Moonlight Beach Chaconne

Moonlight Beach Chaconne — or The Beach Boys, J.S. Bach and Stevie Wonder take a trip to Nigeria, where they encounter the ghost of Richard Wagner impersonating a Shaman

— Violin Solo, with Alto Saxophone, Vocalists SATB & live electronics —

Score and Parts available from Voice House Publishing

Moonlight Beach Chaconne was composed for Felix Olschofka

Program Note:

Moonlight Beach Chaconne — or The Beach Boys, J.S. Bach and Stevie Wonder take a trip to Nigeria, where they encounter the ghost of Richard Wagner impersonating a Shaman (Premier May 31, 2009) This work began with the request form SWARMIUS violinist Felix Olschofka to create a work for violin and electronics based on the famous Bach Chaconne for solo violin, from the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. I struggled with this idea for half a year, unsure how to reference this masterpiece at all without trivializing it, disrespecting Bach, and by comparison exposing my gaping shortcomings as a composer. No better way to point out one’s weaknesses than to put oneself next to one of the greatest composers of all time!! So the project terrified me, brought out my worst paranoia and left me frozen for months!

Regarding the palette of styles that can be found in the Moonlight Beach Chaconne, about 15% is derived from Bach’s original chaconne and the rest from a blend of voices, some of whom are referenced in the subtitle.

The overall form is strophic, in line with my preference for clear-cut structures that connect in some way to the musical forms of American vernacular song. In this work the standard strophic sections of Chorus [C], Verse [V] and Bridge [B] are expanded in duration to encompass a higher level of periodic, hierarchical quanta than would be normal in pop music. The number and order of sections is typical: the formal scheme is [C]1 – [V]1 – [V]2 – [C]2 – [B] – [V]3, with short interludes and continuous development. However, the slow tempo (60 bpm) and expanded hierarchy of the sections results in a work of over 10 minutes. Where is the original Chaconne in all this? The melodies are all mine except in the Bridge [B] section, which I refer to as the “Night Music” section, a tribute to Bartok’s nocturnal invocations (cf Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste) — but in this case inspired more directly by the nightly chorus of frogs that sing from February to late July in the hidden creek behind my San Diego home. The strains of the original Chaconne can be heard here, broken up into segments, as elements of nature, competing with and poking through a nocturnal soundscape of idealized frog chirps, bird calls and cell phone blips. This treatment arises from my regard for Bach’s music in general as part of the cultural ambiance that continuously engulfs and defines us, woven inextricably into the tapestry of our vernacular music, together with a myriad of other sounds and associations (from dogs barking to the beeping of horns and the ooophm! emitted by the sub-woofers in the hip-hop-blasting car rushing by).

Investigating further, Bach also provides the harmonic underpinnings of the Verse [V] sections of this work. The [V] sections comprise a 32 bar area from the Chaconne, in which Bach simply writes a series of triple and quadruple stops, with the indication to arpeggiate. By experimentation for several centuries violinists have collectively developed various 32nd note patterns to negotiate these multi-stops.

Bach’s Chaconne derives its entire 13 minutes from a repeated 4 measure harmonic progression, that Bach ingeniously and continuously elaborates into larger hierarchies. The 32 bar multiple-stop section that I reference in his composition, which occurs about midway through Bach’s work, is comprised of eight such four-bar phrases, and reaches its own climax and sense of culmination, before sliding into the next section.

I also chose the long periodicity of this 32 bar section because of its’ occurrence in Brazilian samba that features this unusual and characteristic period length. The 32 bar period length of Brazilian samba does something profound to our sense of time. It stimulates an overarching sense of deep integration.

Having determined the specific 32 bar section, I initiated a transformation by adding an additional melodic voice where necessary to create a consistent 4 voice texture throughout the 32 bar segment (most of Bach’s chords are triple stops). In the process harmonies are suggested that in a few places push the harmonic style ahead by a century, with subtle echoes of Chopin.

An investigation into the rhythmic structure that supports these melodies reveals a clear reference to African music in my composition, which in turn connects my music to this overwhelmingly powerful aspect of contemporary American culture.

The rhythmic construction of the beats has its genesis in Nigerian timeline rhythms. These form the basis of complex polyrhythmic textures that have been evolving since the Neolithic in Africa and were brought to the American continents when West-Africans were forcibly brought to the new world. These polyrhythms gradually evolved into the many derivative “beats” which propel nearly all contemporary North and South American genres (Rock, hip-hop, salsa, samba, Reggae, punk, Metal, Soul, Funk, electronica, disco etc.).

In this composition I employ the so-called 6/8 short bell. This rhythm consists of a repeated two measure, 12 beat phrase of 6/8, arranged as four main beats, two per measure, with three subdivisions each, (i.e. characteristic European 6/8 time). In the Nigerian short bell, the first measure is mostly on the beat and the second is mostly off the beat. (This is not characteristic of the versions of 6/8 one would normally find in European common practice classical music.) The resulting “basic” structure is deeply and intrinsically syncopated and this is just the most basic layer in the African music that builds upon it.

However, the original chaconne is in 3/4 time, meaning 3 beats/measure (often subdivided in Bach’s Chaconne into running 16th notes ) and very slow base tempo (about 60 beats /minute). The question that rises is how three groups of four 16th notes (3/4) in Bach would interface with four groups of three 8th notes (2 measures of 6/8) in the Nigerian short bell.

The answer was provided by the very slow tempo (60 bpm) together with the historically standardized arpeggiation of the 32-measure phrase into running 32nd notes. There are eight 32nd notes per quarter note. This means that each measure of 3/4 contains twenty-four 32nd notes (3 x 8 = 24). So twenty-four 32nd notes per measure.

Because of the very slow tempo the eighth notes of the 6/8 short bell (6 per measure) were converted into 32nd notes (thus 6/8 would become 6/32 which means six 32nd notes per measure of 6/32). I then converted the two-measure phrase to 6/32, which resulted in twelve 32nd notes per phrase. Since the slow tempo allowed and at the same time demanded this type of sub-divisions, I put two sequences of the 6/8 short bells (converted into 6/32) into each measure of 3/4. By putting two of these into a measure of 3/4, the result was twenty-four 32nd notes per measure. The goal of this math challenge was to achieve unity within the composition.

However, the result would be that each two-measure cycle of 6/32 short bell would occupy 1.5 beats of 3/4. This interpolation would create another level of syncopation, and this level of syncopation was approaching the type of polyrhythms that have evolved through centuries of experimentation in Africa! With this final rhythmic design of the composition I was able to make the connection between Bach and Africa in a natural manner.

The underlining spinning formal rhythmic structure is in place and connected to the four-part voice structure of the 32 bar section of the Chaconne in the following way: The newly derived short bell variant is applied to the voices of each four-part chord, thus spreading the voices out in time, in fact becoming a rhythmic, pointalistic structure. The four-voice chords move at a rate of one per beat, which equals four pitches per beat, and three beats per measure, so 12 different pitches per measure. Occasionally, however, they break out into lines of running parallel eighth notes in two voices, which would add an extra two pitches per beat, across three beats per measure. This would mean a possible extra six pitches per measure, for a grand total of 18 possible distinct pitches per measure, spread out across the four voices of each chord. Further, each beat might require a maximum of six pitches, according to the formula above. Since the rhythmic derivations described above produce 24 beats per measure it creates a mathematical problem: the 6/32 patterns (formerly 6/8) are comprised of silent beats (also known as rests) as well as sounding beats. The first pattern of the two-pattern unit has four “sounding” beats and two rests, the second pattern has three of each. So each two bar unit has a total of only seven sounding pitches (four + three = seven). There are two of these units per measure, but that makes a grand total of only 14 sounding rhythmic units per measure. And never more than four per beat of 3/4. (However, the chord sequences require up to 18 sounding units per measure, and up to 6 per beat.)

The solution was to apply the derived short bell rhythm to only the lowest two voices of each four-voice chord. (This would halve the required number of sounding units.) Another rhythm pattern was then derived by employing a reversed-order version of the two measure 6/32 short-bell pattern, which was then used for the two upper voices of each chord. The result was a total of 28 sounding rhythmic units per measure (14 + 14 = 28), and therefore 28 possible pitches per measure, and consequently 8 pitches per beat of 3/4 time. This also created another interlocking pattern of syncopation in which the upper two voices would tend to happen on the rests of the lower patterns, and vice versa.

I then incorporated another hierarchical layer to the four-voice structure, namely to have two “members” of the lowest voice per measure, at specific, consistent rhythmic positions, played an octave lower, and to have two of the corresponding voices in the highest voice (and opposite rhythm) played an octave higher. The reasoning for adding another layer is that contemporary musical derivations of the African/European diaspora tend to delineate hierarchies with strongly accented bass lines used, for instance, in electric bass guitar parts. Next Icarefully wove this complicated formula into the chords (formerly triple & quadruple stops) from the 32 bars in the middle of Bach’s Chaconne.

What has been described so far above is the formal rhythmic structure of the Verse [V] section and its incorporation into the melodic lines of the violin part.

Two other important aspects of the Bridge [B] section can be described as follows: The beginning of the [B] section begins with short bell sounds in the electronic part interacting with single separate sounding pitches in the solo violin part. At moments, melodic fragments of the original chaconne ring through the texture. For the purpose of having a true interaction between electronics and solo violin, I decided to create an interactive electronic version. This interactive version allows the violinist to take liberty of creating musical phrasing in a very personal manner. Pushing the music forward in one, stretching it in another direction, creating focal points or simply emphasizing cadences at the end of phrases is literally in the hand of the performer. The interactive version also requires another performer on the laptop to push the right key at the right moment. Each key of the laptop keyboard is associated with a certain sound event that happens in the musical score. The laptop performer has the freedom to decide when a pre-record event occurs according to his personal, musical interpretation and in interaction with the violinist. Coming out of the beginning of the [B] section the electronic part fades out more and more and leaves the violin alone. The [B] section now turns into a virtuosic cadenza for the solo violin. The complicated rhythmic formula remains continuously applied to the following melodic lines. The fact, that the violin part stands absolutely independent from the electronics, provides liberty for the violinist to again implement personal intentions and interpretations into the violin part such as appropriate accelerandi, riterdani and other types of rubati.

The material that opens the work, identified as the Chorus [C] section, comprises bel canto singing and expansive legato melodies in the violin part, tapping in particular the full potential of the higher register of the violin.

In the Verse [V] section, associations of rain drop like bells and a melancholy humming choir in the underpinning electronic part shimmer through the long-woven violin part.

Syncopations in the violin part emphasize two important roles of moving the melodic lines forward and also interlocking and bonding with the electronics.

Joseph Martin Waters, November 18, 2009


SWARMIUS comprises SAXIMUS (Saxophones), Fiddlus (Violin), Crotalius Redfoot (Percussion), and Jozefius Vattierz Rattus (Electro-Acoustic Composer/Laptop performer). The quartet is committed to expanding the avant-garde classical literature to encompass a New Relevance. The New Relevance demands works that are non-elitist, rigorous, and multi-level: works that are simultaneously accessible and challenging. To this end, SWARMIUS combines traditional virtuosity with a search for new timbres, performance practices, and 21st century cross-cultural aesthetic reflection. It challenges timeworn, outmoded norms for the uses of classical music, the means by which it is presented, and the venues in which it is experienced. SWARM unites performers, composer, and choreographer, focuses them on a common goal, and puts them onstage together. SWARMIUS is in residence at the School of Music and Dance at San Diego State University, home for 17 years of the maverick genius Harry Partch Ensemble. SWARMIUS strives to emulate Partch’s uncompromising aesthetic values.

© 2006 Joseph Waters
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