the miniature

It is ironic that my M.A. thesis at Wesleyan University was about pieces of an extended duration, and that I have, as mentioned in my previous post, turned to the miniature for a while. My interest with the form is for two reasons: 1) whenever I engage with a new instrument, I tend to write them a set of miniatures to get to fully understand then, and 2) the utility of the miniature as a form has proven to be fruitful in overcoming my current anxieties and challenges in staff notation.

On 2nd January, I completed a set of seven miniatures for toy piano, entitled:
Seven Gates or Choices for the Lost Leaves of Time.

In each miniature I explored a different aspect of affect, energy, notation, and compositional content – I would say ‘style’, but they were written by me, and therefore despite having stark contrasts of content from one piece to the next, they all display facets of my voice and musical interests* – and because of this the tension relations between pieces are as equally interesting as the works themselves (at least for me as a composer). This is also an intentional and useful activity in the exploration of instrumental capabilities as much as it is compositional interest – one might not ever fully grasp the nature of playing an instrument if one only ever writes slow music, or fast music for that instrument for instance.

Here I will give a description of each movement, and reveal some of the creative intentionality behind them:

  1. Theatre
    Here I explore the unfolding of two separate melodies through the style of monody. There are never any coincidental notes, only successive implications of harmonies.
  2. Song
    In contemporary classical music, forms are often highly original, and inventive, but they also tend to eschew more traditional, or typical structures. Therefore, I wanted to explore the tensions that would arise from utilising the structure of a pop song as the structure for my piece.
  3. Anxiety
    This was an exercise in the organic exploration of atonal materials – I wanted them to have a rise and fall, yet still remain lyrical.
  4. Fantasy
    Just before writing these miniatures, I was listening to a lot of Frescobaldi, and noted how flamboyant and adventurous his keyboard writing was. It definitely was the initiator of the stylus phantasticus, a highly improvisatory and fashionable style of playing in the German Baroque (although he was Italian!). Here, influenced by my listening, I explored utilising blocks of harmony vertically through flourished writing and trills.
  5. Expectant
    The toy piano is not a very resonant instrument – yet the voice is. I wanted to explore the tensions that would arise through resonance by having the player play a chord for an extremely long time, implying toy piano resonance, and then the player would either play silence, or sing a note from the previous chord in the rest given, to imply another type of continuing resonance. (This is the work that allows the piece to have a bit more of an open duration, as there are a lot of choices about time given to the player).
  6. Melody
    This one was more straightforward as I essentially wanted to write a monophonic melody that at times was square enough to be memorable, but then explore an ebb and flow that resulted in it being difficult to memorise as a whole (by memorise I am thinking of it as a ‘tune’, one might whistle for instance).
  7. History, supposedly
    Here I was interested in exploring the tensions that might arise from utilising Medieval rhythmic modes, Jazz influenced harmonies, and my developing interest in counterpoint. Again, the toy piano is a somewhat ironic instrument for this, as it’s extremely limited, and harmony isn’t particularly that effective given that it lacks the resonance offered by a guitar or piano, which are instruments one normally associates with effective harmonic writing.

Despite being seven miniatures, of varying approaches and content, they come in at anything between 12-18 minutes, depending on how a performer might realise them.

After completing them I sent them to one of my previous teachers, and we had an interesting exchange about the idea of a miniature – is a miniature a miniaturisation of a musical idea, a reducing, or even redaction of time, but with all the content of 5 minutes, within 1. Essentially, is it a short piece? I have seen many commissions or calls for scores with miniatures that say ‘ the piece needs to be either less than 60 seconds, or contain fewer than 100 notes’. OR on the other hand, can the miniature actually, despite its name, be an implication for something much larger, an infinite space or environment. Then if the latter, how miniature can something be, yet still imply an immense scope.

I also sent them to a friend of mine who will hopefully be giving them a go sometime soon, so watch this space!

This conversation with my previous teacher has spurred and inspired me to explore this as a concept in my next set of miniatures – Brief Infinities, which will contain 6 miniatures for Domra, a Russian folk instrument. 3 have been composed, and I have ideas for the other three, so given their brevity, these should be complete fairly soon.

Similarly, this idea of a small amount of material equating to infinity, is actually not all that an absurd concept to me. I have found that in writing music that is of a much larger scope and duration, less really does equate to more. You would think that if you were to compose a 30-minute piece, you might need lots of material – the reality, however, is that you do not need a lot of material to get to 30-minutes. Of course, it depends on what you’re trying to go for, but generally, if a listener is willing to engage with a piece for that long, this gives you an wonderful opportunity to allow the listener to have an experience, as opposed to them having to attentively follow the typical 5-minute tropes that all compositions seem to be right now. It also affords the composer the opportunity to really sit with a relatively small amount of materials, and say ‘OK, what can I do with this to make it into a piece, and keep some form of interest’ – ‘interest’ being a rather relative term dependent on the artistic endeavours and aims. Watch out for a future post on the relationship between attention, and experience.

In this pursuit of exploration through the miniature form, I am also working on a set of 5 miniatures for electronics. These came about through the need to explore many of the electronic plugins I have managed to accrue over the past few years – each miniature will be from a single sound source, and will use a limited number of plugins as to fully explore some of the potentialities of each electronic process that is available to me, in order that I might actually delve into something on a much larger scale (this is also due to my recent interest in self-sufficiency at a time where longer projects are extremely difficult to delve into both in terms of focus and resources – electronic music, however, does not pose this problem, and therefore it may take up a more substantial amount of my time this year than I had originally intended).

Miniatures offer a chance to explore something, but more importantly it is often without a terribly large time investment. For a composer, the thought of not getting something performed is often a terrifying prospect, and therefore if one is wanting to explore something, but does not yet have the resources available to do it on a larger scale, the miniature is a useful endeavour as it often allows for a deep exploration of thought into a topic, and the realisation itself is brief in terms of its execution, and therefore a heavy learning process is incurred, whilst the process of labour is relatively minimal. Similarly, when a performer then comes to tackle the work, they also do not have to invest the same amount of time, only the same level of rigour.

* I would also point out that here I have not released any information or specific writings on my pursuits as a pluralist with interests in eclecticism as both style and practice – this was the topic of my MA by Research at the University of Birmingham, and can be found on their e-repository pages for those who are interested.

1 thought on “the miniature”

  1. Very well written. 4th paragraph up from the last one ‘gives you an? wonderful opportunity’ should just be ‘a’. xx ________________________________

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