Music and Language

Much of my work is inspired by language, and with the help of my trusty phonologist brother, Leandro. I have recently begun using more refined methods and techniques to analyze spoken language as a way of deriving rhythmic, harmonic, melodic and timbral materials for composition.

Two pieces in particular were heavily influenced by phonology: aspirated plosives for orchestra and Amo, Amas for string quartet.

The program note for aspirated plosives, which was performed at the Mondavi Center on Jan 29, 2012 by maestro Christian Baldini and the UC Davis symphony orchestra, explains the works’ underlying concept relatively well:

An aspirated plosive is a speech sound produced by a brief closure of the oral passage followed by a burst of air, such as the sound (p) in “pill” or (b) in “bill.” Aspirated plosives, which are relatively loud and noisy and often occur at the beginning of words, have always reminded me of attack transients in music (the initial burst of energy in a percussive sound, such as a cymbal crashing). Throughout this piece I explore various musical analogues to these (and other) vocal sounds, ranging from a fricative (sh) orchestrated with string harmonics and suspended cymbals, to loud tutti staccato chords that abstractly represent these plosive consonants.

While language inspired many salient elements of this piece, much of the material and the underlying form were derived intuitively. The opening melody in hocket permeates the piece, loosely holding everything together. I sought to create a dramatic formal narrative through the interaction of these linguistic musical gestures and the more intuitive melodic and harmonic materials. The orchestral “plosives” sometimes interrupt the melody, suddenly shifting gears and changing direction. At other moments they trigger highly agitated, frenetic textures that gradually settle to a calm point of stasis. Near the end of the piece, one particularly loud plosive induces a state of shock; a high ringing D-sharp that slowly decays as entropy increases, ultimately inciting an accelerating series of plosives that conclude the piece.

This piece is dedicated to my wonderful grandmother, Lila Teresita del Niño Jesús Abaunza Abaunza de Bolaños, who would have turned 83 today. Happy birthday, abuelita!


As you can see, the use of language in this piece was rather intuitive. Amo, Amas, on the other hand, employs a much more rigorous and technical approach to orchestrating spoken language. But I must depart, dear reader, to finish composing it, and will return shortly with a more detailed explanation.

Update: Butter caught a mistake in the program note: “…basically that is what  [a plosive] is, but the “b” in bill isn’t aspirated, it is a plosive, but unaspirated. Anyway, it might not be a big deal, my phonetics eye caught that.”

Thanks, Brother!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s