Back in 2004, I composed a short 12-tone bossa-nova for solo guitar called Manipulaçao which consisted exclusively of manipulations of a collection of three pitches which could either be interpreted serially as a 015 trichord (which in atonal music theory is identical to an 045 trichord) or tonally as a major seventh chord (a characteristic chord in 1960s Brazilian music) which was either missing its third or fifth. The piece was constructed from chains of these three-pitch collections which encompassed all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale and so could be interpreted either as a tone row or music that was modulating to a new key every time there was a chord change. I called this process tessellation as a hat tip to the 20th century Dutch artist M. C. Escher who created stunning drawings consisting exclusively of iterations of one image filling the entire space. But since there are a total of 12 different possible three-pitch combinations according to atonal music theory, I’ve often thought about treating each of the 11 remaining sets the same way, ultimately forming a collection of 12 guitar pieces that would be something of a post-tonal response to J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and works created in its image (a series of pieces in every possible major and minor key) by a wide range of composers from Chopin to Shostakovich.
So in 2010, I played around with the 027 trichord, which is one of the most euphonious of all the 12 trichords (perhaps only slightly less so than the 037, which is a major or minor triad, or the aforementioned major seventh-sounding 015 of Manipulaçao), but which is something of an outlier from a total perspective. The 027 trichord appears in music by Franz Liszt and later in the quartal harmonies of Paul Hindemith and McCoy Tyner and the otherworldly-sounding chords built on stacked fifths of Béla Bartók which also quite appropriately permeate the soundtrack of the 1950s sci-fi series The Outer Limits. However, the piece that I ultimately wound up composing, Strum, is much more down to earth. Still, like its companion Manipulação, it is entirely dodecaphonic despite arguably having a discernable tonal center at every moment. It is a relentless chain of power chords in which all six of the guitar’s strings are always in play. There are no rests, but it’s all over in a little over a minute. It somehow feels like an encore piece to me, although I hope it’s not the last one of these I write since I still have 10 more to go!
–Frank J. Oteri