Mitch Weakley’s piece “Keys, Strings, Clothespins” investigates a C pentatonic scale with a flattened sixth step (Ab) through the lens of a prepared piano, and its consequent timbres.  Here the program notes from the score:

“Notes: The title Keys, Strings, Clothespins refers to the performing forces in the piece, each emanating from the piano. Harmonically, the piece is built around a C major pentatonic scale with a flattened sixth scale degree. Throughout the piece, the set of five pitches is shifted around the A-flat in order to explore the relationship of this flattened pitch to the other members of the C major scale. Timbre, through the use of preparations and inside the piano techniques, is also used as a modifier to develop the relationship of these elements.”

These elements are clearly marked throughout the piece, and form a consistent character.  The modified C pentatonic scale is present in many octaves, in non-prepared, prepared, and plucked modes of execution (for examples).  The result is a unified foray into this harmonic relationship, investigated by means of timbre. However, I wish to investigate another facet of this piece: its use of space and spaciousness.

The tempo marking “Slow, Unmetered, with Rubato” typically gives way to space and spaciousness, or at least lack of strict flow.  Weakley fuses this tempo with multiple methods of attack: normal notes, prepared notes, silent harmonic resonances, sweeps, and plucked piano strings.  So, this is not a series of cadenzas, nor a sound-art piece.  This lies more along the borderlines of normal mood and experimental production; aleatoric composition and fairly strict compositional intent; and highly rhythmic and everlastingly gelatinous timing.  Take measures 9-14:

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 3.22.23 PMWe start off with an ordinario, but very high, note and a sweep of the low strings.  We then have silence, depressed modified-pentatonic notes, plucked notes, and swept low strings with the pentatonic notes depressed.  We subsequently accelerate into a highly metrical section that likens to a near-minimalist texture.

After a brief affair with space in measures 48 and 49, we discover that the rhythmic and spacious elements are actually one whole unit.  This is due to the strummed strings, a hallmark of the unmetered passages, being used in the second metrical section:Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 3.27.42 PM

The unmetered, rubato indication returns in measure 88, as a simple set of chords that allow us to breathe after the runs of eighth and sixteenth notes in 5/8:

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 3.29.56 PM

These chord arrays are either based on or are pentatonic scales.  Yet, this is the first time in the piece that we get block chords with nothing else.  All the harmonic material is laid out in plain sight once again, allowing us to pursue another metered jaunt without becoming bored of the 5/8 time signature.

The rubato sections contrast with the rhythmic ones, and these co-dependent sections enable the piece’s main focus (the pentatonic scale (with b6) as told through timbre) to shine through.  Therefore, it is not completely accurate for me to have focused on space and spaciousness in this piece.  Rather, the space and spaciousness needs the contrasting sections with consistent, repetitive pulse in order to exist and be effective.

I have learned from this work that one can use specific compositional elements to be the means by which you accomplish other goals, and this can happen on multiple levels.  In this case, Weakley dives into a modified C pentatonic scale by telling its story through timbre and technical diversity.  This would result in an exercise at its core, so Weakley further uses tempo, meter, space, and spaciousness to allow the work to not be an etude, and instead a vibrant, convincing piece.

What did you learn from this?  Let me know on Twitter or leave a comment below!

Dan