David T. Bridges’s work This Fragmented Old Man fuses the energy of Elliott Carter, the rhythmic drive of Bela Bartok, and the harmonic fluidity of Igor Stravinsky to create an energetic, wild, slightly senile, and charming work based on the children’s counting song “This Old Man”:

“The children’s counting song “This Old Man” is relatively new to American folklore. Older variants of the tune date back only to the 1870s and were passed on aurally until the early 20th century. There also remains confusion about where the song originated. Records have been made of people interpreting the song as an attack against the Irish (Paddy being used as slang for an angry drunk Irishman), a jig, a dance tune imported from Italy, and the term Paddywack has been used to describe the springy, white substance in a cooked backbone of a lamb (“give a dog a bone”). Then, there remains the idea that the phrase “knick-knack paddy-whack” is simply made up from nonsense words. In any case, there is an old (and slightly senile) man running around playing “knick-knack” on everything.

Take a look at the score here.

For reference, click here for the text of the children’s song “This Old Man”.

From the beginning of the piece, we get the alternating figure of “this old man…” in a series of thirds:

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This is interrupted by the old man going “knick-knack” in measure 9:

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These statements of the themes in the children’s song, interruptions by the old man, and passages of syncopated rapidity repeat in variation throughout the work.  Here is an example of the syncopated rapidity:

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There are numerous items I could discuss: the sense of theme and interruptions; the offset sense of pulse through quickly changing meter; the harmonic fusion of dissonance and traditional structures; the virtuosity required of the string quartet; and many others.  But, here I would like to isolate the main textures in the piece:

Texture 1 features syncopated, doubled melody; trills to unify the texture; and pulsating bass line.  This provides levity and a clear sense of manic melody:

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Texture 2 is comprised of a mixture of dotted eighth + sixteenth notes, repeated eighth notes at either the unison or third (to again feature the sing-song nature of the tune’s melody), and a sixteenth + eighth + sixteenth note figure.  This creates quite a thick texture, but Bridges uses melodic doubling and approximate doubling, plus ample rests, to ensure that the texture is clearer than it would otherwise be.

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Texture 3 is a very Rite-of-Spring-like series of repeated eighth notes in mixed meter.  It takes on an almost heavy-metal sense of pounding rhythm, thick chords, and rich tone.  It is loud and forceful; once might imagine that the old man is “knick-knacking” in a flamboyant, unstoppable dance:

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The fourth, and final texture, consists of running sixteenth notes with interjecting pizzicato figures stating “this old man” by alternating in thirds:

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So, why am I isolating these textures?

  1. I wish to show that one can use texture to shape a piece formally.  This piece is quite organic; many of the same figures appear and reappear, play off each other, are used in new ways, and propel the work forward without having to resort to new material.  Yet, in this organic, motivically-driven work, texture takes on the role traditionally reserved for new material, to keep each second of the piece fresh and rewarding to the listener.
  2. We can learn much about clarity from these textures.  Through dynamics, rests, doublings, juxtaposition of static and moving lines, and rhythmic unisons, Bridges successfully keeps the piece lighthearted by providing clear textures.
  3. These textures are hard to keep together, but Bridges helps the performers by having clearly defined sets of textures (which make rehearsals more productive), not overusing complex meters, and having rhythmic unisons that allow the ensemble to feed and count off of one another.

David’s website is http://www.DavidTBridges.com.

What are your thoughts on this piece?  How do the textures present themselves to you?

Happy composing,

Dan