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Taking the Fifths

premiered Februaty 2002
by Karl and Margaret Kohn, piano
Bridges Hall,
Pomona College,
Claremont, CA

Taking the Fifths is a piece built almost entirely on the interval of the fifth (and its inversion, the fourth.) Fifths are among the most consonant of intervals, and Western tonality would be unthinkable without them. Virtually every consonant chord in the last 500 years is framed and defined by the fifth.

In the first half of the Twentieth century, composers such as Schoenberg and Webern began exploring collections of pitches in which the fifth, if present at all, was an equal among other intervals. Much wondrous music has been written from this new perspective, and for a time, music with these new, more dissonant sonorities avoided consonances which might evoke the tonal world of earlier centuries. Harmonic languages developed which used all twelve pitches available in Western equal tempered tuning in ways that were new and often unique to each piece. Meanwhile composers such as Prokofiev and Copland related to earlier traditions in a more straightforward way. In the last quarter of the Twentieth century, many composers and listeners found themselves allied with one camp to the exclusion of the other. In my undergraduate years some people looked for twelve-tone rows in the tonally oriented works of Bartok while others heard sonorities in late Schoenberg as merely extended and altered 11th chords, not much different from jazz.

Since my teen years, I have loved both the pungent sonorities of Webern and the mildly enriched tonal language of Copland. In the company of zealots of the right or left I often found myself "taking the fifth," as there was much to love in both and not much to gain by rejecting either. As with many exclusionary points of view, time has transformed what was once polemical opposition into a unified but wider spectrum of possibilities. Today, the same piece of music can easily contain the most highly charged dissonance and, to quote Hindemith, the "nourishing" quality of consonant structures from the past.

In Taking the Fifths, fifths and fourths are always the defining sonority, but in combinations that often include all 12 pitches, resulting in sonorities which are dissonant by almost any definition, though in curiously consonant spacing. Time after time simple sonorities are enriched with gradual addition of more fifths, until the saturation point of a twelve-note chord is reached.

Taking the Fifths was written for Karl and Margaret Kohn, and the exhilarating intelligence, clarity, and athleticism of their musicianship was always in mind. It is only fitting then, that their identity should be woven into the piece in as many ways as possible. After a slow introduction, the initials K.K. and M.K are spelled out in the score by the contour of the pitches. The abrupt vertical 12-note short chord followed by quick and insistent arpeggios fanning out from the center represent the "K," while a smooth wavy line of fourths outline the letter "M." The spirited interaction between these two motives, each of which contain all twelve pitches, carries the piece forward.

The piece ends in pealing bells which, despite the democratic inclusion of all 12 pitches, declare Eb as "more equal" than all others.

score excerpt