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Simplicity and Complexity

April 27, 2016

In the harp world it is regularly repeated that simple is beautiful; any music played on the harp is beautiful, no matter what (mostly); and one line of single notes can be more haunting and memorable than a melody with a busy accompaniment.

It is easy to forget this, as I want to push myself towards greater technical accomplishment, which often means speed, and new patterns for my fingers to learn. However, playing slowly, and /or simple lines of music, is much more exposed.  Tone quality and phrasing are under the microscope, as the pyrotechnics aren’t present to distract. But I am often pulled towards busier music, that will impress me (and that I think may impress my audience).

Even so, I like both simple music, and more complex and busier music. They may not be mutually exclusive; meaning show the melody simply in its bare bones; show in a spare way what it is; and then dress it up, and take it to some unexpected places. So my challenge is to get to know the melody, and consider the possibilities. 
I have composed 5 Namepieces; 2 for babies, and 3 for weddings/anniversaries. When I composed them, I became smitten with the melodies and really thought I had something. Months later when I listened to my recordings, my reaction was often that the recording needed more speed or more complexity. I found the compositions too simplistic. And needing a fuller sound. Or more harmonic interest.


Over time my ear /brain changes; how it is processing, and what it is hearing and what it wants to hear. It might want to be challenged beyond the known; but I think it should take and find refuge in the familiar, it should be satisfied. Is that the mark of when it is finished? That could be.
 I recorded these namepieces, soon after composing them;  and I often composed them on the day I finished (true for all except Annie and David, and Matthew and Alixandra). Composing for an event enhances my decision making, as the deadline forces committing notes and ideas.  None of the tunes had an extended period of practice before I recorded them.  That meant I only got to know the pieces while I composed them, and didn’t spend much time on gaining technical mastery; didn’t necessarily play them to speed, and just wanted to knock off a recording of the tune quickly.


As to the simplicity vs complexity consideration, my sense is to explore both, and try to understand the range of the piece as it presents itself. In my first composition, Michael Thomas Jones, the melody was presented simply, and repeated; the next variation busier (more notes), and with a changed rhythm; the third variation was syncopated.









When the morning of the shower arrived, I was still tweaking the music. Having just completed Deborah Henson-Conant’s Hip Harp Toolkit (highly recommended), I decided to add a coda. (Question being when do you leave it alone and call it finished)? This gave the tune a bit of development and finality. The name notes were still used, but without the refrain punctuating the first and middle name notes. The notes of the refrain were repeated three times, but for the last repetition, the notes went up instead of down. The coda was tricky to play, and I wasn’t sure the minor feeling was appropriate for a baby’s tune. I also wondered whether the complexity of the harmony and rhythm was necessary. Then I remembered another lesson from Hip Harp Toolkit, and that was to follow your musical instincts. Since I liked the coda, I would keep it in, though I also added a simpler coda.


So, to repeat, as to the simplicity vs complexity, my sense is to explore both, and try to understand the range of the piece as it presents itself. Information about Deborah Henson-Conant’s course can be found at: HipHarpToolkit.com.


To hear other Namepieces, click on the links below.


Tomas Patrick Francisco Corbett: A Namepiece composed for a Baptism.


Marc and Susan Brahaney: a Wedding Namepiece.


David Blakely and Annie Papworth: a Wedding Anniversary Namepiece.


Matthew Behuniak and Alixandra Coursen: my daughter's Wedding.






4/27/2016 01:10:09 pm

I love how you're exploring (and encouraging us to explore) our own musical voices from within the paradox between simplicity and complexity. This also made me laugh (in a good way): "The question being when do you leave it alone and call it finished?" oooohhhh if only I knew the answer to THAT one!



Kathy King

4/27/2016 07:38:30 pm

Alexandra, I especially enjoyed the paragraph where you talk about getting to know the melody and consider the possibilities. Possibly dress it up and take it to unexpected places. Cool! Maybe I am biased by being a singer, but - for me - melody is everything. The rest just expands or varies it. Of course, the added accompaniment is what can make it really interesting. I am fascinated by your process.



Sally Walstrum

5/2/2016 03:30:36 pm

Alexandra, very interesting to read about your process. I was intrigued by your comment when do you leave it alone and call it finished. I remember an artist friend talking about a painting he did that he thought was his best ever until he added that one stroke too many. I love the idea of the name tunes.


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