The blog has been silent of late. This is in part due to the hectic events of the last six months, and in part due to my laziness when it comes to sitting down and putting my thoughts into a permanent form. However, I now have time on my hands (strange!) and I need to write about what has been happening in my life, creatively as well as personally.
In the last six months I graduated from the University of Miami Frost School of Music with my BM in Composition, spent three months in North Carolina counseling at a church summer camp, moved to Wichita, KS, and started my MM in Conducting. I also managed to transcribe my bass trombone concerto, At Sixty Miles an Hour, for wind ensemble and attend the premiere of the new version with the UCLA Wind Ensemble and Will Baker in May. And write a clarinet concerto, Grid, for the Southeast Iowa Symphony and Jesse Krebs, and Orbits, a commission for the Miami Symphony's season opening concert this month.
With all of the changes in my life, one thing has come to be abundantly apparent. As much as the creative, imaginative side of my personality thrives off change and unpredictability, I fundamentally need order in my life. The first weeks of my life in Wichita were stressful emotionally and physically simply because my life lacked order and routine. Since establishing a routine, my time here has become exponentially more productive. This, I think, has helped the writing of Orbits in a larger way than I expected.
Orbits was dreamed up in the wake of my senior recital, coming off the high of the premiere of my wind ensemble piece, Water Mirrors. I wanted to further synthesize my new style, aesthetic, and philosophy of music, and do it in a medium where I would have few restrictions in scope. Providentially, the Miami Symphony approached me to commission a 10-minute piece for full orchestra. And I mean FULL. The standard orchestral instrumentation these days, especially for commissions, is approximately as follows.
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (the second of each instrument may double on one other instrument, i.e. piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon)
2 or 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba
timpani, 2 percussion, harp
The instrumentation of Orbits is as follows.
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba
timpani, 4 percussion, harp, piano, celesta
This larger instrumentation allows almost infinite possibilities in orchestration, freeing me to write pretty much whatever I wanted-10 minutes of it! The orchestra had an idea that my piece would be about the missing link, and musically tie together Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F and Holst's The Planets, the two other pieces on the concert. However, writing a piece so inherently tied to evolution just didn't sit well with me. (See my earlier post, Soli Deo Gloria.) Instead, I chose to title the commission Orbits. The piece is inspired by order in the universe, and to a certain extent, replicates that order sonically.
Think about orbital models for a second. We use virtually the same models to explain the orbits of stars and planets, the electron orbits of atoms, and the path of a weight tied to a rope. Granted, the forces at play are somewhat different in each case, but there is an underlying sense of unity to our understanding of gravitational or magnetic attraction, from an atomic to a universal level. In the same way that we can use a planet's gravitaional field to slingshot a rocket or satellite around it and into space, we can use small bar magnets to control the path of marbles. To me, the sense of unity in the laws of physics is overwhelming. And that's not even getting into waves...
So Orbits takes this grand idea of gravity, magnetic attraction, and trajectory, and applies it to the realm of music. There is correlation on almost every level of the piece between the inspiration, the concept as it were, and the realization of that concept.
For starters, the 10-minute piece is divided into 5 large sections, basically loud-soft-loud-soft-loud. (Not fast-slow-fast-slow-fast because this is a concert opener, after all. Excitement, folks!) These five large sections appear on a universal level in the overall structure of the piece, but also on a more local level in the opening and closing material, which is made up of a miniature version of the five-section model. Thus, the prelude to the first fast section contains the DNA (as it were) of the whole piece, as does the postlued to the last fast section.
So much for the dynamic aspect. The textural aspect of the piece follows a similar model. This graph of the prelude should make it obvious how the textural changes allign with the loud-soft-loud-soft-loud structure of the dynamics.
In this figure, the higher the line, the higher the pitch. As you can see, each loud section corresponds to instruments whose range falls in the middle of the orchestra's overall range. The softer sections are dominated by instruments on the outsides of the range. This model applies to both the prelude and postlude.
The bulk of the piece, however, is dominated by a different textural diagram. This graph shows, not high and low pitch, but dense and sparse texture.
Once the piece really gets off the ground, the texture fluxuates between dense and sparse, at first corresponding to the loud and soft fluxuation. But as the piece goes on, the two levels fall out of sync, resulting in one loud section with a very clear texture, and one soft section with a very muddy texture. By the end of the piece, the texture reaches a middle ground, not bare but clear enough to be understandable.
This graph also applies to the tonal framework of the piece. The work is based around D, so it starts and ends in D (the prelude and postlude). The middle sections slingshot around this central pitch, with the tonal center starting out at B-flat, then F-sharp (keys as far apart as possible in a chromatic system, while still centered around D). The next two key centers are C and E, then C-sharp and E-flat, then finally D again. This centering in on D is mirrored in the mode of each passage. For those who may not be familiar with the modal system, there are 7 diatonic modes, which can be best described as playing a scale of eight notes up and down from each white key on a piano. The scale we know as major (starting on C) is actually Ionian mode, and the scale we know as minor (starting on A) is Aeolian. The modes can be ordered from brightest-sounding to darkest-sounding based on which have the most emphasis on open intervals. Lydian is the brightest, followed by Mixolydian, Ionian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, and then Locrian (the mode built from B). Basically, for each of the key centers at the bottom of the graph (working up to D) I started with the darkest modes and moved gradually towards Ionian. For the key centers starting above D and moving down toward it, I started with the brightest modes and moved gradually towards Ionian. Thus, the tonal AND modal structure of the piece follows this graph.
The final aspect of the piece is, of course, the melody. There are two principle motives the entire piece uses as the framework for its melodies. They can be distilled like this.
The first motive is a rising, then falling motive. It departs from and arrives at the same pitch, initially D.
The second motive is more parabolic, and is derived from the first five notes of the overtone series. It ascends upward by an octave, then a fifth, then a fourth, then a third, and finally, I add a minor second to round it off. This motive is like an object trying to break free of a gravitaional or magnetic field, and slowly entering orbit as it fails to have enough energy to break the horizon. The first motive is more like an object describing a wave as it moves back and forth across the center of its orbital path.
Ok, forgive the ameteur use of physics terminology. But the point is, every aspect of this piece is dominated by my musical interpretation of the behavior of gravitational or magnetic attraction. Orbits is meant quite literally to reflect the laws of the natural world, and the unity, the order, that is present even amidst the chaos of creation. And there IS chaos. Both in the natural world and in Orbits. Not everything fits the way you'd expect. But in the end, there is a clear direction, a clear path, that the music follows. And this is fundamentally how I see the universe. Not as a sporadic combination of chance phenomena, but as a system of order, into which chaos has been introduced, but which is nevertheless ruled by intention, purpose, and meaning. Orbits has some really dark moments, and some unpredictable twists and turns, but ultimately it is hopeful and satisfying, triumphant even. And this represents how I see the world.
Orbits has been an incredibly energizing project, which is unusual for me. Usually the creative process leaves me drained and exhausted. But I suspect that along with my new method of writing and my rediscovery of my musical self has come a new love of my art that is more constant and reliable as it is directly drawn from the very core of who I am and what I believe.