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Masterclass: Modern Counterpoint Technique


jawoodruff
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Welcome to my first ever masterclass!

Before we begin, it's important to state what this course will NOT be:

  • This course will not present any rules or regulations 
  • This course will not provide any sort of magical formulae for the successful creation of contrapuntal technique
  • This course will not frown upon any violation of perceived common practice rules

With that out of the way. Let's get into some basics. 

Counterpoint is the foundation of the western musical tradition. Long before the rise of the Baroque theorists, the Mannheim School, and -of course- the Classical era, music focused solely on a horizontal development of ideas that -today- provide the basis of contrapuntalism. Modern takes of counterpoint -while often ridiculed for purposefully bucking CP tradition- pulls directly from this long tradition with its incorporation of traditional contrapuntal techniques. 

Motif (or Cell) are the building blocks of most modern contrapuntal techniques. For those that don't know, a motif can be a small piece of musical material that can be developed throughout a composition or compositional section. For the purposes of this masterclass, we will be discussing motifs in the simplest sense of the word. Leitmotifs will not be discussed. Cells are -for the most- motivic in nature but usually within a much larger texture. Thus, we will not be looking at cellular development UNLESS the associated cellular texture is contrapuntal in nature. 

Texture is a generic term that can be applied to the vertical and horizontal construction of any given musical line. We tend to view texture more in terms of the vertical scaffolding in multi-voice works (orchestral, chamber, choral, etc.) However, we can also look at texture in horizontal terms in looking at the combination of contours seen within different contrapuntal voices. A good example of this type of texture can be seen in Beethoven's Grosses Fugue where jagged contrapuntal lines are juxtaposed with other types of counterpoint.  We will go more into this topic later.

Perceived (Implied) Harmony is the development of a proxy harmonic center where such center does not obviously exist. Within my usage of modern counterpoint this is an essential aspect of the craft. This can be achieved thru individual 'cadential' passages or the centering of contrapuntal material on a specific pitch. We will go more into detail on this topic and will also develop material that fulfils this. 

Form is the last of terms that will crop up from time to time within this masterclass. Contrary to popular belief, modern music is heavily reliant on form. From the construction of a serial row to the structuring of large-scale works, form dominates every aspect of our craft. It's important to understand this intense intimate relationship within music. Modern counterpoint should be rich in formalism -no note should be made without some thought put into its place within the overall structure of the passage or piece. While there are no rules, the closest thing we have to a rule is form. 

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This concludes the first part of this masterclass. These classes will be updated weekly with new material. For the next class, I'd like students to compose a short melody of any type. Try to keep the themes no more than eight bars in length. At this time, we're not going to look at harmony or harmonic progression -so you are encouraged to venture out of the box! You may attach your material to this post. I'll review the entries and select three examples to utilize within the next class.

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Hi, thanks for this. I think we should involved more in this classes. Many people has something to teach or show.

Regarding this subject, I'm really interested. When I write some kind of non tonal counterpoint, I do it by intuition. To an extent, I can control if the result is more or less consonant / dissonant, which sometimes is not the most important. So, it'll be good to see your point of view. The same happens with contemporary forms, because there are more than adapted classic forms.

Luis.

 

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7 minutes ago, Luis Hernández said:

Hi, thanks for this. I think we should involved more in this classes. Many people has something to teach or show.

Regarding this subject, I'm really interested. When I write some kind of non tonal counterpoint, I do it by intuition. To an extent, I can control if the result is more or less consonant / dissonant, which sometimes is not the most important. So, it'll be good to see your point of view. The same happens with contemporary forms, because there are more than adapted classic forms.

Luis.

 

 

This is very true. A lot of your contemporary forms are just individual takes on binary form. However, form doesn't just definte the overall larger structure of a work. You also have microformal structures (melody, etc.). While many don't consider these formal in nature, many composers do imbue a formal structure to them. Mozart, for instance, often setup his melodies with novel means of defining the range of the melody and material itself within the first few beats of his melodies. This would be considered formal in nature. 

Be sure to submit your theme for review.

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On 1/2/2023 at 7:46 AM, Luis Hernández said:

OK, I understand we can upload the melodies now... Only a melody, no other lines ?

 

If you want to upload a few motifs, that will work. Only the motif. You'll be using those for everything! 😛

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4 hours ago, Thatguy v2.0 said:

Is there a requirement on style or language preference? Is this something that you feel like you could cater to no matter the style preferred by the composer? 

I just want to be a good student, I must get an A

 

There really isn't any prereq. Most of the techniques can be used for more tonal musical aesthetics. 

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Ok, here it is.

Captura de Pantalla 2023-01-04 a las 15.10.05.jpg

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This is a great example, Luis. 

So, let's break this apart and showcase what you did.....

First, your motif is C, Db, D, F# (m2, m2, M3 -intervalically). You sequence it a few times -adding passing tones for interest. The continuation plays on main motif but doesn't sound quite convincing -but this material could work as a countersubject in a fugal aspect given the close relation to the initial motif. I like this so far 😛

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So, that said...... let's start to look at the fundamentals of working with material!

You'll notice that I broke down Luis' motif into both note names and the intervalic relationship between those notes. This is important in that we can get a clearer understanding theoretically of the motivic contour. Thus, we can work out the inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion of material.

Inversion: inverts the material on a given axis. m2 up becomes m2 down thus: C, Db, D, F# becomes C, B, Bb, Gb

Retrograde: mirrors the material (i.e. plays it backward). Thus... C,Db,D, F# becomes F#, D, Db, C

Retrograde Inversion: inverts the material on a given axis and mirrors the material. Thus, we get Gb, Bb, B, C.

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These three means are extremely basic developmental tools that -surprisingly- have become ingrained into most modern aesthetics. With the exception of Retrograde Inversion, listeners can discern the first 2 techniques audibly. Retrograde Inversion, on the other hand, is difficult for a listener to pick up on. With the additional step of mirroring the inverted material, the contour becomes harder to notice. 

With the intervals, we can do what Luis here did an progress this motif up thru the chromatic scale. You'll notice in doing this that the material remains remarkably consistent throughout. Meaning that you can still pickup the motif throughout each sequence. This is where the intervallic relationship comes into play. By offsetting one of the intervals, you can make a minute change to the contour that will add more color and variety to the material. Thus, we can take m2, m2, M3 and variate it to m2, m3, M3 or m3,m2,M3 or m2, m3, P4, etc. Or... you can keep the original contour and use what is called octave displacement to bring out a certain pitch to a higher octave -which brings more attention to that tone. 

What is key here is that you variate the material enough to maintain the overall quality of the motif while at the same time providing more color and interest to it. This is where the composer must have a good inner ear and imagination. 

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What I'd like to see next is some examples showcasing the techniques mentioned above. Let's stick to one motif. Present it in the 3 forms mentioned above (inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion). Also, let's see some intervallic manipulation and octave displacement examples. 

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On 1/12/2023 at 8:13 AM, Luis Hernández said:

perhaps I make a break (from the schemata and that stuff) and try to work on a counterpoint with this material

this is how I figured it out

 

4 MODE.jpg

 

This is very interesting. Now that I see how you worked it out -the second half makes more sense theoretically. 

That said -I've been busy working on a submission so I haven't got this weeks installment set up yet. I'll be a day or two late!!!

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9 hours ago, Luis Hernández said:

OK, I took you at your word. 

I worked on that motif. This is a little development with the initial exposition, and two contrasting parts. Several textures and basic techniques (inversion, retrogadation, etc....). All based on Messiaen's 4th mode.

That's a real great usage of the motive even I don't chew on every usage of it, and the sound is nice. I don't know much about Messiaen's modes. Can you explain more on that?

Henry

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8 hours ago, Henry Ng Tsz Kiu said:

That's a real great usage of the motive even I don't chew on every usage of it, and the sound is nice. I don't know much about Messiaen's modes. Can you explain more on that?

Henry

 

The Universe Messiaen is very big. 

He described several sacale-modes using repetition of interval groups (symmetry). The modes can be transposed chromatically a limited number of times, because the procedure reaches a point where the scale repeats itself enharmonically.

The 4th mode has this pattern ST - ST - ST+T - ST - ST - ST - ST+T

It is octatonic

2136677143_Capturadepantalla2023-01-17alas10_17_51.thumb.jpg.e94db91b7d6bb9a0e92271e23d756dc9.jpg

That is: C - Db - D - F - F# - G - Ab - B

You can transpose this mode starting on Db, D, Eb, E and F. So, 6 transpositions (counting on C)

Because starting on F# it is enharmonic:  F# - G - Ab - B - C - Db - D

You can use it harmonically, melodically, polyphonically.... You can make chords that resemble tonal functionality or use it as a mode without tonal center...

The transformations you can do with Messiaen modes are endless. 

He described 7 modes of limited transposition.

Edited by Luis Hernández
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5 hours ago, Luis Hernández said:

The Universe Messiaen is very big. 

He described several sacale-modes using repetition of interval groups (symmetry). The modes can be transposed chromatically a limited number of times, because the procedure reaches a point where the scale repeats itself enharmonically.

The 4th mode has this pattern ST - ST - ST+T - ST - ST - ST - ST+T

It is octatonic

2136677143_Capturadepantalla2023-01-17alas10_17_51.thumb.jpg.e94db91b7d6bb9a0e92271e23d756dc9.jpg

That is: C - Db - D - F - F# - G - Ab - B

You can transpose this mode starting on Db, D, Eb, E and F. So, 6 transpositions (counting on C)

Because starting on F# it is enharmonic:  F# - G - Ab - B - C - Db - D

You can use it harmonically, melodically, polyphonically.... You can make chords that resemble tonal functionality or use it as a mode without tonal center...

The transformations you can do with Messiaen modes are endless. 

He described 7 modes of limited transposition.

Thank you Luis! I know that Messiaen has some Indian influence but I never get deeply in his music except prehaps the Quartet of the End Time. I will find more about his mode later!

Henry

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Sorry guys (and gals and non-binaric peeps)!!! I've been very busy of late with work and composition.

That said.......

Messiaen is a very good route of study in many of his works. That is a good jumping point into synthetic and non-tonal scales and scale construction. I like to think of these two things as being mutually exclusive to the harmonic arena -as they tend to generate a different sense of tonal structures alongside a myriad of harmonic processes inherent to both. 

However, as this thread is about counterpoint, it's a bit out of the scope of the conversation. Perhaps that is something we can address in another thread?

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Attached to this post is an example of 4 different means you can take motivic cells and develop them to generate contrapuntal material. I've used the material that Luis provided as an example.

A: In the first example, we take the 4 note cell and break it up. Add diminution (shortening note values) to generate the left hand material. The remainder of the motif then becomes material we can develop with the right hand. 

B. In this example we take the motif in retrograde (with some adjustment to the note values) and juxtapose it against the original motif. 

C. In this example we transform segments of the motif into suspended counterpoint in the right hand. The left hand takes a segment of the motif and sequences it.

D. In this example, we take the triplet pattern and expand it into a scalar passage based on the intervalic sequences found in the original motif. The left hand takes segments of the motif and imitates a broken sequence using them. 

 

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2 hours ago, Luis Hernández said:

That's quite interesting. But should this motif development be prt of a bigger pattern or form? I mean, relying on the motif could lead to aa poor phrasing ¿?

 

That depends on how you intend to use the motif and whether or not you incorporate other motivic units or cells within a piece. If you -let’s exemplify- decide to only use 1 idea for an entire piece, then you have to use that idea in contrast with itself. This type of example requires creativity to some degree.

This is where texture, rhythm, timbre, color, articulation, and tempo all can be used to transform your motif into a sense of contrast. 
 

Form and micro formal structures are indeed important regardless of structure. Regardless of whether you’re composing spectral music, high serialism, postminimalistic works, or period pieces…. There has to be an underlying means of going from point A to point B. We can delve into this in more detail as it relates to contrapuntal textures. I will state though that these types of textures within a modern syntax are a tad more nuanced in comparison to those of baroque or classical styles (where you had to incorporate more defined period structures with formulaic cadential punctuations that indicated the endings of phrases and sections). As most modern aesthetics lack a reliance on functional harmonic relationships, other means can be used to indicate phrase and sectional endings. However, as the repertoire exhibits…. Sometimes there’s nothing there audibly to signify these endings. 

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Another attempt using that material.I took two intervals as the base: the 4th/augm. 4th and the third. Only two instruments to practice the counterpoint better.I e interested in writing some melodic lines cross some bars, not making "cages" only. 

 

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Luis,

I think you got the hang of it quickly. It really is a simple idea. I had two composition teachers over the course of 10 years. Both were separated by a good 300 miles, yet... they both gave me the same advice: consider all of the possibilities within your material. I think you're invention exhibits this in that you've incorporated a good deal of contrapuntal material derived from your initial motif. Good job! 

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I also want to say I apologize for the lack of regular posting here. I have a busy life -but, I'll be posting more to this masterclass on Friday. If anyone else wants to share their counterpoint practice here -feel free!

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