How closely can a musician delay a copy of the same melody behind the original? A bright shadow is created, when it’s piano and alto sax.

Notes from the Composer

Bright Shadow for Alto Saxophone and Piano is a revision of previous work titled “Happy Crazy” that was originally scored for Keith Koons, clarinet, and piano in the late ’90s. This revision met the need for simplification and a more strongly distilled brew of the over-abundant musical ideas. The Heisler/Yeh Duo’s offer of performance of the work became the impetus for this latest version. Resetting the work for saxophone forced me to rethink the sound-character of the piece and a chance to re-apply its original compositional motivations.

The predominant ideas within “Bright Shadow” are:
  • Close Stretto – and the resulting sonic and musical result
  • Dialogue between saxophonist and pianist
  • Displays of rhythmic precision possible by an excellent duo
Jeffrey Hiesler and I-Chen Yeh with composer Keith Lay from the November 2013 Timucua White House concert

Jeffrey Hiesler and I-Chen Yeh with composer Keith Lay from the November 2013 Timucua White House concert







Pitch and harmonic material are drawn from the interplay of basic quintal harmony and its harmonic results. Quintal harmony is based upon harmonies that stack the perfect 5th. Though this harmony is not diatonic (major or minor), it is strongly tonal. Here’s an example of this basic element as used in the primary motif of “Bright Shadow” (the notation below is in G clef, concert pitch, 4/4 time). Ab up to Eb is a perfect fifth. Eb up to Bb is also a perfect 5th. These are 1, 5 and 9 of the Ab major scale. It is followed by another 1-5-9 a minor third higher (Cb Gb Db) and then back down to the original one.
The most important motivating force in “Bright Shadow”  is the use of close stretto. Stretto is a Baroque Era concept closely related to techniques of composing fugues and canons not uncommon in modern classical music. Normally, fugue and canon themes, called ‘subjects’, are created to be so recognizable that their entrances can be noticed above the ‘background chatter’ of previous subject entrances and their ensuing development. A fugue by J.S. Bach normally presents one entrance of the subject at a time. Each subject entrance clearly arrives in different voice or octave register, at either the tonic or the dominant pitch level so it is clearly heard. In the technique called ‘stretto’, subjects enter so rapidly that they overlap each other. I use stretto at the same pitch, so there are two ‘copies’ of the same music happening simultaneously, one heard later than the other. The emotional and intellectual affect is one of heightened excitement and tension.
Here’s an example of stretto between the saxophone, who starts, and the piano, playing the same line as the sax, but one beat later. (sax, on top, pitches as written)


The piano’s delayed entrance of the same sequence of notes outlines chords, in this case, made of large stacks of thirds. The resulting push and pull of the tonal center by moving up and down by thirds, the constant rhythm and melodic contour gives the pieces lots of forward motion.
Since the saxophone and piano share so much of the same music, the music has a feeling of a dialogue – and sometimes, a contest. Since the audience will recognize the music being played at the same pitch and rhythm as they just heard it from the other instrument, the dialogue will be easy to follow through the different subjects and tonal areas. The piece begins with a single note by the saxophone, imitated by the piano in the next bar. As if the instruments were discovering each other, the dialogue tries adding a note – trading it, too – and adding another. As they ‘play’ with building the melodic structure together – the audience learns the piece, too.
Not all of the work consists of stretto counterpoint. Phrases are balanced by the instruments occasionally coming together. And, several sections contain more traditional homophony (melody with chordal accompaniment). For example, the piano in this section supports the long notes of a contrasting long-note sax melody melody with a polytonal major accompianment: Eb major on the bottom, F major/minor in the middle and G major on the top. These harmonies are an extension of the concept of stacked thirds that were outlined by the stretto, earlier:
The big chords of stacked thirds is then explored through arpeggiation patterns, similar to exploring the 1-5-9 figure:



These materials combine and recombine in various ways, coming to a climax in intensity at the end. Here, the saxophone and pianist’s right hand are in a very close stretto at the 1/8th tuplet. Very difficult to perform! I call the effect a “Bright Shadow” because it reminds me of setting up a shadow of any color for any object with ease. say – bright yellow shadow. The object in the foreground, the saxophone has a bright shadow, the piano, which immediately follows it.

Bright Shadow for wLAnd – Full Score

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