What have I just gotten myself into. This is gonna be my longest blog post ever.
Today, February 24, marks three years since I wrote Woodside Whimsy, which was to that point the longest and most substantial single-movement song I'd ever written. At the time, it had been almost three years since my last solo piano piece, and in those intervening years my compositional style was progressing and expanding so quickly, through busking, producing digital soundtracks, and improvising for hours on recording, that I was quickly amassing a vast, growing collection of unused musical ideas in my head. Woodside Whimsy was me finally dumping some of them out, in a unique experience for me of writing sections and passages in a completely haphazard order, and only gradually piecing them together into a full song that ended up conveying the same improvisational feel that I had become so used to from... actually improvising.
But at the same time, this song could not have been improvised. It's extremely intricate; every part, every voice, and every rhythm is connected, and there's nearly always multiple different things going on at once. Every individual piece of thematic material came from improvisation, but the way all these pieces interact and fit together is something that you can really only do in a written song. So let's take a closer look!
The Main Theme
To the extent that Woodside Whimsy can be said to have a main theme, that permeates the whole song and ties it all together, it is the simple melody perhaps most clearly spelled out in the right hand at 3:46. This little theme, which is about 12 or 13 years old at this point, occurs many times throughout the piece, often in the left hand; listen for it, for example, at 1:00, 1:57, 3:14, 4:57, and of course during the climax at 10:12.
But it is perhaps most hidden right in plain sight, at the very beginning. Notice the held notes in the middle: (E dorian) B-A-C#-B-A-D-C#-B. When I first noticed, purely by coincidence, that this decade-old melody of mine was hidden inside the new motif I had just come up with, that was what inspired me to start writing this song. This new theme is the "surrounding context" for the main theme, and in some ways plays an even bigger role in the whole piece. So let's talk about this new theme, then - the final piece of the puzzle that made the whole song fall into place.
The Woodside Theme
I mentioned already in my original track description the story behind the opening six bars. It was New Year's Day 2017, and my then-girlfriend was visiting me in Halifax for the first time. During our adventures around the city we took a ferry ride to the Woodside terminal, where there just so happened to be an upright piano out for the public to play. While we were waiting to head back home, I sat down on a whim, and immediately came up with this riff and improvised on it in a style very similar to the first minute of Woodside Whimsy. When I began writing the piece a month later, I dedicated it to her, and it became one of many symbols of our relationship.
Aside from the opening, the theme in its unaltered form only appears by itself once - at 1:33. Everywhere else, it's in the left hand, sprinkled in there to accompany whatever the right hand is doing; for example, at 1:52, 3:49, 9:54, and (once again) at the climax at 10:20. It gets a second "exposition" at 6:20, when it's played in the left hand alongside a rather... shall we say... impressionistic right hand descent, and I also occasionally modify it by changing the pitches while preserving the rhythm and general shape, like in the left hand at 2:13, 5:45, and 7:49.
In fact, doing this kind of slight modification is what gives rise to three other motifs in their own right. First is the "development", right at the beginning at 0:15, where the intervals are shortened to give it more of a melodic feel. This line is even more suited to left hand accompaniment, as it forms the foundation of the sections beginning at 2:28 and 7:43. It also of course gets its time to shine again at 8:16. And let's not forget the "development" of this development, which makes its share of appearances in the left hand at 3:00 and 6:05.
The second "modification" to the Woodside theme is even more significant, and warrants its own name.
The Mother's Day Theme
I call it that because it featured prominently in my Mother's Day Improv, which was recorded several months earlier, but it actually has its roots in an old raw improv recording of mine from May 2015. From the posthumous description I wrote for that recording a while back: "Wow, this one was so pivotal for my music at the time. Basically an entire portion of my style began here. I was OBSESSED with the theme I came up with at 14 minutes in, which eventually ended up in the Mother's Day Improv." All I can add to that now is: man, I love my new keyboard, but sometimes I miss that sweet soprano sax sample. Got a lot of inspiration from that.
Actually, because this theme is over a year and a half older than the Woodside theme, calling it a "modification" thereof is maybe a bit dubious - and because they were both improvised... maybe the Woodside theme was initially, subconsciously, a modification of the Mother's Day theme instead! Either way, they work great together, and even at my best I could not have improvised a chord progression for it that was as good as the one I came up with at 1:40, when the theme makes its debut - although you might notice that even the run-up to that section is taken almost straight from that 2015 recording. Writing that bit, and getting to include the Woodside theme in the left hand for bars 7 and 8, was when I felt like the piece really started to come together (and by that point, even though it's only 2 minutes in, I had already written much of the stuff afterwards.)
The reason I call the Mother's Day theme a modification of the Woodside theme is (1) because of its rhythmic similarity, and (2) because much of it is just an inversion of the "Woodside development". This was another happy coincidence, and I decided to run with it by developing the Mother's Day theme to heighten the rhythmic similarity and inverted nature of it. Part of this development, which first occurs at 2:18, has the exact same rhythm as the Woodside theme and its development, and the pattern of ups and downs is DDDDUUDU, which is the exact inverse of that of the Woodside theme and its development (UUUUDDUD).
The main theme is the main theme, but this one is probably the main melody, what makes up the first fully fleshed-out and complete passage of tension and resolution. It's reprised many times, usually with a little twist to it: look for it at 3:00, 3:45, 4:02, 4:40, 6:05, all throughout the section beginning at 7:23, and (this is gonna be a common thing here) at the climax at 10:20. Also notable is the left hand accompaniment to this theme when it's first introduced at 1:40; specifically, the rhythm. That rhythmic phrase, in its entirety, also permeates the left hand in the section beginning at 7:27, as well as appearing very subtly as one of three(!) voices in each of the passages 1:57, 3:00, and the climax at 10:20.
The Thanksgiving Lick
This is the third "modification" to the Woodside theme, done by preserving the rhythm while modifying the pitches. It's more abstract and less substantial than the Mother's Day theme, but it's also one that happened to arise by pure coincidence in another of my improv tracks: appropriately enough, the Thanksgiving Improv. In Woodside Whimsy it appears at 1:25, and again at 3:32, 5:09, 7:09, in the climax at 9:48, as well as right before the climax at 9:03, when the opening structure is returned to and expanded.
The counterpart to the "Thanksgiving lick" is the "Thanksgiving run", which uses the same pitches but in a series of sixteenth-note runs down the keyboard. This happens at 1:31, 3:39, 4:08, and at the climax at 10:12, where the run goes down pretty much the entire keyboard while the main theme is played in its entirety beneath it, switching seamlessly from the left to the right hand as the run does the opposite. One of the most fun passages I've ever written.
The November Themes
Okay, I'm somehow already running out of names for these themes, but the next two we're gonna talk about both originated in another one of my raw improv recordings, this one from November 2016. The first is the one occurring about a minute into that recording, which debuts in Woodside Whimsy at 2:35, following the resolution of the Mother's Day theme. I liked the fact that you can very easily resolve it back into the Mother's Day theme by switching from minor to major, and I do that both here and during the theme's reprise at 5:40. And both times, the left hand is playing some variant of the Woodside theme before transitioning to the double-voiced "Woodside development" / "Mother's Day rhythm" combo that I talked about earlier.
The first November theme also shows up at 3:33 and 4:12, where the pitches are modified to expand the intervals to resemble the Woodside theme, and it returns in its original form during (surprise, surprise) the climax, at 9:32, where it is backed by what can essentially be thought of as a more elaborate "filling-in" of the Woodside theme's development, with chords echoing the rhythm of the main theme.
The second November theme is the one occurring (in its primitive form) a little over seven minutes into that original raw recording. In Woodside Whimsy it's what makes up the first really up-beat, energetic section, beginning at 3:13, where it's backed by the main theme in the left hand. The development (resolution) of this theme is what provides closure to the sections at 5:22 and 8:46 - it's the same rhythm and shape; only the pitches are different. Of course, this theme also plays the star role in the climax at 9:54 (which was actually written very early on, before any of the other iterations of the theme). I also think of this theme as the "Shirreff theme", because it was while improvising on the beautiful piano in Shirreff Hall at Dalhousie University that I really figured out how the theme was gonna be fleshed out and developed beyond the small five-note lick from that November recording.
The rest of the recurring ideas in the piece are the ones I consider to be "secondary" to the ones I've already covered. You can kinda tell because they're the ones that don't make an appearance in the climax (the final minute of the piece). Among these are:
- the "second Woodside theme", which was the other thing I vaguely came up with that day at the ferry terminal. It's what you hear in the right hand throughout the section beginning at 4:33, and again in the reprise at 8:32.
- the "second left-hand theme", which is occasionally used as left-hand accompaniment when the main theme isn't quite suitable. It appears at 1:13, and as the middle voice at 4:02.
With these last pieces of the puzzle, we're finally ready to talk about the only section of Woodside Whimsy that I haven't really discussed in detail, which is near the very beginning. I wrote it around midway through the composition process, when I had a general idea of all the many themes and licks I was gonna throw into what I was slowly realizing would be a ten-minute piece. I thought it would be interesting to try and subtly introduce them all here first, as an overture of sorts... and I'm not super satisfied with the result, but it was a good experiment and I think it does a fine job of "setting the stage" in preparation for the wild ride ahead.
The section begins at 0:35, with the main theme in the right hand. In the left hand we have something that almost resembles the Woodside theme, which at this point we've just heard, but transitions slowly into the "second Woodside theme" I mentioned above. Meanwhile, the right hand briefly foreshadows the "second left-hand theme". Beginning at 0:53, the second Woodside theme comes to the right hand, interspersed with foreshadowings of the second November theme, while the main theme is played in the right hand. Finally, at 1:13, the Thanksgiving lick is introduced, given time to build, and then resolve with its corresponding run down the keyboard.
What this ends up meaning is that by the time the first November theme comes in at 2:35, every single thematic idea in the piece has already, technically, been introduced, with seven and a half minutes to spare. The rest is just elaborating them and combining them in all sorts of fun ways.
There's still tons of stuff I haven't covered here. I haven't talked about how I use each of the two halves of the Woodside theme by themselves in different places, or how I play with sequences of ups and downs in the section at 6:20, or the left hand accompaniment at 9:27, or really anything about how the piece uses harmonies, modes, and modulations. But it's getting late, this post was supposed to be up by now, and man do I need something that will automate the insertion of these clickable timestamps without me having to copy and paste the HTML every time--
What I mean to say is, if I spoiled everything here, then there'd be no fun in the experience of listening attentively and finding all sorts of patterns on your own, something I've talked about before that is always rewarding for me when I do it. And I've seen the kind of dull, hyper-minimalist works of music that people can write whole theses about, so I know just how much more there is to analyze in this ten-minute musical anthology of mine. So feel free to give it another listen and see what you find :)