Our featured artist today is Frank Wilhoit!
Let’s give him a warm welcome.
If you would like your talent featured in the Artists in Our Midst series, send me an email message. Don’t be shy! This is the final Artists post in the queue, so please get in touch if you would like to be featured.
“Classical” Music: How Does It Work?
…ask fairly few people, fewer as time goes by. But the answers are straightforward and open up a vast new world of enrichment. I will use my own works as examples — not only because I am an insufferable egotist, but also because that way you can set aside any specific expectations that you may have, based upon earlier chance encounters with The Standard Repertory. I will also present the discussion with the utmost concision, but will expand upon any particular points requested in comments.
How does it work? The first principle is contrast. Contrast manifests in many ways. The most obvious one is dynamic contrast: quiet versus loud. (Sometimes very quiet indeed, and sometimes very loud indeed.) Another important one is tempo: fast versus slow (very, indeed, etc.). Another is timbre or tone color: different types/families of instruments.
Why is contrast essential? Because I am asking for your time and just who in Hell do I think I am, anyways? Your time is the most valuable commodity you have and if I am going to ask you to spend it absorbing my musical thoughts then I must give you fair value for that bargain. Contrast builds musical form, because contrasts have to be integrated, and that takes time; and form explains how the time is being used. All of that is perceived subconsciously.
Contrast is not the only ingredient of form; the other big ones are repetition and tonality. (Tonality is also perceived subconsciously.) Repetition is the obvious link between “classical” and “popular” music: tunes are played more than once. The difference is what happens to them when they come back: [how [much]] have they been changed? And this is really a matter of why repetition; and that comes back to time, and therefore form, and therefore contrast.
Enough talk, let’s do some listening. 2020 was the kind of year that posed distinctive challenges to sanity (are there other kinds of year?). Here was my reaction:
This serenade was composed during the summer of 2020. It is for ten instruments: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoon, and horns. There is a long tradition of serenades for wind ensemble: Mozart wrote a bunch of them. My serenade is in four “movements”, this being an obsolete definition of the word, meaning “pace” or “rate of speed” — in other words, tempo. My four tempi are fast, very fast, very slow, and medium. One ought not write consecutive movements in the same tempo: contrast!
Now what about the tunes? The important thing to notice is that they are made up of little pieces called motives, which are assembled, transformed, and reassembled in different ways throughout. This enables constant repetition, tying the form together, but without repetitiousness, because they are always changing. At the very beginning, the horn plays four notes; the clarinet instantly expands that to six, then the oboe repeats the original four notes, then the clarinet introduces a new motive, spiky and descending in wide jumps. Things are happening very fast, and will continue to do so for the next…
Well, you can read a progress bar; but the point is that this beginning, or any beginning, ought to signal how big the piece is going to be. And that responsibility continues throughout. At 42 seconds in, the first “theme” (paragraph?) finishes and the second “theme” begins. Here is another contrast that will have to be integrated, and that takes time, etc. (Compare at 5:10 .)
Each of the four movements has its own form, but these individual forms cannot be completely self-sufficient, else they would not need each other or fit together into the overall, 23-minute form. In that connection, notice how the overall affect of the work is relatively cheerful, but in the slow movement, starting from around 15:55, things suddenly get darker for a minute. A span of 23 minutes needs one very solid anchor point, and this is it. It comes at 16-17 minutes out of 23, well past the midpoint but not very close to the end; that kind of proportion is typical of many different kinds of music.
You have now learned just enough about “how to listen” to be able to follow lots of music and start understanding more about how it works and the stories that it tells — you. No two people may hear the same story!
Some of the bits left over from the serenade found their way into my next work, the horn concerto.
What is a concerto? It is a work for a solo instrument (or for some smallish number of solo instruments) and orchestra, but the whole point is how the relationship is defined and how the interaction plays out, and there is wide scope in those things. The horn concerto started with ideas that were too sharp or sarcastic for the serenade, but it cannot be all sharp and sarcastic throughout: that would have no contrast and therefore would not be able to tell a story. The first movement is very fast and very tight — and, accordingly, fairly short. The middle movement is slow and proceeds from confusion to contentment (note the two appearances of the music that is underpinned by a slow drum beat). (This “darkness into light” trope is very useful, also on larger scales, and we will see more examples of it.) The last movement — concerti typically have three, less often four — returns to the mood of the first, now rather snide than urgent, but it eventually cracks a smile (from about 19:35).
The next-following work (spring of this year) was my second violin concerto.
It is in a happier mood, like the serenade, but mostly calmer and less manic. The first movement is in a medium-to-slow tempo, and its themes and form should be very easy to follow. The second movement (like that of the serenade) is what is called a scherzo, Italian for “joke”. Can you hear how its ending prevents its form from being too closed, and thereby tells us that we’re not done yet? Again, the third (slow) movement, at the very end, turns out to have been an extended introduction to the finale: this is a pattern that Beethoven was very fond of and used in his last three concerti. The finale is a cakewalk — as filtered through so many successive layers of cultural appropriation, starting with Debussy and Gershwin, that it is hopefully, by now, entirely meta.
So these are what I have been up to for the past year-and-a-half or so. Right now I am working on my seventh symphony, but it will not be done until some time next year. But if this sampling has left you with any curiosity about my other works, a few more things can be found on my YouTube channel and even more on my web site (not everything can go on YouTube; some of the scores become illegible).
Here are a couple of pieces that might expand the horizon a little. My third string quartet:
is a prime example of the darkness-to-light trope; I am particularly proud of its slow movement (from 14:26). Somewhat older (2017) is the Symphony for Brass:
This posed the challenge of not sounding like stereotypical “brass band” music, which aims to blend all the instruments together. I tried to set up a contrast between the sharper sound of the trumpets and trombones and the rounder sound of the horns and tubas.
As I mentioned, I’ll be glad to answer questions in the comments, where any of this very concise discussion has raised more questions than it answered. Thank you all for your time! I hope it has been a fair trade.
(PS. All of the recordings are synthesized.)