Signs from Above


Yuri Nikolaevich Holopov


And the kingdom appeared

and it was completely radiant with light.

                        - Georgios Riazanos


The strength of great art is that the material text of the work, absorbed by us, comes fully dissolved, conveying a thought, a feeling, an artist's idea. The opened spiritual world, to which we are given communion, strengthens us in veritable life. Within the interlacing of sound relations in the musical composition we find contours of live human speech pierced by an artistic sense that rises above commonness and the average background of the epoch.

Vassily Kandinskiy's ingenious expression "onward and upward" (his image of an arrow's edge in the progress of art) seizes the core essence, to which the gifted composer aspires in his embodiment of the idea, and which conceptual breakthrough he forever fixes in new realms. Artistic creation is always a creation of something new. The innovation of the genius remains in his creation as the embodied impulse "onward and upward", which by its primordial quality surpasses similar ideas of those who come later with the same discovery. As V. V. Mayakovsky put it, the one who discovered that two plus two is four, was a great mathematician, even if he added two cigarette butts to two cigarette butts and not those who came later and added two steam engine trains to two steam engine trains.

The spontaneous impulse of creativity, which gives an effect of "forward and upwards", takes the appearance of the work of the artist-creator, as his inspiration (this is all, certainly, true). However, the question of why such artistic impulses arise and where these ideas come from, reveals, behind the prose of the score, a creation in a certain way touched from above. The breakthrough to the New is not the invention of the artist. He is here only as a medium, as a receptor for the idea, which suddenly appears from nowhere. His role in this process is a "feminine" or "mothering" role: an artist accepts, conceives, bears and gives birth to something (here he finds out that he has something which is conceived not by him, but by - could it be said - the "Holy Spirit"?).

We see particularly significant signs of this process in the twentieth century, when the individualization and subjectivism of the creative process come into the foreground. That is why it became clear that the invisible Creator works using composer's hands and techniques.

Now, at the end of the XX century and the of second millennium, we see again (with the same amazement) the impressive work of the "creative spirit" (as A. Skryabin would have said at the other end of our century), which gave us music that is really New, not heard before, seemingly impossible, and almost absurd. We can see two gigantic victories of the musical thought: the first is the primary advance of the initial avant-garde (ca.1908-1925), the second is the advance of the second avant-garde (ca. 1945-1968). These are a) the twelve tone system b) sound composition.(1) And now it is finally clear that all of this has become "regular" (i.e. normal) music: Skryabin's Prometheus, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg's Erwartnung , Webern's Das Augenlicht, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, as well as the music of "the second four" of (our) national music - music of Volkonsky, Denisov, Schnittke and Gubaidullina.

Now it is our turn: we have to understand in a correct way and to adequately describe, today's no longer new music. We are late, however. Today we must prepare a theoretical apparatus which would allow us to read the "new classics" the same way we read J. S. Bach's fugue, Beethoven's sonata or Tchaikovsky's symphony. Where in the analysis of the classical-romantic period we can rely on well-researched and systematically stated compositional principles (in the works of sic. XXVIII century theorists, A. B. Marx, Riemann, Arensky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Taneyev, Yavorsky, Asafiev, Sposobin, Tsukerman, etc.), we are forced (in today's music) to describe and to show everything, each time trying to agree upon terms and expressions while following logical musical connections.

So, our purpose is clear. We will try therefore to show an example of what we actually have in today's scholarly research in an analysis of one of the most outstanding compositions of Edison Vassilievich Denisov - his piano piece Signes en Blanc. The composition belongs to the period in which European music of the second avant-garde had passed through its stormy "iconoclastic" upsurge of the 50s and the 60s, and was, generally, in a more tranquil expansion (as if "filling in" after the "leap"). The imprint of the spirit of this "typical" avant-garde can be found in the musical language of the Signes en Blanc It is clear that the composer confidently uses the existing richness of a new musical language within his own individual, "established" style. But such compositions may be no less valuable than those of the break-through to the new domains (for example, Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliette").


Signes en Blanc

Denisov is mainly a lyrical composer. Music of his mature style is characterized by a great degree of refinement, and tenderness of expression. If Webern has been named "maestro of pianissimo", Denisov should be called "maestro of dolcissimo" which is his favorite remark in the score.

Signes en Blanc is a typical product of the mature Denisov. The music is filled with the most gentle sounds and expressive pauses - it is possible to say, music of shrill silence (see below various fragments from the piece in our musical examples). It is intimate to the ultimate depths of expression, so in general it is difficult to speak about it in a word - words seem to be an obstacle to this intimacy. Moreover, even a performance of the piece demands the pianist create an appropriate tuning of the open heart, to merge in unison, sympathizing with the mood of the audience. At this point it becomes not a simple intimacy, but some kind of psychological action. It has been best described by Tigran Abramovich Alikhanov, an excellent performer of Signes , who said, that the performance should be a sacred ritual with the public. The audience in the first moments should be tuned to an enchanting condition, to an absorption into mysterious depths, and at the same time to a predisposition of a "picturesque" perception of sounds, as though they drew lines, figures, mystical signs on a certain background of light. Without the creation of such a "Stimmung", this piece would be better not performed. Clearly such material demands from the performer a lot of sophistication in new music of the XXth century, as well as artistic and personal maturity.

The music of Signe en Blanc speaks to us not by the language of melodies and harmonic progressions (in other words, not in the language of "harmony"). The texture of the piece doesn't break down into twelve-tone rows although it is a twelve-tone piece. Twelve-tone serialism is something which he (Denisov) had been already through. Webern for Denisov is an object of admiration but it is music of the past.

Denisov said that painting gave him more than music. Signe en Blanc is one of the compositions in which the composer paints his images on an imaginary white canvas. One can explain the title of the piece this way: a sound painter (artist) puts onto a "canvas" some dashes, lines, dots, which form drawings - forms. The composer prefaces his composition with a quotation from the "the Book of Minella" (1894) by the French writer Marcello Schwab (1867 - 1905).

"And the kingdom appeared,

but it was all walled in whiteness."

The "whiteness" is not only the rests, which surround the dots and dashes of the "signs" but also the high register of the piano: the top is the whiteness, the bottom is dark and dense. Significantly, the parts for both hands are almost always notated in two treble clefs. The lower part of the keyboard is practically untouched. The part at 9.1 - 10.9 (2) (before the "second theme") has pitches A2-E2-G# in the low register. The part 10-4-11.5 (the "second theme") has C#2 - F#1 - D1 - F#. The bass clef appears for the first time only two pages before the end (p. 18) but not even in real sounds, rather in harmonics "senza suono" (18.4) Only 3 notes are in the mid-register octave (See the score). Everything else is "walled in whiteness" and radiates a mysterious light. Indeed, this is a kingdom of light; it is probably not the Favorsky Light . This is rather a light from French painters - impressionists and abstractionists. Mondrian has a black square on a light background, Denisov has the whole, painted lyrical panorama on a white background.

The composer wrote in his diary "It is the major mistake of those who write sonatas (and symphonies) these days that they compose "first" and "second" themes. Dramatic composition is more important than "scheme" and this is what should be developed, not a scheme." (3)  In the notebooks "when the hand is led by God " ther is perhaps a little discrepancy with the diary. (This source will be abbreviated henceforth as DN with the page number.) Denisov probably wanted to say "implement" the scheme, not "develop" the scheme.

This piece is not a "sonata" but in our view, there is a visible opposition of two worlds - the first (9.1 - 10.4) and the second (10.4 - 11.5) . Taking into account the content and the style of Denisov's music, one can with confidence call them "main thought" - "secondary thought" ("first theme - second theme"). But the composer should not also be a reverse schematicist, i.e. he or she should not avoid a particular type of musical relation just because it happens to be similar to those composed before. This instance can be found in Signes en Blanc.

Moreover two images are put into the foundation of the whole composition (see second part of this article below). It is important for us that these images freely chose by the composer, are implemented in the same free and individually chosen sound material. Since we decided to call "themes" those two imaginative fields, the 1st and 2nd theme, we will designate them in the following way:

                                    Measures         9.1 - 10.4 1            0.5 - 11.5

                                    Division            First Theme            Second theme

                                    Materials          sonority                  sonorous counterpoint

                                                           In a 12-tone field     (fugato)

Figure 1: Designation of First and Second Theme in Signes en Blanc

The two types of chosen material, first of all determine the qualities of the music for the corresponding section, and second, they prescribe the path of development of the imagery in the piece. The types of material suggest to us what criteria we should use in our evaluation of the compositional processes.


Formal Development / Thematic Development

But what is the "form"? It is clear, that there is no "song" form (with its heavy measures, metric extrapolation, rhyme-scheme patterns, unchanging metric extrapolation, structural rigidity etc.) As well, there is no sign of a rondo either classical like Mozart's A minor "alla Turca" , Beethoven's Adagio from the Ninth Symphony, or non-classical (stanza- form, for example). Here as typical in contemporary music, there is an individual design - there is no form.

A saving grace here is the general theory of musical form which allows us to reduce every form to a classical romantic prototype. This theory is based on a general thesis about the relationship between form and material. This theory doesn't belong to a particular musical/historical period and has a "timeless" nature. It is interesting that this theory of matieral and form (MF) was not unknown to the author of Suns of the Inca and "the froth of the days". Once, in 1996, while answering questions about classical and non-classical (music), E. Denissov had touched upon the question of MF (see Appendix A) and said that "the form is determined by the material": "in the course of composing the piece, I try to find materials first, and then by working on this material, the suitable form is defined."

"Sonority" is a dominant feature in the material, and these sonorous qualities give the composer major possibilities in the creation of a formal frame. Let's look at Example 1. From the tonal-thematic point of view of traditional theory of composition, it may look like there is no material here, or there is no melodically defined theme, that there is some introductory, background-like preparation. In calling such a section "the theme", the composer risks rejection from the performers and from the audience, not only of the piece, but of his creative principles as a composer. But this is exactly what happened. Denissov was not accepted as a composer, they criticized him for the absence of form, and the composer himself seemingly wasn't sure about the major compositional categories of the form - about 1st theme, 2nd theme, development etc. though audiences have already become used to such music, and there was a "sacred" silence in the hall when T.A. Alikhanov played the piece, a hallowed silence within which the context of the sounding"signs" could be properly perceived.

We hear in this piece character, feelings, image, we hear light and fragile beauty in the almost painted sound figures. There is undoubtedly musical thought here, and in this particular respect, there are no obstacles for calling this part of the form "the theme". Thus, the theme is not necessarily stated in the form of a melody or a counterpoint. But then in what form is it stated?

The criteria and parameters of a solo theme are the following:

- the sound thought, character, feeling

- the sound kernel (core) group with particular qualities - central element of this

system, its logical basis


- development or unfolding (exposition) of the thought changed through repetitions of the main and secondary sound elements, derivative elements; a particular purposeful line of change


- a reaching of some sort of edge, or limitation of unfolding, a certain wholeness in the construction (theme as an opposite to non-theme)

The whole problem of thematic content in MF is about the musical-logical factor: a musical thought is not only a crystallized particle of information. but, first of all, a logically built structure, unfolded in time, well defined in imagery and stable inside itself. It's clear that the thought is not in this pitches. But the pitches are the "signs" of the thought (if one may be allowed to used the name of the piece for terminological purposes). But the theme is something unfolded, an exhibited whole entity; it has its own form. The latter could be derived from new premises.

Denissov's theme/thought is exactly of this type. New premises of its form/exposition can be based on sonoristic qualities of the material in a musico-logical manner.


Main Theme

In Example 1  a primary exposition is created of the elements of the musical thought, which can be related to a phrase or sentence in the classical formal process. Here we can trace the common logical pattern in the material, which is quite far from being traditional tonal/thematic material.

These elements are easy to differentiate (Example 2).


Example 1: Opening of Signes en Blanc

Example 2: Differentiation of elements in opening of Signes en Blanc

First, there is a single tone A2 (see examples 1 and 2). In deference to the title of the piece, it is actually a "sign"/point. Element "a" (as we will call it) is deeply felt; it appears in the hallowed silence (at the time when performer has to "tune" the audience accordingly, to make contact and then direct its feelings without allowing it to "cool down" in passivity). Element "a" starts at pppp and dolcissimo, producing a whole series of harmonics (with the pedal depressed), and establishes the sense of a totally non-metrical music. There is not simply an absence of measures here; in the whole piece there is no actual unit pulse, no "mora". Element "a" defines the character of the whole piece, and in this (logical) respect, it is a truly central element. As it appears later, A also functions as a central pitch, "tonic" in the harmonic system.

The designated element "a" is symmetrically reassured by its repetition (Example 2b).

The repetition of the element "a" (henceforth CE / Central Element) is joined by the new pitch B2, and they both form a very delicate and tender half-step intonation - both in simultaneity and succession (horizontally and vertically, see example 2b). Following this logic: the first of the main elements (CE "a") is joined by another, a cluster formed from only two tones for now. In relation to the CE, the function of this new element is that of a derivation element (DE). It is derivative because the CE "a" is fully integrated in it. From a thematic point of view we will call it "b".

The designated element "b" is also symmetrically reassured by its repetition (example 2d); it then grows further: from a 2-note cluster it becomes 3-note cluster. We can say that the form in 2c as a unit joins its inversion about the vertical axis A2 ; at any rate, the relationship between the elements in examples 2c and 2d is absolutely clear from both logical and listening standpoints. The unquestionable presence of the structural element of symmetry (compare examples 2a - 2b, 2c - 2d) allows us to talk about the presence and artistic effect of the non-metric symmetry, all of this in very strong contradiction to classical symmetry (with its metrical extrapolation based on the hidden meter), and even, partially, with the very essence of the word "sym-metry" (i.e. "meter" or measure within the word itself). Such symmetry reflects an even more general law of composition - the rule of the repetition of chosen elements.

In the context of this piece we have to accept the rest as an element of the composition (example 2e). If there are "signs" on the "white", we can explain the rests as a background for the points, lines and figures, a "white silence." The rest is not simply a break in sounding, but rather a "white" space in the sound picture (like the artist's white canvas).

Finally, the initial group of elements includes the elements of contrast: chords in the highest register (example 2f, element "c"). If the sounds of the elements in the second octave above middle C were quite lucid, even the cluster in example 2d, the chords in the high register sound not as actual chords (even with their third-based structure), but rather as sonorities (4) - collections of sounds with a vague pitch quality of the separate notes and intervals, and a prevailing effect of color. The chords/sonorities change similarly to the colorful figures in a kaleidoscope. Both of them are "bright" in sound, but the first one has a "lackluster" quality, and the second one is of a brilliant (G minor - E major) quality. The change of colors is expressed through the register of the sonorities: the second chord is a complement of the first in that each voice moves by a semi-tone (example 2g). Thus, the change is done within the hemitonic field, as in dodecaphony. (The last feature suggests the 12-tone principle). It is noteworthy, that (here) there is no A, central tone in the theme; the thematic "core" ends in "instability":

This is the structure of the thematic core. We will call parts of the sonorous form "sections". In example 1 there is first the section with the compositional function described above. Thematic development is carried on in the following second, third, and fourth sections. Since it uses the same type of musical material we can omit any specific study of it.

The second section (9.2 - 9.4) continues the lines of motion, which are established in the first section. The new element "d", a cluster figure, appears as a derivation and development from "b" .



Example 3: New elements at beginning of second section of SIgnes en Blanc

The connection between the elements lies in the fact, that within element "d" (as in "b") there is a single A sounds in the same octave, at first as the initial tone (as if its element "a"), and then twice later. Here again is a symmetrical reflection, now suggesting notions of organization.

It appears that the first section (Example 1) a2 is an ostinato repeated 6 times (2+2+2) and in the second section 6+1 (the seventh time - a3 is the last, "additional" chord-sonority grouped 2+1,1+2 or the "six"). While extremely tender and incorporeal, these lightly-chiming ostinato points, in the some mysterious way, evoke associations with the symbolic bells from Debussy's "Cathédrale Engloutie" (Préludes bk. I #7 mm. 5 - 13, where e2 + e2 sound 12 times "doux and fluide" ) and in Pelleas (in the first scene of the second act, mm. 83 - 86, also 12 quiet strokes on E?? when Melisande loses her wedding ring). Using sonorous material, Denissov does not turn here to the bell-like sounds (there are some bells in the kingdom perhaps, but everything is "frozen still" in Signes en Blanc) and the repeated A2s faintly suggest them. But even though these quietest, most tender and mysterious chimes are not bells, not even sounding from a far, maybe they are the "signs" of the bells, stilled into the "air" of the rests and fermatas.

The development of the second section allows us to define more precisely some of its directions. First of all, its veritlcal density, which can be measured by the number of notes being played simultaneously (including arpeggiated clusters): we have the following picture from the first two sections:



                                                Figure 2: Chord Density (in Number of Tones) in the First Two sections of Signes en Blanc

The sound form is clear:

1st section a quick compression from 1 to 5

2nd varieties of five.

Each of the two following sections, number three (rxample 4) and number four (Example 5) has its own unique density. While in section 2, the density stops at the level which was previously reached in section 1 (5 eighths??) then (after a "digression") to 9 and then further to all 12 eighths in Denisov's favorite figure Section 4 "falls back" returning recapitiulatively to a level of 6 eighths. Here 3 (eighths) it is the average density in section 3 and 4.                                                                                                                            




























                                                            Example 4: Section 3 of Signes en Blanc


Example 5: Section 4 of Signes en Blanc

Figure 3: Density of mm. 9.4 - 10.4

As a result, we can see it as a clearly defined sonorous form of the "wave" which consists of 4 sections:

Figure 4: wave-like progression of densities in section 1-4

The form of the main theme ideally reflects a general functionality i-m-t (5) (although, there are some signs of a "bridge" - return to the beginning of the theme, and as will be shown latter, a clear preparation of the second theme). Let's also note that the structuring of the number of elements - appearances of "a" (?) continues in the third section where there are 1+5 (again 6) and in section 4 there are 6 (as 1+2, 2+1).

Pitch Organization

The establishment of the main theme is obviously regulated by a similarly very precise process in terms of the parameter of pitch. Even the outer contours of the sonorities reveal the slight but well formed line of motion up the chromatic scale:




Example 6: Linear Profile of Tones Outlined in Sonorities of Main Theme

Signes en Blanc is not dodecaphonic music, although it is twelve-tone. For Denisov dodecaphony is an old classical discipline (Webern, Schoenberg) or a scholastic, academic science. However, twelve-tone music has by no means become outdated to the point of being forgotten. Twelve-tone (composition) is one of the self evident principles of modern musical thinking. At his own discretion, the composer chooses a 12-tone series for each of his works, using it as an intonational basis. However, this is not classical Second Viennese serial technique. In many cases discovering the series is practically impossible.

 Thus, since asking the composer is not possible, and since authentic knowledge of the basic series - unless it is developed as a tone row - does not entirely explain the logic of pitch structure, what is needed is another, more general approach to the task. The following method presents itself as optimal:

- discovering the (hidden) 12-tone series;

- if that is not possible, then (in Denisov-like structures) what is discovered is the hypothetical

series (or the probable series) as a complex of elements that are actually developed in a piece.

while at the same time taking into account that:

- the probable series (set) can be presented horizontally (as a series), vertically (as a central

chord), and in mixed form (horizontal-vertical) exclude repetition.

Such is Denisov's conception of the piece with respect to pitch relationships. The opening section is an exposition of ten pitches: A-B-B- C#--D-E-F-F#-G-G# (excluding two pitches - C and D#) in the following manner:


Example 7: Exposition of pitches in opening section of Signes en Blanc

The missing pitches in section one are added at the end of section two: C4 in the second to last chord, E3 in the last chord. Given that the main contrast in the theme appears with the streaming passages of section three, with the elements of section two being closer to the elements of section one, within the context of the exposition of 12 pitches, sections 1 and 2 have an initial compositional function within the scheme i-m-t. (7) The formal characteristic of the corresponding succession of principal elements (contraction SPE) is the mixed horizontal-vertical character of their presentation. Some of the elements are similar to a series, some are presented as chords. This becomes particularly apparent in further presentations. The structural characteristics of elements are presented via the lines in the lines of Example 7.

The series of the piece can be presented more conveniently as a quasi-series, presenting the chords linearly: 



Example 8; Quasi-Series Involving Chords

The logic of the presentation of the SPE is particular to serial logic. The composer freely chooses elements, guided by the aesthetic sense. The principal structure (horizontal, vertical or mixed) is thus created. However, given that it is an essential component in expressing musical thought, the SPE becomes a compositional principle akin to the melodic scale ("nomos", "raga", "tonus") in modal music, or the tonal scale (with its T-S-D-T) in classical-romantic music, just like the series in dodecaphonic music.

The lines in examples 7 and 8 outline orientationally the possibilities of the actual material. As is generally the case with a series, everything depends on this or that interpretation of the chosen series. In order to single out individual elements of the SPE, it is necessary to understand how they behave later on in the composition. Each element becomes a model (M) for later structures. Its pitch structure (harmony) is identified by a numeric formula with respect to the number and order of semitones. (8) Taking into account the compositional function of elements we get the following group:

Example 9: Group based on function of individual elements

Pitch models A-I which are directly connected with section 1 are particularly active in the two ensuing sections, following several further changes in section four and the transition to a new texture in the secondary theme (10.5 - 11.5). For example, in section two (schematically):


Example 10: Pitch/functional representation of Section 2

Analogously in section three:


Example 11: Pitch/functional representation of Section 3

And section four:


Example 12: Pitch/functional representation of Section 4

The last tones of the main theme clearly outline the motivic preparation of the secondary theme:

end of main theme     beginning of new theme.

Example 13: Last tones of Main Theme

The essential elements in the fundamental structure of the main theme of "Signes .." are now more or less fully outlined. At the same time, all the musical-logical relationships remain relatively free, although filled, as we see, with meaningful relationships. Let us not forget that the entire sonorous aspect is subservient to the colorfully vivid beginning which is dominated by am allergically delicate sensitivity, persistently dolcissimo sempre.


The Secondary Theme

The secondary theme is more defined, firm, continuous (here there are no backgrounds / rests). If the main theme has a novel tonal basis, the central tone A2, then the secondary theme by analogy is based on the central tone B 2. Essentially this tone is adjacent with the tone of the main theme and is already fundamentally prepared in the texture of active instability in sections two and three (see Example 6). The new tonal principle is applied in the piece with such rigor that it does not leave any doubt as to its conscious use by the composer. Thus we arrive at the conclusion that Denisov's Signes en Blanc is nothing short of tonal music: the main theme is in the principal tone, in A, while the secondary them is in the subordinate tone,in B. It can hardly be said that such a conclusion is the result of the application of analytical methods. On the contrary, it is inherent in the very structure of the music. It is probably not necessary in our day to argue that new tonality is far removed from traditional tonality of the major-minor type (here there are no suggestions of the latter).

The tonality of the secondary theme is established through an elementary method: the ostinato tone B2 is used evenly and without interruption for the entire duration of the theme.

Example 14: Ostenato of Secondary Theme

The entire piece is lacking in an audible "chronos protos" - a pulsating smaller unite which appears as the persistent carrier of meter. That is why pulsation appears in the secondary theme: whole notes as before in a slow tempo Lento. Even though the composer does not use bar lines (we are using them for analytical purposes), it is apparent that he is proposing temporal equality of measures, as written in example 14. Hence, there are fifteen connected pedal tones B2 in a steady 4/4. However, everything else, outside of the B2 ostinato, is specially written out with the indication "play without stopping". The voices underneath the pedal tone avoid all regular pulsations. They are written out in free rhythm (FR). The sense of this music, so typical of Denisov, is a feeling of refined "intonation" divided between different voices, of free rhythmic changes of the most tender, crystal clear sounds, of unevenness and capriciousness, of free movement.

Interestingly, how should the secondary theme be learned? Of course, the indicated "play without stopping" does not permit literal interpretation. The rhythms that are written in the notes need to be executed. Although with each measure, playing correctly becomes more and more difficult. Admittedly, in places one encounters synchronous half-measures (e.g. mm. 5, 6, 8, 10, 13; together with mm. 1-2 this constitutes half the length of the theme) that hardly provide relief. Nonetheless, the FR of the secondary theme is a typically irrational rhythm in the "objective" and dispassionate counterpoint of the "passage of time", marked by the soprano ostinato. Possibly the aid of the metronome could be employed for absolute regularity, measuring the beats of our 4/4 measures. Regular pulsating beats in these places call to mind even more clearly the striking of hours and Debussy's La Cathédrale engloutie. There is also apparent similarity in the programmatic situations:

Debussy:                                               Denisov:

- out of silent depths                              - out of "white silence"

- gradual appearance                            - gradual appearance

- edifice-cathedral; and beyond              - kingdom; and beyond

- its outlines-sounds are transmitted        - its signs-sounds are transmitted

- quiet beats of a bell?                            - quiet beats (of a bell?)

The quiet embroidery of delicate lines (Example 14) creates the soft, open texture that encompasses the fundamental axis - the voice of time. Admittedly, the number of strokes is not 12, but 15. (9)

Evidently, the compositional elements of the secondary theme are vigorously restored. But properly speaking, the majority of elements (compared with Example 9) are not repeated here. In this way formal contrast is achieved and in any case, the connections are completely sufficient. We will compare fragments from example 9 "a" and "d" with the elements of the secondary theme:

Example 15: Elements of the Secondary Theme

The relationship between repetition and contrast between themes suggests the traditional connection between the main and secondary themes in sonata form. The music of Signes en Blanc in its spirit has nothing generally to do with the classical "sonata allegro", although logically this is precisely the structure of the secondary theme here.

Also radically changed is the manner of presenting themes. There are four equal voices. The secondary idea has the form of a 3-part fugato against the background of a sustained upper voice. Example 14 clearly delineates the disposition of voices:


Figure 5: Disposition of Voices, "mm" 10.4 - 11.1

Of course, this is not Baroque polyphony. If the neoclassical treatment of the polyphonic form maintains the classical tripartite unity of pitch-rhythm-line, in the by-gone experiments of 12-tone music and the separation of parameters in new music this unity is not maintained. By virtue of this the melodic (and polyphonic) idea / theme is divided into components and ceases to exist in its prior form.

Thus, with Denisov the very category of a "theme" is markedly split to a certain extent? lesser degree into two varieties. The (secondary) "theme" occupies the entire length of the fifteen 4/4 measures. However, the theme (from the polyphonic perspective) is the melody starting with the appearance of the first fugato voice (in the alto, 10.5) to the appearance of the second voice (bass, see example 14 and Figure 5). Moreover, the theme in the free serial sense appears with the arpeggiated "rolling" cluster, formed by the three- or perhaps four voices. The fugato theme does not maintain its rhythmic structure under repetition, and in its third appearance its considerable variation makes it difficult to distinguish. The fundamental inaccuracy of the repetition makes it possible to perceive the repeated alto-bass imitation at that moment, which needs to be considered as intermediary before the third appearance. We quote the scheme of the thematic fugato contours (the five pitches of the "head" of the theme):


Example 16: Fugatto Theme

The transposition is identical, the theme disintegrates in its form which is based on "pseudo-imitation". In spite of the very evident fugato, it is something quite different from the Baroque form which bears the same name. It must be understood as a sonorous fugato, i.e. as a polyphonic outlining of a rolling, layered cluster, while at the same time the actual cluster closes with the figurative cluster of the EDS type. In 12-tone music there is vertical and horizontal equivalence, thus the succession of pitches A-B-A gives the impression of the cluster A-B-A, as if there is no difference between the movement of the melody without a pedal and with a pedal.

The endless procession of thematic cells of the EDS type and movement along a scale completely fill out the rest of the texture. The scheme of the conclusion of the secondary theme (written out thematic elements of the three voices) is as follows:


Example 17: Conclusion of Secondary Theme

As the conclusion for the better part of the composition, in 11.4-11.4 once again the elements of the first theme appear - (4-5-46) resonant chords divided by rests.


Form as a Whole

Having considered the particularities of the material and the method of formal construction we can now look at the structure of the work as a whole.

Regardless of the criticism the composer of Signes en Blanc holds for preconceived schemes that he, of course, does not abide by in the creative process, under analysis (evident more in terms of thematicism and harmony) a type of composition emerges which is very traditional in its external outlines - sonata form. Undoubtedly, the character of the music is far removed from the dynamics and dialectics of processes in sonatas. The material itself (see the main and secondary theme) in no way inclines toward the sonata. Nonetheless, in the end, the general outline of the piece, its thematic and tonal structure permit the form to be simply defined as sonata form (more properly, "sonata lento").

Taking the indicated edition for orientation(10) (we hope that the reader is following the analysis closely with the score in hand) the form has the following structure:

Figure 6: Formal Structure of Signes en Blanc

Everything fits fairly well into sonata form from the tonal-thematic-structural point of view and proportion of sections. Hence the difficult question: is it so in the piece itself? The same question could be posed for D. Smirnov's Pastorals and K. Penderecki's Trenu (the latter case is not without fundamental reservations).

Let us once again verify our perceptions. Do we hear sonata form here? If our hearing does not support this then the proposed formal scheme is brought into question.

In order to find solid ground for the answer it is first necessary to avoid comparing this form with the opening movement of the Jupiter Symphony or the Eroica, but with the "sonata adagio" where the dynamics of sonata form are by no means overly pronounced. We should present ourselves with several pieces which represent quite another type of music - for instance the Andante (E-flat major) of Mozart's Symphony in G Minor or the Adagio sostenuto (F-sharp minor) of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 106.

The comparison (drawn from it alone) leads to antithetical conclusions:

- the essence of the sonata Adagios (Andante, Lento, Largo) of the classics maintains sonata form, the essence of Denisov's piece does not maintain sonata form;

- the historical multiplicity of the sonata form type permits it to be considered not as the veritable sonata Adagio (Andante) of the classics, while the later conceptions of the form veered far from the classical type (Movement I of F. Schubert's Fortepiano Sonata in A Major, F. Chopin's First Ballad for the Fortepiano, F. Liszt's Preludes, Movement I of G. Mahler's Third Symphony, Grandpa Frost's Song and the Buffoon's Dance by N. Rimsky-Korsakov, and Movement I of A. Webern's Symphony); hence it is possible to consider E. Denisov's Signes en Blanc as sonata formnot of the classical type (even anticlassical - why would there not be such a type in the evolution of the form?) - namely as sonorous sonata form.

It is necessary to clarify in concrete terms the meaning of the "essence" of the "sonata allegro" which is preserved in the Adagio and in the Andante. We must unavoidably maintain the position of central classicism in dealing with this question and must look at the essence of the formal principle, not in proximate classics like Domenico Scarlatti or Beethoven's contemporary Franz Schubert, but in the great threesome of Viennese classics. The essence of the sonata principle (and of symphonicism) will then be represented by the principle of development of the musical idea. The most important part of the sonata form is the development, the most representative essence of the sonata principle. However, the development of an idea is already felt with sufficient strength in the exposition (above all in the introduction of the second theme from the development of the main theme), as well as, in general, in all parts of the form. Hence the principal method of outlining sonata form becomes motion as a category that contrasts with the hard "crystal" structures of the song form. Motion is by its very nature foreshadowed in this, allowing the change from one quality to another. A sonata made of "crystals" - eight measure groups, is not sonata form. Resistant to the hardness of the strophic song form, sonata form is of necessity present already in the presentation of the themes (usually just in the main theme). Structurally the secondary theme is less stable and, for the better part of its duration, is motion-generating (Movement I of Beethoven's Fortepiano Sonata Op. 2 No.1).

Having made such a comparison we propose criteria for evaluating "sonata form" in Signes en Blanc:

- the development of an idea (motion) is the disintegration of the crystalline hardness of the song form (let us remember Tchaikovsky's very unclassical Sixth Symphony in which in Movement I the principle of development - sequence D-A¸ E-B - is constructed from a "fragment" of the opening period of the main theme, with appropriate inner dynamic effect); however in Denisov's theme, in the case of "signs" on a white background, there is a certain "disintegration" (in spite of the presence of sections / formal units)

- the development of an idea ("motion" in the sonata form development) is modulation with its dynamic of tension which resolves in a different key, especially in the process of circular motion around the principle foundation which remains in our memory (dynamic process of departure from it, coming toward it in one way or another, "veering off" the path en route toward it, etc.); without modulation the sonata principle would be senseless and impossible to perceive; at the same time the tonality of Denisov's piece (in A) does not have similar dynamic properties; its tonic is a point of reckoning and attraction, but does not possess any power; in lieu of degrees of tonal hierarchy (going away, coming back) all there is here is simple differentiation between "the same perceivable tone" and "not the same perceivable tone", with "coming toward" the principle tone or not "coming toward" it being subject to the composer's free choice (a situation that is unthinkable in the sonata principle).

In this way the very precise "sonorous sonata form" of Signes... represents the disposition of materials that are freely chosen by the composer, in keeping with the freely constructed individual design of the piece. Certainly, E. Denisov's personal taste plays a part in this, just as much as his upbringing in classical and romantic music.



We saw how the exposition is constructed. What about the development? If there is no dynamic of modulation, no thematic splitting, no imitativel saturation, what then is there?

The content and overall outline of this formal section continues the idea of the exposition in a limited way. The thematic material appears in a new guise. New "sonorous motives" appear. "Sonorous" (to be distinguished from mere pitch-specific) motives are sound/colors which can be compositionally contrasted with other elements, irrespective of melodic or chordal factors. The section from the end of 11.5 right down to the second part of the recapitulation, 17.4 (i.e. the greater part of the form!), is directed and governed by new sonic factors - "rippling" (trills) and joyous "glitter", occasionally falling into "threaded rustles" (like the elements in 10.1). (11) For the performer the outlined, technical and pianistic presentation of the middle section does not differ in any way from the introduction of a new theme (i.e. a new fragment).

Witness the poetic "rippling", "glittering" and the "singing of birds".


Example 18: "Rippling" Theme

Having become denser the "signs" now form whimsical "honeycombs" and "veils", imponderably sheltered by an enshrouding "cantus firmus" - the white notes of the main theme are in the meter and rhythm of the secondary theme (but, in contrast with the latter, the formative outlines of measures - which were not present earlier - are not supported in the counterpoint of sonorous lines, there are no "voices" either). Interestingly, the white notes of the cantus firmus "in A" appear in passionless, regular white notes, as in the "exercises" of Fux-Belerman. Hence the form of the sonorous counterpoint section, taken from the theme of the exposition. Now the theme is one tone higher, once again just as in the sonata development of the early Viennese classics, when the main theme occurred in the same tonality as the secondary theme (as well as in the same meter).

The cantus firmus is set out as a line; in a second one a false sequence is created:


Example 19: "Cantus Firmus"

In the third section (from 13.2) the cantus firmus disappears and only the sonorous background remains.
The sonorous counterpoint (SC) is something that is theoretically new. It principally consists, of course, of a multi-layered, multi-parametric coexistence of layers in the texture. Contemporary music in similar cases actually uses such an imaginary stereophony. The sonorousness is divided in such a way that the cantus firmus and the SC sound in various planes, as if in different dimensions. The immediate plane is indicated pp, while the distant one is pppp. The pianist is accordingly required to differentiate the two sonorous layers.

The SC exists in capricious flows of color. At the same time we cannot catch the changeable extent of sounds, indicated in pitches in "triangular", "rectangular" and similar shapes (especially important are the ends of tonal figures / "shapes"), suggesting not very clear, but sufficiently defined contours of lines.

The essence of the SC here consists of the fusion in one moment of time which is stereophonically divided into an expanse (three- and not the traditional two-dimensional), voices/melody and a colorful mixture of delicate "needles" appearing from above and below against a background of rippling, shivering "bird-like" trills. If one such sonorous layer is taken, in it one discerns two levels in counterpoint - the quieter trills and the quasi-chaotic, flashing, multicolored "flares". We extract the contours of sonorous voices (compared with example 18) (8):


                                                        Example 20: "Bird-like trills" layer of the Sonorous Counterpoint.


Example 21: "Multicolored 'flares'" of the Sonorous Counterpoint.

Dynamics are also extracted in the scheme of "stereophonic" sonorous harmony, keeping in mind that, while reading the scheme, the division into layers must be taken into account; otherwise the expanse transforms into flatness. Thus, Behold, here ?? we see the composer Edison Denisov who turned his back on traditional tonal-thematic methods resisting (new) thematicism, (new) tonality and writing rigorously correct counterpoint. Interestingly, what would the great 20th century master of counterpoint Sergey Ivanovich Taneev say about him, having prophesized the renewal of polyphonic thinking in our century? Apropos this and other representatives of the Moscow school of composition, Denisov studied with the Muscovite V.Y. Shebalin who in turn studied with the Muscovite N.Y. Miyaskovski (although, admittedly, the latter studied with the resident of St. Petersburg, A.K. Liadov). Miyaskovski (like Shebalin) taught at the 35th Class of the Moscow Conservatory, while in "The Taneev" 9th Class a frequent presence and presenter was E.V. Denisov.


Recapitulation, Coda

In the interest of compactness of this text we will allow ourselves to shorten the consideration of many important details in the piece.

The beginning of the recapitulation is problematic in its gradualness. The thematicism and character of the main theme appears at 14.3, with the central tone B (not A) and a residual. brilliant, sonorous "flare" (example 22a). Later on the tonic center A (example 22b) of the recapitulation appears. At the same time the presentation of the theme as in 9.1-10.4 does not occur here; the tonal center is not consolidated but goes through a series of sequential displacements (again B at 16.5, example 22c). The splintering of the main theme with the pitch B2 at the top (example 22d) completes the impression of the developed theme in the recapitulation.

The question begs itself: did Denisov have in mind here the analogous example of the first movement of the Op. 42 Sonata in A minor by his beloved F. Schubert? The developed passage of the main part of the recapitulation has the form of a question and two sequential answers:


Motion:             model             seq. 1             seq. 2

Material:           main theme     main theme     main theme

Structure:         cannon           cannon           imitation

Tonality:           F-sharp A-V    A-C V              C V            

Rhythm:           1 + 5              1 + 5               2 + 2 + 3

                                    Figure 7: Structure of Coda

We extrapolate the line of development of the main theme in Denisov's piece:



Example 22: Extrapolated line of development in Signes en Blanc.


The secondary theme in the recapitulation has a "tilted" character; the repeated central tone C in this case does not occur in the upper voice, but in the lower one:


Example 23: Recapitulation of secondary theme.

The secondary theme takes up the motive C1-B-C1 from the main theme, prolonging the development which in this way flows into the central tone of the secondary theme. The central tones of the main theme A-B-B are directed toward the central tone C of the secondary theme.

The form of the secondary theme is a free fugato (compare with examples 16, 17). The "head" of the theme repeats fairly exactly as the initial theme (compare examples 24 and 16). The scheme of the "exposition" is a three part fugato:


Example 24: Scheme of exposition

Continuing with the analogy, the Baroque tripartite unity of pitch-rhythm-line is absent, and for this reason the entire texture is structured around endless reflections of micro-elements (particularly the EDS figure).

The secondary theme is not transposed into the "principal tonality" (as stated above, its central tone is something foreign when compared to the tonic). For this reason it curiously abandons the quasi-strict keeping of time (see 10.4-11.4). Its keeping of time is free, just as in the main theme. Interestingly, at the same time, this "unevenness" and "imprecision" is written out with appropriate exactness (see 17.5-18.1). It could be said that the secondary theme is "transposed" into the meter of the main theme.

How many times is C1 repeated? Before there were 15 repetitions, now there are 6. Naturally this is a structural-organizing number from the main theme of the exposition.

The coda has three parts:

1. 18.2-19.1 - "reminder of the development";

2. 19.1-19.2 - reminder of the main theme of the exposition;

3. 19.2-19.6 - coda proper ("chirping of birds").

The last of the central tones is the A2 itself, referencing (the quote???) from the beginning of the piece (See example 1), connecting 4-5-6 (and further departures into various directions). The sonorous passages of the third part of the coda do not have a central tone, generally by their very nature in not gravitating toward any supporting tone, and thus which not abolishing the last central tone A2. What we get is a piece "in one key". This is a fact that must be understood correctly. Under other conditions with such material a composer could simply not control the logic of the central tone; if the composer has a different individual design (ID) he could become (perhaps) even more logically convincing. However the given ID imposes the maintaining of the "color" of the central tone, as if it were a tonic. Hence, in this way we get the coincidence of this aspect of the ID with the logic of the traditional sonata form.


Logos of the Musical Composition

Thus by force of reason we have penetrated the spirit and compositional logic of E. Denisov's work. Of course, there is still quite a ways to go in order to arrive at an exhaustive understanding of the essence of this music. What has been presented is more of a description of the keys to adequate understanding of new musical ideas. A more detailed presentation is possible and desirable, being associated with the particular genre of musical disciplines: the analysis as a musical cult, the cult of determined composition, the ritual of penetrating the spiritual substance of a work.

The true content of a musical work is not expressed in notes. However it is possible to come into living contact with it by operating on a particular form of selected musical instances (we call them notes), while its characteristics can be accessed using analytical methods of locating note fragments in the musical substratum that brings them to life. It is supposed that the creative reader does not simply look at such instances with the naked eye, but conquers (or adopts) them through living performance using "the mind" ???, as if they originated from within him. The available musical logic recreates music from thoughts (a process of re-aggregation). The ideal of that analysis, that cult, is to unite (i.e. involve) us with the spirit of the music, which appears possible in the sense of the virtual placement of the receiver in the place of the creator (of the music, of course). At the same time, the reverse situation also appears possible - to proceed from the known principles of the artistic object toward creation (composition) of the same. This will permit us to designate the rational substance of music not as its logic, but as its logos.

The attainment of the described condition permits us to enter the realm of penultimate, pre-final causes of the musical entity. Why pre-final and not final? Under conditions of the reverse relation (not re-cognition, but re-creation) unity is directed toward an already created object. Involvement with the final causes is intuitive groping and coming into contact with that which generates the creative ideas themselves. By correctly analyzing the newly-made creation we often find ourselves in that atmosphere of composition, nearly sensing the self-prolonging creative process. Not so long ago the erupting lava of spiritual motion "onward and upward" was present in that place. On its wrought whiteness the "signs" of form are crystallized - dots, lines, figures. Now they appear almost like molded statues. However, on it we still directly sense the eternally engraved impulses of the inspired creative urge.

Edison Denisov's piece is itself a kingdom, a radiant light. That is its content, the reflection of the artist's inner world. Providence has it that way. In the depths of the artistic conception of the piece we sense the spiritual tension of the continuing creation of worlds which uses the new sonorous materials of music to generate clarity, structure, harmony of the whole - in one word, the original artistic beauty.

In this sense the creative result is not simply Signes en Blanc but signs from above. The following words are fit for such a work:


"When a composer hears true music,

he hears the voice of God" (E. Denisov).


APPENDIX A: Yuri Holopov

"Edison Denisov on the Problem of the Classical and the Non-Classical"

In connection with the written lines of the article on the subject indicated in the heading, it was impossible not to exploit the opportunity of chatting with one of the objects of study - the composer himself, particularly as Edison Denisov is not just a composer, but a thinker about music.

Hence, Denisov's "improvised" sketch on the subject of what is his understanding of the classical and the non-classical (the composer's response was recorded by the author of these lines as a kind of synopsis for further decoding):

ED: "Classical" is that which is of inestimable worth; that which forever and always remains in music. With regard to the "classical", "classicism" has a defined aesthetic whose main trait is an orientation toward stability and consistency.

The late romantics whose lives often continued into the twentieth century - G. Mahler, R. Strauss, G. Puccini - managed to maintain this in themselves. This balance has now been disturbed. More than others, composers assisted in this process of disturbance - the New Viennese School, I. Stravinsky, C. Ives, B. Bartok. However, today they represent the new classics - 20th century classics, together with S. Prokofiev and D. Shostakovich.

The understanding of musical form is important in considering the question of the classical and the non-classical. C. Debussy and S. Prokofiev still followed classical form (Prokofiev's Classical Symphony). However, in A. Schoenberg's Op. 25 Suite for Piano there is no classical aesthetic, none of that musical sensibility, even though the composer is a prisoner of "classicist" foundations (his idols were J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms); admittedly, it is hard to take sides in this.

With regard to my own creative work: for a long time I did not differentiate between the "classical" and the "non-classical". I figured that when you compose you need not consider form as a given (for instance, if you are writing a sonata, then the main movement must follow sonata form, etc.). Form is something that is the result of the process of composing music; musical form is always unique, with there being no two works with the same identical form. Accordingly, there is no general system of form. At the same time there is motion along similar paths which makes form comparable one to another. It follows that one develops another if it is written backward, and then the influence is of a reverse relationship (based on contrast).

The material always exerts an influence on musical form. There is often a very close relationship in this: form is conditioned by the material. Form becomes unnatural where there is no limiting relationship between it and the material (for this reason classical form cannot be a given, in spite of all its aesthetic perfection). In the process of composition it is the material which comes first, and the degree to which it is mastered determines the underlying form of a work. For instance, in working on the electronic music On the banks of a still pond I worked on the piece for several months, in particular trying to establish the border between the sound of the electro-generators and the living sound of natural instruments. The actual work exists on tape, nearly without a single natural sound. Of course, there is no traditional ("classical") form here - no cyclical form, sonata form, not even any allusion. If there are any associations, they only refer to picturesqueness and its forms.

Nonetheless, there are objects in the composer's conscience which are learned, and they strongly exert their influence.

I don't like chaos. I like clarity and logic."

August 3, 1996 (12)

translation: Roman Yakub and Vladimir Radonjic

revision: John MacKay with help of Julnara Janaly

1 The author uses the term "sonoristics" which is unfamiliar at least to Western ears. (ed.)

2 Because of the absence of meter,  the score designations (9.1 etc.) would appear to refer respectively to page and line numbers with page 9 as the first page of the score. ed.

3. quoted from Muzykal naya zhich 1997 Nol. 5 p. 39.

4. Sonority - the term is widely used in Soviet-Russian musicological-theoretical literature to define a collection of sounds in simultaneity with a strong colorist connotation, but with a rather indefinite or vague connection (or sometimes no connection at all) to the pitch-class structure of the piece.

5  .i.e. initlal, medial, terminal

6 .Here is a task for lovers of musical sophistries. In response to the question posed by the author of these lines E. Denisov answered in 1996 in connection with his Violoncello Sonata (1971) that the series there is correct, although he forgot it at that moment and suggested hot it can be found: the beginning of the finale needs to be considered, the repeated notes should be eliminated and the remaining non-repeated notes are the series.

7.  An unexpected, purely external similarity of form appears in the theme of Signs ... with the classical three-part song form aaba (such as in the Finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony). It must be especially noted that what is at issue is external correspondence of contours (scheme), given that Denisov's theme is entirely devoid of the principal characteristics of the three-part song form - metrical extrapolation, system of metrical function and correspondingly audible tonal-harmonic functions in rhyme-like cadences - in one word, devoid of the three-part song form.

8.  The designations A 1.1. etc.  refer to the pitch class set of A, A#,B defined by the number of semitones between adjacent notes in the set staring from the lowest pitch which is given a latter name (note the "M" refers to the A2 which is  the central tone of the "main" theme. ed.

9. Perhaps in the mysterious kingdom the day has 30 hours?  Or, more simply, there are 3-hour days .... in any case, this could be taken as a hint, that no too much significance should be ascribed to programmatic motivations.

10.  (Signes en Blanc by Edisson Denisov, Breitkoph un Härtel, 1974.) Warning! In the Russian edition there is a mistake at the end of the note system at 12.1. In lieu of g-sharp2, a2 it should read e2, f2.

11. If sonority ("sonorousness") is placed foremost among compositional factors and given the importance that is equivalent with melodic-thematic or serial factors, then the central division (12.1-15.1) can be construed as a new sonorous "theme". In that case the form of the whole could be taken toward the "five-part rondo" (in the classically system, authored by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev). Evidently, such a formulation was not familiar to Denisov, but, of course, the form itself must have been well known under the name "sonata form with episodes" (in lieu of the development), corresponding with the Soviet "Analysis of Musical Works", "after Tsukerman". Apropos, there is also another interesting problem: how did the composer himself understand the form, given that he was taught under the (incredibly!) theoretical classifications of Soviet "Analysis"?

12. This article (with appended commentary by the composer) appeared originally as "Знаки СвЫШе" in Печр Булез Едиссон Деисов Аналитичесий Артикл (Pierre Boulez Edisson Denisov: Analytical Articles) by Yuri Kholopov and Svetlana Kumaskaya, Moscow: 1998 pp. 137-179.