The Most Often Used Chords
Length: 18 minutes
Orchestration: 2 Flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, harp, piano (= celesta), strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Beginning around 1915, a group of artists and intellectuals who were horrified by the massive killings taking place in the “Great War” (World War I) began to experiment with works that challenged the prevailing status quo. It was their belief that established values – both moral and aesthetic – were no longer valid after the atrocities of the war. The Dadaist espoused what many considered “anti-art,” works that made fun of “serious” art. A famous example from 1917 was a urinal, signed by artist Marcel Duchamp with the nom de plume R. Mutt, which was then entered in an art exhibition. Whether he intended to or not, what Duchamp did was to allow artists the freedom to elevate the seemingly mundane to the realm of the artistic: “found object” art as it is now known.
In music, an equivalent act surely was John Cage’s 4’33” , a 1952 work that framed exactly 4’33” of time in the uneasy silence of the concert hall while the musician on stage (David Tudor) “performed” the silence with the same concentration as a Beethoven piano sonata.
Some say that there was no there there, that these weren’t examples of art at all, not even a good spoof of art. More recently, scholars and critics have come to understand the profound nature of this seemingly anti-art art, especially in light of the current “anything goes” nature of the visual arts. It freed artists to experiment with new materials, bottle caps, seas shells, bits of headlines from years-old newspapers, whatever. The art is all in how these pieces are put to use; these days, the notion of found objects in art is no longer radical at all; it is part of the creative arsenal of “things artists do.”
And therein lies the craft. To do what American composer John Harbison did with The Most Often Used Chords is harder than it seems at first glance: he created a significant piece of orchestral music for the concert hall from an everyday found object – a “blank” music notebook – and has delighted both audiences and critics alike with the result.
Composer and conductor Harbison has been a prominent figure in the American music world for years, including a stint here in L.A. as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Advisor, and later, the Composer-in-Residence from 1985-88. Harbison won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1987, the prestigious Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize, and the so-called “genius grant” – aka the MacArthur Fellowship. His extensive catalogue includes numerous concertos, symphonies, vocal works, works for band, and numerous chamber works. His second opera The Great Gatsby received its world premiere in 1999 by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, to great acclaim. The Most Often Used Chords was a 1992 work composed for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra which gave its first performance in 1993.
The found object that inspired The Most Often Used Chords (originally titled Gli Accordi Piu Usati) – was the pre-printed, “fundamentals of music” pages that he found in an Italian blank music-writing notebook. Harbison himself provides us with the objects in the liner notes of his 2000 CD on Albany Records:
“Its four movements are based on … pages that are found on the covers of blank music writing notebooks:
- Toccata: ‘Here are the two scales you need: Major and Minor.’ ‘Use these charts to form chords in any key – major, minor, diminished, augmented…’ ‘There are seven modes, each begins on a different white key.’
- Variazioni: ‘The chord-of-chords is the triad, for example C-E-G.’
- Ciaccona: In the notebook, the ten ‘most-often used chords’ were displayed separately, in C, then transposed upward by half steps. Their Italian chroniclers never meant them to be played in sequence. Nevertheless, here they form a [repeated chord progression, or] ground, against which a melody emerges. The melody presses to break free of the ground and does so for awhile…then the ‘found object’ resumes, in another world of feeling.
- 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’ for the keys of F-C-G-D-A-E-B].’ Also present in this movement, the Table of Contracting Note Values and the Table of Expanding Intervals (coincidentally all twelve tones).”
Even without knowing how the composer deftly and imaginatively creates music from these “found objects,” The Most Often Used Chords has a whimsical and uncomplicated logic that is easy to hear. As Harbison also wrote, it is “essentially a work of play” and “can be followed without any reference to [its] origins.”
— Composer and writer Dave Kopplin is Assistant Professor of Music at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. In addition to writing for the Philharmonic, he has written for the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, University of Florida’s Philips Center, LA Opera, and Performing Arts Magazine.