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Tightrope in Space – Oliver Schroer with Emilyn Stam

Tightrope in Space is a track from Oliver Schroer’s album Smithers. Schroer ran an influential fiddle camp in Smithers, BC for several years. For each camper, Schroer composed a tune, and these 59 tunes are gathered together on this album. Schroer is accompanied on piano by Emilyn Stam, who arranged each piece.

Oliver Schroer with Emilyn Stam – Tightrope in Space
Transcription of Tightrope in Space, first page. Transcription of Tightrope in Space, second page.
Transcription of Tightrope in Space

Form

Here’s the form of the piece. Note the uneven number of measures in the A and C sections, the variety of tonal areas explored, and the shifting meters in the B and C sections.

Section Length Time Signature(s) Key Centre(s)
A 10 measures 4/4 atonal -> II-V in C major
A 10 measures 4/4 atonal -> II-V in C major
B 8 measures 3/4, 4/4 A minor
B 8 measures 3/4, 4/4 A minor
C 6 measures 3/4, 4/4 G major -> E-flat lydian
C 6 measures 3/4, 4/4 G major -> E-flat lydian

A section

The melody of the opening two measures is compound, spelling out three voices:

The A section takes the form of a loose period:

Compound melody in the opening measures of Tightrope in Space.
Three implied voices in Section A of Tightrope in Space: the highest voice is indicated with stems up, the middle voice with no stems, and the lowest voice with stems down.

B section

The G13 chord that ends the A section leads not to a C major chord, but instead resolves upwards by step to an A minor harmony. The melody in the violin features a series of descending figures supported by various chords: Am9, Fmaj7 and D7. Each of these lines tends downward toward a B, a note which the violin then circles around and ornaments, supported each time by an Em7 harmony in the piano. This section, though it switches freely between measures of 3/4 and 4/4, sounds much more fluid than the A section.

C section

The C section alternates between two tonal centres, each of which is spelled out through alternating harmonies. In the first three measures, the piano oscillates between G and C chords over a G pedal, suggesting a key of G major. In the following three measures, the piano alternates between E-flat and F triads over an E-flat pedal, with these two chords outlining the E-flat lydian mode (Eb F G A Bb C D Eb). It’s worth noting that this section also features a compound melody: a lower voice alternates between notes a whole step apart—first D and E, and then E-flat and F—while an upper voice reiterates a G through the entire section.

Compound melody in Section C of Tightrope in Space.
Two implied voices in Section C of Tightrope in Space: the higher voice is indicated with stems up, and the lower voice with stems down.

Tightropes in Space

Tightrope in Space moves through a range of emotions. To my ears, the chromatic lines of the A section create a sense of disorientation and slight peril – a fitting depiction of a person trying to get their bearings in zero gravity. In contrast to the tortuous lines of the A section, the flowing, lyrical melody of the B section suggests a sense of wonder – what an astronaut might feel while floating in space, surrounded by stars. The C section sounds playful — I'm reminded of Apollo astronauts bounce-skipping across the moon.

If I was pressed to identify one mood that runs through the piece, however, I would say that Tightrope in Space evokes a sense of curiosity: with its frequent changes in harmony and texture, the piece conjures up the image of a person in a new and unfamiliar environment, turning from one fascination to the next.

Why did Schroer call the tune "Tightrope in Space" rather than something like "Spacewalk"? Here's a thought: note that throughout section C, the upper of the two implied voices reiterates a G, this note serving as a common thread that unites the section. We see similar recurring notes in the B section — the B that is encircled at the ends of phrases — and the A section – the A in the middle voice. This recurring A, played on the violin's open A string, suggests that the metaphor of a common thread is less abstract than it first seems: this thread is a thin metal wire stretched taut across a fiddle's frame. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine each section of the tune thus unified by its own "tightrope"?

Posted: Jan 18, 2021. Last updated: Apr 15, 2021.