Joseph Dillon Ford, Variations on Handel's 'Hallelujah' Chorus (2007)

The story behind Joseph Dillon Ford's three variations on Handel’s "Hallelujah" Chorus may perhaps best be told by the posts below that he made to the Delian Society Yahoo mailing list. Although Ford, primarily a tonal composer, originally intended these pieces to illustrate what creativity is not, he now thinks their chief interest lies in the fact that the distinction between past and present, between "old" and "new" art, is essentially meaningless, since everything original is derived from someone, something, or somewhere else.

Sat May 29, 2004 2:20 am


Hi, Delians,

Please listen to the two MIDI files at the links you find below. Both pieces will download quickly. For now, the first piece is simply called "x," and the second is known as "z."

"X" lasts approximately 2.5 minutes.

"Z" lasts approximately 14 minutes.

The entire concert takes about 16.5 minutes. Please listen to each piece in its entirety.

While you're listening, please write on a blank piece of paper your impressions about each piece. These can be subjective or objective responses to what you hear.

On Monday 31 May I will reveal to you the facts about each composition. I think you may be surprised. ;-)

Here are the links:





* * *

Mon May 31, 2004 2:01 am


Hi, Delians,

Those who have listened to the "mystery" MIDI files I uploaded to the New Music Classics web site came up with some interesting observations:

For the "x" file:


Gamelan, minimalist, repetitious, "cheerfully vacuous," "mercifully short," "[diatonic] tone row," "not much there," serial, etc.

For the "z" file:


aleatoric, "sound effects"; "Fafner"; "no feeling, no content, no impact, no point"; "telephone sounds"; "peters out at the end"; "an atonal Lou Harrison"; serial; chaotic; "like something by George Crumb"; "telephone ringing and intercom buzzing," etc.

The "y" file was added after the other two, so there have [been] no comments thus far:


If you haven't yet heard these pieces, why not listen and jot down your own comments before reading further?



Are you sure you're ready for this?

You can always turn back now....

You don't really want to know, do you?

Your entire world view may be turned upside down as a consequence of finding out.

So you've gotten this far and still won't relent?

Okay, but don't say you weren't given fair warning.

The composer of all three pieces was:

!!! Georg Frideric Handel !!!


You don't buy it?

Maybe, but it's the truth. Or at least part of the truth. You see, all three pieces are variations on the entire score of the "Hallelujah" Chorus, which is just about as standard a "classic" as they come. Not a single note of the original was omitted, but as you can hear, a lot got changed!

This is completely derivative music, though each piece fits most people's expectations of what "contemporary" or "avant-garde" music should be. The composer in this case began with a good MIDI file of the "Hallelujah" chorus that had been humanized and was actually used to accompany a stage production of the Passion in the late 1980s. The point of creating these variations was to demonstrate that music that sounds absolutely "new" can be derived from music that is centuries "old" by purely logical and random processes .... The results ... were at least good enough to suggest that one or more people actually sat down, thought about what they were doing, and composed real scores.... Had I heard them, I'd be scratching my head wondering what modern composer was responsible; it wouldn't even occur to me that they were essentially forgeries that began their life as an act of pure plagiarism. ;-)

So how did the composer systematically transform the music of Handel into these three ultramodern "variations"? With the help of a Mac computer and a well-known software sequencer—Mark of the Unicorn's Performer, of course! Widely used in high-end digital music production, Performer offers a number of features that enable the user to systematically transmogrify any MIDI file into something similar to these three pieces.

These features include:

Reverse time and retrograde functions, that make it possible to hear an entire score played backwards.

"Tap tempo," which enables the user to conduct the score by striking any key on a MIDI-compatible keyboard, speeding up and slowing down wherever s/he likes.

A "Humanize" menu item, that permits the user to alter with absolute mathematical precision on/off velocities (levels of loudness), note/rest durations, and tempos; and to randomize pitches so that each note in a MIDI file plays only the tones of a specific scale or mode, including the whole-tone and pentatonic scales, the Hungarian Minor, and any others the user cares to define.

Additional features, that allow for musical events to be echoed, arpeggiated, transposed, shifted forward or backward in time.

In addition to these features, any part (in this case, SATB chorus, strings, harpsichord, trumpet, and timpani) can be assigned to any other musical instrument of definite or indefinite pitch available in General MIDI.

All of the above were used in one way or another in "x" and "z." In "x," the pentatonic scale tones were randomly assigned to each of the pitches in Handel's score, and events were compressed in time, creating a motoric/motivic effect that sounds very much like minimalism.

In "z," the events were stretched out in time, time-reversed, and conducted in real time, drastically altering the original tempo and greatly expanding total duration. Pitches were randomized, but this time the whole-tone scale dominates.

In "y," all pitches were randomized atonally, with a five-octave range, then the whole was transposed up a fifth. The harpsichord part was reassigned to marimba, made louder, and taken down an octave. The original choral parts were reassigned to strings, and the volume on the trumpet was boosted. That's all, but listen to the results: a perpetuo moto for marimba soloist in which Handel's main rhythmic motifs are heard—backwards! But who would have thought Handel had anything to do with it?

As you might have guessed by now, I am the author of these wicked experiments, at least one of which ("x") is clearly tonal. Let it never be said that Delians can't do "avant-garde" music (I'm sure we're all capable of still stranger stunts than these!)....

Scoring these pieces would be a god-awful ordeal: I attempted to do so for the first piece, which is only a few minutes long, and my Finale program crashed! But it can be done, and the visual results would probably rival any of Ferneyhough's musical arcana....






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