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  • Writer's pictureEricsson Hatfield

Ethan Allen for Line Design

You and your significant other have just bought a house in Rockland Maine with white paneling and a spacious front yard that looks over a seaside cliff with a lighthouse. Life is good, but the previous owners had repugnant taste when it came to interior decorating - the curtains, walls and furniture are a mishmash of tacky designs and color schemes. So you go to Ethan Allen with an interior decorator to consult about your options. They lead you through the furniture where you can choose from an assortment of ottomans, couches and curtains, all featuring a dizzying display of designs - stripes and curls, reds and blues, linen and silk, squares and triangles, modern and cozy. The aesthetic possibilities are boundless and can be collected into various combinations.

When listening through the work of a master contrapuntist, it is like walking through the rooms of a sophisticated home that exhibit various designs in their choice of wallpaper, furniture, lighting etc. There's counterpoint that dances, sings, steps and leaps. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination. The numerous designs of the lines comes together to create a world within which the listener can live and affords more vibrancy to the polyphony.

Unfortunately, this element of design is not taught today - it is as if students are going to Office Depot instead of Ethan Allen to design their living spaces. Even if it does obey voice leading regulation, listening to some counterpoint is like staring at a gray carpet, illuminated by dull fluorescent lighting while waiting for 5PM to roll around so you can forget that you exist in a traffic jam.


The Archetypal Styles

Creating counterpoint of styles and character will immediately lend grater vibrancy to the work and differentiate the lines more powerfully. So I'm going to carve out three styles of counterpoint from the repertoire so that we can discuss the matter with clarity:

  • Vocal

  • Instrumental

  • Dance

Are there more styles? Sure. But let's just stick with these three for the sake of discussion. Note that there is no set definition of what constitutes these styles, other than a great deal of intuition and contradictory descriptions. It is worth mentioning that Bach, the bossman of counterpoint, was an excellent singer, instrumentalist and dancer (in fact, George Stauffer states "complete embrace of dance music, perhaps the most important influence on his mature style other than his adoption of Vivaldi's music in Weimar").


A line that is to be sung. It adheres to the virtues and limitations of the human voice and ear. It is important to mention the ear because depending on the context, a half step can seem aurally peripheral to a singer - not an issue that occurs very much with instruments. It is guided by the breath and rhythmically compliments the prosody of the text. Here is an example:


A line that is to be performed on an instrument. This is the most versatile style and generally encompasses the vocal and dance styles. Instrumental counterpoint can be fast or slow, demonstrate intricate textures and leaps etc. Instrumental counterpoint mostly exceeds what is technically possible in the vocal and dance styles. Each instrument lends a certain tactile inspiration to various contrapuntal ideas, such as bariolage on the violin. Composers who are able to capitalize on the technical capabilities of an instrument in an idiomatic way will maximize the success of their counterpoint and its performance. Here is an example:


A line that is meant to be danced to. This style of line invokes the arsic and thetic movements of dance and compliments the contours of the choreography. To examine this more, I recommend Betty Bang Mather's Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque; A handbook for performance. The marriage of music and dance is one of the most primal relationships in art and is present in all cultures. Every composer will be well served exploring and incorporating this topic, whether it is Baroque dance or hip hop. Here is an example of counterpoint that is meant to be dance to:

On a side note, I thought it was very illuminating to explore Beauchamp-Feuillet notation. Visually, it seems to represent the manuscripts of Bach and other composers, as if fugues are choreographies and that the lines are dancers, not just voices. If you would like to explore this topic further, I recommend Philippa Waite and Judith Appleby's Beauchamp-Feuillet Notation: A Guide for Beginner and Intermediate Baroque Dance Students. To obtain a copy, please email Ms.Waite directly. There is also Wendy Hilton's Dance of court and theater: the French noble style 1690–1725.


Counterpoint Swatches

Returning to our interior decorating, let's come up with an exercise. Sometimes when picking out designs or colors, interior designers will look over swatches - a pallet of strips that show the different possible designs and color combinations.

As an exercise, let's try coming up counterpoint swatches, each displaying a myriad of different line designs that incorporate various stylistic elements. Try thinking in terms of the archetypes - vocal, instrumental and dance. Also consider some other elements such as:

Contour, which can be conjunct or disjunct and is directional. The 1st example here is stepwise, and the 2nd exhibits many leaps. The 3rd shows very subtle lines and curves, and the 4th has very jagged contours.

Density, which is the number of notes per beat and rhythm. Here the 1st example is very dense, while the 2nd is the opposite of this. The 3rd example demonstrates rhythmic variety and syncopation, while the 4th is just straightforward 8th notes.

Articulation, which is often overlooked. This is because our studies are rooted in emulating the baroque which was largely devoid of notation with regards to articulation. But, it is a useful compositional tool that can really help bring out the line.

So here's one contrapuntal swatch displaying various line designs I could think of:

I noticed at the outset that my counterpoint was very dense and conjunct (which, is generally a good thing). As I went down the exercise I tried to incorporate more air and leaps, just to "push-the-design" away from my habits. Along the way I tried thinking tactilely, thinking of my voice, the violin, the piano and my feet for dance. The 3rd and 4th are particularly typical of the violin and piano respectively. For each I tried experimenting with different articulation schemes to seed what kind of results I would get. Doing this daily as a warmup to composition will improve your rhetorical command.


Uniform vs Differential

The last thing to discuss is uniform and differential organizations to this style. If both voices exhibit the same line design, this is stylistically uniform. Here is an example of a stylistically uniform canon where I tried to make the lines instrumental (violinistic) and use bariolage:

If the voices exhibit different styles in contrast with each other, this is stylistically differential. Here is an extreme example that cycles through the instrumental, dance and vocal styles to maximize the contrast between the lines:

This approach is very beneficial but much more difficult than it seems - it challenges your creativity and ability to incorporate it elegantly into the rigor of contrapuntal technique. But in the end, implementing these designs will lend your counterpoint greater vibrancy and character. A master contrapuntist is able to construct a palace of various ornate rooms, each exhibiting different aesthetic ideas that delight the audience.

If you're interested in not only studying but also mastering and applying these concepts, consider reaching out to me for lessons!

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