21 – Text into Music

Alban Berg’s messages to his mistress : Landscape for solo piano : text mapping in two different software environments : differences in mapping to modes : the concept of the function patterns-to-scales : how to use words to create tonalities : Quiet Form for trio : prose versus poetry : Into the Green Inverted Dawn for string quartet : changing letter direction in words : the function gen-accompaniment : Quintet for piano and winds : contrapuntal texts : Schizophonia for three ensembles : word rhythms generating pitches.

The history of music is littered with examples of words and letters masquerading as pitches, from the composers’ signatures to ‘text’ messages to the beloved. One of the most celebrated examples has to be Alban Berg’s ‘letters’ to his mistress Hann Fuchs-Roberttin scattered over the score of the Lyric Suite for string quartet of 1925, a score in which he hid the message ‘every note . . . was written as a small monument to a great love.’ George Perle’s masterly Style and Idea in the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg tells the remarkable story of how, fifty years after its composition, such messages came to light.

There has already been mention in the chapter Quintets of using a poem to create the metrical and affective / dynamic structure of a piece of music. It is a popular device amongst composers. Hans Werner Henze’s Englishe Liebeslieder (1984)  for cello and orchestra takes poems from celebrated Romantic poems and ‘sets’ them for the voice of the cello. In the same chapter the focus of the main composition example, the String Quintet, provides an example of how a short poem has been scanned with the Classical poetic metrics as the rhythmic basis of the inner parts of the music (2nd violin and the two violas).

In the musical world of script-based programming the use of texts in general, though in poems in particular, is widespread. In this chapter we’ll examine  five works all told, starting with a poem whose every word-letter has been translated into pitches to assemble a piece for solo piano.

Landscape is a setting of a poem by Margaret Melicharova. The translation of word-letter to pitch is exact. Here’s part of the first stanza in Symbolic Composer, then Opusmodus, both showing how a text is split up to produce chords. In the second expression the text would have to prefaced by a chordize function.

21-1Composed in Symbolic Composer the symbolic notation allows for a direct mapping to any scale, or in this instance, a sequence of modes. The idea from the outset was to imagine the work as a modal improvisation by a jazz pianist such as Keith Jarrett. The rhythm for the first two bars in Opusmodus would look something like this:

21-221-3Although Opusmodus can transform text into pitch it does not have the quite the same ability to map different tonalities onto resultant pitch. In Symbolic Composer each stanza of the five stanza poem is mapped exactly to a different tonality:

21-4Opusmodus has a function tonality-map that adjusts the default chromatic scale to the nearest pitch of a given scale. Here is the expression that includes the text-to-pitch conversion of the first line followed by the tonality-map function set to the locrian mode and its starting pitch. The resulting output is a little different from the ‘pure’ mapping of the Symbolic Composer, which employs a separate tonality parameter in its architecture. Here is the Opusmodus version from written text to chromatic pitch output, followed by tonality mapping to the locrian mode.

21-521-6The next work to use text as a musical source focuses on the creation of unique tonalities. This has already been seen as a feature of pieces such as Fifteen Images discussed in the chapter Being Harmonious. Rather than just creating chords from text, words are melodised and then with a bespoke function patterns-to-scales are transformed into tonalities in the form of scales. Here is how the function might be assembled in Opusmodus embodying its own function text-to-pitch:

21-7Let’s try it out with a short fragment of text that belongs to the next composition to be discussed, Quiet Form, a trio for alto flute, electric keyboard and double bass. The function is designed like this:

  • The text statement is changed to pitch with text-to-pitch
  • It is then sorted in an ascending fashion with asc-sort
  • ambitus-octaves confines the output to a chromatic scale
  • The function find-unique deletes any duplicate pitches
  • The sort function sort-asc is then reapplied

The first expression below is a direct translation of the letters of the words into pitch. The second shows how to create a tonality from each word:

21-821-921-1021-11In the composition Quiet Form each word creates a metre, and with the use of the sustaining pedal on the electric piano each word is heard as an individual tonality.

The music for Quiet Form (a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth) came out of a series of experiments viewing the potential of texts to produce engaging tonalities and harmonic rhythms. The chosen text proved particularly rich in its word collection as there were a good number of long words only occasionally divided by connectives, conditionals and pronouns. The text is an extract from an academic paper titled The Legend of Cosmological Homogeneity. It has been divided into sentences and makes for the underlying pitch and harmonic rhythm of the whole nine-minute piece. Here below is the first two of five sentences. The note-length, as a steady eighth in the keyboard part, defines the structure:

21-12This example text might be contrasted with the next text to be discussed, a poem Deep Sea Diver by Robert Francis where the words are and lines very short. Here’s the first stanza:

Diver go down
Down through the green
Inverted dawn
To the dark unseen
To the never day
The under night
Starless and steep
Deep beneath deep
Diver fall
And falling fight
Your weed-dense way
Until you crawl
Until you touch
Weird water land
And stand.

This poem forms the material for a string quartet Into The Green Inverted Dawn. It is part of a collection of works for student musicians titled Shoals, music exploring in very different ways the underwater world. In this quartet a number of novel processes are used to arrange the text of the two-stanza poem. The first stanza is about descent (shown above), the second focuses on ascent. The mapping of letter-to-pitch however remains constant:


In the example from bar 1-3 this is how the code would be presented in Opusmodus:

21-14This material is now processed across 4-parts by an i-function called gen-accompaniment controlled by a template-pattern, a Symbolic Composer function that generates an accompaniment to a symbol melody. It does so only using the symbols of the original list, but selecting a smaller number of symbols and moving them into a different position against the original.

21-15 When demixed into two voices the new part can be used as a secondary part, as can be seen in this extract from the opening six bars:21-16

A number of other processes are applied to this material in order to make for  variety and interest  in the quartet texture. The functions find-change and find-anacrusis are applied alongside what is known as a template-control of the gen-accompaniment function. Template-control is like a list of on / off controls that apply a given function when selected. In Symbolic-Composer it is widely used with the x and = symbols. Neither symbols can be used in Opusmodus so this short example has to use a and -:

21-17Again, this example provides a further opportunity to discuss the value of visualisation in coding. Templates showing action / no-action are possibly easier to read than using an integer section list, particularly if that list is long:

21-18Another feature of this quartet is the way repeated material is employed. One aspect of using text as a generator of material is how to handle connectives and pronouns, both occur frequently and the small number of letters in the, a, on, in and so on, can make for too much unevenness in the metric texture. However, the repetition of such pitch material can be of value: as a kind of aural glue. The way around the problem of unevenness is to repeat these short pitch groups, so in this quartet loops are created by extending the bars in which they are placed. In the opening bars of the second stanza this can be seen and heard in bars 2 – 3:

In Opusmodus such looping can be controlled by adjusting the bar length in the get-time-signature expression. See an example of this at the opening of the String Quintet. In Symbolic Composer looping has a more fundamental role in musical structuring because there is a parameter called zones. A zone list is, to all intents and purposes, a time-signature list. So expanding a zone with the function zone-expand and keeping the melodic pattern’s length the same can create a loop. Here’s an example from the opening of the second stanza where the word order for each word is now ascending:

21-20Of all the pieces discussed in the chapter on text into music the author’s Piano Quintet for piano and winds is the most ambitious and testament to the possibilities of this device. Its starting point was Mozart’s Eb Quintet married to stream of consciousness text by the composer. The text is both amorous and erotic. It has no punctuation, conventional grammar or sentence structure. Like the river the lovers in the poem lie beside the text to music conversion makes for a continuous flow of music in which the piano never ceases, the instrument providing a web of resonant arpeggios and figures.21-21In the opening music above the generating text is mapped directly to the chromatic scale in Eb. Extra pitches added to each figure will be explained a little further on in the text:

21-22If we do the text-to-pitch conversion  in Opusmodus, this is the output. The pitch-transpose takes the chromatic output into the chromatic tonality of Eb:

21-2321-24Notice that the rhythmic values for short words are halved as in the fourth bar : you are the. In general all prepositions, possessives, connectives and verbs are set to the 1/16th value.

Additional notes create chords in the piano part, as found in bars 8-10. They are the result of applying one of three accompaniment generators that takes the word and modify its order and position as seen in the previous string quartet with gen-accompaniment:21-25The text for the passage above is ‘spreads golden cheek’ has been processed by the gen-accompaniment function to produce the chordal dyads. As the piece progresses and the wind instruments appear these accompaniment generators enable a five-part texture of piano and winds to develop. In the forward to the published score there are further examples given as to how these text-to-music additions are achieved.

Gradually as the music progresses so there appears passages where the text is set in counterpoint with itself, as in the passage at bar 271 Letter H. Here’s the code (in Symbolic Composer format) for the whole section. The function text-list simply melodies the text as:21-2621-28

Finally, the text to music example chosen to end this chapter comes from a choral work already mentioned earlier in Composing for Orchestra. Schizophonia is a work designed for distributed performance over ISDN communications technology. It featured a choir, a string orchestra and a wind orchestra in different locations across Norway. The text was taken from Sean Cubitt’s book Digital Aesthetics, and as such, seemed entirely appropriate that the text should create at least some of the music. What will be illustrated here is the mechanism developed to achieve this.

In the opening Preface to the first Toccata The Universal Touring Machine a  format for bringing text together with rhythm was devised:

21-29The text is set for a two-part choir SA / TB. The pitch generators that generate symbols rather than pitches are defined as g-txt1 (TB) and g-txt-2 (SA):

21-30In order to avoid lengthy lists of length values a shorthand was devised:

21-3121-32In later sections further functions were developed to allow length values to directly generate pitches:

21-33The above function is one of three offering different approaches of length to symbol generation, for example:

21-34In the output here there can be two different results depending on whether the pitches are ‘swallowed’ by the two initial rest-lengths or not:

21-3521-36The possibilities of text-to-pitch conversion are myriad and can result in highly original and telling structural forms. Although composers are wont to ‘let on’ about their use of such instances and conversion procedures there are certainly those for whom it has been a way of burying secrets and creating strikingly effective sequences of pitch and rhythm within their music. The prime example would appear to be Leoš Janáček who it is thought coded into his scores messages to his mistress Kamila Stosslova. So many of his melodic statements have the feel of unspoken declarations, for example in his String Quartet No.2 Intimate Letters.

Links and Resources
Alban Berg – Lyric Suite (I)
Leoš Janáček – String Quartet No. 2 Intimate Letters
Nigel Morgan – String Quintet (pdf), Forms in Movement: Landscape, Fifteen Images, Music for Sculptures: Quiet Form, Shoals: Into the Green Inverted Dawn, Quintet for Piano and Winds, Schizophonia
Robert L. Oldershaw - The Legend of Cosmological Homogeneity
Opusmodus – Website
Symbolic Composer – Website

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