Monday: Today I was able to complete the third variation of the bassoon quartet. I pretty much stayed with the formula of three steady, harmonized voices in staggered entrances against which was an obbligato solo voice. For the next variation,I anticipate writing a kind of punta beat as it’s basis. A ‘punta’ is a very popular genre in Honduras. In the mean time, I’ve must of had over a half dozen starts and stops to the sax choir piece. Currently, I’ve been taking a more progressive direction. Now the piece begins with slow, repeated high notes in the soprano saxes. They seem to squeeze along in slowly descending dissonances. I envision some sort of ‘whining’ melody in the alto saxes. Perhaps an entrance of dense block chords in counterpoint? The trumpet/marimba piece is still an iffy venture in my mind. Some portions of the work, such as the beginning of the piece, establish a nice, peaceful patter which I think is quite affective. The quicker second section of the piece seems at times a bit stilted and contrived. Currently, I’m working on a cadenza section in the trumpet. Here, I think the instrument seems free from the constraints of interacting with the marimba. Tuesday: The ‘punta’, when performed by Honduran artists really flies! So an initial challenge of writing the 4th variation is establishing the right tempo: too slow and it loses its drive; too fast, and it might be too much of a challenge for the bassoonists. The basic punta rhythm looks like this: But I modified it to go like this: Wednesday This morning I made some inroads into the 4th variation. The challenge is getting just the right balance of repetition and change. I’m trying to accomplish this by periodic rhythmic shifts and subtle modulation of harmonies. The saxophone choir piece has now settled into a slow moving mass of whines’ in the soprano saxes and wailing leaps in the alto saxes. As is always the case, the slower the piece, the greater the challenge to the composer’s technical skills. So, that explains why the writing process is so SLOW GOING. The trumpet/ marimba piece has emerged from a trumpet cadenza to a return to the marimba ‘patters’ and angular trumpet lines. Somehow I’m still sticking with the piece. Thursday: I continued to make headway on the bassoon quartet. In addition to the shifting rhythms and harmonic subtleties, I moved down the melodic interest to a lower voice and added a third layer to the harmonic accompaniment. The slow moving whines and wails continued in the sax choir piece. Writing in this manner, with just a handful of pitches has been a tedious process. I’m about a minute and a half into the piece and still haven’t introduced the tenor and baritone saxes. Saturday: I completed the ‘punta’ variation this morning and began work on the 5th variation. So far it’s darker in character. I’m not sure whether to make this more of a transition section rather than a variation with the theme hidden in some way.I’m feeling as if this is the penultimate portion of the work that will lead into the final variation. The sax choir piece is turning out to be one of the most contemporary sounding works that I’ve written in a while. Now the whines and wails in the upper voices are joined by moans in the lower voices. After a pause, a new section begins initiated by the lower saxes who proceed in a slow tangle.
This morning, I resumed work on the bassoon quartet. My initial trajectory for the piece changed as I set out to write the piece. I’m thinking it best to focus on 2 things: 1. The ensuing possibilities drawn from the theme (a Honduran folk lullaby) and, 2. The idiosyncratic possibilities inherent in the bassoon quartet. I think the text thing at the end and its political overtones is a bit over the top. I might be able to get subtly political in the way I handle what’s on my compositional pallet
Later this morning, I’ll probably return to the trumpet/ marimba piece. At this stage in the work, I’m focusing on lines and configurations in the two instruments that should pose a challenge to both players.What I’m attempting to do, I suppose, is to appeal to the academic musician’s desire to inspire their students and impress their colleagues and department heads. I don’t suppose that is the purest artistic endeavor on my part but it is an intriguing challenge nonetheless.
I must confess: Writing a piece in theme and variations form is a bit like cheating. Especially when you’re dealing with a beautiful existing melody. With an established melody to work with and an inherent form already in place I’m well on my way. I’ve completed the theme and one variation. The theme begins with a solo bassoon and, after a couple of phrases, is joined by the other bassoons. The first variation presents the theme still intact accompanied by a combination of counterpoint and lush harmonies. When the second variation begins,there’s a sudden shift to a quicker tempo and minor key. The theme is now a ‘cantus firmus ‘of sorts set against parallel running notes in the other bassoons
Yesterday, I hit a snag in the second variation of the bassoon quartet. The challenge was to keep the running notes flowing without sounding too repetitive. I tried nuancing the harmonies as well as the voicing and register choices. Later this morning, I hope to close out the second variation and start on the third . The sax choir composition finally seems to have some direction. I think I finally solved the issue I’ve been struggling with regarding how to proceed after the opening statement. This was primarily by register changes and tweaking of the harmony.
I made some progress towards reaching the end of the second variation of the bassoon quartet. How I proceed from there is unclear.So far the pattern has been slow- fast.... Later during my morning session, I completed the second variation. It works out being four tidy phrases interspersed with chromatic falls.
I intuitively set my tempo to ‘slow’ in the third variation of the bassoon quartet. So, just as I suspected, I’m setting up a slow- fast-slow- fast sequence here. The third variation consists of a chorus of three set against a solo obbligato. And then there’s the sax choir piece! I’ve prettying much abandoned the rising note theme. Then, earlier in the week, I tried out a bluesy idea. It seems the piece didn’t know whether to swing or move in straight eighth notes. So today I hit upon an angular, staccato pattern in the alto and tenor saxes. It seems to have a clarity and bite to it. Let’s hope this finally takes hold.
It might take days or even weeks to get a piece off the ground. A piece might start out strong but after the opening statement, seem to loose its luster. And then, I often ask myself: ”Now what?" Such is the case with the saxophone choir composition I’m currently working on. The piece begins with an ascending stepwise tune creating ‘blurred' harmonies in its wake. The opening statement ends with a full, sonorous, chord. So far so good. Now I try a kind of chant like melody in the tenor saxophones with a less than compelling harmony in the baritone saxophones. I try voicing the chords in other ways, adding or subtracting instruments, changing textures. This morning I tried sustained polychords moving as a block together. But this afternoon the section seemed out of place.I think a milder set of repeated chords set in lilting rhythms might just work.
Meanwhile, I worked on a handful of measures in the trumpet- marimba piece. In this piece, It seems as if I’m writing the same material I’ve written before. If I can inject some of the unexpected into the piece as I do with the solo tuba piece , I’d be headed in the right direction.
Remember the lilting repeated chords in the saxophone choir piece? Well that didn’t work out for me either. Today I tried a simpler, more succinct approach: a three note harmonized statement in the soprano and alto saxes answered by a varied version of the opening stepwise tune in the baritone saxes.Nope. What’s more, I’ve committed these few measures to memory to the point that be it has become an ‘ear worm’( a tune that keeps repeating itself in one’s brain for hours a a time.)
Prompted by an email from Cassandra of the Luftbassoons, I began to ponder a plan for a new bassoon quartet piece. I’m thinking of doing a set of variations based on a Central American Folk song). The piece will have political overtones.
Later in the day, there was an email from Elena Galbraith of the Nota Bene Trio. She said the group is slated to perform my Dorothy Parker Songs on a concert series next fall. Since the concert had its focus on the Algonquin Hotel scene (a literary circle, which includied Miss Parker, that convened at the hotel) she thought a few more settings of her poetry were in order to round out the program. It’s always a better compositional situation when someone asks you to write something rather than writing something on ‘spec’.
I came upon a lovely Honduran Lullaby that, in my estimation, is a quite suitable theme for the bassoon quartet. I can already hear it being song by a solo bassoon with the other quartet members being the strum of the guitar. As the work develops, I can hear the theme slowly being mocked and overtaken by hostile textures and configurations..... Finally, the theme returns with a solo bassoon along with spoken interjections of text by the three other quartet members. It’s nice to make these projections, but usually my initial thoughts go by the wayside as I grind things out in the composition process.
Afterthought: As things stand.. the sax choir piece finally began plowing ahead. I finally arrived at a combination of chant-like melody, 'blurred' harmonies, and full sonorities. Oh saxophone choir!
Wednesday: Today my session started with a return to the ‘ Horn Quintet’. I still need to come up with an appropriate title for this work. Maybe something in regards to how the heat of a desert summer seems to envelop you, or something to that affect. I wrote the work about a year ago but it was one of those pieces I wasn’t quite sure of. I finally got around to sending it to a hornist friend who thought the piece was ‘cool’ and to send her the parts. Upon reviewing the piece I thought things needed some revising. There was an effective, smooth-flowing section in the strings toward the end that seemed to end too soon. So I decided to write an extension to that part . At the end of my time with the piece today, I sensed it was nearing the transition to the final section, of the piece...’
Next I worked on the trumpet- marimba piece.It’s my intention to keep the piece moderately ‘abstract; enough to come across as ‘modern’. Will this work appeal to trumpeters and marimba players? I really don’t know. The piece,I think, starts out effectively with the gentle purr of the marimba. I sense the piece is losing its ‘challenging ‘ aspects and falling into a rut. I’ll ‘sleep on it’ and see what happens tomorrow. My daily session concluded with some time devoted to the sax choir piece.
Thursday: It seems as if I’ve finished the horn quintet. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Passing Ships’. In a nutshell It’s about watching the ships go by on Puget Sound although it is actually more personal than that.I know this is an about face regarding the heat in the desert idea. Music is an ‘abstract’ art ,and I’ve learned long ago that interpreting music verbally is very allusive. In any event, I brought the smooth- flowing section to its conclusion and did a sudden pivot to the final da capo . Prior to this revision, the da capo began with just solo horn but I chose to add slow string glissandi as in the beginning. It seemed to me an effective move that gave the section more heft. From that point on there was no need to make more changes.
I revisited the trumpet marimba piece. A form for the work seems to be beginning to take shape; slow- fast perhaps? A change of pace in the marimba with a return to a written retard of repeated notes.
The sax choir work I spoke of previously is one in a series of ‘choir’ works for different families of instruments. So far I’ve written pieces in this genre for flute choir, clarinet choir and trombone choir. So far the only luck I’ve had is with the flute choir piece that is to be performed this fall by a group in Washington D.C. The sax choir piece is the most ‘choral’ of the works. It features gentle conjunctive movement peppered with fleeting dissonances. Finally, there is a solo tuba piece that I hope to get back to in the next day or so. Here I’m using ‘measureless’ notation which seems to be freeing me up to take more chances. And, as things go, the piece seems to be taking some interesting twists and turns. As with the trumpet marimba piece, the form wasn’t predetermined but seems to just fall into place as the piece progresses. I see the form of the tuba piece so far as: ABAB maybe a conclusive C.
(Horn Quintet midi recording before revision)
Perspective 2 for Clarinet and Piano
My Perspective 2 (working title) for clarinet and piano, has seen several reiterations: sparse and gentle, strident and boisterous, minimalist, to name a few. I’d finally settled on a series of preludes ( variations?.)These preludes seemed to unfold from one to the next serendipitously. As things turned out, I wound up reworking a few of the discarded earlier starts.
At the beginning of the piece, the segments are in stark contrast to one another: fast,slow,fast etcetera. The work begins with quick, configurations in the clarinet.This is followed by very slow repeated clarinet pitches.
If I were to sum up each and every prelude in a few words, it would look like this:
- Hastened, with clustered harmonies
- Uneven pulse, sustained
- Manic, rapid
- Slow, sorrowful
- Crafty, elusive
- Sustained, sorrowful mashup
- Serpentine dialogue
- Serpentine, falling gestures.
As things stand, the piece is nearing it’s completion.I foresee being done in 2 or three more preludes.
Here is what the opening looks like:
As things stand, my horn quintet will be a work in three movements. So far, the piece is a little more than a third of the way done.
If Structured in terms of tempo, I foresee the entire piece looking like this:
1.slow-fast-slow, II.moderate,III. fast-slow (or slow fast)
Barring any last minute revisions, the first movement is in place.
In the opening, or more aptly termed ‘introduction’,slowly swirling chromatic configurations in the strings cluster together in a kind of ‘knot’.This serves as an accompaniment to the horn.Here the horn stands out by conveying an angular, stately line.
The fast section continues this association between the horn and strings but with driving rhythms. In the course of the movement, a series of these ‘knots’ seem to alternately cluster and loosen up.
Prior to the conclusion of the movement, is a solo horn interlude..
In the middle movement, the horn appropriates some of the chromatic configurations of the strings. The string writing here is more open and airy..
Looking ahead I foresee sizable stretches of pulsing rhythms in the strings against which are set against punctuating repeated notes in the horn.
In a few weeks, I will provide an update of the work. Here is a sample:
Within the act of composing music, there is a constant quest to discover something fresh and unique. With each step of this process there are countless decisions to be made.
This series of blogs will take you through several steps in this process.In this first installment of Clarinet Piece, I’ll run you through my process of choosing what instruments, if any I to write for to accompany the clarinet.
When one is deciding what to write for, are we talking about something traditional, like a clarinet sonata or something more 21st century like an electro acoustic work? My personal preference is to write for purely acoustic instruments. I find writing for people skilled at playing these acoustic instruments very rewarding. There is something about having the human connection to bring ones written notes to life as opposed to synthesized and computer generated sounds.
Another relatively new development, which had its origins in the 20th century, was to depart from the traditional ensemble such as the string quartet, concerto and and turn to a variety of instrumental combinations. Examples of this are most notably the Pierrot ensemble( an ensemble with the same instrumentation as Shoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, which is comprised of flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello and piano accompanying the voice.The Pierrot ensemble also has players double instruments. Other chamber combinations can be for like instruments such as bassoon quartets ,trombone choirs and all sorts of hybrid combinations. Nowadays, choirs of like instruments have become quite common in colleges and universities and they are cropping up all over the place in the form of amateur ensembles like flute and clarinet choirs.
Professional players or academic professors, tend to want to be be in the spotlight and so combinations that feature the clarinet are preferable. Those traditional combinations are especially suitable for the professional soloist. In striving for the highest quality of work, it would make sense that I would expect to have a professional performance of my music.
So a list of typical traditional combinations for clarinet might include: a clarinet sonata ( for clarinet and piano or unaccompanied clarinet) , a clarinet quintet ( for clarinet and string quartet), a clarinet concerto ( for clarinet and orchestra and the less traditional clarinet and band or wind ensemble).
Now we need to narrow down this list. We should immediately rule out the concerto. Unless one is lucky enough to get a sizable commission, I wouldn’t waste countless hours writing such a work. Just about every large and midsize city tends to have at least one string quartet and some universities have quartets in residence. Once again, you could secure a commission, send a piece around on spec, or you might have friends in a quartet who might need a new piece by a local composer to fill out their program. In my case, I’ll be writing a quartet for saxophone and string quartet later this year, and don’t want to press my luck.
Now we’re down to the accompanied verses the unaccompanied sonata. By now one might deduce that the less performers involved the more likely one can get a piece performed.
So should I choose the solo clarinet as my instrumentation? Not so fast. The unaccompanied work seems to be the go- to combination these days. Such a combination has been a kind of testing ground for extended techniques such as key clicks, humming and playing, multiphonics and lip glissandi. But I’m going to choose a clarinet and piano piece and here’s why: One reason is my composition history. Over the past few years I’ve written several solo piece that were performed and performed well. What I find is lacking in these sorts of works is a sense of perspective The piano offers the composer many of the things an orchestra can do so such as harmony and texture. And, one final decision; I could choose to have the clarinetist double or triple on another member or the clarinet family. But, being that this piece isn’t commissioned, I’d rather keep things tidy and stick just with just the clarinet.
So have made my first big decision; a work for clarinet and piano.
There are a bunch of other decisions to be made before I actually begin to write down any notes.
We’ll cover that in the next installment of ‘Clarinet Piece’.
The Visions of Harriot Tubman- sample – Organ
A couple of years ago,the US Postal Service decided to put the image of the famous African American , Harriot Tubman,on one of its currency denominations. I was struck by the reaction to this decision, and troubled in particular by the negative responses. I decided to read up on Ms Tubman and found her to be a remarkable woman; among other things one of the key figures of the Underground Railroad in the mid- 19th century. Ms Tubman, a deeply religious woman ,claimed that God spoke to her, urging her to lead runaway slaves to freedom.
This inspired me to compose my Visions of Harriot Tubman. In this work the music grows organically emerging into a kind of paraphrase of the African American spiritual Let my People Go.This was the tune that Harriot Tubman sang as a signal to the slaves she would lead to freedom. As the piece progresses, the music travels in phases from the hymn tune, to jazz ,to blues as so forth. The registrations and edits were by organist David Gay of Tucson, Arizona.
The Visions of Harriot Tubman was composed in 2016.
Organ Prelude 2016- 5:31 versionCommentary:
And the Idles Shall Utterly Pass Away is a tone poem based on biblical verses from the Book of
Isaiah (2:18). For me,the wonderfully varied imagery of the text lent itself to a variety of musical moods and gestures. The seemingly limitless timbrel possibilities of the organ greatly enhanced my ability to bring these images to life.
The formal structure of the music is based upon the thematic structure of the verses. Formally the work is divided into two groups each comprised of two ‘darker sections sections culminating in a third ‘majestic ‘ section of music. The unifying features of the darker sections are unsteady rhythmic figures along with angular melodies and strident harmonies. This is in contrast to the ‘majestic sections which feature more rhythmic regularity and a solid sense of tonality.
And the Idles Shall Utterly Pass Away was composed in 2010 and commissioned by David and Illona Gay
The sections of music presented with brief pauses are as follows:
1. ‘And the idols shall utterly pass…’
2. ‘And the men shall go into the caves…’ 3. ‘And from the glory of His majesty…’ 4. ‘… a man shall cast away his idols..’
5. ‘ To the moles and to the bats…’
6. ‘From before the terror of the Lord…’
And the Idles Shall Utterly Pass Away
And the idles shall utterly pass away.
And men shall go into the caves of the rocks. And into the holes of the earth,
From before the terror of the Lord,
And from the glory of His majesty,
When he arises to shake mightily the earth. In that day a man shall cast away
His idols of silver, and his idols of gold, Which they made for themselves to worship, To the moles and to the bats;
To go into the clefts of the rocks,
And into the crevices of the crags,
From before the terror of the Lord,
And from the glory of His majesty,
When He ariseth to shake mightily the earth.
Currently there are three works which occupy my daily composing schedule:
Little Night Creatures is a piece for soprano saxophone and vibraphone. In these whimsical episodes, I endeavor to create a handful of imagined ‘creatures’.There’s no telling who or what these creatures are; essentially it’s really up to each listeners imagination. As is the case with several of my other works, the musical materials are derived from a ‘palette’ of motivic materials. This includes interchangeable pitch and rhythmic materials. It is my hope to make Creatures both technically challenging as well as artistically rewarding for both performer and listener.
The Three Princes is an adaption of a Grimm’s fairy tale for brass quintet and narrator. Although this is one of the brother’s lesser known stories, the tale is filled with magic and adventure. From the composer’s standpoint, there are a lot of intriguing materials to work with including everything from encountering a swarm of bees to discovering an enchanted castle with a beautiful princess.The Three Princes is sure to captivate listeners both young and old alike. At the same time, the piece promises to be a lot of fun for members of the quintet to perform!
Trio ( the working title so far)for oboe,cello and piano is the third of my current projects.The piece is being written for Sarah Fraker, Professor of Oboe at the University of Arizona. Prior to this work, Sara has performed the premieres of my Pastorals with the Paloma Wind Quintet and Lyric Passages for Oboe and string trio (violin, viola and cello) a piece which was premiered at the International Double Reed Society Conference in Tempe, Arizona.The current trio contains some of the same features as Pastorals and Lyric with a particular focus on the use of the ‘singing’, lyrical qualities of each instrument. What’s more,Trio is also is a bit of a departure from the other aforementioned pieces in terms of its approach to form and harmony. It is my hope that Trio will have its first performance some time in 2015.