SOPP439: More improvisation and some theory on counterpoint and how canons are constructed
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
V: Let’s start episode 439 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Ariane, and she writes:
“More improvisation and some theory on counterpoint and how canons are constructed - a lot rings a bell now, especially the stuff on consonant intervals and countermovement.”
She is our Total Organist student and answered this question in response of my asking her what is she currently working on.
V: So, she’s working on improvisation and theory, counterpoint, canons, and she says that a lot of that is familiar to her, now.
A: Do you think it’s important for everybody to know the polyphonic techniques that composers use?
V: It depends on the goals, of course. If you want to understand the music of great composers, it’s impossible to understand it without getting a good grasp of counterpoint and polyphony.
A: Do you think it’s important to know it in depth or not? Or just to be familiar with it?
V: Well again, if your goal is just to play the music of other people and understand it to some degree, then what you might do is create some counterpoints and analyze their music from the scores, but not too much, probably concentrating on the performance itself. But if you want to start writing music or improvising music, I think these techniques are indispensable—to know and internalize them.
A: Well, what collection would be a good way to start to analyze in order to learn these things?
V: You mean canons?
A: I mean all polyphonic techniques, because canon is only one of them.
V: I always recommend people start where they are, what they are playing, and look for techniques in their own pieces. If they are playing a piece by Franck, for example, they might find a canon or two very easily, because Franck used canons all the time. If they’re playing other composers, let’s say they are playing some baroque music, obviously polyphonic techniques are even more important there. So wherever you are, open the score, and try to find out what you are seeing on the page.
A: I think that’s very good advice.
V: What would your approach be?
A: I would start with probably two-part inventions. Even with the first invention in C major. Basically, Bach used most of the polyphonic techniques in this first invention.
V: And you’re right! Those inventions, and later three-part symphonias form a basis for every pianists repertoire, and technique as well! And that was in Bach’s time! He created those short little gems as exercises for his own students! But not only to be played on the harpsichord, but also to be used as examples in composition, so that his students would not only play them, perform them, develop their own techniques, but maybe use them as models for their own creations. This is teaching by example, obviously, and Bach was a champion of that. He almost didn’t write any treatises, just one short page about counterpoint, but basically, his music speaks for itself!
A: True, and I wonder how much the world has changed after that, because in Bach’s time, he and his contemporaries wanted students and pupils to study and to take example from them. And nowadays, I think everybody requires originality. And if you will copy something, it will be very bad.
V: At first, it’s okay to copy, I think, even today.
A: What about authors’ rights?
V: When you are a student, I mean. If you are copying a composer who is long dead, who cares?
A: But would you achieve much in the area of composition if you would compose in the style of Buxtehude or Pachelbel?
V: To some degree, we all start there as beginners in school, and then move on to something which is more innovative and more interesting to our ears and our age. Maybe this classical education won’t last long, maybe a year or two, but even those people who create today avant-garde music, I think they all went through the rigid classical education at some point. Maybe they hated it. That’s why maybe they changed gears later in life, but this classical education gave them something, too. What do you think?
A: Yes, I guess you are right.
V: Obviously, at the same time when you are studying and playing Bach, if you are really inclined on originality, you would do well on sight-reading music by modern composers—at least twentieth century composers, or even living composers, even better, and see what other people are doing today. And this way, you will discover things that they are not doing, maybe, and you will get more ideas by synthesizing their own ideas!
A: Yes, but don’t you feel sometimes that it’s so hard to create something really new, because so many ideas there are already expressed by somebody else?
V: I think somebody wiser than I said, “Whoever wants to be original will never be original.” You know, if we focus on originality, this is not the point, because we have to focus on authenticity. It doesn’t have to be new, it has to be yours, this music. And even if you create something really old fashioned, chances are that nobody else has created this, because music has so many thousands and millions and billions and trillions of combinations, that obviously, it’s impossible to exploit all that. It might sound similar to other music, but it’s definitely something new.
A: It’s like a miracle, knowing that everything is created only from twelve different sounds.
V: Exactly. So, Ariane and others would do really well by starting where they are, looking at music of further composers, and writing down and improvising their own creative things, starting with consonant intervals! That is required for classical counterpoint, and avoiding parallel fifths and octaves, and employing a lot of contrary motion to achieve this. Excellent guys, please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. This was Vidas!
A: And Ausra!
V: And remember: when you practice,
A: Miracles happen!
Raise your hand
On Monday we had our organ studio "Unda Maris" rehearsal at Vilnius University where I teach members of the University to play organ. At one point one student (who studies chemistry) played the Canon by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis to us and I've noticed that his left hand technique was not as developed as the right hand. This was especially noticeable when I asked him to play the left hand and pedal combination for us. While he was playing it, he placed his free right hand on the bench which in a way served as a crutch.
Then I asked this student play this combination again with his right hand raised and observe his feeling. Afterwards he told us that it was a strange feeling, he felt his attention shift to the raised hand, his tempo was slower, and yet he succeeded with this exercise.
I asked him how he managed to do this and we came to the conclusion that the key here was to really focus on the left hand. It was more difficult of course when he was holding his right hand high in the air but it wasn't impossible.
After him another student (who studies physics) played his own organ arrangements of music from computer games he likes to play. He voluntarily raised one of his hands from time to time as he tried to play his arrangement with just one hand and pedals. Sometimes the right hand and sometimes the left hand was up in the air.
Finally, I told them the story when I was a student at the Lithuanian Academy of Music long time ago and during one of the first lessons, Prof. Leopoldas Digrys, a legendary Lithuanian organist and teacher, asked me to play very independent pedal part of one composition by Bach with both of my hands raised. This way, he explained, no bench and no crutch can help you and you will have no choice but to figure out the way to play the pedals independently.
You too, can try raising one or both hands in the air while you play the rest of the parts and see how you feel.
Sight-reading for today:
Allegretto Grazioso by Alfred Hollins (1865-1942), an English organist, composer and teacher.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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