5.String Quartet No.1

Microtonal morphing modality

String Quartet No.1 was commissioned by the London Festival of Bulgarian Culture and premiered by Forte Quartet at a concert at St James’ Church, Piccadilly, at the first issue of that festival in 2010, after a couple of pre-premiere performances in New York. The recording with String Quartet “Frosch” submitted within this thesis was produced later by the Bulgarian National Radio in Sofia.

A particular feature of this work is the integration of microtonal elements from the theory and practice of Eastern Chant into the general framework of morphing modality in my compositional method.

A detailed discussion of the microtonal features of Eastern Chant would requires a rather long span and is beyond the scope of this text (but see footnote).136 (click)  Instead I will describe a fundamental principle that makes these traditional microtonal features adaptable to my compositional technique.

Some of these features stem from the untempered nature of some modes in Eastern Chant. 137 (click) Others are based on a principle of expressive microtonal inflection that is a result of modal modulations and scale degree fluctuations in which certain degrees in the mode are taken as pivotal, while others fluctuate.138 (click)  The pivotal degrees in the Chant tradition are often positioned at a fifth, fourth or third apart, while the fluctuating ones are situated in between these pivotal scale degrees. That can be illustrated in the following way:


Figure 23: Microtonal Fluctuation: schematic representation. The pivotal scale degrees are designated by white noteheads and the fluctuating ones – by black noteheads. The possible alterations (by quarter-tone increments) are given for each fluctuating degree at the top stave. At the bottom stave the four possible 3-note modes (by quarter-tone increments) derived from example 1. (top stave) are given. The possible 4-note combinations from example 2. (top stave) and 5-note combinations from example 3. (top stave) can be derived in the same way, (as well as 1/3 tone etc. possibilities) while the grounding principles for the intervallic structure of a mode described in Chapter 2.1 apply, as well as all general principles of modal morphing outlined in the text. The description of fluctuation is given in chapter 1.2.


I must emphasize that the tradition of Eastern Chant is exclusively vocal and no instruments are used in worship or in the preparation of chanters.  Thus the principle described here makes a robust and practical use of microtonal intonation that is internalised and relies primarily on the correlation of the ear and the voice, and on learning the characteristic intonations aurally from the more experienced chanters, because furthermore the method is strongly underpinned by very significant perceptional/cognitive factors, which are discussed throughout this text, and particularly in Chapters 2.1, 4.1, 6.1 and the Conclusion.

The principle, as outlined above, albeit rather simple in its abstract core, provides for a great amount of details in its implementation, resulting in a fascinating variety of microtonal modal harmonies and colours which are essential for the harmonic language of this monophonic tradition.

In my technique the implementation of this principle fits naturally, as it is essentially identical with the process of modal morphing explained in the previous chapters139 (click)  and it only extends it naturally to the microtonal domain. This provides for a significant extension of the available resource for colour and character of harmony, and in detail of implementation in my music it is further informed by the Eastern Chant tradition.

The microtonal and semitonal harmonies co-exist naturally in the context of this method, without creating stylistic or technical discrepancies because they are constructed upon the same fundamental principles for pitch organisation within the framework of morphing modality, as used elsewhere in my music, and therefore they integrate entirely without any difficulties. In many instances in the string quartet I have been morphing microtonal harmonies into semitonal and vice versa. For example:


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Figure 24: String Quartet No.1, bars 16-20, with pitch reduction at the bottom stave.

The pivotal degrees are designated by white noteheads, the fluctuating ones – by black noteheads. The alterations employed are given for each fluctuating degree. (Definition for Fluctuation is available in Chapter 1.2.)

NB: In this example I have respelled some accidentals back to their original instances (which were respelled in the score for players’ convenience at a later stage) to give the original harmonic structure, as initially composed.


In this passage the harmony, as determined by the background morphomodal network (bottom stave) and its interaction with the foreground mophopolyphonic texture, develops without fixed boundaries being perceived between microtonal and semitonal harmonies. The passage develops further (after bar 20) in entirely semitonal harmonies, while the development of texture and line continues unbroken.

Another instance where a predominantly microtonal harmony morphs gradually into predominantly semitonal is in bars 157-161 (Example 23 (starts at b.121)). The whole section before that moment has been developed in predominantly microtonal harmonies, whereas the section that follows is semitonal.

The section in bb.140-166 (Example 23 (starts at b.121)) deserves particular attention. It is developed in a rather narrow pitch range, within a fifth (with only few exceptions) and around an Ison drone, initially on g, then shifting to b and c. The rhythm is deliberately monotonous and the structure of the motifs in the melodic lines is quite simple and repetitive. This conveys a hypnotic, relentless, quasi-ritual quality, while the main factor that introduces a great variability to the overall monotony of rhythm and motivic structure is namely the harmony, more precisely the microtonal harmonies (developed with the same morphomodal method) which explore a great variety of microtonal modal colour in this very narrow pitch range.

This passage has been inspired by a particular type of chants that are sung only once a year, at the Lamentation at the Tomb (Опело Христово) service at the evening on Good Friday.140 (click)  These chants are composed of brief and simple motifs that are repeated antiphonally over very long texts and create a very particular atmosphere. It is this atmosphere that is the main inspiration for this passage in my quartet, as it has little resemblance to the chants in its pitch material and in the way it sounds.

It could be said in general that despite the profound and holistic influence that Eastern Chant has exerted on my style and technique, my music only seldom resembles chant melodies and sonorities directly. There are certain intonations from Eastern Chant that are integrated in the fabric of my music as a vocabulary, but I have generally not been trying to recreate or imitate the surface structures and lines of the Chant tradition, except for the very special moments when I have been explicitly aiming to refer to its atmosphere, such as the aforementioned passage from the String Quartet, the string passage in The Sacred Flight – figures J-L (Example 22) or the very beginning of Scene 5 in The Mirror (Example 24). However, in these passages the Chant tradition is not quoted or imitated, but its essence re-created and interpreted.

There are only few examples of micro-quotations from chants and most of them appear in the String Quartet: bars 180-182 (Example 23 (starts at b.121)) and 194-196 (Example 23), while the passage in bb. 208-215 (Example 23), although closely resembling a chant, is not a quotation. The only two other instances of Chant quotation in this thesis are in the 3rd Percussion Concerto, bb. 179-184 (Example 25); and in the last of the 7 Pieces from the Temple for Piano solo (not included with the thesis) (Example 26). In A Seasong, a chant motive is developed exegetically in a way that makes it impossible to recognise aurally.


6.Percussion Concerto No.3 Genesis

Rhythm: regular or irregular? hyper-structuring, metaphors

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