Pitch Symmetry in Martin Bresnick's "My Twentieth Century" and "Meden Agan" for Chamber Ensemble
Fromm, Mark (2012) Pitch Symmetry in Martin Bresnick's "My Twentieth Century" and "Meden Agan" for Chamber Ensemble. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.
The analysis component of this dissertation focuses on the pitch world and harmonic language in Martin Bresnick’s "My Twentieth Century" for sextet. The surface-level harmony consists solely of major and minor triads, while the underlying structure relies on a pitch-class axis of symmetry.
Bresnick crafts a pitch world that balances diatonicism with pitch symmetry by unifying salient aspects of both. First, he uses a four-note diatonic segment ([0 2 3 5] or tone-semitone-tone) as his primary melodic unit. He then builds chord progressions from such segments using only major and minor triads; this creates phrases that each contain exactly four chords. To derive a harmonic progression for the consequent phrase, he takes the pitch-classes from the initial four-chord phrase and reflects them about a C# - G axis of symmetry. Finally, he adds drone pitches on C# and G, serving as aural reference points and making the axis of symmetry explicit.
By choosing to use reflected pitch structures sequentially rather than simultaneously, Bresnick avoids mirrored melodies in which two voices begin in unison, move equal distances in contrary motion, and return to the starting pitch. (Such melodies are common to the symmetrical structures found in works of Bartók and Ligeti.) Instead, by creating a series of four triads in one phrase and then reflecting those triads in the next phrase, he creates an audible link between the two without simple transposition, inversion, or retrogression.
This paper is an in-depth analysis of "My Twentieth Century," focusing on pitch symmetry and harmonic language. Bresnick’s adherence to his plan is so rigorous that the analysis accounts for every pitch in the piece.
The composition component of this dissertation, Meden Agan for chamber ensemble, explores the idea of creating two disparate musical ideas and amalgamating them as the piece unfolds. The title derives from the Ancient Greek idea of balancing the Dionysian (excess) and the Apollonian (moderation). Musically this unfolds by alternating episodes of wild, heterophonic woodwind-led music with calm, exacting polyphony led by the strings. Gradually, each group takes on ideas of the other until they are fused and indistinguishable in the end.
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