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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

The Most Often Used Chords (Gli Accordi Piu Usati) (1993)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Chamber Orchestra
Year Composed
16 Minutes
Purchase CD
Programme Note
John Harbison The Most Often Used Chords (Gli Accordi Piu Usati) (1993)

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.

-- John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    Albany Symphony Orchestra
    David Alan Miller
    Albany TROY:
  • G. Schirmer / AMP:
It is a raucous, sometimes thoughtful, consistently brilliant romp through the scales, chords, and other fundamental building blocks of tonal composition -- a romp characterized by the virtuosity of both freewheeling composer and challenged players. So much fun is it that, when an almost unexpected C-major chord ends the piece, the Royce Hall audience on this occasion virtually exploded in response.
Daniel Cariaga, Los Angeles Times,25/10/1993
[It] is that rarest of contemporary works -- immediately accessible, doubly delightful for the aficionado but still engaging for the uninitiated.
Los Angeles Daily News,01/01/0001
The work...teems with ideas and unique treatments. This is a work that ought to be programmed often and by other orchestras.
Pasadena Star-News, ,01/01/0001
Spano's program was an elegantly integrated series of tributes by composers to their predecessors...John Harbison's THE MOST OFTEN USED CHORDS is a deft juggling of the fundamental materials of Western music and a grateful nod to Stravinsky. What is significant about [this] work is that [it] mirrors its own creator even more clearly than its models. [It is not] pastische or imitation. Harbison wrote his piece in 1993. The whimsical inspiration came from the covers of music-writing books he had purchased, a set of tables of the basic tools of composition. The 15-minute piece is in four movements of traditional design-Toccata, Variations, Chaconne, Finale-and equally traditional content. The music is of intricate clockwork devising and full of cheeky fun-some parts of it bring a smile, and a few places make you laugh. It is fun to hear this serious and ambitious composer on holiday-not that the piece isn't serious and ambitious. Only a composer at the top of his game could possibly have written it; the Chaconne develops real emotional heat, and the tribute to the elements of music and to Stravinsky is touching and genuine.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe,01/01/0001
THE MOST OFTEN USED CHORDS brimmed with motion and color. Skating through the full cycle of major and minor scales, the orchestra [had] a chance to have fun with [a] melodic percussion part, quiet beauty of the inner movements, surrounded with lots of hustle and bustle in the outer passages.
Peter Haley, Albany Times Union,01/01/0001
This is a charming spoof of pedantic rudimentary musical instructions found on the covers of blank notebooks. ("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.' ") Mr. Harbison spins out a Toccata, illustrating scales, modes and chord types; Variazione, on the triad; a Ciaconna, deploying the most often used chords; and a Finale, cycling through "Fat Cats" or their counterclockwise companions, "Boys Eat Aging Dogs' Good Cold Food." The music is mostly sheer fun, achieving an intensity approaching anguish only in the Ciaconna.
The New York Times,01/01/0001
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