by Arco-X

A few years ago I was composing for a theatre musical based on a true story set in the early 20th century.  One of the characters was a young classics graduate from Wellesley College in Boston, a classy institution for intellectual girls, and for her songs I planned to compose in something hinting at a contemporaneous classical style – a touch of Debussy perhaps.  I wrote a song that I was very pleased with, impressionistic, sufficiently period appropriate, and realized that I had used a slightly unusual mode in its composition.

In music, a mode (or scale) is a combination of notes on which a composition is based, in western music usually the seven notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G, each of which can be in one of three variants: natural, flat or sharp.  I wasn’t any kind of expert on modes (though I was to become a bit of one), but I was aware that the system was derived, in the first instance, from the modal music of the medieval church.  Through the centuries of music history, about thirty modes have been identified or devised and given names.  The one I had used in the song was not one of them, so it seemed that I had invented a new mode that, quite possibly, no one had ever used before.  In the course of further research I was to discover that there are 399 possible combinations, which means that there are more than 360 previously disregarded modes that could provide the raw material for new compositions.

This was an exciting find, like discovering unknown stars in the galaxy, and it forms the basis of a new approach to composition which, to pre-empt being genre pigeonholed by anyone else, I have described as ‘Protomodal’.  This is from the prefix Proto: at an early stage of development; and Mode: a particular system of sounds on which a composition is based.  The starting point for each composition is the selection of a mode from the 360 anonymous ones.  From this simple cellular origin the composition grows like a culture in a Petri dish.

There is no sonic equivalent of Farrow & Ball colour cards to assist with the choice of mode, so a selection is made by chance (pace John Cage), using a computer-generated random number.  There is an element of challenge here – I don’t allow myself the luxury of a second throw of the dice if I don’t like the initial outcome, and work with whichever mode chance determines.  Composing then becomes a journey of discovery in a new landscape, an exploration of the given mode’s expressive and musical possibilities and limitations.  It is an apt metaphor for life, navigating a course through the obstacles and opportunities that chance places in one’s path.

The bichrome Major-Minor paradigm, which has dominated music for centuries, seems creatively limiting in the context of an interconnected, rapidly changing, global culture.  On the other hand the Protomodal process, with its 360 different musical modes, offers a rainbow spectrum of nuanced tonal shades, reflecting contemporary complexity while still being deeply rooted in music’s ancient modal origins.  The discipline of composition with only seven notes brings a particular simplicity and restraint, while each mode is like a dialect with its own character, its own subtlety of expression.  In the process, the course of the composition is steered away from conventional custom and cliché, yet often it’s as though we are hearing echoes of familiar voices in the alien tonescape.

For people who know a bit about music there’s more in PROTOMODALISM 2

HOME                  SCRITTO INDEX