• John Harbison
  • The Most Often Used Chords (Gli Accordi Piu Usati) (1993)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 16 min

Programme Note

Composer Note:

I write most of my music in spiral-bound notebooks. I tend to buy many types to keep different pieces visually separate. Most of the notebooks contain, inside the covers, little instruction guides on the fundamentals of music. I had often contemplated them in a day-dreaming state, until one evening, in a notebook I had bought for my Third Symphony, my eye fell upon "Gli accordi piu usati.' This full page catalogue of the ten "most often used chords," listed first in C and then transposed up by half steps eleven times, was never meant to be played in sequence. But to my ear, it made an accidentally attractive, somewhat Italianate progression, and I realized with pleasure that these chords I hardly ever use.

Before I was really aware what was happening, I had composed a Passacaglia for small orchestra based on this Italian page, and had begun other movements based on bits from the instruction manuals, some of which I will quote below. The emerging piece seemed to express my delight in these Cagean found objects, my pleasure in rediscovering these simple patterns, and my enjoyment of the irresistible restricted vocabularies they proposed. Gli accordi is essentially a work of play, taking place in a realm where free fantasy and simple theory meet and find they can harmonize with each other.

I. Toccata:

1. 'Use these charts to form chords in any key. Major, minor, diminished, augmented. The construction of these chords involves simply raising or lowering one or more tones one half step.'

2. 'Here are the two scales you need: major and minor.'

3. 'There are seven modes; each begins on a different white key.'

II. Variazioni: 'The chord of chords is the triad (Ex. C-E-G).' There are four variations within a frame. There is no sonority in the entire movement, except for a brief wayward bass line in the third variation, that is not a triad. In this peculiar restriction lies the voice of this brief movement.

III. Ciaccona: The ten 'most often used chords' form a ground against which a melody takes shape. The melody presses to break free of the ground, to spin forward in historical time, which causes an interlude after the sixth chaconne statement. At the moment of greatest tension, the melody and the ground resume. The rarefied world of the exotic found object dissolves into another world of feeling, perhaps through the composer's intervention.

IV. Finale: 'The Circle of Fifths is easy to memorize. Starting with F and moving clockwise, the keys can be learned by saying Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Bread. The keys counterclockwise can be learned by repeating Boys Eat Aging Dogs Good Cold Food.' I once learned the lines on the staff by remembering Every Good Boy Does Fine. My amusement at these newer rubrics is reflected in the tone of this movement. In addition to the increasingly crazed appearances of the Circle of Fifths, two other tables from the same notebook appear: the Table of Contracting Note Values (shades of Handel's B-flat Concerto Grosso), and the
Table of Expanding Intervals (which leads inexorably to the use of all twelve tones).

The piece is, of course, intelligible without any reference to this program note! It is dedicated to its commissioners, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and their Music Director, Christof Perick. It was composed in Genoa, Italy; Token Creek, Wisconsin; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992-93.

ā€” John Harbison


The Most Often Used Chords: Toccata
The Most Often Used Chords: Variazioni
The Most Often Used Chords: Ciaccona
The Most Often Used Chords: Finale




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