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Pentatonic Etudes
 
 
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Pentatonic Etudes
for Solo Piano
by Dr. Jody Nagel
 
The Pentatonic Etudes were written between June 23 and July 16, 1993 in Sydney, Australia. I had a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Sydney from May through August, and my wife and three-year-old daughter and I spent quite a bit of time experiencing the contemporary music scene around Sydney. I was especially struck with the discovery that many Australian artists and musicians wish to consider themselves aligned with Asian culture rather than with that of the West. I found this, unfortunately, to be a rather superficial alignment, given that Australia possesses hopelessly undeniable historical connections with the West, and continues more and more to become an American-like commercial culture. Some composers, such as Peter Sculthorpe, seem to possess a truly distinctive and original voice, which somehow reflects the unity of Australia's ties to both East and West, and to Aboriginal and modern Australian. I was dismayed, however, to hear what many other Australian composers believed to be "Asian" music. They seemed to think that the mere use of pentatonic scales qualified them as Asian composers. Most of the music like this that I heard was quite dreadful. It employed modern "strange" rhythms, thin textures, extended instrumental techniques, complicated formal schemes and . . . pentatonic scales! In my opinion, it was not Asian at all. The entire world has access to pentatonic scales. American cowboy songs, Stephen Foster songs, European folk songs, and, yes, certain Chinese, Japanese and Korean melodies, all utilize "black-note" pentatonic scales, and, I dare say, no one would ever confuse "Cowboy" with "Chinese." My reaction to all this was to compose my own set of piano etudes that made use of pentatonic scales. They are quite blatantly "Western" pieces, and the fact pleases me greatly!
 
After an investigation of the limits of pentatonicism, I noted the following: pentatonicism, as opposed to the more general "pentachord" set-theory idea, consists of 5-note scales containing the general interval pattern (including the 8ve) of [2nd - 2nd - 3rd - 2nd - 3rd], or the various possible rotations produceable from this pattern. The 2nds and 3rds are only major and/or minor in quality, and there are not two successive minor seconds.

Pentatonic 01

It turns out that there are nine unique 5-note structures possessing this pattern. They are listed below and all start on the pitch "C" for easy comparison. The first five are all "white-key" mode subsets. The last four are subsets only of the "Heptatonia Secunda" modes (i.e., the modes of the ascending melodic minor scale). Each of the nine piano etudes in this collection makes use of only one type of pentatonic scale, and all nine pentatonic scale-types have been used only once apiece within the collection. Though each of these etudes has been written in a different "key," the etude associated with a particular pentatonic scale-type is listed below, as well.

  Pentatonic Scale Transposed to C Actual Transposition Used Within the Etude
The initial "Tonic Pitch" is shown underlined.
1. C D E G A Etude No. 5 Ab Bb C Eb F WK, HS*
2. C D Eb G A Etude No. 4 B C# D F# G# WK, HS
3. C D Eb G Ab Etude No. 3 G A Bb D Eb WK
4. C Db Eb G Ab Etude No. 1 C Db Eb G Ab WK
5. C Db Eb Gb Ab Etude No. 2 D# E F# A B WK, HS
6. C D E G Ab Etude No. 6 D E F# A Bb HS
7. C Db Eb G A Etude No. 7 A Bb C E F# HS
8. C D Eb Gb Ab Etude No. 8 A# B# C# E F# HS
9. C D E G# A Etude No. 9 Eb F G B C HS

*   WK = at least one transposition of the pentachord is a subset of the diatonic "white-key" system.
     HS = at least one transposition of the pentachord is a subset of the "Heptatonia Secunda" system.
 
A careful observer will notice that, within the first five etudes, the two "missing" pitches (which would turn the pentatonic scale into a 7-note white-key mode) are used just once or twice at some point within the music. I was informed, while in Australia, that, in most Asian pentatonicism, the two "3rd-gaps" within the scale are sometimes "filled in." These filled-in pitches, though infrequent, are treated much the same as the manner in which "non-chord tones" are used in Western music. Perhaps this is an analogy to the proverbial "Oriental rug" in which some imperfection of stitching is purposely made just to avoid the philosophically arrogant notion that something man-made could ever be perfect. In the final four etudes, the unusualness of those particular pentatonic scales (largely due to the presence of an augmented 5th, or diminished 4th, within the pitch collection)1 seemed to call for a more rigorous treatment, and, within these four pieces, there are no non-scale tones used, since they might have distracted the listener from experiencing the specific modal flavor of the scale.
 
Any of the five pitches of a pentatonic scale could theoretically be used as the "tonic" pitch. If a particular pitch were to be treated as tonic, it would tend to impart a tonal polarity, or coloration, to the pitch collection. Some of the Pentatonic Etudes select just one of its five pitches and treat it as tonic throughout (e.g. No.'s 3, 4 & 8). Others have contrasting sections that tonicize first one, and then another, of the five possible pitches (e.g. No.'s 2, 7 & 9). However, much of the time there is no specific pitch being singled out as tonic, and a sort of "pan-pentatonicism" is achieved instead.
 
The Pentatonic Etudes are a collection of character pieces, each having its own nature stemming from the inherent properties of the particular pentatonic scale employed. It was compositionally quite challenging to limit a work to only five pitches, and still create good melodies, bass lines, and harmonic progressions. The listener can be the judge of this, though most will find the pieces to be attractive and accessible. The Pentatonic Etudes were premiered March 24, 1994 in Muncie, Indiana by Ball State University faculty pianist, Robert Palmer.
 
 
1A very interesting aspect of pentatonic modes concerns the number of perfect fifths contained within each scale. When the scales listed at the top of this page are spelled as a stack of fifths [C - G - D - A - E] (with appropriate accidentals), it can be seen that scale #1 contains four perfect 5ths, Scales #2-5 contain three perfect 5ths and one diminished 5th, and Scales #6-9 contain two perfect 5ths, one diminished 5th, and one augmented fifth.
 
Dr. Jody Nagel
1993
Copyright © 1993 by Jody Jay Nagel
 
 
 

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