Melody as Organism

An effective melody is like a living organism.  It develops through stages, each stage growing organically out of earlier stages.  Our minds (at least our subconscious minds, and in some cases our conscious minds as well) perceive this development and delight in it.

My Nocturne for Woodwind Quartet dates from 1986, but the original version was never performed.  I revised it in 2016, and this recording of the new version was made in December of that year.

The first appearance of the main melody begins in the clarinet on the fourth beat of bar 6.  Its first few bars are shown in the diagram below.  The melody is notated here in C major, but because it is played on a B-flat instrument, it is heard in B-flat major.

To describe in words exactly how the melody develops would be rather tedious, but I think the diagram makes it clear.

  • Unit b clearly grows out of unit a; they begin and end with similar shapes, but the middle of unit b is expanded to include an additional note.
  • The following unit c also derives from unit a, but now the middle is omitted, and the beginning and ending pieces are joined together. This contracted form brings about a sense of forward acceleration in the melody.
  • Unit d derives from unit c, with the ending embellished by the triplets.
  • Units e1 and e2 are both embellished forms of unit c, and the two are joined together to produce a longer phrase.

It all sounds a bit complicated, but human beings are naturally endowed with acute powers of pattern recognition, which enables us to to perceive this continuing development effortlessly as we hear it.  That, in my opinion, is why music brings us pleasure.

About six months after the above nocturne was recorded, I was commissioned to write another nocturne, which became my Nocturne No.2 for Piano (2017).  In that work the idea of a melody as a living organism became more explicit.  The new nocturne was written in honor of two pianists who were fighting cancer, and it was intended to capture the wonder and beauty of life, in the hope that the two honorees would embrace life passionately and vigorously.  Appropriately, the work was subtitled Passionate Melody of Life.  Within the piece, the “melody of life” goes through multiple iterations, but with an overlap between the finish of each iteration and the start of its successor.  As a consequence, each iteration seems to grow out of its predecessor, in much the same way that life itself propagates across generations.  In a future post to this blog, I plan to explain in more detail how that overlap works, but meanwhile you can enjoy the work and follow along with the score in this video.

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