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[Note, 2018: As with all compositions created as part of my university work, On Horror was submitted with a commentary alongside. In this case, my commentary was very extensive! I have reproduced it here in full for two reasons: to give some context to the original composition, as well as revealing what are my mostly unchanged views on the nature of composition. Please enjoy!]

1. Preface – Premise

This portfolio consists of four works, all revolving around a theme of ‘horror’. As I began work on the portfolio, I had become fascinated by art defined as ‘horror’, particularly in the mediums of the novel and graphic novel. The works of author Stephen King and mangaka Junji Ito stood out to me as exemplary of the genre for the ways in which they created a sense of discomfort in the reader.

King’s Pet Sematary achieves this by establishing the safety and comfort of the familial unit before dissecting it as internal elements such as pets, children and eventually paternal instinct are transformed into grotesque versions of themselves. Ito’s Gyo makes the mundane monstrous as fish become highly-mobile, biomechanical, Giger-esque killing machines. Ito even makes spirals terrifying in Uzumaki as they warp people beyond recognition.

Both King and Ito therefore create discomfort by corrupting and distorting the familiar, whose familiarity is either established within the story or pre-established societally. It is this base concept that can be taken from literary horror and be applied to music, thus forming the unifying theme of this portfolio.

2. Form – Creating Expectation

Form is the predominant area in which music engages a listener’s expectations. This portfolio contains works utilising their own forms as well as those based on pre-existing, codified structures; most obviously, Gyo: Tokyo, on a macro level, follows the four-movement symphonic form, established in a currently recognisable state in the 18th century, whilst Kübler-Ross adheres to the less strictly codified but still recognisable Theme and Variations. The knowledge of these features cause a listener to make assumptions about the nature and content of the pieces, which can then be exploited.

Gyo: Okinawa follows no such pre-established form. After an introduction that gradually introduces and evolves the primary melodic material, it follows a repeating two-section form that establishes expectation in the listener, once again exploited. Clarity uses a similarly repetitive form but is less static due to being based on a process.

3. Gyo: Okinawa and Corruption

The underlying theme of Okinawa is the injection of a viral corruption into a stable system which slowly becomes warped even down to its base constituents. This idea of corruption became vital to the entire portfolio as a primary method to achieve the discomfort I was aiming for, but is best examined in this piece.

Okinawa’s opening sections are defined by a number of features: B Major harmony with primarily quintal and quartal chord voicings, a metre of 5 divided into 3+2 and pizzicato cello beneath arco violins and viola. Despite the slight tempo and textural change at Fig. B, these factors remain unchanged. Thus, any significant change in timbre, harmony or metre will be heard by the listener as invasive.

Upon the repeat of the A section at figure C, I do just this, inserting sul ponticello, sul tasto and tremolo effects, alongside occasional harmonic, melodic and metrical disruptions which intensify leading into D. The two-part repeating form here enables me to ‘reset’ at this point, repeating the B section with only minor variations that still adhere to the aforementioned features. I contemplated continuing the disruptions throughout this section, but I felt it was stronger for it to remain pure at this point as it leads the listener to question the importance of the earlier disruptions whilst making this B material seem like a safe bastion against the invasive disruptions.

The following repetition of the A section also brings back said disruptions which are predominantly identifiable as corruptions of pre-existing material; for instance, the melody is stretched out over a number of bars from 122-126 and the harmonic E in bar 130 is merely transposed up two octaves. Conversely, the sul ponticello tremolando, having been the first disruption to appear in bar 81, can now be identified as the primary invasive material as it now causes the entire system of the piece to judder. The two bars 135-6 are forced to repeat exactly, even down to their dynamics, through to bar 145, causing this piece’s momentum to be stopped in place.

The corruptions continue to intensify once more until figure G, wherein the B material, which previously appeared to be incorruptible, lasts merely two bars before beginning to succumb. At this point, the ascending cello figure that underpinned the entire movement becomes the primary subject of the corruption. The coda-like section from H onwards features it as almost the only material to appear alongside the sul ponticello tremolo glissandi, and in a now grotesque form, placed in extremely dissonant harmony and rhythmically stretched and compressed. The texture is changed, the metre of 5 now broken down and unsteady, and B Major completely abandoned: the corruption has won.

4. Clarity and Process

Clarity’s structure primarily follows a process wherein the guitar becomes louder and less distorted with each repetition of the primary theme, as the instruments around it continue to change and respond around it. Due to its constantly changing nature and clear and deliberate process, corruption such as that which appeared in Okinawa is not an effective tool for creating discomfort in the listener.

There are a number of solutions to this problem, the first and most obvious of which is to disrupt the process itself. Between the first two iterations of the primary theme at Figures A and B, there is only 16 bars of material, in which the theme is played through and then briefly deconstructed. After this return, in which the guitar is now louder and less distorted, the listener might expect another deconstruction, or at least another short passage before another repetition.

However, at this point I disturb the process by inserting an entirely new section. By employing a long section of looped polyrhythms at Figure C, I drag out a long period of tension that leaves the listener awaiting the next repetition of the main theme. They are constructed with the violin, clarinet and piano left hand in unison against the guitar and piano right hand. After a number of repetitions of a small fragment of music, the fragment is extended or contracted by a few semiquavers meaning that the polyrhythm is never allowed to settle.

These loops, originally inspired in concept by the use of loops in Bernhard Lang’s DW series, are also heavily influenced by the extensive use of polyrhythms by the band King Crimson in their 1981 album Discipline, which itself derives a lot of influence from Gamelan music. In particular, the title track itself I found exemplary in maintaining interest whilst using very small amounts of melodic material.

The second solution is to make the process lead somewhere unexpected. In Clarity, the central ‘process’ section is bookended by eerie material that it interrupts at A. This material, though based on the same primary melody as the ‘process’ section, is far sparser, with long, sustained notes being passed between instruments and low, slow, ominous chords. To further promote a sense of unnaturalness, I utilised the extreme ends of the instruments’ ranges, such as: the bottom of the clarinet range; both ends of the piano, including dense chords in the lower end; and the absolute top of the violin range, which I was only comfortable writing in after knowing that the player I was writing for was very highly skilled.

The return of this texture at Figure J, especially placed after a return of the disruptive polyrhythm loops at Figure I, calls into question the entire process of searching for clarity. Worse, with the main theme now appearing in a more recognisable version but being played by all the instruments in completely different rhythms to one another, it seems even more confused than the beginning. This ending, which at first glance suggests a neatly closed form, is intended to leave the listener questioning the entire thing.

5. Kübler-Ross and Invasiveness

Kübler-Ross’s theme and variation form is based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous psychological model, otherwise known as the 5 stages of grief, with each variation on the theme being based upon one of the individual stages. This decision came from a recent fascination with the video game music of Toby Fox (Undertale) and Shinji Hosoe (Zero Escape series) wherein a number of themes are recontextualised to serve different purposes in a Leitmotif-like fashion.

However, I wished to develop the idea further, thus I introduced an invasive voice in the form of the electric guitar, which functions as the ‘Voice in your Head’, interfering with the current mood. Firstly, however, I had to define my six variations:

  • Theme: A simple and easily identifiable, chant-like melody against a sparse background, representing the object of one’s grief

  • Denial: A naïve, romantic nocturne-esque arrangement in the leading-note major which shares its third degree with the tonic minor, using some of Shinji Hosoe’s arrangements for Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma as a model

  • Anger: A much faster, dense, dissonant, octatonic-based arrangement using Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Movement 3 as an initial model

  • Bargaining: A call and response-like arrangement between two stylistically, harmonically and rhythmically disparate voices

  • Depression: A very slow, sparse octatonic arrangement with metrical obfuscation through the use of ties over barlines

  • Acceptance: A solemn arrangement, returned to the tonic harmonic minor whilst also resolving the octatonic material

Creating an effective invasive voice proved to be the most intrinsic part to making this piece successful, however. Whilst the theme of the piece is not directly horror, the ways in which the invasive voice are implemented share many characteristics with the corruption in Okinawa. The use of septuplets in the theme section to make the guitar appear metrically-disparate from the otherwise regular quaver beat of the piano works strongly alongside the octatonic melody, fortissimo dynamic marking and use of distortion to make its sudden appearance a shock.

Likewise, the tuplets throughout Denial perform a similar job, and this section more obviously reveals the direct impact the guitar has upon the piano in bars 39-47, as the piano responds instantly. As soon as the guitar begins playing, the rhythm of the otherwise consistent semiquavers falters and the piano begins adopting short snippets of the octatonic melody and generally playing ‘wrong’ notes.

For anger, I wished to make the guitar complement the piano yet still stand apart from it, hence, the stereotypically metal-like chords played as triplets or 5:6 tuplets. It begins to foreshadow the next section, Bargaining, and return to its antagonistic state by becoming switch-like at bar 97, an effective technique used by Ben Oliver in his composition Zeros & Ones and that constituted one of the deconstructions in the variations in Clarity. It thus made sense to use the guitar as the second voice in the ‘call and response-like’ Bargaining section though it also continues to interrupt the piano with tuplet figures.

Finally, for Acceptance, the guitar truly complements the piano in every way: rhythmically, harmonically and dynamically. Indeed, the four bars 188-191 which constitute a ‘B’ section in this small-scale ternary form are reharmonisations of the original guitar octatonic melody into F Major, the relative major of the home key, A minor.

Ending the piece proved difficult, and I had numerous ideas including ending it simply with an A minor chord, however this felt unsatisfactory. I eventually decided on a coda that repeated the main theme, this time in A Minor Harmonic rather than A Aeolian and with the guitar harmonising the piano. However, in a final twist, the disruptive octatonic melody returns at the very end, reflecting the way that invasive thoughts often have a way of remaining in one’s mind long after a resolution has seemingly been reached.

6. Gyo: Tokyo and Post-Corruption

Gyo: Tokyo, much like its companion piece Okinawa, is based on the manga Gyo by Junji Ito. Whilst the source material for Okinawa, the first few chapters of the manga set on the eponymous island, introduces the threat which slowly takes over as the corruption does in my piece, the rest of the novel, set in Tokyo, quickly establishes the threat before placing the protagonist within this newly hostile world.

Thus, the very opening bars of Tokyo are also intended to establish the corruption without much ceremony: the opening phrase, a variation in 7 of the violin gestures at the beginning of Okinawa, lead to an E5 chord, then a G#dim7 chord, an obvious indicator of unrest. This is followed by the primary melody of the entire suite, at bar 7, designed to be as non-tonal as possible with the inclusion of multiple consecutive minor seconds. Presented here in near-parallel diminished harmony, it was previously hinted at in bars 149-56 of Okinawa.

The issue with writing a piece where corruption is the norm is that the ability to induce discomfort through techniques such as those in Okinawa is much reduced and alternatives must be found. Modelling this after a symphonic form proved an excellent solution because of how codified the form is and how one can thus disturb it. This does, however, raise its own difficulties where, due to the nature of a cyclical four movement work, each piece must have its own form and narrative whilst further contributing to the overall narrative of the work. Thankfully, Ito’s manga provides a narrative framework that works quite effectively in four movements:

  • I: The protagonist begins to become aware that the threat he encountered Okinawa is now in Tokyo, and in the midst of the carnage begins to delude himself that he might be able to, at some point, return to how life was before the threat

  • II: The protagonist encounters a scientist who was involved in unleashing the threat upon Japan, who laments and testifies about the events that led to the situation, all the while keeping darker secrets that further escalate the situation

  • III: The protagonist leaves and encounters a prominent example of the blight now facing Japan; a grotesque circus where the threat itself is both in control and glorified, which the protagonist barely escapes from

  • IV: The protagonist finds himself in a now post-apocalyptic world where the threat is now in complete control, both socially and militaristically; the protagonist encounters a band of freedom fighters who are driven to resist but whose attempts are, in reality, futile, and the protagonist finally accepts the new world he is forced to exist in

The three-part form of the first movement works incredibly well for the delusional mind-set of the protagonist; as the repeating semiquaver figure crescendos from ominous at Figure C to a raucous, frantic climax by Figure E, the music retreats back to the opening figure, the only point of solace within the movement, before entering a whimsically tonal passage at F that nevertheless naively uses the primary melody as its own. Beyond the harmonic change, the metrical change from an uneven and subdivided beat of 7 to a rounded beat of 12 exacerbates the contrast. This central section provides the further benefit of making the grotesque music it is surrounded by sound even more grotesque by contrast, whilst also having its own eeriness due to its placement within the structure.

As the delusion breaks down, the music begins to unevenly snap back and forth between numerous moments from the movement before eventually returning back to the ominous texture in which the main melody was previously introduced. The semiquaver figure, representing the immediate danger, emerges through once more, and is played homophonically by all the strings at J, becoming even more raucous as the main theme is played at closer and closer dissonances through K, reaching a minor 2nd distance between the violins and a major 7th distance between the celli and basses at bar 129. Here, the ending, where the figure gradually breaks apart whilst quietening, represents a temporary reprieve.

In keeping with the symphonic form, the second movement is a slow movement which was surprisingly difficult to write. Keeping the form focused whilst also maintaining the atmosphere and harmonic language was difficult but aided greatly by continuing to return to the opening figure in the lower strings. I felt what suited it best was the repetitive, variation based structure not unlike that of Clarity, but with the overall process being one of increasing intensity. The short semiquaver figures that appear throughout continually threaten to return to the semiquaver figure of the first movement but only do so right at the end, but now in 12 rather than 7. The movement abruptly cuts off at the climax, where the harmony reaches a spread-out cluster chord (F#, G#, B, F and A), as the third movement becomes the resolution of the climax.

The third movement, the most literal representation of the source material in the suite, is itself a corrupted, psychedelic waltz reminiscent of the grotesque circus in the manga. The opening chord itself is constructed from a diminished 7th chord above an augmented triad, which share only the single note C#.

The structure itself follows the Waltz and Trio form of a typical third movement. Throughout, however, there are many of the corruption techniques used in Okinawa but here the movement starts in an already corrupted state. The instantaneous metrical, dynamic and timbral shifts that occur throughout continue to get more and more severe, gaining only a slight reprieve at the end of the Trio at Figure Z like a ray of hope. Nevertheless, the corruption returns as soon as the waltz returns at Figure AA, and the movement becomes so disrupted that it begins to fall apart after Figure CC. For this section to the end I used a number generator to further help me randomize the durations of notes as the waltz falls apart.

The fourth movement then emerges, utilising a march rhythm within a rondo-like form. The sections separating the chromatically ascending march, at Figures DD, FF and HH are based on the main melody alongside the march and show off all of the corruption techniques I have used in this portfolio. The warped, militaristic nature of this march is placed against a high pitched chorale that becomes more and more prominent before finally being unveiled in full-form at JJ.

It is, in fact, a harmonisation of the main melody within tonal harmony, much as appeared in the first movement as well as the Acceptance section of Kübler-Ross. It represents the resistance to the threat but, by its placement in unnatural ranges at Figures EE, GG and LL, it is proven to be ineffective, eventually succumbing once more to the semiquaver figure of movement 1, if briefly, before dying out. The groaning, glissando-playing lower strings ultimately have the final, grotesque word, representing the epitome of the corruption that runs throughout the suite.

Ultimately, it is through and because of the brief glimpses of ‘hope’ and ‘normality’ that, within a post-corruption work, the corruption can continue to have as significant an existence that continues to create discomfort for the listener.

7. Postface – On Workshops

Throughout the year I have had the opportunity to work with both the Plus-Minus Ensemble and the Kreutzer Quartet on Clarity and Gyo: Okinawa respectively. In both cases it was extremely enlightening to hear the works played with real instruments, if only for vindication of what I was already aware of. Most of the changes I made after the workshops were based around the way I communicated ideas to the players through the score, such as tidying up rhythms and articulations. I was, however, able to amplify the effect of the opening eerie texture of Clarity after communicating closely with the players and hearing the effect in person by adjusting which octaves different instruments were playing in, leading to an ultimately better crafted piece of music.


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