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Blogger in Residence: Rory Johnston

Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.

About Rory...

Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.

Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90's hiphop.

Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Exploring tonality and harmony

In this post-modern world it’s easy to feel uncertain of where to start with tonality - and consequently harmony (the former informing the latter). I remember having a discussion with my composition tutor, Camden Reeves, early on in my Masters degree bemoaning the fact that there was no post-modern tonal system with which to formulate my harmonic structures. I always found it very difficult to step away from just following my ears – which isn’t always a bad thing – even though I love exotic harmonies used by composers like Takemitsu and Messiaen. I think inherently the idea of relinquishing my control over every note to a set of rules that were alien to me felt wrong and distressing (and potentially unmusical), but as I’ve experimented more, I’ve allowed those apprehensions to subside somewhat (not that I now write high-modernist serialist music…).

The idea of a ‘one-size fits all’ tonal structure for the modern day is, in my opinion, not something that should be wished for. There are so many inventive and fascinating ways in which different composers build their music and that difference makes the discovery of the new all the more interesting. Whilst many people still write music utilising the functional harmony solidified in the Classical period of western music, there are lots of other ways of structuring the tonality of your music that will sound more contemporary and still be structurally supportive and manipulatable – and will also allow you to focus on all of the other interesting parameters of music that often get left unattended to.

Here are some examples of tonal systems and structures, some more complex than others, that might inspire you to take a different path when composing than you normally would:


Invented by the world-renowned Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (pronounced closer to ‘Pahr-t’ like pat, not ‘Pair-t’ like pear – sorry it’s a pet peeve), this technique has traditional triadic harmony as its underpinning. In this type of music, a chord - or selection of a few chords - will encapsulate the entire harmonic motion of a piece/movement, with the internal relationship between the voices creating localised harmonic interest. Two very good examples of this are Pärt’s Berliner Messe and the incredibly famous piece, Spiegel im Spiegel.

There are generally two types of voice in this technique: the first aptly named the ‘tintinnabular voice’ takes the triad of the piece/bar (if they are different) and arpeggiates around the notes therein; the second voice is the conflicting voice, and moves up or down in stepwise motion within the key/mode of the music.


With these two voices looping around, a wide range of harmonies appear that relate to the overarching tonal setting, whilst also creating internal motion and interest. This restriction of general harmonic motion whilst still maintaining the sense of development of chords is what facilitates the static, meditative quality that Pärt’s minimalist music so masterfully achieves.


Modes of limited transposition

Modality has been used for centuries as a way of structuring the intervals of a scale. Its formalisation dates back to the origins of western music in the chant of the early Catholic church. The modes within plainchant function by setting up how a scale is broken down in semi-tones and tones – for example the modern-day major scale is also known as the Ionian mode and constitutes the following pattern: tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone.

There are lots of different types of traditional modes, like the Lydian mode (T,T,T,S,T,T,S), the Lochrian mode (S,T,T,S,T,T,T), and the well-known Dorian (T,S,T,T,T,S,T). Regular modality is itself a very interesting and useful way to make your music have a slightly more exotic undertone, but in general these modes will lead you back to a music that is functional and still often feeling like it is stuck in the traditions of the past. If you really want to use modes to try and escape the clutches of traditional tonality, then the ‘modes of limited transposition’ are where you should look next:

Other than his obsession with birdsong, Olivier Messiaen, the pre-eminent French composer of the 20th century, was well-known for his use of the modes of limited transposition. He wrote a very beautiful setting of the text O sacrum convivium, which ended up being his only piece of liturgical choral music. These scales are, like our other modes, constructions of intervals forming a repeating pattern. The differences between these modes and the traditional ones are three-fold: they occasionally use intervals of bigger than a tone; they occasionally have more or less than seven notes per octave; and have a limited range of transposition. This last point, where the modes get their name, just means that because of the inherent qualities of the modes, you can only move the starting not of the mode around so many time within the octave before you get the same scale as a previous starting note. Here is a list of the modes:


The first mode is quite a well-know one, as it only requires you to keep ascending or descending in tones to achieve it – hence the name the whole tone scale, it’s wholly made up of tones! - It is heavily used by Debussy in almost all his output. The second is the mode Messiaen uses most regularly in his music (also heard massively in the music of Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov). The Octatonic scale - named for its 8 pitches per octave instead of 7 in a traditional scale/mode (octa meaning 8) - has been used by composers throughout the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st looking to emulate the sound of Messiaen’s music. Its inherent properties in the way it is structured (using repeating semi-tones and tones) emphasises the tri-tone, which means that generally when more than one voice at a time is utilising this mode there is a lot of dissonance. Building your music using one of these modes as a base is a sure-fire way to explore the relationship between individual lines and complex chords, as, with many of these modes, normal triadic harmony rarely falls neatly on top of it.


Infinity Series

Per Nørgård is a Danish composer who was born in 1932. He discovered his Infinity Series in 1959 and used it in many of his later compositions including Voyage into the Golden Screen, in which this technique can be heard the clearest.

The Infinity Series, is the musical representation of fractal numbers. Now, I’ve just spent a good half an hour trying to find a straight-forward, non-mathematical explanation of what a fractal is, and it’s so abstract that it is difficult to do that (the Wikipedia definition is this: a fractal is a subset of a Euclidean space for which the Hausdorff dimension strictly exceeds the topological dimension… which, I’m sure to most, goes completely over our heads), but suffice it to say this: a fractal is a set of infinite numbers that will contain the whole of itself within itself, and will often be self-similar with very intricate fine detail – sorry it’s the best I could do!

The most famous examples of fractals are the visual representations of them you see using the Mandelbrot set.

As it is a sequence of numbers, Nørgård’s technique is essentially a serial one, but I wouldn’t put it in the same bracket as the music from the Second Viennese School (Schoenbern, Webern and Berg). Nørgård uses the sequence as a method for endless melody, which is at once familiar but different. This freedom of melody means the composer can focus on the contextualisation of that line using different harmony, but you can in theory use this sequence purely as a source of pitches. I once wrote a piece using an Infinity Series where, at points, I used the pitches one after the other to write the harmony top to bottom.

This picture shows a 16 bar extrusion of an infinity sequence, taken from Nørgård’s website. The sequence you get will depend on the initial interval, as the rest of the sequence is figured out from that – so the bigger the first step, the wilder the sequence will be. You can listen to an example of how this sounds on Nørgård’s Wikipedia page under ‘Music’. 

Infinity series.gif

There used to be page on Nørgård’s own website where there was an explanation of this sequence, how it works, and how to create one for yourself. Unfortunately it’s not officially available anymore, but thanks to the wonders of internet archives I’ve managed to find the pages on the Wayback Machine, so grab it whilst you still can!


Focus on something else

This may seem like a facetious suggestion, but it’s important to realise that tonality and harmony are not the only parameters of music. There are many composers who do very little with harmony but still succeed in creating engaging, masterful music. More often than not, these composers fall in the bracket of ‘minimalist’ composers, but if one parameter is minimalistic – in this case harmony – that doesn’t mean all of them have to be. It will mean the focus is pushed on to other things, like rhythm, texture, and dynamic.

The prime example of this is Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, which I have previously suggested you listen to. Through major swathes of the piece the chord will stay virtually completely still harmonically, but the interest comes from the interplay between the rhythms of the different voices and their dynamic, as well as the space in which they reside in the auditory field (whether the sound is coming from left or right). One of my Masters portfolio submissions could be construed as a minimalist piece, as there are only four pitches used throughout, but the focus of the piece was not the development of the harmony, but the development of the timbre, so that over the course of 7 minutes the sound goes from pitchless rhythms to unison, full-sounding, never-ending melody. There are always other ideas to focus a piece around, you just have to take a step back and think laterally.

I hope that has opened your mind to some of the possible avenues to explore. The world of composition is a broad church, and there are many different styles and genres to explore within it.

Many of my examples in the blog have not explicitly been of choral music, but all of these principles and techniques can and do apply to choral music, as they apply to all music. Its interesting to take a step back and realise that you can structure the harmony of your music on many different things, and that there is no one right way to do it – see what you find useful and what you don’t. So next time you write a piece, or even if you’re just sketching and messing around at the piano, why not try experimenting: what would happen if I wrote a choral piece which had no pitches – would it still be a choral piece? What would it sound like if I used only three chords for this whole section of music – can I still make it interesting and engaging? How weird can a line sound and it still be easily singable – is a minor thirteenth too far for a singer to jump? All of these questions are out there, ready for you to figure out…

What I’ve listened to this week (I’ll keep it light, as there have been lots of examples here):

Tu pauperum refugium – Josquin des Prez

Still Above Ground – Camden Reeves 

Written by Rory Johnston 


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