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Friday, March 5, 2010

Musical Palindromes

I just finished a new work for flute, Bb clarinet (doubling on bass Cl.), piano, violin, cello, and percussion. It's a pretty big piece - in three movements and lasting over 15 minutes in duration.

The first movement exploits a musical technique that I've always wanted to experiment with, but never got around to. It plays with palindromes. I've titled this movement Immagine Speculare.

While the musical flow of Immagine Speculare tosses around large phrases of its' thematic material within its' multi-dimensional mirror-image layered texture, the music on the surface progresses in a continuous and transparent way that should appear to the listener as logically constructed and naturally derived. It's also a fast and furious work that demands a lot of physical and mental energy, not to mention calorie expenditure on the part of hard-working performers.

But I'm certainly not creating anything original by using this technique, since musical palindrome has been around for a long time. It goes back to at least the "crab canon" where one voice is reversed in time and pitch from the second voice (Crabs walk backward).

Haydn's Symphony #47 has a minuet and trio in musical palindrome.

Mozart's Scherzo-Duetto plays this game too.

One of my favorite musical palindromes is from Alban Berg's opera Lulu. He was influenced by the technical possibilities that were emerging in the avant-garde silent film industry at the time. His opera used palindrome on the level of drama and within the structure of the music. In my view, the interlude contains some of the best music in the opera.

Béla Bartók too was very fond of "arch form" which allows the composer to frame the structure of a movement (or the larger work) according to a palindromic pathway of musical association. For example: A B C D C' B' A'.

Anton Webern is another shinning example of someone who liked this structure. Webern is one of my musical heroes, but his music at present seems to virtually ignored by the reigning musical establishment. Yet he never met a palindrome that he didn't like. You could say that Webern was symmetry obsessed - choosing symmetry to organize every structure imaginable in the time and pitch domains of his musical works (both vertically and horizontally). His beautiful Symphonie Op. 21 (second movement) has a cool palindrome right near the beginning.

Igor Stravinsky's rendition of Edward Leer's famous nonsense poem, The Owl and the Pussy Cat is another good example of palindrome. The composer scored it for boy soprano and piano in 1966 when he was 84 years old, and it turned out to be his final original composition. The music uses the 12-tone technique, yet it is tuneful enough for a child to sing (with some practice). And of course The Owl and the Pussy Cat music utilizes palindromic structure.

And then there is the famous example of Der Mondfleck, the 18th movement of Arnold Schönberg's history changing Pierrot Lunaire op. 21. After the piano introduction, the music is palindromic. Here is a spirited performance of Der Mondfleck conducted by Pieter van der Wulp with Ensemble 88 in Holland. The soprano is Bauwien van der Meer. Enjoy...