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I am continuing my reading of Vincent Persichetti’s Twentieth Century Harmony, attempting to understand some of the more florid passages.  As a technical instruction book for a composer I believe it remains unsurpassed, even though it can take several readings for the ideas to filter through.  Thankfully it comes with a large selection of exercises, some of which are easier than others, but every single one of which is useful.  In doing them it also means that at least I end up doing some writing, and you never know where a “passage for solo harp illustrating modal interchange” or a “slow and melancholy vocalise for baritone employing only bright modes” might lead.  I am tackling technical challenges I might otherwise have avoided, and believe firmly that my compositional facility and harmonic language can only be improved as a result.

I also refer to Musical Composition by Reginald Smith Brindle, an altogether lighter and more easily readable book, and one which tends to focus a little more on the melodic aspects of writing, even though it does deal with harmony as well.  It is some way indeed from the dry written style of the same author’s Serial Composition, which is anything but a barrel of laughs, even if vital reading.

I have done my time as a professor of harmony and counterpoint, now called “techniques” for fear of scaring off students, and think that my grasp of traditional harmony is fairly secure.  As somebody who has learned by example, however, rather than through instruction, I know that I need to focus very intently on areas in which I know myself to be lacking, take the initiative.  On the other side of the coin is my personal belief that a composer should, by definition, be interested in how music works, how form articulates and how intervals interact.

Actually, now I write that sentence, it might be more pertinent to say that I cannot believe that many composers are not interested in how music works, relying on feel or whatever else they might like to call it.  Heavens, if rigorous academic study was good enough for Beethoven (with Albrechtsberger) then it is certainly good enough for the rest of us, and, in this post-tonal world, some knowledge of interval harmony and tension is critical in order to write effective music.  After that it is about voice and feel, but not before.

I played a lunchtime recital in Milton Keynes yesterday with Colin and Rachel, the two singers I accompanied on a couple of occasions last year.  We were at the church on the OU campus, a strange juxtaposition of the old and the modern, but were warmly looked after and well received.  I love playing, make no mistake, especially when it involves working with musicians of Colin and Rachel’s calibre, but those Persichetti exercises were in my head all morning and for the rest of the day, and, while I wait for the next commission and tinker with competition entries, will be where my focus lies.

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