Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Beda Day 15: Darwin Analysis

Here is an informal but lengthy analysis of my work Generations, which will be read Monday, April 27 by the CUA Orchestra. Two days ago I posted links to the MP3 audio and the PDF score of the work, which you may find useful.

I intend for this analysis to be interesting and useful to theorists, general musicians, and non-musicians alike. Any successful analysis aims to afford the reader a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the work being experienced.

Generations (2009)
a 5-minute work for string orchestra
by Kyle Gullings


This composition, written in three days, is a tribute to the life and work of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist credited with developing the theory of evolution by natural selection. Seeking to represent the idea of evolution musically, I explored two seemingly unrelated techniques - minimalism and twelve-tone music (dodecaphony) - in three distinct sections. The form is likely ABC but could also be seen as an ABA' form.

Section One ("Joyous, exacting") [0:00, page 1]

The opening motive is simple, consisting of a descending C Major triad in quarter notes presented in the violas. There is some ambiguity already, though, as this three-beat pattern plays over the notated 4/4 meter. The second violins join the violas in unison, followed by a gradual accumulation of instruments in other registers and metrical placements, leading to a simple layering of the original motive.

Soon, deviations (mutations?) appear in which certain notes are sustained for many beats before returning to the quarter-note rhythm. Then on page 4-5 the motive is heard in augmentation and diminution (twice as slow and twice as fast). Further rhythmic deviations appear, including triplets and dotted eighth/sixteenth figures, creating an active, complex texture of cross-rhythms.

The entire first section consists of only three chords: C Major, e minor, and G Major. Just like the rhythms discussed earlier, the harmonies shift gradually from one to the next. By measure 32 (page 6/Letter B), each instrument has shifted from C Major to an e minor chord (by replacing the C with a B).

This shift really begins, however, back in measure 24 (page 4) in the Violin II-A part, where C becomes B, creating a CM7 chord. Other instruments gradually follow suit until e minor prevails at page 6. A similar process is then followed to proceed to G Major, beginning at measure 41 (page 7) in the Violin I-B part, and finally taking over at measure 47 (page 9/Letter C).

Section Two ("Molto rubato, with intensity") [1:41, page 13]

My self-imposed challenges in the middle section were two-fold: 1) hold the listener's interest using only a single rhythmic value, and 2) create a twelve-tone section that sounds as traditionally beautiful as possible.

Because I was writing for the string section alone and had no limitations of breath support or note duration, I chose to use only whole notes (and tied notes), making this movement quite slow (as middle sections often are). It also features exactly four voices in a chorale-like texture.

I then created my twelve-tone row. (This "row" is a presentation of all twelve chromatic pitches of the octave, in a fixed order in time. Essentially, I used every note name on the piano - C, C#, etc. - without repeating any.) I started with my initial motive: G-E-C (the C Major triad from the opening). I made these three pitches the first, fifth, and ninth notes in my row - or, they are each the first note of a four-note group. I then chose three other notes for each group that could combine to form a relatively pleasing-sounding seventh chord.

After these three chords were determined, I decided that, rather than move directly to the new chord, I would to move only one voice at a time until the following chord was reached. I then chose the order in which voices would move based on the most pleasing sound.

Whenever I came upon a particularly consonant or pleasing chord, I chose to extend its value to two full measures and add a brief crescendo to it for contrast. (Alas, these crescendi do not play a larger structural role in the row.)

After all three chords had been presented, I felt I still had more to say with this material. I then repeated this process with the same chords but different voice-leading (a different order of which voices move when), creating what sounds like a different approach to essentially the same musical idea.

The final chord presented is a fully-diminished leading-tone seventh chord (see measure 87/end of page 15), a dissonant or unstable chord that very much wants to lead somewhere else. I used this tension to propel the piece into the final section.

Section Three ("Spirited, metronomic") [3:20, page 16]

Beginning with the original-tempo viola motive at measure 88 (page 16), a steady eighth note pulse drives through the end of the work alongside a few longer and shorter rhythmic values added for contrast. Perhaps surprisingly, these closing 90 seconds present only a single iteration of a new twelve-tone row: [C D E F G Bb Ab Gb A B C# D#].

Like the harmonies from the first section, this tone row unfolds very gradually, adding one new pitch only every four to five measures. The clearest examples of this additive process are the motoric trading-off figures of the Violin I's (A & B), the Violas (1 & 2), and the Cellos (1 & 2).

As the section progresses and new pitches are added, the rhythmic content becomes more active and syncopated, again calling to mind the opening section. Pizzicato and tremolo techniques help bring the piece to its climax before the final phrase.

The final note of the row, D#, is heard only once - as the final pitch of the work. By reserving this one note until the last moment, I aimed to provide a measure of completion to the section and the work as a whole.


Despite its length, I hope the above discussion was neither boring nor confusing. Above all, I hope that this analysis - or portions of it - can provide you with another angle into listening to my work and (hopefully) coming to appreciate it by understanding its inner workings and musical goals. I don't know if Darwin would appreciate it as much as today's audience, but maybe he could accept that musical tastes and techniques have continued to evolve as well.

Once more, here is the link to my original post on Generations, as well as the MP3 audio and the PDF score. Thank you for your time!


  1. I really like this piece, Kyle. It's one of your most suggestive works, illuminating the "Generations" theme very nicely. It starts off simple and evolves (intentionally and carefully) into a rich complexity which evokes verdant earth and abundant life. Thank you for the helpful analysis. I would love to hear this performed live.

  2. Wow. Oby gets the award for most eloquent comment ever on my blog. Hooray!

    I will post the recording to the orchestra reading session when I get it, if the sound is decent.

    And thank you for the kind words and the thoughtful response. I hope others follow suit! :)

    Others: feel free to criticize as well, this was written quickly and just as an experiment, after all.