."
Thomas Pynchon from "Against The Day"


And it’s open to any and everyone.

Here are the rules. Write and record up to three minutes of startlingly new and original instrumental chords. They can be scored in any fashion whatsoever, using any instrumentation or sound producing devices. You can submit a static series of chords or you can perturb the chords in any fashion. You can just submit one big gorgeous chord if you wish.

The submissions can be sent here in the form of a posted link to a site where a recording of the piece can be heard (like MySpace for example). Don’t send any music files.
At the end of the month I will announce the winners on my last blog entry.
I was hoping to be able to have some kind of small rewards for the winners, but it’s not possible at this time.
The links to all of the entries will stay posted in the comment section so that people can judge for themselves if they don’t like my choices. But I will only post entries that seem to be within the spirit of the contest.

Legal Note: By submitting a link to music you represent and warrant that the music found there is your original creation and that it does not infringe on any existing copyright.]

Anyone who can’t post an entry because they’re not a member of TimesSelect can just send the link to me at: glenn@glennbranca.com and I’ll post it.

In searching for lost chords there can only be one method, and that is the method that eschews all pre-existing methods.


Are there natural laws of music? Are the rules of harmony like a science that reveals to us the inner workings of a system? Are modulations and cadences like formulae that will produce accurate results? Is the history of music more or less a map which if followed to a logical conclusion will leads us to the perfect destination? Or is music a mysterious, irrational problem that even a gifted savant could not solve without the help of an intuitive muse and perhaps a little white-hot inspiration?

The secrets of harmony are buried in a safe place beneath hundreds of years of music theory. Originally theory was called counterpoint and was invented solely as an instruction manual for rural choirmasters. It was cheaper than commissioning the likes of a Bach to give your town its own musical identity. Since theory was necessarily derived from an analysis of previously existing music, then any music based on that theory must itself sound like the music that the theory was derived from. In fact that was the whole point. Of course my point is that if you want to write something that doesn’t sound anything like anything you’ve ever heard before than this kind of self-referential theory can’t get you there.

But there are other reasons to support anti-theory. If there were a natural law of music it would be the harmonic series. Being infinite it contains within it all music: every interval, every mode, key or cluster in every possible tuning or temperament, all resonating in multi-various rhythms and melodies from a single fundamental tone. To create a system based on a particular set of intervals, chords or keys over any other is a matter of cultural preference that becomes entrenched over time attaching meaning that is illusory.


Music must be heard. This is the corollary to Varese’s “music must sound”. Unlike the other arts sound can never be literal. By its very nature it is abstract. But it can move a listener in ways that no words or pictures can ever do. When a major triad is voiced in a particular way and is heard in a resonant acoustic space, sometimes voices or even choirs seem to be heard. This psycho-acoustic phenomenon can be explained simply by the fact that the music is voiced in a manner that people associate with a choir. This is the reason why early dissonant music often reminded people of traffic jams, or certain types of clusters like a swarm of bees. The mind must categorize what it hears based on previous reference. Music sounds like music because it sounds like music.
Composers can’t ignore this subjective aspect of perception. But they can exploit it in the gray area between perceived musical sound and non-musical sound. This is the point at which a moment of perceptual tabula rasa can imprint music that’s never been heard before.


Nicholas Slonimsky once determined that there are 479,001,600 permutations of a single musical phrase based on the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. In that same light it can be shown that there are 4095 different chords that can be derived from those same 12 tones. But if one thinks in terms of chords that extend over the full orchestral range, using the 88 keys of the piano as reference, there are approximately
300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different chords that can be derived from those 88 tones. That’s 2 to the 88
th power. Of course this calculation does not take into account microtonal intervals which would increase the size of the number astronomically considering that it is possible to get meaningful audible differences down to at least an eighth tone.
The point of such a demonstration, similar to what Slonimsky was trying to show, is that the number of possible chords is inexhaustible. And of course with timbre and orchestration introduced the potential is virtually infinite.


One example of a chord that defies analysis is the “unison cluster”. This is a type of dense cluster in which the tones are placed very close together using small microtonal intervals. The effect is neither of a cluster nor a unison. But the sound is rich with a strange, singing choir-like quality. The clash of harmonics which occurs in a standard cluster does not occur here because the harmonic interaction that creates the harsh sound is so high that it’s outside the range of hearing.
In fact this quality is at work to a subtle degree in the sound of an orchestral
string section that can never be perfectly in tune. Some conductors will even use the trick of having the string players tune slightly out to get a “richer” sound. It is also why an out of tune piano can have an oddly appealing sound. A piano doubles and triples unison strings in most of the range.
Music is not pure. It cannot be pure. Sound is noise. In the 70’s it was popular for studio engineers to try to get the “cleanest” possible sound, a vogue that lasted for years and was a complete failure. The only clean sound is silence.
Schoenberg in his “Harmonielehre” refers to what he calls “tone colors”. This was his way of describing ambiguous pitch or sounds that cannot be analyzed in terms of pitch alone. In fact he went so far as to say that there could be no system or theory to define such music.
Ironically this work led to the rejection of tonality by many 20
th century 12-Tonalists and Serialists. Instead of opening the potential for tonal variety it became severely limited. They believed that an ambiguous or neutral tonal landscape could not be achieved using consonant chords. They also had a reliance on specific pitch that could be dealt with like numbers in a mathematical equation. There is a reason why art is not science. To “prove” the efficacy of a musical pattern in some rational system means nothing if it sounds bad. Strangely few had seemed to notice the success that Webern had had introducing consonance into atonality.


It should be kept in mind that when building lost chords the sound of a chord is relative. A dissonant chord can sound almost consonant when preceded by a chord or cluster that is far more dissonant. As well, a series of consonant chords can sound saccharine without contrast. Following are a few hints on mechanics

TIMBRE: The use of untempered sound such as steel chicken wire instead of guitar or piano strings, copper plumbing pipes, bowed cymbals or a kazoo, homemade instruments, “ethnic” instruments such as a hurdy-gurdy, bag pipes or sarangi, synth effects and EQ that can be found on any sampler to alter a conventional instrument sound. Altering timbre entirely changes the harmonic content of a sound. With this type of sound the fundamental often no longer dominates. The harmonic interaction is unpredictable and can create unusual relationships.
MICROTONALITY: Tones based on the intervals of the harmonic series or any division of the octave smaller than a half tone.
WEIGHTING: Using dynamics or instrument doubling, the balance of the tones within a chord can be drastically altered. For example if one were to use a cluster and a major triad in the same chord, emphasizing the cluster would give a very different chord than emphasizing the triad. Of course this technique can be used in far more subtle ways.
VOICING AND RANGE: Three notes spread out over the entire range is a very different chord than the same three notes voiced within a single octave. A chord in the high range is very different than the same chord in the low range. This is not trivial. Voicing change and note change are equally important. Think in terms of the full range.
AMBIGUITY: This technique includes unison clusters and ambiguous tonality discussed earlier. Introducing an unfamiliar sound into a familiar context or vice versa is an effective tool.
CHANGE: Here is a trick of the trade. When making a change always change at least two elements. This is the concept of contrary motion but extrapolated across the entire field of possible change.

Combining these various types will give the best results. In short, composing lost chords requires attention to detail and carefully constructed contrast.

Anyone who is interested in finding out about recordings of music that transcend the predictable can go to Massimo Ricci’s