‘Proem’ opens Freehand, so it ain’t new; it was the first piece written for the album, commenced shortly after the invitation to record it was issued. That was 2001. The manuscripts for Freehand reside with its executive producer so I can’t say for sure but as I recall ‘Proem’ was over two pencilled sheets – bits here and there and arrows directing back and forth and not quite everything filled in. It’s through-composed though, so the version you’ll find on the ‘Compositions’ page here is pretty much what’s played on the record. No improvisation whatsoever. It was supposed I think to be a kind of ‘welcome in’ sort of a thing, a gentle introduction – ‘proem’ meaning, as I understand it, something prefatory, something in the line of a preamble. (How good a word is ‘preamble’? To amble ahead of something, to get to the ambling before the serious business had been dealt with. Perhaps that’s what I should have called it. Oh well.)
It’s the only fully-written piece on Freehand, and at about a minute and a half it’s also the shortest selection. The album, for any readers who mightn’t have dashed to the shelf to retrieve their copy and remind themselves, is performed on piano alone, and mixes spontaneous improvisations with pieces based on written forms. A bit like the later Scare quotes from the trio. Twelve selections: six of each.
Something that drives me when composing is the will to mess things up, to throw the spanner into the works, to fuck with stuff. Very often the start of a piece will occur to me well away from the instrument, and I’ll think, ‘why couldn’t I do that?’ as in the genesis of ‘The unmistaken’, where while walking along Wentworth Rd in Burwood, NSW, it occurred to me that I could make a C minor 9th chord move to a C-sharp 7th with a flattened 9th. (A sharp 9th too, as it turned out.) Because here’s a case of the other overriding concern I have as a composer: that the voice leading should be respectable. Check the music, if you’re so disposed, and look at the movements between the first and the second chord: D is the 9th and becomes the flat ninth; F (the 11th) falls via E-flat (the third) to E (the sharp ninth); B-flat (the seventh) rises to B (the seventh); E-flat (the third) rises to E-sharp (the third; although this happens at a transfer of register – to have the F in the right hand actually becoming the third in the C-sharp chord would have been way too bald for me); the interval between the roots is a semitone. Then I make the ‘resolution’ go up five, rather than down. So whereas I might have written G#ø C#7 F#- instead I messed with it, and the semitone movement is something that subsists, one way or another, throughout the tune.
At any rate, back to ‘Proem’. Here it is:
And here’s the chart. The time signatures are a bit loopy; the piece is tempo rubato or something and while there are certainly stresses here and there the way it’s been organised on paper is just for expediency. Key-wise it’s really in B, but there’s no use even pretending a key signature is going to work, so I haven’t. (My third thing: the flat/sharp interchange. This is endlessly interesting to me. Ever since Liszt’s Consolation no. 4 did that tricky thing, suspending the 4th in the A7 chord, then giving us the third that suddenly became the tonic in a first-inversion D-flat chord – ever since I heard it, anyway – this has fascinated me. I lurve the change of colour as you go (for example) from E major to E flat major, using the B as the C-flat in the F half-diminished chord. The final pages of Strauss’s Capriccio or ‘Im Abendrot’ are the kind of thing I want at my funeral. No, actually – while I’m receiving the last rites. And I’m a bit of a spelling Nazi (see above, under ‘D double-sharp’) too.)
This piece is tonal, always. Functional, too; I have just tried to screw things around a bit. The opening gesture could easily have been a ii – V – I into A: B-7 E7 A∆. Instead I’ve made it an interrupted cadence. Welcome in, things are already underway. Then I’ve said to myself, why not cast the ii chord as a major seventh? Cooool. And V7? Bugger that, let’s have the suggestion of A minor at V, gentler, without the third. That way the middle voices lead in expanding semitones, opening out as it were. The close sharp-ness of the first chord is softened by the white-key ambiguity in the second, then back to sharps in the denser third. I mean that’s the whole thing right there: something obvious and easy, loused up by mis-representation, mis-reading you might say, but saved by close voice-leading. With contrasting colours.
On the other hand the piece seems, as I say, ultimately to be in B, so maybe that’s actually where it started from – a tonic chord. Odd to place it in an anacrusis, and truly it doesn’t sound that way to me, but in my experience there’s no embargo on arguing for analytical dis-encryptions that can’t be heard. (Ooooh, did he really say that?) Resolutions to B occur in bars 6, 13, and 24, with a lesser one at 18. The ones at 6 and 24 are obviously the big ones – the ‘exposition’ and ‘recapitulation’ ones, if I may be so appallingly pretentious. Viewed in sequence, though, the progress to B major at bars 6, 13 and 24 becomes a little stronger each time. At first, the ending is oily, insinuating itself from A-minor and arguably functioning as a V of E minor. There was a suggestion of E minor at the beginning of the second full bar (although my stupid chart counts the anacrusis, an incomplete bar, as an entire one); on a weak beat and only there for that long, but reached you could say by a iv V i cadence.
But of course I had to go and dick with it, putting the flat ninth in the bass on the beat as an accented chromatic passing-tone, and having the briefest colour of E major on the and of one, although the resolution (such as it is) is to E minor. And out of the following A major, what happens? Not to D, oh no, well nowhere but in the bass; or when you do get the D triad (on the second beat of what we’re calling bar 4) it’s loused up with a flattened sixth.
At bar 13, B major has actually been reached from a fourth below, making it something in the manner of a perfect cadence. Perfection though – what an idea! No no, our V is all ambiguous and clingy, wanting still to be in E minor. At the end of the piece the V I is more convincing, although even there I’m putting all the real dominant action off the beat.
This, put simply, is how it all works. Look at bar 8. What happens here is all about close voice-leading and the chromatic decoration of basic tonal relationships. Even the following two bars, resolving to some kind of bi-tonal arrangement, echo the shape of simple cadences. The melody is finding its way as it goes, cleaving (but not too closely) to intervallic resemblances of the opening six bars; nothing is actually repeated until the final five bars, unless you count the echo of the opening gesture, at bar 16.
The only defence I can offer for all this argy-bargy is my deference to the linear, and perhaps an aversion to the obvious. Both are possibly weaknesses, I can’t say. But that’s all there is to ‘Proem’, and not only harmonically: a complication of the rather simple. The opening six bars are echoed in the last five, where things are made closer to what they actually are; functional progressions just coloured in a bit. The odd tritone substitution but nothing more. The melody is unchanged.
One wonders how far this approach can be taken. (One wonders this often, in fact. Sometimes in a sweat.) Could there be anything of a system here? Is it resonant? How to manage this – or any – system, without resorting to pattern and repetition, to formula? Challenges, challenges.