I’ve been poking away at the piano for many years now with only a few brief periods of intense study. As a university professor it’s a bit shameful how poor my keyboard skills are at the moment (though that is also a reflection of the changes in technology that have occurred over the past 20 years). As a composer, I feel like my harmonic approach has stagnated. I’ve been moving towards a more triadic approach over the past couple of years (as opposed to the use of polychords, chord extensions, quartal/quintal harmony, etc. — anything to avoid triads!). I’m interested in ways of shifting subtly from major to minor, developing melodic bass lines, counterpoint, etc. Continuo playing is, at the core, all of these.
I also think that continuo tells us more about harmony than chord symbols. We are taught that the inversion of a chord makes no difference to its function or quality. But this is an arbitrary place to place the line. Just listen to a C chord in root position compared to a C in first and second inversions. They certainly sound different, each creates its own unique psychological and emotional effects, and when we hear them in context there are differences in harmonic function. The best example of this is demonstrated by the ambiguity of a V64 chord. I suppose chord symbols lie on one side of the V64 chord, and continuo on the other. Which system is more appropriate is a matter of style and taste. I’m curious to see what my attitude towards each system changes over the course of this project. Knowing a other notation systems, is, I suspect, very much like knowing a second language. The notation is essentially a mathematical description for a way to make and think about music. The notation dictates what parameters are most important by suggestion.
Eventually, I’d like to apply continuo playing to the guitar. I think this approach will really “open up” the fret board, giving me a new way of seeing and hearing voice-leading on the guitar.
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