Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 2

Over a year ago I started transcribing Henry Threadgill’s “To Undertake My Corners Open”. I got to the 90% point a long time ago, but as with many projects, it’s the last 10% that takes the most calendar time. One thing that slowed me down is that Threadgill’s flute is super sharp, especially in the high registers, approaching 50 cents by the end of the piece, playing havoc with my ability to match pitches as well as my motivation. I finally got out of that rut when I realized that he was consistently sharp and not just all over the place from one phrase to the next. Once again I could never have finished this project without the great software Transcribe!.

Here’s the PDF of the score; I won’t reproduce it here because it runs to 14 pages. Some analysis is coming up, but this has been so long in coming that I didn’t want to slow it down further by waiting until I had a complete essay written up about it. A few general points:

  • Each of the solo section has a different harmonic cycle. The trombone has 3 cycles of 95 beats, the guitar has 8 cycles of 22 beats, and the flute has 2 cycles of 96 beats. As far as I can tell they’re all completely independent.
  • The structure of each cycle definitely includes chords, or at least pitch collections, not just bass notes. They vary a bit each time around but in general the “changes” for each cycle are pretty consistent.
  • Just as the trombone cycle (mm. 18—41) is the head (mm. 1—15) slowed down,, the guitar cycle (mm. 90—95) is the little bit between the recap and coda (mm. 183—191) slowed down, and the flute cycle (mm. 130—150) is the coda (mm. 193—217) slowed down. I was particularly happy to discover this last one, since I was having trouble making sense of the coda before; I couldn’t even figure out how to bar it. If it seems a little over-barred now, it’s because I matched it to the meters of the flute cycle, and the rhythms don’t make any less sense than they would with any other barring.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the cycles get further out harmonically as the piece progresses. The trombone solo feels very tonal in a lot of places, the guitar solo is a bit less consonant, and the flute solo feels really abstract (although perhaps the fact that he is 40 cents sharp doesn’t help).

Still to do:

  • Write out the “harmonies” of each cycle.
  • See how those harmonies compare to their “source material”.
  • Look for more rules about how the melodies and harmonies are constructed.
  • Compare to other recorded performances of the same piece to see how much is kept consistent. For example, I assume that the entire coda is through-composed, but perhaps there’s some room for variation there.

All thoughts on the analysis and/or suggestions on the transcription itself are welcome.

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7 Responses to “Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 2”

  1. oe F .___ says:

    Great !
    I have been waiting for the second half of this .
    I will write back to you very soon .
    O .

  2. Sen says:

    Amazing work, thanks

    Glad you were able to finish and publish. I wonder how have you managed to write it all out in metre, how did you group the phrase lengths into a measure ?

    On the recording it sounds like the downbeats are avoid intentionally, although it does make it easier to read in some sections. Look forward to any more insights you can give.

  3. dfan says:

    Yeah, Threadgill definitely goes for a continuous pulse rather than dividing things into measures (he has said so explicitly). For my barring, I generally went for 4/4 as long as it seemed reasonably idiomatic. If there was a clear harmony change that didn’t line up and didn’t resolve itself immediately, I’d add or subtract beats. The fact that most of the piece is in cycles meant that I got to see sections come around multiple times, which helped confirm that my barrings were reasonable. There were a couple places, like the guitar/bass loop at the beginning, that I’m not really happy with; with that guitar/bass loop I just chose the phase so that they exit the loop cleanly at the end. The hardest part was the last tutti section, which I had zero idea how to bar until I noticed that it’s just the flute solo at double speed, which made all the barlines fall into place nicely.

  4. Sen says:

    I have a live mp3 version of this from a festival performance of Zooid, do you want to hear it ?

    The arrangement is so similar to the studio one including the head, solo order/length, I wonder if the same no of cycles are being used the interval sets are the same I guess, some of it is a bit more abstract and freer. Are you a scholar or a post grad in jazz ? There seems to be a distinct lack of study of Threadgill’s work by musicologists, maybe this will inspire me, some of his older work is easier to transcribe.

  5. dfan says:

    I’d love to hear it, thanks! It would be interesting to hear what’s constant and what varies. I have a guess about what’s composed out and what’s not, but it would be nice to have that confirmed or disproved. My email is dfan at dfan.org, please feel free to send it along. As far as my qualifications go, I have a bachelor’s in classical composition and a good ear, that’s about it. I like Threadgill’s earlier work a lot as well; as you say, it’s more understandable, but still really interesting. I agree that more people should be paying attention to his work!

  6. Sen says:

    dfan Did you get the mp3 I sent you ? hope you enjoyed it

  7. Greg says:

    Nice blog! I would love to hear it but I can’t find it… If you have an idea.

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