Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Family in a Row"

The sixth installment in the blog series "28 in Twenty-Eight" by Robert Ian Winstin.

"Family in a Row"

Families interact in unusual and, sometimes, funny ways.

My family is no different than yours - well, maybe mine is a little better, but that's the only difference! (OK, so I'm a little biased!)

As a composer I am fascinated by the interactions between notes, rhythms, pitch colors, etc. As a family member I am fascinated by verbal interactions between people and the group dynamic that occurs - and changes - depending on which family member is in the room at any given time.

My sister-in-law Lizz recently commented on my admitted lack of talent in stringing together more than two interesting words to create a title - by sending me a list of very funny and pithy suggestions for titles to work off of.

So I was excited this morning to sit down and compose music to her witty title of "Daffodils Don't Have Thermometers," or "If I Wanted This Much Snow I'd Move Back to Chicago!"

And I still might get to those titles! (They are very cool and much appreciated.)

As anyone who has been around a creative artist knows - we're all a bit ADD and obsessive-compulsive.

So, I swear I sat down to write the "Daffodils ..." piece - and ... then I started thinking. (Always a sketchy thing for me.)

"What if Each Person in my 'IS' ('Immediate Southern') family was assigned a note?"

Hmmmm ...

"And ... What if those notes were 'pre-determined' to act and re-act together - as if in a 'serial tone-row'?"

... cool.

" ... and ... if all this were so - would there be one person/note that would control all of the other pitches?"

Way cool.

Another dilemma: There are a lot of people in my 'IS' family and if everyone were represented by a single note there would be far too many notes to string thematically to have any musical impact.


"Who Controls Families?" I asked my slightly diseased brain. "Women" It answered.

Of course! So I picked the 'IS' women - Susan (wife), Lizz (sister-in-law), Leddie (mother-in-law), Carmen (niece), Casey (niece), Lisi (step-daughter) and Katie (granddaughter).

I then set about structuring a row (series) of notes and assigning a pitch to each person. Susan = "G", Lizz ("C"), Leddie ("C"), Carmen ("F#"), Casey ("F"), Lisi ("B") & Katie ("Bb"). (I play them in row at the beginning of the piece for you to hear - then I start the piece 'proper'.)

Those with a smidgen of music theory will assert: "Aha! The relationships between a lot of those pitches are tri-tones! The 'Devil's Interval'!"

Yes, the 'tri-tone' is historically called the "Devil's Interval" - but to my ears it is one of the most expressive - it can be poignant, sad, brutal, assertive ... anything the composer really wants it to be.

The problem always comes in the listening.

We are trained, as listeners, on a very limited musical language - almost strictly tonal (harmonies based upon established chords that have been built upon a series of major and minor thirds) and have very little experience in listening to and being influenced emotionally by any sounds that defy those tonal boundaries.

In tonal music, a seemingly psycho-acoustic phenomenon occurs melodically and harmonically. In non-tonal music, these relationships are harder to feel and experience due to the fact that we, as listeners, haven't had too much experience with these type of sounds.

I enjoy the inter-personal interactions between family members - it is almost always enjoyable and always fascinating to watch.

So, ... this is "Family in a Row." The "Row" refers to the series of notes, in this case, Susan ("G"), Lizz ("C#"), etc - and how they are related musically to each other.

Historically a "Row" can move forwards or backwards - but always keeping the order of the pitches. You can also move in retrograde and retrograde inversion as well.

"Family is a Row" is my fun, humorous musical description of an 'IS' family conversation. I enjoy my family a lot - I hope that you enjoy them too!

A final note (sorry for the pun!) - those of you with a good sense of pitch and pitch memory will notice the rather insistent "Bb" in the piece. "Bb" is the pitch of my granddaughter Katie.

As in all families, the baby is the controlling factor and the focus of all attention.

That is delightfully the case in my 'IS' family.

Robert Ian Winstin

You can grab the sheet music for this piece (and all others in the "28 in Twenty-Eight" series) at

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