Canadian Musician - March-April 2022 - Page 59

Imitative Harmony : Using a 16 th Century Device in Contemporary Folk
By Raine Hamilton


Imitative Harmony : Using a 16 th Century Device in Contemporary Folk

Imitative harmony is like the Escher line drawing of musical ideas . Popular in 1500s European choral music , this compositional device is excellent at creating propulsion . This style works for anywhere from two or more voices , and it is a fun musical puzzle to construct ! I used imitative harmony in my song “ Dominae Sanctae ” off my new chamber folk album , Brave Land . This song is dedicated to the holy women of my ancestry – I wanted to create a sense of outpouring and a constant flow of love for them .

Music is built on tension and relief , which are universal human experiences . Imitative harmony feels so interesting because it plays with two elements of tension and relief : phrasing and harmony . Phrases in music are connected with phrasing in our languages . They are connected to breathing , which is a physical manifestation of tension and relief . Like the breath , a phrase is like an elastic being stretched and relaxed .
Harmony is also a big contributor to our musical experience of tension and relief . Harmony gives us a sense of home in the tonic note and chord — the A in A major , the D in D minor , etc . When we leave the home note , that departure is experienced as tension , which is resolved eventually by a return home . Just like the human experience of home and away . Does art imitate life or what ? So cool .
Harmonic relief shows up the most at cadences , which create a sense of resolution at the ends of phrases . Cadences can be home adjacent , as with an imperfect ( ending on an inversion of I ) or deceptive cadence ( resolving to VI instead of I ), or they can be final , giving a truly satisfying sense of home , and ending on the home chord ( I ), clear as day .
Imitative harmony is so full of movement because it contains phrases and cadences , and tension and relief , but it really blurs the relief part — one resolution is another phrase ’ s beginning . It is like climbing what looks like normal , gravity-obeying stairs in an Escher drawing , and ending up upside down or sideways . But you still arrived somewhere , you know ? It is intriguing stuff .
Ex . 2
2 : Now is where the fun truly begins . The second voice continues where the first voice stopped . To continue the top voice , write harmony that sounds good to you over that lower voice . Here , I choose a half-note G .
3 : Then , that G gets moved down to the second voice , imitating the top voice again . In this case it is transposed down a fourth to a half-note D .
Ex . 3
4 : Repeat these steps , composing two-beat sections of the top voice , over top of the imitating sections of the lower voice . The end of a phrase usually comes with some sort of cadence . Here , I chose to direct both voices to the home note of C , giving a clear harmonic feeling of relief . It is usually necessary to leave the pattern of imitation in order to direct the parts into a cadence . Then I started the imitative voice in the lower voice instead of the top one ( fun !) and followed the same imitative harmony method from there .
Ex . 4
Here is how I composed the opening phrase of imitative harmony for two voices in my song “ Dominae Sanctae .”
1 : Choose a home key and write two beats ( or any set number of beats ). Start on the home note in the top voice . Then , imitate with the lower voice . Use this same material in the next voice . Here , I transposed the notes down a fourth . But keeping the pitches the same , or trans-
Ex . 1
posing by a fifth also works . This section of music is imitating the opening line . Neat !
There you have it ! An intricate musical puzzle that creates a sense of propulsion . I recommend Peter Schubert ’ s book Modal Counterpoint : Renaissance Style for more detail .
Raine Hamilton is a chamber-folk artist from Winnipeg , MB , with a new album , Brave Land , out now . Raine invites deep love of the violin into the singer-songwriter genre , writing for violin and voice , as well as for guitar and voice . Joined by cello and upright bass , expect string arrangements that push and pull , that move as they console . Raine often performs alongside an American Sign Language ( ASL ) interpreter , making their concerts accessible to the Deaf community .