Archive for April, 2010

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!

Eviler Elves Tonite @ UNT

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Just a reminder to catch the University of North Texas performing “Eviler Elves”, 7:30pm CST (5:30 PST, 8:30 EST).  I have no doubt that the performance will be spectacular.  Here’s the link for the live web-cast:

I’m told it’s 3rd on the program.  Enjoy!

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!

The Hex Files

Monday, April 5th, 2010

I suppose I wouldn’t be doing much of a blog if I didn’t talk about music I’ve actually written.  So, here goes.

The Hex Files – Written in 1998, at the request of Thomas Ashworth, my teacher from my undergraduate program, for the U of Minnesota’s entry into the ITA’s Emory Remington trombone choir competition.  At the time, I was in my masters’ study at North Texas, and had a funny idea about being the “Philip Jones of the Trombone Choir”.  Maybe someday…  Anyway, afterward we used the piece to help win the Remington in 1999, and a couple of Downbeat awards after that.

I enjoy titles for pieces that have cryptic/double meanings, or are kind of hybridizations.  Sometimes the title comes before the music, sometimes it comes after.  In this case, I don’t exactly remember which; the X files were popular on TV, and I was working on the tech support staff at the College of Music, and was dealing with hex editors while learning about programming in my free time.  I guess the title just came one day, organically.

I’m pretty sure the opening figure came first.  I was on-call in tech support one day, listening to my 80’s/90’s playlist, and “You Could Be Mine” by Guns n’ Roses came up.  I’ve always loved the opening distortion guitar & double-bass drum/tom lick.  It always reminded me of this peculiar bassoon figure from the 2nd movement of the Stravinsky Octet, which to me always sounded a little like a crazy pitched lawn mower muffler or something.  Like a good composer, I thought “ok, I HAVE to try that.”  The more I thought about Stravinsky the more I thought about octatonic scales.  I picked up my horn and thought, “ok, now how would I do that?”  I thought about some kind of 20th century non-specific pitch notation, but I didn’t like the thought of that – too many weird possibilities.  I thought a figure that was hard enough to hit with exactitude would suffice.  (So, don’t kill yourself trying to be exact – tempo is more important)

I was also playing in the UNT Wind Symphony, which was working on Frank Ticheli’s “Blue Shades”.  I liked his style of rhythmic punches and sort of contraputal interjections.  I was also in love (and still am) with the “7 sharp 9” chord, sort of a half-major, half-minor dominant chord that has an undeniably funky sound.  There was also an effect I heard when playing “Requiem for Our Time” by Eino Rautavaara at the U of Minnesota; in the Dies Irae, there’s an effect using trombones alternating glissandi to re-create a siren sound that I couldn’t get over.

Throw in bucket and harmon mutes, a little Bernstein, some Kenton-esque falls, a little “Bumpy’s Lament” from the movie “Shaft”, a few chords from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, a kitchen-sink-ish coda, and that’s pretty much it.  In those days, there wasn’t a whole lot of, well, PLANNING that went into my composition, but I thought if it sounded logical, there may have been something to it.  I also wrote a lot of high Db’s in the 1st part (my part, by the way) because at the time, it was just one of those notes I could pick out of thin air, all day long.  (how I long for those days)