Blog: this is the garden

Progress blog for this is the garden for chamber orchestra

11/8/10 - Time to get moving
Final entry in this blog series - the piece is done and you will find the full score on the main page. Hard copies of the score should arrive this week and I am sending it off to a contest on Thursday. The last point of discussion for the piece is the second half. I wanted to write a contrasting portion of the piece that was up-tempo and completely different from the opening style of music. This was a bit of a challenge since it meant juxtaposing disparate styles - slippery rhythms and dissonance vs. more pronounced pulse and more consonance. I started a few sketches for this section but ended up scrapping them after a day or two since they weren't working out. Rather than keep trying and failing at the same idea, I made a checklist of what I wanted this section to be:

Checklist - One thing that was tripping me up in the early stage of conceiving this section was the lack of a repetitive pattern. I wanted rhythmic, driving music and was originally thinking lots of meter changes to go along with the fast tempo. The problem that occurred with each sketch was that it wasn't catchy at all, except for one bit that sounded like "America" - nice! After tossing the mixed meter ideas it was only a few hours of tapping and clapping before coming up with the main groove that drives this section:

"Catchy Rhythm Bit" - This has been stuck in my head for about 8 days, which is generally a good sign. I think that this might be the key ingredient to the what I am looking for in the piece - something the audience can recall after the concert is over. The last thing that remained was to meld the two sections - slow and ethereal, fast and vibrant - together. I think the transition works in this case because both sections appear to start the same way with the M7: G-(Bb)-F# in the beginning, and D-C# at the tempo change. Hopefully you will take a listen to the MIDI realization on the main page and let me know what you think - don't judge the silly synth patches too harshly, I swear it will sound better when played by live players!

11/4/10 - Something missing
A few months ago I saw an episode of Frasier that I had never seen, and it reflected some aspects of my composing life that hit close to home. The episode revolves around Frasier writing a theme song for his show, and he goes completely overboard against Martin's suggestion to keep it simple. Frasier's comment around 2:40 is GREAT - "Yes I've accelerated the tempo at measure 34 to depict the yearning of the superego." Sometimes the urge to be clever, current, and complex ends up clouding the piece for myself and for the audience. This piece was missing something, and I was in danger of losing the whole thing until I resolved the problem.

Much of my training has focused on the listener's perception of my music - you'll notice that I've mentioned it several times already in the first few posts. This doesn't mean that every piece I write is tonal or catchy, but there is always an internal drive for me to communicate with the audience rather than alienate them. The pieces that I researched left me feeling slightly hollow (and a bit dejected, since they were quite successful in awards and performances) - there wasn't anything memorable about the 10 minutes I just spent listening to the work. What I was missing was melody - something that is memorable, is repeated, and sticks with the listener. Several recent articles (here and here, among others) discuss why contemporary music does not always resonate with the audience and it involves our ears and perception of patterns in pitch and rhythm. Here's what I came up with for my melodic idea:

First Statement -
At a glance this is a pretty complex little ditty, and probably something that your granny won't be humming while she's making cookies. However, I tried to put in small melodic and rhythmic motives that keep it from sounding like another texture or counterpoint. I will also spill a dirty little secret - this is the ONLY melody in the piece, and it happens (I think) about 6 times. This is the first time the listener will hear the melody - scored as a piccolo solo - and it is the first music that is not based on a texture or chord pattern. Immediately after the solo the melody repeats again, like this:

Second Statement
- Scored for the viola and cello sections, this version is slightly more simple in terms of rhythm (since two sections of players will be playing the line, rather than a soloist) but retains the same sense of pitch and rhythm repetition / organization. I don't think this will be stuck in your head the second time, either, but I bet by the third time the melody returns you will realize "Hey, I've heard this a few times now, it must be important" - THAT is what I am trying to convey. This isn't the simplicity that Martin was preaching to Frasier, but not all melodies have to be simple. My favorite quote from Messiaen goes something like this: [listeners don't] need to figure out the chords of classical music. That's reserved for harmony professors and professional composers. The moment [listeners] receive a shock, realize that it's beautiful, that the music reaches them, the goal is achieved! The goal here is not necessarily to create an earworm but to communicate the importance of this particular line in relation to the rest of the piece. Stay tuned, because next time we're gonna get hip and start grooving!

11/1/10 - The start of something big
I am generally a "left to right" composer - start at the beginning and move to the end. This doesn't mean that I never know what's coming next - usually I will have an idea from the energy graph or some type of pre-composition sketches. In this case I had almost all of my materials ready before writing a note and just needed to put those pieces in order like a jigsaw puzzle. Sounds easy, right? ...

... Not so much! Figuring out a way to express my ideas in a way that is new to me - yet still retains some sense of logic for the listener - was quite difficult. Although I am trying techniques that are contrary to my training I do not want to abandon the audience in these pursuits. One of the worst experiences for me is to hear the first five seconds of a piece and hate it, and I wanted to avoid that with this new style. It's not that every piece must start with a C major chord or something pretty, but I like to think that there is more to my music than cheap shock value. This article has a great quote from Ingrid Stolzel about wanting to draw the audience in so that they want to hear more of the piece - this is what I hope to do with the intro. Here are a few sketches in chronological order:

First Sketch - This didn't get me very far, but it shows two things that were important to me in the intro - music beginning with a single pitch, and multiple meters / polyrhythms. I envision the piece blooming from a single seedling note just like the garden reference in the title, and this was my first attempt. It fails (for me) because the string texture is just not interesting and does not capture anything magical. I like the idea of introducing the major 7th - lets see how I can integrate that with another attempt.

Second Sketch - Aha! Getting closer to some magic, but not quite there. There's a scribbled note to "extend all ideas" and that was part of the problem with this version. Things happened far too quickly - using the garden metaphor, nothing was allowed to grow naturally. A few of the ideas are starting to come together, just need to learn how to extend them in this style.

Final Version - Here is the final sketch of the intro, with things stretched out in a way that was pleasing to me and hopefully will resonate with the audience. This version brings in the M7 after unison pitches and a minor third alternation - I think the older versions got here too early, and adding one extra note saved the magic for just the right time. Another change is the tonal shift from C to G, giving me a chance for some nice natural harmonics in the strings. One thing that scares me a bit is starting with the high muted viola (insert viola joke here). I'll probably change this to first and second violins before the thing gets printed, but for now I'm leaving the intro as it is written in the sketch. Click here for the fully orchestrated version of the intro, and note how much more complex a few eighth notes become from sketch to score... Next time I'll talk about something that was missing from the piece and almost caused me to trash the whole thing. Until then!

10/26/10 - Gathering materials
Like any other creative art, composing is a lonely profession acted out in solitude. I think that a reality show along the lines of Top Chef or Project Runway using composers would be an absolute snore (although I would love to be on one - sign me up!). What's the fun in watching some lunatic banging a few things out on the piano, get a funny look on their face and then race over to write it down? Now that I've written that down it sounds awesome - I think I'll pitch it to FOX after I post this entry... Long story short, I hope this discussion is interesting to the majority of you who might read it. Please let me know what you want to see more of before I get to the end and we're all asleep.

Pre-composition is something that has become more important to me as I get older and gain more experience. I once read a quote in Don Gillespie's book on George Crumb about seeing Crumb's latest work tacked up on the walls of his study - some of the pages were blank and only contained time indications. That image stuck with me and I've been including timings in my sketches along with making the following before starting to write:

Energy Graph - This is something taught to me by Dan Welcher during my time at UT. Making an energy graph looks like a lot of gibberish but it really helps to keep me on the right track. The line indicates level of energy or motion, and the text describes different sections of the piece. This is all done before writing a single note - although sometimes I have concrete musical ideas before beginning, this time I had absolutely nothing. Some of the stuff on the graph is accurate and some will be tossed before the piece is done. Notice the timings of the sections in the bottom line - I stick to this fairly rigorously, although for this work I needed at least 8:00 and stretched a few sections. This is about the 4th or 5th revision of the graph - I came back to it after getting stuck and restarting the piece a few times. You can also see the full poem by E.E. Cummings as a reference on the graph.

Basic Materials - Once the graph is in place I know what kinds of materials I need for this work: several different kinds of orchestral textures, fast and rhythmically vibrant music, and some sort of pointillistic melodic idea. There are several pages of sketches like this, some with material I never used and some like the page linked where I used most of the ideas on the page. The rhythmic idea and the "GADE" motto was abandoned early on - the most interesting thing about this page is the appearance of what I'm calling the "Garden Scale." This scale took 2-3 days to settle in after trying lots of different combinations - I originally intended on using my Nautilus scale - and the added F# to the octatonic scale worked perfectly. Looks simple now but take my word that it was a huge headache at the time!

Reduction Chords - This page is the entire first half of the piece in reduction form, as I originally composed it. As I mentioned, this style of composing is not how I was trained and it has been a huge learning process. As Jim Barnes always says, "You never forget what you teach yourself" and I hope the next piece comes a little easier! Anyhow, this reduction is basically a chord progression that I am turning into orchestral textures which will be easier to see when I link some of the actual piece. Next time I'll talk about struggling to start the piece and what holds the whole thing together.

10/25/10 - What's in a name?
Welcome to a new feature for this site - I will be posting information about a new piece as it comes together. It is my hope that you find the process interesting and informative, so please do not hesitate to leave comments in the box below!

This piece began with a simple desire - I want to write for chamber orchestra! It has been several years since dustdevil and high time I wrote for orchestra again. Listening to many of the award-winning orchestra works by composers of my age revealed a trend towards what my teacher would call "color music" - emphasis on orchestration and texture over melody or harmonic motion. My goal with this work is to write a piece that emphasizes these types of orchestral color shifts while staying true to my own style and aesthetic. I'll write another entry about my process and struggles with the technique in the next few days as I present some of the musical materials.

Something that rarely comes easy for me is a title; often I will be many measures into a piece before settling on the title after much debate. The original title for this work came from the E.E. Cummings poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town" and was to be sun / moon stars / rain. Excellent! However, a cursory Google search reveals several pieces with this same title, including an orchestra work by composer David Dzubay. I found the perfect title for the mood of the piece in another cummings poem whose first line reads: This is the garden: colors come and go

The poem describes a garden full of color shifts and in typical Cummings fashion mixes traditional details with surrealism alongside several musical references. I was inspired not to simply "Mickey Mouse" the poem but to write a piece that portrays the colors and imagery (as I hear them, in any case) for the listener. I think the title ended up far better than my first concept and I think it fits very well with the overall mood of the piece. You'll see a reproduction of the poem in the next post when I share some of my pre-composition materials.


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