Archive for the ‘Works in Progress’ Category

Lessons learned: Stay Involved

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

I just finished a harrowing 15-ish hours, and I’m dog-tired, but while physically exhausted, I’m actually thinking clearly, so I thought I should jot this down before relaxation washes away the memory of it.

I was up all night writing another piece for the WMPA. I enjoy writing for the group, and I never pass on the opportunity to write for orchestra. For some reason, however, I always end up filling up my lead-time with other things to do, things that have to be done fairly quickly. Ugh, time management…

I was writing yet another overture; no special instructions or crazy stuff, just a couple of minutes of music. Through combination of a surprisingly busy schedule, some bad timing, and – face it – just plain laziness, I basically left it until the last minute. While writing under these circumstances isn’t usually hard for me, this time it proved especially difficult. I sat down at the computer yesterday at about 2:00pm and finished at about 5:00 this morning. Feeling like a sack of jello, I laid down for a few hours before processing the parts. I’d been wracking my brain trying to think of what made it so difficult, or FEEL so difficult is probably more like it, and I think I hit upon something we all should think about as composers.

I’ve been playing in a community orchestra for the past couple of years. It’s a far cry from my days of “show up, sightread Mahler 1, here’s your check+travel”, but it keeps the horn on my face. I’d taken about a month off recently to conduct the premiere of my latest ouevre “Somnambulant”, so while I had my composer hat on for most of the time, I’d also had a substantial break from the horn.

Going through school, I spent more time practicing and performing than I did at the keyboard or writing-desk, even though I was a composition student. There was always the immediate, visceral pleasure of creating sound and “making music”, but I eventually came to recognize that the physical connection of performing music, and the subsequent creation of those mental pathways, was how I seemed to learn to compose. Early on, I was encouraged to write for my own instrument, and in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense when you take into account the fact that you can only really articulate your thoughts as well as you are familiar with the syntax. In other words, you can only speak as well (or specifically, I’d say) as your vocabulary and command of the language allows. The better my trombone playing was, the more facile my writing would be, so the theory went.

My writing of this piece had become a purely technical process, which is odd for me. I tend to write with the most comfort when it resembles a more reflex-driven process, in much the same way that I see notes and shaped on a page of printed music and my body reacts in all the miniscule ways to produce it on the trombone – the perfected balance of body and mind. I feel as though taking so much time away from my primary instrument has led to the atrophy of certain capabilities, or that I’ve become divorced from the vital process of performing to help fuel creativity. Maybe it’s just that they aren’t as automatic.

Ach, maybe what I really need is some REST. Everything’s harder when you’re fatigued. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding, and in the end it may turn out to be more successful than my very self-critical sensibilities predict. Whatever the case, it certainly won’t hurt to get the horn back on the face.

Somnambulant

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

When a commissioning body makes the decision to grant you a sum of money to write a piece of music, they take quite a risk. I don’t care who the composer is, it’s a risk. It’s an even greater leap of faith to do it with very little guideline or specifics, beyond instrumentation, given to the composer.

Such was the case with my latest commission from Bishop Ireton High School. The only specifics in the contract were regarding duration, instrumentation, some non-specific language about being challenging for the kids, and words that I translated to mean “artsy but not too weird”.

When writing a piece for commission, the biggest temptation is to produce something that’s bleeding with notes, scales, “flash”, etc. because, by-gum, you’re going to earn that money, one note at a time! There’s also the temptation to make it sound “band-y”; I’m not sure how best to describe that, but go listen to a couple of hours of band music and I think you’ll catch my drift. I’ve come to abhor the “vanilla” sound that band music can have, so I try to avoid that. Not having strings isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. Hindemith and Schoenberg found things to do with the band, so what would be my excuse for not doing the same?

In preparation, Randall Eyles, the wind ensemble director, graciously sent me a pile of CD’s to listen to, so I set aside an “immersion day” to get their ensemble sound in my ears, as well as the band sound. I abandoned that after about 15 minutes of listening, however, because I found that I could think more creatively with no outside influences.

When I have a pre-determined amount of time to write something, I try to set aside a proportional amount of it to think, then write; for example, if I have 4 months to write something, I take 3 to 3 1/2 to think about it, then 2 weeks to write. If it’s only a day, a day of writing it is! I had roughly 6 months with this piece, so I thought for 5, wrote for 1. My initial plan was to write a folk suite using some very engaging ancient tunes from the Ukraine. I had it pretty well thought out – 3 contrasting movements, kind of like the various English folk song suites. It was going to practically write itself. Another classic!

Approaching the deadline, writing was going well, ahead of schedule, but something didn’t feel right. I was working on the middle movement, based on a heart-wrenching tune titled “Suffering Mother Stood by the Cross”, and something clicked. I started thinking about my grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and my recent visit to her nursing home before Thanksgiving. It was an oddly traumatic experience. I’d lost 3 of my grandparents in my early teens, but it had never really made much of an emotional impact on me; being a dopey teen, I had other things on my mind. My experiences with death throughout my life have always been odd; I’m very uncomfortable with death. I’ve never really been able to face it, and here it was, staring me in the face in the form of a person who didn’t even know who I was, despite the fact that she watched me grow from a little baby to a man in his mid-30’s. It was traumatic and disturbing on a profound level that I couldn’t fathom, much less articulate.

Pondering this, the tune of “Suffering Mother…” took a poignant twist. It became a depiction of that moment in time. I made the decision to scrap (save for later) what I had written up to that point, and make the entire piece a large one-movement work on this tune, but that didn’t sit entirely right either.

The trouble with working on existing material (other than the fact that it isn’t yours) is that you are confined to work within its boundaries, whatever they might be, for better or worse. I kept most of what I’d written, re-tooled around a melody I’d scribbled out based loosely on the original melody with some added wiggle-room. I added a motif of open 5ths in the marimba to begin the piece, which became a pivotal part of it in the end. The marimba is such a unique sound; here it was an odd combination of the incessant drum-beat of time, cold and uncaring, the tone empty and childlike at the same time.

I honestly don’t put a whole lot of my heart into most of my music, at least consciously, as I find composition to be a largely cold, intellectual exercise. In this case, however, it was very emotionally trying to finish the piece. I equate it to an emotional blood-letting. I remember remarking to my wife early on in the re-write, “writing this piece is taking me to a dark place”. I’d come downstairs for lunch and end up breaking into tears, the memory of the previous few measures of writing, or the narrative I was depicting, still fresh in my head.

Painful as it was, it needed to be done this way. It’s easy for me to put notes on the page, but digging deep into the dark, uncomfortable depths of my soul was something I hadn’t done, and it needed to be done to tell the story.

The Road, the Gear

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

(originally written Sep. 22nd)

Hey Superfans. I’m blogging somewhat from “The Road”, which for some reason has lost a smidgen of its former allure for me. I don’t know, I guess having a steady job, being on my own schedule, sleeping in my own bed and eating my own food for a number of years has cured me of it. Still, I get to see new places, eat new foods, drink local brews. Plus, it gives me some stuff to write about! (I’ll talk about opening beer bottles without a bottle-opener later on)

First, some bits of gear review. If I’m going to be out for at least 5 days, and/or have charts in the queue, I’ll almost always bring a computer with me, unless I know for certain that there will be a music lab where I’m going. Example, I went to the Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 2006, and I was able to use their more-than-adequate computing facility in their College of Fine Arts, and got lots of work done. As is the usually the case anywhere else I’d go, I have to schlepp my own gear. Here’s what I brought this time:

1) LAPTOP (make/model unimportant) – since we’re fully into the 21st century, or as I like to call it “the monumental disappointment”, every-freaking body has a laptop, and why shouldn’t they? They’re so handy. Mine is govt.-issued, so its bigger, outdated, and free (but not technically “mine”); it also has all of the pertinent files for this “mission”. You can get a PC cheaper, but the Mac’s have neat bells n’ whistles, so take your pick. Hotels and various venues seem to be going the wireless internet route, so that capability is kind of a must.

2) MOUSE – seems like a superfluous thing, but personally, I absolutely have to have a mouse, and it has to be a full-sized mouse. Doing Finale work with a trackpad is like scrubbing a gymnasium floor with a toothbrush.

3) MIDI CONTROLLER – this trip is the maiden voyage for my newly acquired KORG NANOKey, an ultra-portable midi controller. KORG makes a few other NANO- components, for what I can only assume must be location-driven DJ-types, or DSP composers, which I don’t do. This one is OK; keys can be a little stiff, but it’s better that pecking keys using *cringe* Simple Entry. The best thing about this keyboard by far is that it’s super-slim, and packs very easily into a backpack, which I like especially for plane rides, where space is a premium (I prefer to pack light). It is, however, no match for my stationary 61-key at home.

4) Various cables, USB “flash” drives, Ethernet crossover cable. You never know when you’ll need them, or if they’d come in handy. I was able to print from the hotel printer only because I had a flash drive.

If I were doing a “remote” gig that required a small keyboard, where I could get there by car, I’d go with the Oxygen 8 that has served me so well these many years. Now if only they’d come up with a 64-bit driver… (grumble) I’d also bring an standard USB qwerty keyboard that has a 10-key number pad. I might invest in a USB 10-key pad someday.

Piano music… for trombones.

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

I made a pledge to myself once: “I will never transcribe or arrange anything for trombones, ever again”.

Ok, hang on… let me explain. Trombone players are a desperate lot, and I’m a trombone player, so trust me, I’m not just saying that to be a jerk. We beg, borrow and steal from everyone. Bassoons, Cellists, Horn players, Flute players, clarinet players, oboe players… piano players.

Ugh… So what’s an instrument family to do? The only sane & safe answer seems to be to write original music for trombone. It’s not as bad as one would think; a good professional trombonist can cover about 4 solid octaves and all dynamic levels, and can create lots of tone colors. And thank the maker, trombone players are a very open-minded and receptive lot (especially if you happen to write good music). BUT, occasionally you have a request for something crazy, and who are you to turn it down? Besides, if anyone asked me how I felt about doing a chart on , I’d be immediately ecstatic, no matter what it was (God, please let it require kazoos). Oh, the exotic life of an arranger.

So, anyway… I’m working on a chart currently that is a transcription of a famous piano piece for, arguably, 4 of the best trombone players in the world. If it were for anyone else, it might be annoying, but I’m ecstatic. If it were any other piece, it would be a bit less of a pain, but I like a challenge, always and everywhere. So on to business!

It’s tricky figuring out how to approach something like this. Lucky for me, I played trombone professionally for a number of years before becoming a chairborne-qualified Finale Ranger, so I know some tricks. Note to Junior orchestrators: KNOW THY INSTRUMENTS. The most well written music can still sound like garbage if poorly orchestrated.

Back to it… The way I see it, there are 2 ways I could go about skinning this cat:

1) Go literal
2) Go liberal

Some pieces seem like they were written to be played by everything and everybody. Bach chorales, hymn tunes. Easy! Virtuoso piano music? Not so much. It may not always be possible, or practical to represent every single pitch of every single octave. In fact, if it’s a piano piece for any winds, unless you’ve got a full orchestra at your disposal, it just ain’t gonna happen. Most ensembles have enough instruments to cover a pretty good span of octaves, but wind instruments in particular have limits as to where things stop sounding normal.

So it’s time to “go liberal”. It’s the point in my chart-writing where I say “f#@! this, it’s my chart now!” I don’t want to suggest that re-writing is the 1st answer, or that radically changing a piece is the only way to go, or that it really makes it “my piece”. There are instances, however, where an orchestration or arrangement is nearly re-writing the piece; examples that come to mind are: the orchestration of Satie’s “Gymnopedies” by Debussy, Stokowski’s Bach “Prelude & Fugue in D-minor”. With others, it’s either a necessity or an open ivitation to be a little free with the interpretation, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” for example. Other pieces seem to say “this is exactly how you’re going to orchestrate it, like pretty much any piano piece by Debussy.

What about trombones and kazoos…

Concert Overture – Done

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Whew! It’s been several weeks since my last post, in which I was writing my Concert Overture for orchestra.

I suppose it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that writing a weblog about writing music, WHILE you’re writing the music, isn’t as easy as it sounds. First, you’re busy writing the music. Second, you’re usually editing it as you write the music, unless you’re some kind of freak of nature. I have a much easier time talking about it after the fact anyway.

When writing for this particular orchestra (or any, I suppose), the first consideration is always instrumentation, because it’s always different, based on whatever else is being performed on that concert. I usually shoot for whatever is biggest on the program, which in this case was Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony. I actually like working this way, because it gives me a strike zone to aim for. Sometimes it boxes me in, but in this case, there was a pretty good amount of flexibility, because Mahler scored the symphony for a fairly large orchestra, even for today: winds in 4’s, and 7 horns, lots of percussion, etc., so winds in 3’s and standard brass wouldn’t be at all excessive. GREAT! I typically keep my scoring pretty generic; it’s more challenging, plus it increases the likelihood of a repeat performance.

Conceptually, I was going back and forth between 2 ideas. 1, as I mentioned in the last post, had a distinctly “Mendelssohn” vibe to it. I had the perfect motif and harmony, even the orchestration, but I didn’t like the thought of it preceding (or following) Mahler or Britten on a concert, so I scribbled it down and put it in my “save for later use” file.

Then I decided it might be fun to try a Rimsky-Korsakov style of overture, at least that was my “concept”. Sometimes the concept and the product bear no resemblance whatsoever, but I started out with a few ideas. The first was a bell-toney kind of texture, muted trumpets and glock on the strong beats, and chimes on the after beat. Under that I put a melody in the tubas and horns, followed by a neat set of “fourthy/fifthy” punctuations. I went back and forth about whether or not to double it in the reeds, giving it that sort of “Russian Easter” kind of sound. Eventually I decided to save the reedy sound for the bell-tones of a 2nd statement while I added the tutti strings for the first time, then a big swell to a glorious statement with a nice big cadence. Then I had one of those composer moments of terror that can only be described as a mild case of “writer’s block”. More like “Ok, nice; I’ve got the first 30 seconds. (long pause) Now what?”  Develop, develop, develop…

I mulled over it for a day or two, but after a few days of anxiety, I got over the hurdles. On the last day, I was like a man possessed; I went into “get it done” mode. Years of doing overnight copywork in the Kennedy Center dungeon, being in that situation where you absolutely have to get it done, because rehearsal is in 5 hours, but the librarians need it in 3. I ended up “writing” about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes of music in about 4 hours, fully orchestrated & notated.

I’m not sure it’s going to split any atoms, but it’s done, and I’m happy with it so far. We go “live” in a few weeks.  Stay tuned for details!

Concert Overture – in progress

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Concert Overture, page ZERO

Concert Overture, page ZERO

Next in the queue, aside from my work stuff, is the Concert Overture for the Washington Metro Philharmonic.  Deadline: April 16th.  It’s sort of my pro-bono community work, for lack of a better way of describing it.  It’s a good orchestra, especially for being a community orchestra, and a great laboratory for writing orchestral music.  Some times I’m asked for the title 6 months before I even start writing a piece, so something nice and generic fits the bill.

I’m not sure what to do with this piece.  I’ve been kicking around some ideas; I’ve always got about a half-dozen un-developed ideas swimming around in the old noodle, all in an annoying holding pattern.  The other tunes on the show are Mahler Symph. no. 1, and a Britten piece for Tenor and Horn solo.  I like to know what else is on the program so that I can plan accordingly.  So, what compliments Mahler and Britten?  Hm…

I have 1 idea that has a nice romantic sound to it, kind of like “if I had to write a piece that would be MY ‘Hebrides Overture’, it might sound like…” but I’m not crazy about that.  The trick with tonal music is the danger that it’s going to be a rip-off of something well-known.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is just, well…  ILLEGAL.  Plus it’s lazy.  I have an awful habit of penning something, then saying “hey I like this… no wait, that’s Debussy.  F^%$”

Anyway, my stuff has been taking on a more “Hindemith-y” sound lately, if Hindemith were a brooding Slovack, and part Irish.  I like the “fourthy” sound, as Dan Haerle and others have termed it.  I love Perfect fourths; they are the do-all intervals of music.  Combine a fourthy sound with some chromatics, and you can’t lose.  (The 2nd movement of my “Symphonic Fantasy” as an example)

More on that later, I guess.  Back to work!

Twilight Tattoo

Monday, March 15th, 2010

I’m often asked, “so what kind of stuff do you write at Pershing’s Own?” Usually, I give my stock answer of “you name it, I’ve probably done it,” then I tell an amusing anecdote, like the one about when VP Dick Cheney required us to put a SECRET classification on one of our charts (buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about it). But that’s not very interesting (is it?). It’s not very specific, either. SO, thought I’d talk about some “everyday” Army band arranger stuff.

The TUSAB arrangers typically do 3-5 major shows every year, and then lots of little stuff in between. I actually didn’t find out until last year that TUSAB alone, as an organization, performs roughly 30,000 engagements every year. That’s THIRTY… THOUSAND. EVERY YEAR. Some of those, probably a lot of them, are a guy playing “Taps” at Arlington Cemetery (a harrowing job on its own), and some are full blown 2-hour orchestra concerts, but every “mission” gets planned & executed, and catalogued, presumably just like any typical military unit.

The latest project on the hit parade was the first of these shows, the “Twilight Tattoo”, or “TLT” as we call it. No, it’s not some Wiccan ceremony (even though the Army DOES recognize Wicca as a religion), or anything involving Bella & Edward (god forbid). It’s a yearly tradition in Washington DC, featuring some of the elite units in the Military District of Washington, one of which is the Army Band. Every summer at around twilight (wednesday nights), there is a performance that includes music, historical narrative, “drill and ceremony” as it’s called in the Army, and other assorted things. “Tattoo” is actually a modernization of “tap-to”. The history is fairly well documented in various places.

Anyway, as arrangers, our part involves writing music to underscore a narrated history of the Army. ALSO, it involves arranging pop tunes for the Army’s premier jazz ensemble, “the Army Blues”, and pop vocalists “Downrange”. This year, the straws I drew were: Ricky Martin’s “La Bomba”, “Smoke on the Water”, and then some basic printing of a Miley Cyrus chart (you may have heard of it – “Party in the USA”). That’s right – Miley Cyrus. I never know which is funnier, the thought of a bunch of hardcore jazz cats having to play Hannah Montana every week, or the fact that they’re doing it for the Army.

From a writing perspective, it’s basically like writing for a rock band with a slightly bigger horn section: 4 pc. rhythm, 3 tpts, 3 bones, 4 saxes (ATTB), & singers. Fun on a bun.

If you’re ever in DC, check it out at Ft. McNair.